The turning point of the gospel in Mark 8

The reading for Trinity 15 in Year B is Mark 8.27–38, the encounter with forms the pivot in the second gospel: until now, there has been power, success, dynamism and crowds, but from now on, Jesus walks the lonely path to suffering and the cross. At the northernmost point of his ministry, Jesus turns from the adulation of the crowds in Galilee to the opposition of the authorities in Jerusalem. For once, the parallel account in Matthew 16.13f is longer than Mark’s, and so this reading combines the material in the two lectionary readings we had last year from Trinity 11 and Trinity 12 in Year A. (You might therefore want to consult your sermons from those weeks in preparing for this!) Luke’s account is even shorter, and instead of considering this section in Year C we jump over it and focus on Jesus’ challenging teaching about discipleship later in the chapter.

The organisation of their narratives with these two major focusses in the first and second halves of their gospels must be understood as being theologically motivated by Matthew and Mark. Jesus has, in fact, already faced opposition from the authorities, and Mark 3.22 explicitly tells us that this opposition has come from Jerusalem. And the Fourth Gospel highlights that, as an observant Jew, Jesus must have been to Jerusalem numerous times before, and certainly for each of the three major pilgrim festivals in each year of his ministry. To the extent to which Matthew and Mark ‘artificially’ distinguish these two phases of Jesus’ ministry, they are making a theological point about the two paradoxical aspects of Jesus’ ministry—the power of ministry in the Spirit that draws crowds, and the opposition of others that brings suffering—and this surely is going to be a pattern for all those who follow him.

Matthew agrees with Mark in locating this episode after the feeding of the 4,000, testing by the Pharisees and Sadducees (two groups who would otherwise be at loggerheads with each other), and the dispute about bread and leaven. Mark additionally includes his unique story about the blind man who needs more than one touch from Jesus to heal him (Mark 8.22–26), offering a symbolic parallel to the disciples’ need for Jesus to keep teaching them about the true nature of his ministry. Luke approaches this episode quite differently, and it does not have the same pivotal place in his narrative, but all three follow it with Jesus’ passion prediction, teaching on the cost of discipleship, and the transfiguration. All this serves to heighten the paradox of Jesus’ suffering and glory.

The location is in the region of Philip’s Caesarea (known as such to distinguish it from Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean coast), a Roman town established on the site of previous settlements by Herod the Great’s son Philip, tetrarch of Batanea to the north-east of the country, and covering the northern part of what is now Jordan. Herod had built a marble temple to Caesar here, and it was also associated with the god Pan, giving rise to its modern name Banias. Apart from offering a physical turning point in Jesus ministry in the north (the site is still within the region of the northern tribe Dan), it also provides more evidence that the gospel, which is in the first place for the children of Israel who sit at the table of God’s provision, will ultimately reach well beyond Israel’s borders. As we have seen, this is a continuous counter-thread running through the gospel narrative, and not something revealed to Jesus as a surprise by gentiles he encountered!

Reflecting on this passage, I have also been struck by the fact that we have, yet again, an account of Jesus taking time out, either on his own or with his disciples, away from the pressing needs of the crowds. Jesus is not a slave to his own popularity, and the needs of the crowd are not the only important thing to make demands on his time. The evidence of his power and lordship are made manifest in his public ministry, but the reflection that leads to understanding happens in the quiet moments away from the action.

As happens often in the gospels, the exchange is provoked by Jesus asking a question. Luke agrees with Mark in recording it as ‘Who do people say I am?’ but most manuscripts of Matthew offer a different form: ‘Who do you say that the Son of Man is?’ thus bringing into the opening question an idea from Jesus’ later response.

The idea that Jesus might ‘really’ be these other characters doesn’t suggest any notion of reincarnation. Herod Antipas fears that John the Baptist might have been resurrected in the person of Jesus, but for the most part this suggests a symbolic association—just as Jesus describes John as ‘Elijah, if you are willing to accept it’ (Matt 11.14).

Jesus then turns to the disciples themselves; his emphatic form ‘You, who do you say that I am?’ is expressed in the TNIV as ‘What about you?’ Jesus asks them a question that we must all respond to for ourselves. Mark has already pointed to the growing understanding of the disciples, so we might expect a better answer from them—not least because ‘the secrets of the kingdom of heaven’ have been revealed to them (Mark 4.11)—but their failures in the previous part of this chapter make this no surprise.

The language of ‘Messiah’ (in Greek christos) had a range of meanings in the Old Testament. Both priests and kings were anointed, but even foreign rulers like Cyrus in the second half of Isaiah could be described as ‘anointed’ for the task of rescuing God’s people and returning them from exile. By the time of the New Testament period, these diverse ideas had coalesced into a sense of expectation of God’s anointed one who would deliver the people from the oppressive foreign power that rules over them. The question that Jesus raises is who is the real oppressor: a foreign political power, or the ‘foreign’ power of sin that leads the people into disobedience to God?

For the first time in the Synoptic narrative, Jesus and his disciples now head south into hostile territory—though this cannot be a historical representation of his ministry, since he would have visited Jerusalem many times as a pilgrim.

The shadow of the cross the falls across this whole southward journey, as Jesus tries to get his disciples to understand the paradoxical and unwelcome nature of his mission (R T France, Matthew, NICNT, p 628)

The contrast between Galilee and the north, where Jesus has been mostly welcomed, and followed by large crowds, and the hostility of those in the south, corresponds with the contrast in the Fourth Gospel between the different meanings of ‘the world’. It is a place created through Jesus the Word, one which he loves and comes to rescue, but which also stands in enmity and opposition to him. (Note that, in the Synoptics, the welcoming crowd at Palm Sunday are pilgrims from the north, whereas the hostile crowd on Good Friday are local southerners.)

The term ‘Son of Man’ has three senses. It begins life as a simple self-description; just as ‘son of Israel’ means Israelite, so ‘son of man’, in Hebrew ben adam, simply means human being. We can see the equivalence in the parallelism of Ps 8.4: ‘What is man, that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him.’ (We need to note that ‘man’ here translates adam in Hebrew and anthropos in Greek, both of which refer to ‘human’ without any sense of sex distinction or ‘maleness’. Thus some translations render Ps 8.4 as ‘human beings…mere humans…’)

But within the biblical canon it then acquires a second sense, that of human mortality and fragility contrasted with the majesty and power of God—thus its repeated use as God’s address to Ezekiel is often translated as ‘mortal man’. This makes it an appropriate term for Jesus to use in the light of his anticipated suffering and death.

Yet thirdly, and in some contrast, it features as the centrepiece of the visionary apocalyptic narrative of Dan 7, where the ‘one like a son of man’ (that is, a human figure) is exalted, ‘coming on the clouds’ up to the throne of the Ancient of Days to inherit an eternal kingdom. Within Daniel, this figure symbolises the people of Israel, fragile and trampled by the various beasts from the sea, but ultimately exalted by God’s grace, power and faithfulness. As Jesus recapitulates the story of Israel, he experiences this victory in his resurrection and ascension. Recognising this holds the key to making sense of many of the later passages of the Synoptics such as Matthew 24 and Mark 13.

Thus it is that the term ‘Son of Man’ expresses within itself the paradoxes of Jesus’ ministry set out in the gospel narratives. No wonder that it is Jesus’ own favourite term to describe himself.

There is a strong sense in all three accounts of the ‘divine passive’: Jesus must go and must be killed and be raised; this is the divine plan and intention, rather than either being the choice of Jesus or the simple will of those involved—though the threefold agency of ‘elders, chief priests, and teachers of the law’ is spelled out carefully. Critical scholarship has consistently seen this kind of language in the gospels as the projection back of post-Easter faith onto the pre-Easter figure of Jesus. And yet there is plenty of precedent in the Old Testament for the idea of God’s chosen one experiencing rejection, suffering and death—in Psalms 22 and 69, both of which will be alluded to in the passion narratives, in the portrait of God’s anointed one in Zech 9–14, and supremely in the description of the suffering servant in Isaiah 52.13–53.12 alluded to in Mark 10.45 and 14.24.

The mention of being raised ‘after three days’ is parallel to Matt 16.21 ‘on the third day’; there is no contradiction here when we note the convention of counting ‘inclusively’, that is, including the first and last days in the numbering, a different convention from our own methods of counting.

The sharp exchange of rebuke and counter-rebuke between Jesus and Peter is both surprising and rather shocking, heightened in Matthew’s version because of the praise lavished on Peter by Jesus just a few verses before. Whilst Peter’s rebuke to Jesus has been private, Jesus’ counter-rebuke appears to have been in the hearing of the disciples, and he now addresses them directly—and in Mark, as we might expect, the crowd are drawn in too.

The language of ‘taking up your cross’ must indeed have been startling to Jesus’ hearers, and it has lost its edge for us by being translated into the more anaemic terms of having some irksome burden to carry through life—which cannot possibly be what Jesus means. Its strangeness has again led critical scholarship to doubt its historicity; NT scholar James McGrath comments:

Taking up one’s cross certainly does not seem to have been an already-existing expression, nor is such a saying likely to have existed in that period. It seems as though it was only the reality of a crucifixion that could inspire such an idiom as in the case of Jesus and early Christianity. No one is likely to have used this horrific form of execution as a metaphor, just as we do not find “beheaded,” “put in the electric chair,” or “given a lethal injection” used metaphorically…

[A] historian will have to conclude that this saying is more likely to be a post-crucifixion invention than an authentic saying of the historical Jesus.

Against this, the one comment on the post suggests drily:

If Jesus actually said this, then it is possibly a case of him giving the answer to a question that no one had yet asked, namely, “What does it mean to follow a crucified Messiah?” When those who heard this saying, and perhaps thought it odd, crude, or awkward, months later heard that the same fellow had himself been crucified and was rumored to have been raised from the dead, they may have thought, “Hmm, didn’t he say something about carrying a cross? Maybe he knew what he was talking about after all.”

There are three major problems with historical scepticism here. First, crucifixion was well known to the Jews, primarily as an objectionable and humiliating Roman method of punishment, and the crucifixion of Jewish rebels is widely attested. Some Jews even adopted this method of execution (see the details in France, Matthew, NICNT pp 410–11). It is hardly surprising that Jesus reaches for a striking metaphor from the world around him, making use of something that was well-known to his hearers.

Secondly, this phrase comes as an integral part of his teaching here and elsewhere; though it stands out for us as a vivid metaphor, Jesus does not dwell on it, but quickly explains its meaning—that any who follow him must be prepared to ‘lose their lives’ that they might gain them from Jesus in a remarkable divine exchange. The phrase has already come in Matt 10.38, again as one idea fluently integrated into a series of sayings about the call to follow Jesus as involving a radical break from previous values and commitments, including the commitment to self-preservation.

Thirdly, as this also illustrates, the idea is completely in line with Jesus’ teaching elsewhere, and fits perfectly with the focus of the gospel from now on.

But we need also to note that Jesus does not talk about ‘bearing your cross’ as a continual burden; anyone in the first century would know what it meant if they saw someone carrying a cross, not that they were engaged in a long and burdensome journey, but that their life was forfeit and would soon come to a bloody end.

Subsequent Christian usage of the language of ‘self-denial’ (and even of ‘cross-bearing’) has blunted the force of Jesus’ words. They are about literal death, following the condemned man on his way to execution. Discipleship is a life of at least potential martyrdom. It may be legitimate to extrapolate from this principle to a more general demand for disciples to put loyalty to Jesus before their own interested and comfortable, but that can be only a secondary application of the passage. Jesus’ words are not to be taken as merely metaphorical. (France, Matthew, NICNT, p 636)

The term ‘life’ (repeated in verses 36 and 37, though some ETs replace the second use with ‘soul’) translates the Greek psyche. Although on occasion this is paired with ‘body’ by way of contrast (Matt 10.28) or in a tripartite sense of ‘body, soul and spirit’ (1 Thess 5.23), it rather has the sense of ‘whole person’ or ‘reality of who you are’, and so should not be contrasted here with physical life.

The paradoxes here are pressed even further in this episode, with suffering and humiliation set alongside glory and the kingdom. It is clear from all three Synoptic accounts that the vision of ‘the Son of Man coming in his kingdom’ is a reference to the experience of the Transfiguration for Peter, James and John, not least because that episode follows on from this in all three. But notice that here in Matthew the kingdom of God is experience in an encounter with the ‘Son of Man’ in his true radiance, and the kingdom of God is now the kingdom of Jesus—God’s power, majesty and rule are truly seen in this human figure, heading to the cross.

In every aspect of this varied text, glory and suffering are constantly found side by side within the life and ministry of Jesus. They are therefore also juxtaposed in the life of anyone who is willing to follow him.

The picture at the head of this article is an intriguing depiction of historical figures on the Via Dolorosa, by Jon McNaughton, illustrating the cost of discipleship for people in all walks of life.

If you would like to learn more about how to read the New Testament well, why not pick up Exploring the New Testament which I have contributed to. It explores issues of background, context, content and interpretation for the letters of the NT including the Book of Revelation.

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2 thoughts on “The turning point of the gospel in Mark 8”

  1. Thank you; again and as so often a real help in preparing for preaching.

    Seeing the theological shape of the gospel, and therefore the shift that takes place at this point helps us reflect on who is this Jesus and what is he calling us to?
    I am still wondering about the shock value of the take up your cross challenge – it’s not quite the same as electric chair because the taking of the cross was an actual journey for those condemned. It is a shockingly vivid saying, which we may need to reclaim, but it is also now not contemporary. Should we look for a modern equivalent or explain the ancient context?
    I am not convinced that the Galilean crowd was somehow more theologically prescient or holy than the Jerusalem mob. I don’t see any real evidence to suggest the Palm Sunday crowd was that different, but I do think crowds can be fickle. The Palm Sunday Jesus did not go through with raising an army on Rome – he was a failure and the crowd decided that Barabbas was a better offer.
    Like with the saying, we are tantalisingly too far away both from the events and from talking to Mark about his authorial intentions or context.
    I think I need to slow down my reading of this passage to reflect on what it felt like to hear Jesus begin to teach his disciples that he would suffer and be rejected. This must have been a remarkable set of conversations, even if the final versions we now have have been shaped by the early church audience and what the gospel writers wanted them to gain from this passage.

    Do I want to sign up to a Messiah whose earthly life will end with rejection, suffering and execution? This is not some other-worldly abstracted journey, but the real one then involved coming up against the actual rulers and powers of the time, and their abuse of power, their hold on power for themselves. To what extent do our churches in much of the west choose not to journey on those paths, but take a supposedly more spiritual route which avoids challenging injustices and abuse of power and the systemic things that leave too many hungry etc? We may not rebuke Jesus for what he says, but we may simply ignore it, choose a safer easier path, and frame our worship and church life around a “nice” Messiah.
    But we also proclaim the Jesus who healed the sick, who freed the possessed, who fed the crowds, who offered life and spoke invitation- the early chapters are not erased. Both the first half and second half of Mark go to make up who the Messiah is.

  2. “But we need also to note that Jesus does not talk about ‘bearing your cross’ as a continual burden; anyone in the first century would know what it meant if they saw someone carrying a cross, not that they were engaged in a long and burdensome journey, but that their life was forfeit and would soon come to a bloody end.”

    A very true, humbling and challenging point. Especially for Christian families where Taliban types have the power.

    Phil Almond


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