© 2021 Evan D. Garner
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks. Has that question ever been more important for the church to answer? Who do you say that I am? Not who am I? Not what do the scriptures say about me? But you—my followers, my disciples—who do you say that I am?
Some of us say that Jesus is the one who cares about the poor and the vulnerable. Some of us say that he is the one who welcomes outcasts and sinners back into God’s fold. Some of us say that he is the one who protects the unborn. And some of us say that he is the one who protects the women whose bodies have become a political battleground. Some of us say that Jesus is the one who promotes freedom and liberty and self-determination. And some of us say that he is the one who demands sacrifice and surrender and selflessness. Some of us say that Jesus is the one who came to make his followers rich beyond measure. And some of us say that he came to teach them to embrace a life of destitute poverty.
Who among us gets to decide who Jesus really is? We all claim to be Christians. We claim to be his followers, his disciples. In all our various churches, we read the same Bible and pray to the same God. But we talk about Jesus in radically different ways. We make him the centerpiece of competing platforms and conflicting lifestyles. As Christians, all of us call Jesus, “Savior, Lord, Christ, Messiah,” but do any of us remember what any of that means?
By the time we get to Mark 8, we have been asking the question, “Who is Jesus really?” for a long time. The gospel writer lets us know in the very first verse of his account that this is the “good news of Jesus the Christ,” but, except for that editorial introduction, we haven’t gotten a clear answer yet. The demons in chapter 1 recognized Jesus, but he silenced them before they had a chance to tell anyone about “the holy one of God.” After Jesus stilled the storm in chapter 4, the disciples wondered aloud, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” but still no answer was given. In chapter 6, people from his hometown expressed their confusion and derision that this carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon, a man whom they knew well, could teach with such unfamiliar authority and power.
Every miracle, every teaching, every encounter up to this point had been a way to make the case for Jesus’ real identity, and, just when things were starting to become clear, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they replied, Moses or Elijah or one of the prophets. But then he turned the question back onto them and asked, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Christ.” It’s the answer we’ve been waiting for. It’s the first time since the first verse of Mark that we’ve heard that word, Christ. It’s the first time anyone has acknowledged fully who Jesus really is, but it turns out, as our own continued disagreement over Jesus’ identity reveals, calling Jesus the Messiah is only half of the job.
The other half is deciding what Messiah means and what it means for us to give Jesus that title. We more often use the Greek version, Christ, of that Semitic word, Messiah, but they mean the same thing—anointed. To call Jesus the Messiah or Christ is to call him the anointed one of God—the one chosen and equipped by God to do whatever it is that God has entrusted him to do. To someone like Peter, it seems, the label “Messiah” evoked a connection with David, the great king, who was also described as God’s anointed. There are several first-century Jewish texts that let us know that many of Jesus’ contemporaries expected God to send a messiah to come and defeat the Romans and claim the throne of the Davidic king. When Peter called Jesus the Messiah, he was articulating his belief that Jesus was the one to come and restore the kingdom to God’s people, but, in the exchange that followed, we discover that Peter didn’t really understand what that meant.
As soon as Peter identified Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone about him. Why? Perhaps we find the answer in how quickly Jesus substituted for the label Peter had given him a less familiar, less provocative, though no less consequential label, “Son of Man.” In first-century Judaism, the Son of Man was not understood as the one would come and claim the earthly throne but the one who would come at the end of time and vindicate God’s people once and for all from the earthly powers who oppressed them. Peter, it seems, wanted Jesus to reign in power here and now, but Jesus had been anointed by God to usher in the that reign which will not be complete until the last days.
And how do we know this? Because of the way Jesus described his God-appointed mission: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” That didn’t sound like the messianic figure Peter and his contemporaries were hoping for, and it’s not the Messiah or Christ that we hear most Christians talking about today. Jesus suffered and died and was raised from the dead not so that he and his followers could seize earthly power and reign in glory here and now. He gave himself up to death and God raised him from the dead so that those who follow him through the path of sacrifice, suffering, and death might be raised with him into the new life of God’s perfect reign. Christians agree that Jesus has opened for us the way that leads to eternal life, but we forget that cannot enter that life unless we suffer and die for his sake.
When Peter heard Jesus describe his own death, he took Jesus aside and rebuked him, as if the role of master and disciple had been swapped. All too often, we Christians do the very same thing. We rebuke Jesus every time we tell him, “No, Lord, not your way but my way.” When he tells us that we must deny ourselves, that we must take up our cross, that we must lose our life in order to save it, we pull him aside and say, “Not today, Jesus. I don’t want to give up my life. I don’t want to deny myself—my wants, my needs, my freedom, my family, my body. I don’t want to carry that cross. It’s heavy and hard and frightening.” And to that Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
To accept the beam of the cross upon our own shoulders and walk the heavy-laden path of self-denial and suffering is to accept for ourselves the same disgrace that was heaped upon Jesus. To be his follower costs us dearly in this life. There is no way to walk the path of Christ—of God’s anointed—and escape the shame of rejection and denial. And yet, when we avoid that path in this life, when we are ashamed of Jesus and his words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of us when he appears in glory.
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks us. In the end, of course, Peter was right. Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. But, if he is our Messiah, we must accept for ourselves the pattern that he has given to us. We must pray that the Holy Spirit will give us strength not to win the battles ahead of us but to lose them with humility and dignity. We must ask God to put to death within us that tendency to seek our own needs instead of others’. When it comes to claiming Jesus for our side and using him as the justification for our agenda, it is those who do so who fail most profoundly to grasp the nature of Jesus’ messiahship. We must instead ask God to grant us the wisdom of setting our minds on divine things in order that we might lose our lives for Jesus’ sake and for the sake of the gospel.