“Who Do You Say That I Am?”
This morning we have come to a pivotal section in Mark’s Gospel. We will see several transitions in this text that will set us on a different path for the remainder of our study. To this point, Mark has recorded the demonstration of Jesus’ authority. Jesus has shown himself with the authority over sickness, nature, and the demonic world. He has also called forth his disciples and sent them out. And Jesus has also demonstrated great authority in his teachings that have repeatedly left people astonished. The latter section will now deal with Jesus as Messiah, and Suffering Servant – two concepts that are not often associated with one another.
Let’s begin by reading the text. We are in Mark 8.22-38. READ.
We have just witnessed the unbelief of the Pharisees and the dangerous position of Jesus’ own disciples regarding their unbelief. They had ventured out into the land of the Gentiles and watched as Jesus also ministered to them. He healed the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter and the deaf man from the region of Tyre. Then Jesus and the disciples journeyed south to the Decapolis region of the Sea of Galilee where they were met by a great crowd. Believing this to be a primarily Gentile gathering, Jesus spent several days teaching them and feeding them despite the misunderstanding of the disciples.
Today we find them venturing back into the Jewish territory of Bethsaida. (Show Map). An interesting thing about this account is that, though this is a healing event, I think the emphasis here is on the spiritual truth behind the healing. And in many ways, this paragraph and the next serve as the transition.
The first point is Partial and Complete Understanding. Jesus and his disciples return to the northern side of the Sea of Galilee, to Bethsaida. And it isn’t long before a blind man is brought to Jesus. They beg Jesus to heal him. And Jesus does something familiar. He leads the man out of the village. Remember that he just did this also with the man from Tyre. There, Jesus took the man from the crowd privately. He was not interested in the fame, or “wowing” the crowds. But he was interested in the connection with the man and healing him. The same is true here. Jesus takes the man out of the village, spits on his eyes and lays his hands on him. Also, recall that Jesus does not need to touch people in order to heal them. He even was able to release the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter of a demon while he wasn’t even present. But in the case of the deaf man of Tyre and the blind man here in Bethsaida, he chooses to connect with them and likely communicate with them. These both have disabilities with their senses. Jesus clears up any doubt that it is he, himself, who is the Healer.
Jesus asks the man after laying his hands on him, “Do you see anything?” The man responds by indicating that he sees men that look like trees walking. This story has often puzzled me. First of all, the interaction evokes the question, “how does the man even know what trees look like?” I think that could easily be solved by either, a) he had some concept of what trees were by touch, or b) he was not born blind. But secondly, and more importantly, why wasn’t the man healed completely and instantly?” Hold that thought.
Verse 25 says that Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again, the man opened his eyes, his sight was restored and he saw everything clearly. And then Jesus told the man to go home without entering the village and telling everyone. Jesus did not want to be put in the limelight. It wasn’t yet time. This is a gradual healing that conveys several significant points. First, this will demonstrate the gradual understanding of Jesus’ disciples in the text to follow. So, in this instance, it serves as a transition. And it will be significant as it demonstrates physical and spiritual sight that is divinely given. For this man of Bethsaida, he is an example of how God gives a gradual understanding to his people - and yet the fulfillment of complete understanding in the future.
And we see this transpire in the next section and second point, Personal Confession. Leaving Bethsaida, Jesus and his disciples return north to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. As we see these events played out, it will seem ironic that Jesus has chosen this place for such weighty spiritual truths. If Caesarea Philippi was chosen for its physical features alone, it might make more sense. This was a beautiful place consisting of waterfalls and plush greenery. Based on externals, it might make for a nice spiritual retreat. It was located at the foot of Mount Hermon, on the main source of the Jordan River. It was peaceful. Probably no crowds.
But this was not a place of God-fearing people. In fact, Caesarea Philippi was known for its rampant paganism. Baal was the deity worshipped here in Old Testament times and the Greeks worshipped Pan. Pan was half-man, half-goat. He was the guardian of flocks and nature and worshiped in a grotto at the foot of Mount Hermon. They made a sanctuary to him and were quite hostile to Judaism.
And this is where Jesus takes his disciples. Notice that Jesus doesn’t waste the opportunity and takes the time to teach them and question them. The line of questioning is significant in light of their past struggles with unbelief. Jesus begins by asking, “Who do people say that I am?” “Let’s debrief a little bit and see how the people are interpreting things to this point.”
And what are some of the responses? John the Baptist. Ok. Do you remember Mark’s brief digression as he explained the relationship between King Herod and John the Baptist? In Mark 6, Jesus sends the twelve disciples to go out two by two with nothing but staffs, sandals, and clothes. They went out proclaiming a message of repentance, casting out demons and anointing the sick and healing them. The reports about Jesus got back to King Herod and he believed that John the Baptist, whom he beheaded, had come back to life. And so did other people believe as well.
Others believed that he was Elijah. The reason for this lay in the report that Elijah had been taken bodily to heaven in the chariot of fire. And he was believed to oversee the deeds of mortals, to comfort the faithful and help the needy, and to return as the forerunner of the great and terrible day of the Lord. Malachi 3:1 says, “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.” And in chapter 4, verses 5–6, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”
And then others said that he was one of the prophets. Perhaps they remembered the prophecies spoken in Deuteronomy 18, 15 “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen— 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” From all these examples spoken of by the disciples, we see that Jesus was deemed quite popular. To identify him with John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the other prophets would have put him in a significant category. Yet none of them are accurate or sufficient to describe Jesus. And so he turns the line of questions onto the disciples themselves.
“Ok. That is what others say. You’ve been with me for quite a while now. You must know that I’m not John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the other prophets. Do you know who I am?” To this point, Jesus has given the disciples time to process this question. They have been with him at least several months, perhaps a year or longer. The answer to this question will not come from hearsay or feelings, but their experience with Jesus Christ and his teachings. This is a test of understanding. This question, “Who do you say that I am?” is the central question to Mark’s gospel and every presentation to the Gospel. Everything hangs on the answer to this question.
Peter, the extravert, responds with “You are the Christ.” Not bad, eh? Peter says that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed One. He is the One promised from Old Testament times, from the Father in heaven to be the King of the Jews. Jesus is not “a” Christ, but THE Christ. Peter uses the definite article.
If you ask people today, “who do you think Jesus is?” you will most likely get a lot of different answers. To some, Jesus is a mythical figure or a crutch for weak people. He is merely a curse word to many. But to some, Jesus is a great teacher, maybe even the greatest! He is a tremendous moral example. He is the best person to ever live! But he is not the Christ sent to redeem his people to these. Perhaps you’ve gotten this from people before. In their unbelief, many cannot or will not confess Jesus as the Christ. And this places unbelievers on a path of destruction. Eternal fates are contingent on the answer to this very basic question.
For the disciples, this was a very risky question. To answer this question the way Peter had was to dissent from popular opinion and make a personal confession. Notice there is a distinction between a judgment and a confession. A judgment can remain private, can’t it? To confess is to state publicly at the risk of mockery or rejection. You can believe many things inwardly that you may choose to remain there. You might be embarrassed that others may know you are a Maple Leafs fan. But this can remain hidden. To declare yourself a Maple Leafs fan leaves you open to insult and mockery.
Strangely, Jesus strictly charges them to tell no one about him. “But I thought Jesus tells them to make disciples of the nations, be witnesses throughout all the land and all that stuff??” I can think of two reasons why Jesus would include this strong warning to secrecy. First, and again, there is more work to do before the cross. This point of Mark’s narrative certainly turns in that direction. But not yet. Secondly, we will see in this next section that even their understanding of Jesus being the Christ is still incomplete.
The next section I have identified as ‘Cross’ Purposes. Verse 31 is where Jesus begins to trip everybody up. Jesus teaches that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by... “Woah! Hold on there Jesus! You are the Christ, the Messiah. You have come to reign as promised to our forefathers. What is all this talk of suffering??” What Jesus has done here is to closely associate the anointed One with the Suffering Servant, the Son of Man. The disciples nor the others have made this connection. The most common conception of the Messiah in pre-Christian texts is as an eschatological king that was coming to reign and subdue enemies and all that good stuff. But to suffer?? This doesn’t make any sense!
Here is where we are going to see how the first healing story illustrates what is going on spiritually. Mark does not include that here haphazardly. When Peter declares that Jesus is the Christ, it is as if he sees the men, like trees, walking. Who was the one who gave that man his sight? It was supernatural, wasn’t it? It was from God. Now Peter’s confession… If we let Matthew’s parallel text help us out, where did Peter get this very correct answer? In Matthew 16.16-17, “Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” This was supernatural as well. Peter’s response came from God, the Father.
Isn’t the same true with us who call on Jesus as Savior and Lord? 2 Corinthians 4:3–6 “3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Even today, our own understanding of Jesus the Christ comes from God the Father. Praise God for that!
This is Jesus’ first mention of suffering, rejections, killing, and resurrection. And yet from here on out this will become more prominent. Even in the next couple of chapters, Jesus will continue this theme. In Mark 9:31 “31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” Mark 10:33–34 “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. 34 And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”
As you know, Jesus has often been speaking in parables. For the first time, Mark indicates that Jesus said these things plainly. He begins to lay out the mission for them. And the first item is suffering. Where we there, we wouldn’t like this either I’m sure. Jesus says that this will also include rejection and killing by the religious leaders of the day. Again, these are the ones who should be representing Jesus. (The elders were seventy lay members of the ruling council – made up of Phariseess and Sadducees. The chief priests included the current high priest of the Sanhedrin and predecessors and family members. The scribes were the legal experts and advisors to these Sanhedrin). Instead they oppose, reject, and kill him. And then Jesus says “and after three days rise again.” Pardon? This was a LOT of new information and certainly a lot to process. And yet Jesus said this plainly. Interestingly, the text is literally rendered, “Jesus said this word plainly.” The logos, the message is said plainly by Jesus. This is the message of the cross that we know from 1 Corinthians 1.
1 Corinthians 1:18–2:5 “18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” 1 And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
It comes in weakness and suffering.
And it wasn’t what Peter wanted to hear. Peter, (you gotta love Peter!) pulls Jesus aside and rebukes Jesus! He didn’t yet understand the message of the cross – the message of suffering. Peter didn’t yet understand the mission of Jesus. And by his words, Peter tries to thwart the plan of God. Matthew includes Peter saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” Aren’t you glad that Peter was wrong?? If Peter’s wishes were honored, we would all remain helpless and hopeless in our sin – separated from God forever! This is why Jesus responds so strongly. He even indicates that Satan is behind this attempt. Perhaps Jesus thinks that the others have heard Peter. Jesus turns and sees the disciples and rebukes Peter publicly! “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” You are at cross purposes with God! This mission must be completed and Jesus will not allow anyone to sidetrack him from the cross. This is very similar with the temptations in the wilderness with the Adversary. There, too, Satan attempted to shortcut the mission of the cross. And we know that Jesus will be tempted yet again in the Garden of Gethsemane when the imminence of the cross presses in on him.
Jesus isn’t done. He sees the opportunity and seizes it here. Jesus calls the crowd to him and lets them know that this is also the path marked out for them – if they are to consider themselves to be disciples. The last point this morning: A Disciples’ Response. “If anyone would come after me…” The one who would be my disciple. To the Christian, the believer, the one who confesses my name, Jesus the Christ, must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. “Give it all up and suffer and die for me.” How’s that for an evangelistic message? That won’t sell! And yet it has. For thousands of years.
As we have seen, the disciples have been pretty dull of understanding at times and lacking in faith. But they had begun this process. They left things behind to follow after Jesus. They were denying themselves in many ways. This is the same for us. When we are confronted by the call to discipleship, we do not have a “both... and” choice. We can’t have both us and Christ. It is “either… or.” The claim of Jesus is a total and exclusive one. It does not allow a convenient compartmentalization of natural life and religious life, of secular and sacred. The whole person stands under Christ’s claim. Paul wrote in Galatians 2:20 “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Colossians 3:3 says, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” How about this as a life mission? Here is Paul in the book of Acts: Acts 20:24 24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” How hard we try to maintain our own lives while claiming Jesus the Christ!
“If anyone would come after me, he must take up his cross.” Well, what does that mean? We often throw this saying around. But do we know what we are saying?? The cross was a symbol of a curse. It was for the execution of slaves. And to take up the cross was to accept a shameful slave’s death in the eyes of the world. Recently, many of us saw images like this – torch-bearers running among the streets as thousands of onlookers cheered them on and celebrated them. To carry a cross is the complete antithesis. It is the image of a condemned man on the way to his execution. He would carry the heavy cross along the roads as people mocked him. Does this characterize our walk with Christ through this life? If not, why not? Could it be that we still value our own lives too much?
If this is true, it is imperative that we take a closer look at this next warning. If it is true that we continue to live our lives for ourselves, we risk it all! “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” And for some perspective Mark adds, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” This whole section is interconnected. It seems to indicate that the only disciple of Jesus is the one who has denied himself and taken up the cross after him. Otherwise, it seems we forfeit our soul.
Do you notice all the “fors” here? Verse 35 is the explanation (by way of contrast) to verse 34. To save your life means you haven’t taken up the cross – and thus will lose your life. Verse 36 provides a rhetorical question to provide a perspective. It anticipates an answer of “nothing.” It makes no sense to live our lives for this world because we forfeit our soul. Verse 37 – another question that anticipates a “nothing” answer. And verse 38 gives a summary of what is truly underlying the issue. Those who confess Jesus and do not live for him are ashamed of him and his message. Feel the weight of this warning: “whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” Do you feel it? On that day, I pray, that we will not be ashamed when we enter his presence. Please seriously consider your relationship to Christ.
Do you see the relationship of this entire text? The first point and healing of the blind man illustrates the partial understanding of Peter and the disciples. I don’t think that they got beyond the “men walking like trees” yet. Though now, as they stand before him, see clearly.
Like the disciples of Jesus’ day, we are all faced with the question of “who do you say that I am?” This is the most important question for you – ever. All along, interaction with Jesus demands a response. And your response to the question determines your fate. Many people have their own ideas of who “Jesus” is to them. I implore you to make sure you have identified the biblical Jesus and not a figment of your imagination. He is the Christ, the Messiah, the One who came humbly to suffer and die on a cross. And yet he will return to reign forever.
Notice also the difference between a judgment and a confession. Jesus calls us to confess him. Romans 10:9–10 says, “9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”
And finally, our identification of Jesus as the Christ and our confession leads to a response. There is also the response of a disciple. Jesus clearly articulates what is expected of the one who follows him. “Suffering” is a tough sell. But when we have understood who Jesus is, what choice do we have? Jesus is the One sent from the Father to die for our sins. He humbled himself to die on the judgment tree for us so that we could enjoy a relationship with him for all eternity. How could we not deny yourselves and live unto the Savior? He is everything! Let us encourage and challenge each other so that we may all stand before him on that day and receive the crown of life for our faithfulness to him! To God be the glory!