We are now to consider the first explicit confession of Jesus as the Messiah made by one of his disciples. In the context, right after the account of the Lord’s granting hearing to a deaf-mute man and sight to a blind man, it is likely that Mark intended his readers to draw a connection between the miracles and Peter’s confession, all the more after the Lord himself drew attention to the disciples’ deafness and blindness in 8:18. The point is that all true faith and all true confession of Jesus is a virtual miracle itself, the result of the supernatural work of God. [Cranfield, 254]
Caesarea Philippi was north of the Sea of Galilee, outside of Jewish territory. Those who have so far confessed Jesus as Lord have been demons or outsiders and Gentiles. Now the disciples will make their confession but outside the Holy Land.
The fact that the crowds are proposing that Jesus was one of the prophets come back from the dead or John the Baptist resurrected indicates the extraordinary impact he had made on people. They were in no doubt that he was no ordinary man and that his ministry was like that of the storied figures of Israel’s past. Still, however, so far everyone was saying only that Jesus was a figure similar to other figures from Israel’s past. He was a prophet; not greater than a prophet.
The disciples had been with Jesus for some time. The Lord had allowed them to witness his ministry to this point without pressing them to come to a conclusion about him. But now it is time. So far they have seemed more confused than anything else, however amazed at Jesus’ power and authority.
At the time, speaking Aramaic as they would have been, Peter would have said, “You are the Messiah.” But Mark is writing in Greek and “Messiah” is not a Greek word. The word Christ is the Greek translation, both mean “anointed one” and refer to the promised king of David’s line who would restore the fortunes of God’s people. Jesus is the Christ or the Messiah. Jesus Christ, which over time came to be a proper name for the Lord, is shorthand for Jesus the Christ. In the Jewish theology of the time the Messiah was expected to be entirely human but greater than any of God’s earlier messengers to Israel or than any of her previous kings. It was expected that he would deliver Jerusalem from the Gentiles and restore Israel to her former glory. There was no general expectation that he would suffer and die for his people’s sins. Peter gets the title right, but, as we now see, he does not yet have a right understanding of who the Messiah is and what he has come to do.
This warning, like many others like it in the Gospels, was due precisely to the fact that the announcement of Jesus as the Messiah would produce the wrong expectations in the mind of the people: enthusiasm for a political and military Messiah that Jesus was not. National liberation was not his mission!
No one expected that this would be the fate of the Messiah when he came: that his own people would reject and murder him. It may have been taught by the prophets but it was not so understood in first century Judaism. But this is what the Messiah must do: it is his mission. The salvation of the world depends upon his suffering and death. It is his divine mission as the savior of sinners, not Palestinian politics that define his undertaking.
Peter was a typical Jew in his understanding of the role of the Messiah. Jesus looked at all the disciples because they all shared Peter’s misunderstanding. What Peter was refusing to accept was the very will of God for the salvation of mankind. In that, however unwittingly, he was a partner of Satan rather than a servant of God. No wonder Jesus did not want them to be broadcasting the fact that he was the Messiah. Even his friends didn’t understand what the coming of the Messiah was all about.
A wrong view of the Messiah leads to a wrong view of being his disciple. The subject turns from what Jesus had come to do to what his disciples would have to do. They were expecting to enjoy being in the entourage of the King as he conquered the world. They didn’t expect him to suffer or themselves to suffer on account of their identification with him. In fact, precisely the opposite: Their enemies would suffer; they would go in triumph.
We are so accustomed to the image and the idea of the cross; an aura of sanctity and beauty now so surrounds it that is very difficult for us to appreciate how repugnant it was in that day. A symbol of the hated Roman occupation, a form of death so cruel, so dehumanizing, so shameful that even the most debauched regimes in human history since have not employed crucifixion as a means of executing enemies. It was the preeminent means of Rome’s terror apparatus. [Edwards, 256] To liken the following of Christ to bearing a cross was as powerful a way as could be imagined to say that a man or woman had to be willing to sacrifice everything and endure anything to be a follower of Jesus.
The thought is that pursuing comfort and peace in this world will mean the loss of your soul for eternity. The issue is the ultimate realities of human existence: the eternal destiny of man. But it is perfectly obvious that the picture is not gloomy or fatalistic. Everyone wants to live, really to live, and to live forever. Following Christ in his suffering is how to obtain such life! He would suffer and die; but he would also rise again to live forever. Death before life; loss before gain.
To be ashamed of the Son of Man in this context would be to be unwilling to suffer out of loyalty to him and his cause.
A puzzling statement that has been interpreted by good men in many different ways. It is most likely to refer either to the Transfiguration, which immediately follows, or to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Some of you may do as I do and take note of biblical texts that were used by the Spirit of God to bring different prominent believers to faith in Christ. It was when his eyes fell upon Romans 13:14 that Augustine tells us, “all the darkness of doubt fell away.”
“Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.”
It was John 17:3 that John Knox tells us was where he cast his first anchor.
“Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
It was hearing Ephesians 2:8-9 read that made the great Anglican evangelical bishop J.C. Ryle a Christian.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.”
It was reading himself, in a paroxysm of doubt and guilty fear, Romans 3:25 that made William Cowper a Christian.
“God presented him [that is, Jesus] as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.”
It was hearing an unlearned lay minister read and repeat over and over Isaiah 45:22 that made the young Charles Spurgeon a Christian.
“Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.”
There are many such texts that have become suddenly and powerfully the voice of God himself to people and the means of their coming to faith in Christ and new and eternal life in him. Well there is a similarly wonderful account of the Spirit’s use of this text – “Who do men say that I am?” – that brought another faithful and, at least in his own time, celebrated Christian minister to new life in Christ. It makes a fascinating story of the grace of God, of the miracle of new life in Christ, and of deafness and blindness being overcome by the power of God, just as these spiritual conditions were overcome in the case of the disciples.
William Haslam was born in Sumatra in 1817, the son of an army officer. He took his college degree in Durham and there met and became engaged to a young woman. He was in London when he got word that she was seriously ill. He made a mad thirty-six hour dash north to her bedside. Fatigue, coupled with the shock of finding her already dead, nearly killed him. In hopes of his recovery, a doctor recommended the bracing air of Cornwall’s sea coast and so he replied to a want ad for a curate, a pastor for one of the coastal villages. He had no divine calling to be a pastor; he just needed an easy job. As a pastor he was a failure. He had no idea how to help people other than by reading the daily services and administering the sacraments on the Lord’s Day. He was by personality a high churchman and edited John Henry Newman’s sermons for his own use and read them to his congregation. Most of his parishioners were Methodists or Methodist sympathizers and didn’t appreciate his preaching. Eventually he was assigned to another parish in Cornwall.
One Sunday in 1851 William Haslam was preaching on our text: “Who do you say that I am?” He was explaining to a full church that the Pharisees had been condemned because they had failed to believe that Christ had come to save them from their sins – they had a false view of the mission of the Messiah – and as he preached he realized for the first time that he did not really believe it either, Christian minister though he was. As he continued with his sermon he saw the truth more and more clearly. He wrote in his autobiography:
“I do not remember all I said but I felt a wonderful light and joy coming into my soul…. Whether it was something in my words, or my manner, or my look, I know not; but all of a sudden a local preacher, who happened to be in the congregation, stood up, and putting up his arms, shouted out in Cornish manner, ‘the parson’s converted! The parson’s converted! Hallelujah!’, and in another moment his voice was lost in the shouts and the praises of three or four hundred of the congregation.”
The vicar’s conversion sparked a revival that lasted in the town for three years. Virtually every week someone came to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, lives were transformed, and joy pervaded the life of the town. Haslam preached the gospel until his death in 1905 and during all of that time he was known as the parson who was converted by his own sermon.
For Peter it had been many months, perhaps as much as nearly two years with the Lord before it was clear to him that he was not simply another prophet but the Messiah himself. For William Haslam nine years in the Christian ministry had not brought him to that understanding. But when the correct answer was finally understood it changed both men’s lives root and branch. To give the right answer to this question – “Who do you say I am?” – makes all the difference in the world. The right answer to that question, given from the heart and with the full assent of the heart, must transform a person’s life. It is a watershed.
In the Gospel of Mark the decisiveness, the supreme importance of Christ’s question and Peter’s answer is strikingly emphasized. This paragraph we have read has long been recognized to be a watershed in the Gospel as well. It divides the Gospel in two. For the first time there is a public declaration that Jesus is the Messiah and from this point the Lord addresses his teaching not so much to the crowds but to his disciples. From this point he has much to say of his impending suffering and death at the hands of the religious leadership and from this point he moves southward from Galilee, where he had conducted most of his ministry, toward Jerusalem and the fatal climax of his life’s work. And all of this because it has now become clear to his disciples that Jesus is the Christ.
In the Old Testament prophets, priests, and kings were set apart to their office and their work by anointing with oil. Nowadays we have someone raise his right hand and take an oath but in those days ordination to office was by anointing with oil. So an “anointed one” would be someone set apart by God to a special calling or task and endowed by God with the authority to fulfill that calling. Over time “Messiah” or “Anointed One” came especially to refer to the coming king who would restore the throne of David and bring to fulfillment the kingdom of God in the world.
Jesus had for some time now done and said things that would have indicated clearly to anyone with ears to hear and eyes to see that he was, in fact, the long-promised Messiah, the anointed one who would combine in himself the offices of prophet, priest, and king. But it took some time even for his friends to grasp this. It was all so overwhelming; so far beyond their experience and they were not helped toward understanding by the teaching they had received in the church of their day. But now deep into the Lord’s public ministry, by the time of this tour through the towns in the vicinity of Caesarea Philippi, this understanding of Jesus was beginning to dawn in the hearts of the disciples and Peter, characteristically speaking for the group, categorically expresses their new conviction: “You are the Christ!” Not just a prophet; not someone like Elijah or John the Baptist, magnificent as those men were, you are the Messiah himself.
Throughout the rest of the New Testament this continues to be the simplest way to confess faith in Jesus. When the gospel entered the Gentile world after Pentecost, instead of saying that Jesus is the Christ, a term or title that would have meant little to non-Jewish people, it became common instead to say simply “Jesus is Lord,” but the meaning is the same. Whether one says that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One, or says Jesus is Lord, he or she is saying that Jesus is the Son of God, the Great King sent from heaven, to save us from our sins and to extend his reign throughout the world. His is the one and only name by which men may be saved. He is the light of the world and no one comes to the Father except through him. He or she who has him has life and he or she who does not have him does not have life. To say that Jesus is Lord is to say in the fewest words possible that in Jesus any human being finds the meaning of his or her existence and hope for the life to come.
John Newton put it this way:
What think you of Christ? is the test,
To try both your state and your scheme;
You cannot be right in the rest
Unless you think rightly of him.
As Jesus appears in your view,
As he is beloved or not,
So God is disposed to you
And mercy or wrath is your lot.
The logic of that is unassailable. If Jesus of Nazareth was God the Son come in the flesh, the Creator of heaven and earth come to save his rebel world from its sins, then obviously, very obviously there is not some other way to God, there is not some other master to whom we owe our allegiance, and there is not some other way that we are to walk in this world than that way of obedience and loyalty to him. The fact of the cross is the condemnation, the disproof of every human philosophy or religion that says that men and women can, by their own reason or moral effort, reconcile themselves to God or lift the burden of their own sin and guilt. Had that been possible the terrible suffering of the Son of God would not have occurred.
It is, of course, this unassailable logic that explains why there is so much opposition or indifference to Jesus in the world: why there was in his day and is still in ours. To confess Jesus as Messiah or as Lord means, must mean, that we owe our allegiance to him; we must surrender the rule of our lives to him; we must follow him; we must live for him; we must repudiate ourselves as the masters of our own destiny and bow before him. People did not want to do that in Jesus’ day and they don’t want to do that in ours. They really don’t want to do it. They want to go their own way, to be their own masters.
They are perfectly able to see how hard the way of following Jesus must be in this world. It was hard for him and it will be hard for those who follow him. It took him to the cross and it will require us to carry ours. It will require us to forsake ourselves and our desires in many difficult ways. It will require us to lose our lives in various ways in order to gain them in the world to come; but you can see this world, you can’t see the world to come. It is hard to give up what you can see for what you cannot.
That is why Paul would later say that no one can call Jesus “Lord” except by the Spirit of God. It takes as much divine power to open a human heart to the lordship of Jesus Christ as it does to open the eyes of a blind man or the ears of the deaf.
But once the eyes have been opened, the difficulties, the crosses, the self-denial all makes perfect sense precisely because Jesus is the Christ and the Lord. Then whatever we suffer for his sake we are suffering out of loyalty to the Lord and Master of the Universe, for the sake of the one who holds our eternal destiny in our hands, and for the love of someone who has loved us with an impossibly great love, so great that he gave himself to ignominy, suffering, and death to secure our salvation while we were still our enemies. Jesus was killed a year after this for claiming that he was the Messiah; Peter died some years later for continuing to claim that he was the Messiah.
It is no small thing to confess that Jesus is the Christ and then to be loyal to that truth come wind, come weather. Today is the Sunday of the year when we think of and pray for Christians around the world – ordinary people like you and me – who, at this very moment, are suffering opposition, have lost their homes, have been separated from their families, have been cast into prison, or are facing death because they would not cease to confess that Jesus is the Christ. They are suffering precisely because they are not ashamed of Jesus in this adulterous and sinful generation and did not want the Son of Man to be ashamed of them when he comes in his father’s glory.
Still today many people are quite prepared to honor Jesus as the Messiah so long as he is their kind of Messiah, bringing deliverance, prosperity, and happiness to them now and requiring little or nothing in return. But as soon as they discover that Jesus’ messiahship is bound up with his suffering for sin and with bringing a salvation that cannot fully be experienced until the next world, they lose all interest in him. To me and to most of you, the truth that Jesus is Lord is the happiest truth that we know. Knowing Jesus the Christ we would never want another savior or master than the one we have got in him. To be the servant of this King is privilege indeed; to suffer for him the highest conceivable honor. But for many others it is not so. And it will not be so until their eyes are opened and their ears unstopped.
Peter eyes were half-opened. He knew enough to say that Jesus is the Christ. He was to come to see things much more clearly. He would come to see that to say that Jesus is the Christ is to accept that the real problem of man is nothing other than his great sin and sinfulness, his moral failure before God and others. He would come then to see that the only possibility of man’s deliverance from that sin and guilt was the bitter passion of no one less than God the Son. To say that Jesus is the Christ is no small thing. It is to say that we could not be saved apart from the Son of God becoming a man and suffering torment and sorrow beyond our capacity to understand or describe; that the matter of our salvation was of such desperate urgency and such terrible difficulty that nothing short of the suffering and death of the Creator of heaven and earth could accomplish it.
No one can say Jesus is the Christ and mean it, therefore, who will not, in the nature of the case, love Jesus, feel the impossible weight of the debt he or she owes to him, who does not want to serve him and honor him. The cost of following him is immaterial to us because the cost of our salvation was immaterial to him.
Today Jesus puts the same question to each of us: Who do you say that I am? This is the vital question. It is the question forced upon people in the Gospels. In the Book of Acts it is the same: the first preachers of the faith were proclaiming the name, the identity, the life and work of this one person, Jesus of Nazareth. Every book of the New Testament directs our attention to him. Christianity concerns this person; it offers a relationship with this person and summons the entire world to seek that relationship. It refuses to discuss the questions that people have or consider the issues that they raise except in terms of this single individual, who he is, what he did and does, and what he will do.
“I would like to know the meaning of life,” says one. Well, absolutely, we answer. You should know what it is but you will find it only in Jesus. Another says, “I would like to live a good life.” And we say to that person, yes; that is right, but to live a good life you must know Jesus and come to terms with him.
And why are we so insistent that everything begins and ends with Jesus? For this reason: he is the Christ, which is to say he is the Lord, he is the Savior, and he is the one sent from heaven to bring rebel mankind back to God. No wonder then that acknowledgement profoundly changes the life of any human being, young or old, male or female. It was this discovery – that Jesus is the Christ – that changed William Haslam from a minister into a Christian and the same discovery will make a Christian of anyone and everyone else. And always to remember that Jesus is the Christ will make a Christian live like a Christian.