My Dear people,
Peter’s confession serves as a hinge, making the transition from the end of the Bread Section to the beginning of the travel narrative (8:31-10:52). After Jesus heals the blind man at Bethsaida, he and his disciples set out toward Caesarea Philippi about twenty-five miles to the north (in present day Golan Heights). Jesus’ travels take on the character of a purposeful journey as he directs his steps first north, then south toward Jerusalem. With the theme on the way, Mark is once again evoking the Old Testament as the backdrop that illuminates the meaning of Jesus’ actions. God had led his people on “the way” to Egypt into the promised land; later, during the Babylonian exile, Isaiah prophesied that God would prepare a “way” for his people to return home to Zion (Jerusalem) with great joy (Isa. 35:8-10; 40:3-5; 62:10-12). Similarly, the journey to Jerusalem is both a geographical and a spiritual journey in which the disciples learn that the way to sharing in Jesus’ glory is by first following him on the way of the cross. For the early Church this theme of the Christian life as a journey, or pilgrimage, was so central that “the way” became the first name for Christianity (Acts (9:2; 18:25-26).
As they walk along, Jesus takes the initiative in probing his disciples’ thoughts concerning himself: Who do people say that I am/ Often in the Gospel, Jesus’ questions are a signal that he is about to give a new teaching. This first question, about the opinion of others, prepares for the more personal weighty question of 8:29.
Their answer lists the same popular opinions already mentioned in connection with Herod (6:14-15). Some, like Herod, see Jesus as a reappearance of John the Baptist, though it is difficult to know how literally this was meant. Others see him as Elijah, who had been taken to heaven in a fiery chariot (2 Kings 9:11), and who according to Scripture would return to earth to usher in the messianic age (Mal. 3:23-24, Sir. 48:9-12). Still others identify him as one of the prophets, perhaps a specific prophet like Isaiah or Jeremiah, or simply a man who spoke for God. They do not go so far as to consider him the prophet promised by Moses, who would speak God’s definitive word (Deut 18:15-18). People undoubtedly thought these views represented a very high opinion of Jesus. They envision him not as anything significant in himself, but merely as a manifestation of an important figure from the past. There is no mention of any popular speculation that Jesus is the Messiah.
But who do you say that I am? This is the question at the heart of the Gospel, addressed not only to the disciples but to every reader. All that Mark has recounted so far has led up to this question. Jesus has appeared in Galilee as an authoritative teacher and miracle worker. He has spoken of himself as the bridegroom of God’s people (2:19), Lord of the Sabbath (2:28), physician (2:17), and founder of the new Israel (3:14). His actions have prompted awe, amazement, and curiosity. But he has also met with repeated resistance and misunderstanding on the part of the religious authorities (3:6), his family (3:21), his townspeople (6:3), and even his own disciples (8:14-21). Just as his teaching is in parables to “those outside” (4:11), so his actions are parables that both reveal and conceal the mystery of his identity. Everyone who encounters him must eventually wrestle with the question, Who is he? The form of the question is emphatic-it could be translated. “But you, who do you say that I am?”—suggesting that ultimately it must be answered from within the depths of each person’s heart.
On another occasion, Peter acts as spokesman for the twelve. His reply is equally emphatic: You are the Messiah; Mark’s version of this confession is the simplest. (see Matt. 16:16; Luke 9:20; John 6:69). For Christian readers already familiar with the gospel message, Peter’s affirmation may seem like an obvious conclusion to draw from all that has occurred. But rehearsal of popular opinion in 8:28 helps to convey that, in its real-life context, it represented a penetrating insight, an earthshattering revelation that broke through the current notion of what the Messiah would be. Although Mark does not record Jesus’ blessing in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father” (Matt 16:17), the healing of the blind man (Mark 8:22-26) symbolically conveys that such an insight could come only by enlightenment from above.
What would “Messiah” (Greek Christos, “anointed one”) have meant in the context of the time? In Israel’s past, every king was an “anointed one,” chosen and consecrated by God himself. But at the time of Jesus, Israel had no king, having been dominated by foreign rulers for most of the past six centuries. During that period, the Jews clung to God’s promises of a future “anointed one,” especially Nathan’s prophecy that a descendant of David would reign on the throne of Israel forever (2 Sam 7:12-14). By the time of Jesus there were a variety of theories in circulation about this anointed one. Some held that he would be a Davidic warrior king who would expel the Romans and restore Aaron. Still others foresaw a superhuman figure who would usher in a new age of peace and prosperity. But none had described a Messiah like Jesus: a humble rabbi who walked among the villages of Galilee teaching, healing, and casting out demons.
For Peter to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah means, “You are the one through whom God will accomplish all that he promised!” Although Peter still has an imperfect understanding of what this means, readers of the Gospel are meant to read “Messiah” with its full Christian content, which completely transcends all the Jewish expectations. Peter represents all Christians, who are called to make his confession their own.
Jesus’ response, surprisingly, is a stern injunction to silence. Why would he want them to keep this stunning revelation to themselves? In the ensuing conversation Mark will finally provide the key that explains the “messianic secret,” Up to this point, the disciples do not yet comprehend the true nature of Jesus’ messiahship. They cannot be allowed to fill its meaning with their own earthly dreams. Indeed, the misguided idea that he might take on the political role as leader of a messianic uprising (see John 6:15) could derail his whole mission as they approach Jerusalem. The whole understanding of Messiah needed to be purged of its human, triumphalist connotations before it could be proclaimed openly to the world. Jesus’ mission had nothing to do with using political or military power to overthrow the enemies of Israel. It had everything to do with overthrowing the power of sin through the cross.
Yours in Christ,
Fr. Vincent Clemente
Fr. Vincent Clemente