The question, “Who is Jesus?” is fundamental to Mark’s Gospel.
From the start, Mark confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (1:1). The “Messiah” (Hebrew) or the “Christ” (Greek) is the “anointed one of God,” signifying divine election to a particular task. In various ways, Mark invites the reader or hearer to answer the question, “who is Jesus,” and adopt his opening confession. As we read, Mark develops what it means for Jesus to be Messiah, Son of God. Armed with the inside information that Mark provides about the nature of Jesus, we read and wait for someone in the narrative to answer the question, “Who is Jesus?” Yet in the first half of the Gospel, no one recognizes him (except demons) in spite of a series of events that demand a response. Jesus preaches the kingdom of God, calls disciples, performs miracles, exorcises demons, and miraculously heals people.
Characters’ responses to Jesus’ powerful acts in the Gospel consist of questions that demonstrate a wrestling with the query, “Who is Jesus?” When Jesus heals the paralytic, some scribes say, “Why does this man talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
Later, Jesus calms a storm, and the disciples ask, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” Then, Jesus comes to Nazareth, his hometown, and the people say, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joseph and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” (6:2-3). These unanswered questions invite us to respond, when the characters do not. How will we answer the query, “Who is Jesus?”
As Jesus’ reputation spreads, people begin to speculate answers the question, “Who is Jesus?” Some believe Jesus was John the Baptist returned from the grave; others, the prophet Elijah, and others, simply a prophet. (6:14-16). They assign to Jesus only a preparatory role, not the one Mark has given us.
In our text for today, Jesus himself asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” (8:27). The disciples rehearse the three popular misconceptions about Jesus’ identity, recalling the earlier speculations (verse 28). Jesus presses them: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter finally confesses that Jesus is the Messiah (verse 29). In response, Jesus predicts his suffering and death openly in order to interpret what “Messiah” means (verse 32). Peter does not want to listen, because suffering and death are not part of his conception of messiahship (8:31-32). He rebukes Jesus, charging him to deny his mission (verse 32). Jesus recognizes this as a test from Satan, and rebukes Peter accordingly (verse 33). As Satan tested Jesus before he began his public ministry (1:12-13), Satan likewise tests him when he turns his face towards the cross.
Jesus then instructs his disciples and all who would follow him about true discipleship. If they have misunderstood, “Who is Jesus?” then they have also misunderstood “Who is a disciple?” True disciples follow Jesus by imitating him. They deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him (8:34). Jesus further explains what this means by contrasting those who secure physical life and possessions but lose their soul, with those who lose their physical lives but gain their soul through self-denial for the sake of the gospel (verses 35-36). Eternal life, or life in the consummated kingdom of God, is in view. Verses 37-38 warn of denunciation at the eschatological coming of the Son of Man for those who have denied Jesus, while 9:1 promises glory at the consummation of the kingdom for those whose self-denial leads to death. According to Jesus, both “Messiah” and “disciple” are characterized by suffering and self-denial for the sake of others.
Six days later, the Transfiguration provides a prophetic manifestation of the power of the kingdom of God. On a mountain, Jesus appears in radiant glory to Peter, James, and John. The account confirms Jesus’ words about suffering and death. Earlier, Peter had rebuked Jesus for his plain words about his fate. In his response, Jesus ties his fate to that of his disciples, and warns that the Son of Man will be ashamed of the one who is ashamed of him and his words.
Now, Peter mistakenly believes he is witnessing the consummation of the kingdom of God, and offers to build three booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Peter evidently seeks the fulfillment of God’s kingdom without the suffering of which Jesus had spoken. By this, we know that Peter has not heeded Jesus’ words. The divine voice from heaven intervenes, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him!” (verse 7). This recalls Jesus’ baptism (1:11), where God proclaimed favor upon Jesus at the beginning of his ministry.
Now, at the turning point, when Jesus embraces suffering and death, God pronounces favor again. Jesus is left alone with his disciples, demonstrating that glory is assured, even if it is hidden. The Transfiguration is strategically placed as a confirmation of Peter’s confession that Jesus as Messiah and as a development of the promise of vindication to those who follow him in 9:1. The account provides the promise of power necessary for including suffering and self-denial in our understanding of both “Messiah” and “disciple.”
Like Jesus’ first followers, it is tempting to leave suffering and self-denial out of our answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?” and, with it, “Who is a disciple?” We might prefer a prosperity gospel that gives us the whole world, but Jesus gives us a model of self-sacrificial service that gives us our soul. Conventional wisdom says that there is no place for suffering and self-sacrifice in the quest for power. But our text for today challenges that wisdom. In God’s economy, there is power in humility and service because a hidden glory reinterprets the existence of God’s people.