The confession at Caesarea Philippi marks one of the high points of Peter’s discipleship.
Peter is the first human being to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Mark tips his hand in his prologue when he writes: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God” (Mark 1:1). The reader knows Jesus’ identity from the beginning. Up to this point in the narrative, however, no one else has identified him as Christos. The voice from heaven (1:11), the demons (1:24; 3:11; 5:7), and the angels (1:13) know Jesus to be more than an ordinary mortal but even they do not acknowledge him specifically as Messiah. Therefore, when Peter declares Jesus to be the Christ, the reader already knows he has hit the jackpot. He now stands in the category quite apart from the rest. He has moved from being listed among the 12 (3:16) and then being set apart as one of three (5:37) to now being the only human being who really knows who Jesus is.
Absent from Mark’s accounting of this incident is the commendation of Jesus or the suggestion that Peter’s confession is based on divine revelation that we find in Matthew (Matthew 16:17-18). For Mark, Peter’s declaration is not the result of divine revelation; Peter has paid attention. Based on the things he has seen and heard, he concludes that Jesus is the Christ. Additionally, Peter is not declared to be the rock upon which the church is built. Instead, Peter’s name (petra in the Greek) refers to the type of soil he is. Like the rocky soil Jesus describes in the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-20), Peter will fall away when persecution comes his way.1
Peter’s problem with persecution is foreshadowed in his next interchange with Jesus (Mark 8:31-33). Following on the heels of Peter’s confession, Jesus predicts his passion and resurrection (8: 31). Some scholars assert that Jesus’ passion prediction and lesson on discipleship correct Peter’s misinterpretation of who Jesus is. Indeed Jesus is the Messiah but what Peter misunderstands is the fact that Jesus is a suffering Messiah. However, the fact that Peter can identify Jesus as Messiah without having seen him suffer suggests that suffering is not an identifying characteristic of the Messiah. What Peter has seen is the ministry of Jesus demonstrated in word and in action. This allows him to conclude who Jesus is. Jesus’ teaching, therefore, is his attempt to prepare his followers for the consequences of following a Messiah like him.2
Jesus will suffer rejection and death at the hands of the religious leaders of his day. The rejection and death are the social and physical consequences of his ministry. Peter’s failure is not his inability to see the type of Messiah Jesus is, but his failure to accept that these are the possible consequences of Jesus’ ministry. His rejection of these consequences is highlighted by the fact that Peter scolds Jesus. In language identical to Jesus’ verbal exorcism of demons, Peter rebukes Jesus (Mark 1:34; 3:12). Confession turns to confrontation.
Jesus now takes the opportunity to teach on discipleship. He extends an open invitation thereby making it clear that anyone can follow him (Mark 8:34). However, any “would be” follower should prepare him or herself for the possible consequences. Just as Jesus’ ministry has social and physical repercussions, so will the ministry of the disciples who follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Therefore, Jesus commands them to “deny themselves” and “take up the cross.” In other words, they must not allow society to dictate their actions or allow societal standards to determine their sense of self-worth. They also must be prepared for the physical consequences of discipleship including death. For the first time in Mark’s Gospel, the cross is mentioned (Mark 8:34). The cross stands as a brutal reminder of the most shameful and excruciating form of capital punishment known to Mark’s original audience. Interestingly enough, it is not mentioned in reference to Jesus but to his followers.
In short, Jesus introduces that a different valuation for honor and work been found in ancient Mediterranean society. It will not be the court of public opinion, the societal elite, or the oppressive Roman government. It will be God who determines what is honorable. And what is honorable is following Jesus. That is why Jesus will be raised from the dead (Mark 8:31) and will come in the glory of his father (8:38).3
Six days later, Peter once again joins the company of James and John as the three are taking up the mountain to be with Jesus alone (Mark 9:2). Many believe the mountain to be Mount Sinai. If this is the case, Mark is signaling something significant. He does not disappoint. When they get there, the disciples witness Jesus talking with Elijah and Moses (9:5), both of whom had divine encounters on Mount Sinai/Horeb. Some scholars assert that the appearance of Moses and Elijah represents the Law and the Prophets. Perhaps their presence with Jesus is Mark’s way of telling the reader that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. However, it is important to note that both Moses and Elijah are eschatological figures. According to Deuteronomy 18:18, another prophet is to arise like the prophet Moses. In addition, Malachi prophesies the return of Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord (Malachi 4:5).
Whichever the interpretation, Peter, James, and John are privy to something very important. Here Peter makes his third transition. He has moved from confession to confrontation. In the midst of this grand spectacle, he now moves to confusion. He suggests that they make three dwelling places or booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah (Mark 9:5). He correctly grasps the magnitude of this moment; however, he gives the wrong response. This is not the time for building or speaking. Now is the time to listen. That is what the voice in the cloud tells them as once again Jesus is referred to as the “Beloved Son” (9:7).
Therein lies the failure of Peter in the two preceding pericopes. He gets one correct answer and thinks he has them all. He does not listen when Jesus predicts his passion and resurrection. And here, he is talking even though no one has said a word to him.
So often, this is the failure of many of us as followers of Jesus Christ. We do not like what Jesus is saying or showing and so we rebuke him by rebuking and rejecting others. We do not like where Jesus is leading so we declare that it is not the right way, the right company, the right timing, nor the right assignment.
Sometimes, we are inserting our voices into the silence of God. Like Peter, James, and John, the Lord may give us access to situations in which we are not invited to be talking partners but have been extended the privilege of listening and observing.
Confession. Confrontation. Confusion. However, if listening were interjected, perhaps the trajectory would go as follows: Confession. Consent. Clarity.
1 Mary Ann Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 146.
2 Raquel A. St. Clair, Call and Consequences: A Womanist Reading of Mark (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008), 112-3.
3 Ibid., 137-43.
PRAYER OF THE DAYLord of light, as you were transfigured on the mountain, your followers were given a glimpse of your glory. Shine your light in our lives so that we will know how truly marvelous you are. Amen.
HYMNS Beautiful Savior ELW 838 I want to walk as a child of the light ELW 815, H82 490, UMH 206
CHORAL Christ upon the mountain peak, William Beckstrand