Whiplash occurs when there is an abrupt change in direction causing the head to jerk. Jesus’ disciples might have suffered whiplash from his words at several points in the gospel for September 12th. (Mark 8:27-38).
Jesus went with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”
And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Shouldn’t this breakthrough recognition have been greeted with celebration? For thousands of years the Jewish people had been waiting for the Messiah. Here are only a few of the prophecies related to his coming.
Peter had correctly identified Jesus as the one for whom they were waiting. It wasn’t a guess on Peter’s part. He had heard the teaching, seen Jesus defeat Satan, watched him perform miracles, learned how to pray, been empowered to heal and to drive out demons. He knew that Jesus was the anointed one. Jesus had ‘ticked off all the boxes.’
But Jesus had sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Wasn’t he the embodiment of the Good News? Why would he now tell them to keep silent about it?
If this instruction was not sufficiently confusing, Jesus’ next words guaranteed that a head spin: Then he began to teach them that 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. He said all this quite openly.
It was a lot to take in: Jesus seemed to confirm that he was the Messiah, tacitly at least, then he said, “Don’t tell anyone”, next he told them quite openly that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering…and be killed… and after three days rise again. But he was redefining the commonly-held understanding of how the Messiah would live…and die.
We can appreciate the disciples’ confusion at his words. Jesus was popular. Crowds followed him. His teaching and miracles of feeding and curing people had already marked him as holy not only among his disciples but among the people in general, including the Gentiles (recall last week’s gospel when Jesus cured the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman and the deaf man with a speech impediment in the region of the Decapolis.)
As a good friend, Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Peter must have been hurt and baffled by the rebuke. He had only been trying to help.
At the same time, Peter’s understanding of the Messiah reflected the ideological baggage of a king somewhat like David, who would probably be a military leader to throw off the yoke of Roman occupation and, more significantly, rule like a traditional king, albeit a more popular one than the tyrannical Herodian dynasty.
Then, He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
This was even more shocking. The cross was a cruel instrument of torture. Lest there be ambiguity, Jesus confirmed that it meant death… those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
Not only would he die but he was asking his disciples to follow him: my followers… deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. As Jesus described it, going along with him was counterintuitive. It defied self-interest. It would lead to death… lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel.
His Messiahship would defy expectations.
In a subtle shift, Jesus then moved to the promise of reward.
For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
Yet even here he was confusing. He had just talked about losing their life for his sake. Now he talked about life as the ultimate goal.
As a teacher, he was not very clear.
Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father.
These words were, finally, the coda to a discordant symphonic passage. Jesus had told his disciples, accurately, but abruptly, what would happen to him. Then he resolved the dissonance his words had created by telling them that his death would not be the end of his life. As the Son of Man, the Messiah, he would appear in the radiant company of his Father. Jesus’ words alluded to the reference to the Son of Man in the book of Daniel: I saw coming with the clouds of heaven, One like a son of man. When he reached the Ancient of Days and was presented before him, he received dominion, splendor, and kingship; all nations, peoples and tongues will serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, his kingship, one that shall not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:12-14)
What is clear in this gospel is that Jesus understood that his mission as the Messiah would involve suffering and death as a route to the glory of the Father. At the same time, he wanted to reset his disciples’ understanding of who he was and how their idea of the Messiah must change.
In this he fulfilled other Messianic prophecies,
· The Messiah would be crucified with criminals. Isaiah 53:12
· The Messiah would rise from the dead. Psalm 49:15
Moreover, he was inviting his disciples to follow his example in his self-sacrificing service by “taking up their own cross”. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, this was the Cost of Discipleship.