Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah." Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. - Mark 8:27-30
I recently finished reading through the Gospel of Mark and noticed something that I had never realized before. What is it with Jesus constantly requesting of his disciples and those he heals to not tell anyone about him? If you reread the story closely, you will see that this happens consistently throughout the story.
He requires this of the possessed man after he drives out the spirit (Mark 1:24). After he heals many sick and demon-possessed people (Mark 1:34 and Mark 3:11-12). After healing a man with leprosy (Mark 1:44) and restoring a deaf man who could barely speak (Mark 7:36-37). He even requests this after raising Jairus’ daughter from the dead (Mark 5:43).
Jesus also orders Peter, James, and John not to tell anyone about his Transfiguration as they came down from the mountain (Mark 9:9) and the same to all his disciples after Peter’s proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah.
It is an incredibly strange pattern throughout this entire story. Why would Jesus require this silence about who he is? And if he truly was the Messiah, why wasn’t he comfortable with others proclaiming it?
Throughout the Gospel of Mark you will see a stark contrast drawn between the faith (of lack of faith) of the disciples and the abundant faith of all women and healed people within the story. The Gospel of Mark does not show the disciples and especially Peter in a good light.
Peter’s profession that Jesus is the Messiah follows shortly after the feedings of the five thousand and four thousand. Significant miracles to behold for anyone, but the disciples had the added privilege of having front-row seats to the spectacle. They were responsible for the distribution and collection of the fish and bread. They saw firsthand how the food had been multiplied to serve the people.
And yet, after witnessing these miracles, Peter and the other disciples still lacked faith that Jesus could feed them, the twelve disciples, with the one loaf of bread they brought with them on the boat. I don’t think it takes high-level math to see how Jesus could have provided for a dozen after tending to thousands.
Many of us believe if only we saw a miracle or God revealed himself to us that we would believe. But maybe, as the disciples demonstate, we don’t quite work that way. But it’s pretty fascinating that Peter would then, shortly after demonstrating such weak faith, profess that he believed Jesus to be the Messiah.
For Christians living on this side of the resurrection, this seems so obviously to be the right answer to Jesus’ question “Who do you say I am?” I mean it is the right answer, isn’t it? Jesus is in fact the Messiah, correct? Jesus certainly doesn’t dispute it.
But maybe we miss the context of what was really being said here. What did Peter think being the Messiah meant? How did he envision Jesus’ ministry proceeding? He didn’t have the luxury of foreseeing all that would transpire like we do. And maybe for those very reasons, Jesus steers their conversation in an unforseeable dirction, like he seems to do with every conversation.
He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” - Mark 8:31-32
Peter could not fathom how the Messiah would have to suffer, be rejected, and then be killed. That wasn’t at all what he had in mind for the one who was expected to restore the throne of David from underneath Roman occupation. They had waited so long for the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel.
Jesus, the king they were waiting for, could not fulfill his role if he were to be killed. Which is why Peter so emphatically insists that his friend Jesus would not be killed. That this plan had to be thwarted. He was so convinced he knew who Jesus should be that he actually rebukes Jesus himself for not fulfilling Peter’s vision of the Messiah. And as a result, he was met with incredibly harsh and pointed words from Jesus in an exchange that unsettles anyone’s belief that Jesus was just nice and harmless with everyone all the time.
Could it be that Jesus requests the secrecy of his disciples and those he heals in order to allow him to show what type of messiah he would be? For him to be able to preach and teach what his ministry and the Kingdom of God would actually look like? That the disciples and so many of the Jews had some preconceived notions of who the Messiah would be that needed to be changed? That just knowing him to be the Messiah wasn’t everything?
the messiah of easter week
Quite possibly, this contrast between the messiah envisioned by so many peers of Jesus and Jesus himself is no more clearer than in the events that occur between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was initially met with the offering of palm brances, a symbol of royalty and triumph. He rode into the city on a colt echoing the prophecy from Zechariah that they would receive a king who would bring peace and reestablish his kingdom. The crowd shouted “Hosanna!”, meaning “Save!”, a clear proclamation of what they expected of Jesus.
But by the end of the week, he had been betrayed by one of his own disciples. Arrested by the very people he came to serve. Disowned by one of his closest friends. Mocked with a purple robe, crown of thorns, and sarcastic proclamations to his royalty. He was beaten, humiliated and led out to be crucified.
What started out with a triumphal entry into Jerusalem, ended as the most degrading execution a “king” could incur. The Messiah who was greeted with palm branches and shouts of joy just days earlier was now pierced on the cross after the same crowd shouted for his crucifixion.
His execution was by one of the most harrowing contraptions conceived by man. The man without sin receiving the same punishment of death alongside criminals. And he was taunted to save himself. If he truly was who he claimed to be, he could prevent this from happening. And yet he didn’t. There was no way this could be God’s promised savior. This wasn’t the Messiah they were anticipating.
Would he have been the Messiah we were anticipating if we were in their shoes?
“who do you say I am?”
2,000 years later, many of us, including me, are still wrestling with the same question Jesus asked of Peter? “Who do you say I am?“
Some say he was a good teacher, a really kind person, a revolutionary, a prophet or possibly even a lunatic. Or maybe you would claim that he is the Messiah, our savior. But what does being the “Messiah” really mean to us? Are we, like Peter, giving the “right” answer but bringing our own preconceived notions to the table about who this Jesus was and is? Are we quick to try and recruit him to our political or ideological agenda? Or to project our own wishes and desires onto him?
Jesus has an awe-inspiring way of escaping our categories and avoiding our recruiting efforts. The more you study his words and actions, the more he continues to undermine our preconceived ideas of who he is to replace them with something incredibly more glorious. The Lion and the Lamb. The Prince of Peace. The Good Shepherd. Wonderful Counselor. The True Vine. The Way, the Truth, and the Life. The Son. The Messiah.
I don’t think the author of the Gospel of Mark is asking us to be secretive about who he is. But maybe this story encourages us to take a step back and see, that though we may know and claim Jesus as the Messiah, that he can still surprise us in the way he goes about saving us. That his Kingdom is different than the kingdoms we have come to know here on earth. That even when things don’t unfold in the manner we would have prescribed for ourselves, he will continue to work through it all.
As we live our lives, and lean into Christ more and more, we will be amazed at just how wonderful this different Messiah is and how there is an endless depth to who he is. And that we can shout “Hosanna!” and know more and more the fulness of what it actually means to be saved.