N.T. Wright on Mark 8:27-38
It’s quite a walk from Bethsaida to Caesarea Philippi. Even in a car, on modern roads, the trip takes an hour or two. Bethsaida is near the north shore of the Sea of Galilee; Caesarea Philippi is away up north, on the slopes of Mount Hermon, by the source of the River Jordan. Climb a little higher, and on a clear day you can see right down the Jordan valley. Why did Jesus take the disciples all that way, a good distance from the normal to-and-fro around the lake, to have this conversation?
We’d better think hard about this, because this passage is really the centre-point, the turning-point, of Mark’s gospel. This, too, is a mountain slope; a clear day’s thinking at this point will give you a view not only back through the gospel story we’ve already read, but on, down that same Jordan valley, to where the road, and the story, turn uphill to the final confrontation in Jerusalem.
Mark has put together the story of the blind man receiving his sight and of the blind disciples gaining their insight, in order, of course, to highlight what’s going on in the second story by means of the parallel with the first. Jesus takes the blind man away from the village; he takes the disciples away from the lake and the crowds. At the end, he insists in both cases on secrecy. He’s reached the point where it’s vital that word doesn’t leak out. If his kingdom-mission is becoming more explicitly a Messiah-mission, this really is dangerous. He must do what he has to do swiftly and secretly.
In between, both stories tell of a two-stage process of illumination. The blind man sees people, but they look like trees walking about; the crowds see Jesus, but they think he’s just a prophet. (If you want to get a good picture of how Jesus appeared to his contemporaries, forget ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ and read the stories of John the Baptist, Elijah and the other great prophets: fearless men of God who spoke out against evil and injustice, and brought hope to God’s puzzled and suffering people.) Then, as it were with a second touch, Jesus faces the disciples themselves with the question. Now at last their eyes are opened. They have understood about the loaves, and all the other signs. ‘You’re the Messiah!’ Peter speaks for them all.
It’s vital for us to be clear at this point. Calling Jesus ‘Messiah’ doesn’t mean calling him ‘divine’, let alone ‘the second person of the Trinity’. Mark believes Jesus was and is divine, and will eventually show us why; but this moment in the gospel story is about something else. It’s about the politically dangerous and theologically risky claim that Jesus is the true King of Israel, the final heir to the throne of David, the one before whom Herod Antipas and all other would-be Jewish princelings are just shabby little impostors. The disciples weren’t expecting a divine redeemer; they were longing for a king. And they thought they’d found one.
Nor was it only Herod who might be suspicious. In Jesus’ day there was a prominent temple in Caesarea Philippi to the newest pagan ‘god’ – the Roman Emperor himself. A Messiah announcing God’s kingdom was a challenge to Rome itself.
As we’ll see in the next passage, Jesus immediately starts on the next phase in his teaching programme, and the disciples turn out to be just as slow on the uptake as they were with the first part. But let’s pause and reflect on what they, and we, have learnt thus far.
Jesus is a prophet, announcing the kingdom of God: the long-awaited moment when God would rule Israel, and ultimately the world, with the justice and mercy of which the scriptures had spoken and for which Israel had longed. All mere human rule, with its mixtures of justice and oppression, mercy and corruption, would fade before it. What Jesus has been doing – notably, for Mark, the healings, the battles with evil, and the extraordinary feedings, stilling of storms, and so on – are signs that this is indeed the moment when the true God is beginning to exercise this power. Finally the disciples have taken a further step: Jesus is not just announcing the kingdom. He thinks he’s the king.
By no means all Jews wanted or expected a Messiah. But those who did were clear (not least from their readings of scripture) that he had to do three things. He had to rebuild, or cleanse, the Temple. He had to defeat the enemy that was threatening God’s people. And he had to bring God’s justice – that rich, restoring, purging, healing power – to bear both in Israel and out into the world. No doubt these ideas were believed and expressed in different ways by different people. But there was a central agenda. The Messiah would be God’s agent in bringing in the kingdom, in sorting out the mess and muddle Israel was in, in putting the Gentiles in their place.
Jesus had already been redefining that set of tasks. He hadn’t been gathering a military force. He hadn’t been announcing a programme to topple the Sadducees–the high priests and their associates. He had been going around doing things that spoke powerfully but cryptically of a strange new agenda: God’s healing energy sweeping through the land, bringing about a new state of affairs, arousing passionate opposition as well as passionate loyalty. And he’d been saying things, by way of explanation, which were often so cryptic that even his friends were puzzled by them. Now finally they have grasped the initial point at least. He is giving the dream of a Messiah a face-lift. He has in mind a new way of being God’s appointed, and anointed, king.
Just how new that way is will now emerge. But for the moment we need to examine our own answers to the question. Who do we say Jesus is? Would we like to think of him as simply a great human teacher? Would we prefer him as a Superman figure, able to ‘zap’ all the world’s problems into shape? Are we prepared to have the easy answers of our culture challenged by the actual Jesus, by his redefined notion of messiahship, and by the call to follow him in his risky vocation [of taking up his cross and laying his life down for the world].
Wright, Tom. Mark for Everyone (New Testament for Everyone) (p. 109). Faber Factory (Trade). Kindle Edition.