If you sit down and read Mark’s Gospel through there’s a watershed moment that it’s difficult to miss.
The first eight chapters of Mark’s Gospel focus on Jesus’ ministry in and around Galilee in northern Israel. They’re filled with healings and miracles, all demonstrating Jesus’ authority over sickness, over the Sabbath, over nature and even over death itself. It is after all of these stories that we arrive at Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ. And it’s a huge moment.
‘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.’ He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, 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 things of God, but the things of men.’ Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ (Mark 8:27-34)
What’s startling about these verses is just how wrong Peter gets it. While he correctly identifies Jesus as the Messiah, he gets the nature of his vocation totally wrong. Like most of his contemporaries, it seems that Peter had a very different idea to Jesus about what the Messiah would be on earth to do.
Many of Jesus’ disciples appear to have been waiting for a political, earthly, temporal Messiah. Someone who would take the fight to Rome with swords and armies and revolution. The thought that the Messiah would suffer and die is alien to their idea of what the Kingdom of God would look like. They thought the Messiah would reign from a throne in Jerusalem and instigate a great time of peace and prosperity for God’s people in Israel. But Jesus understood that the temptation to take that route to kingship, avoiding his suffering and death on the cross, was a temptation akin to the one’s he’d faced from the mouth of Satan himself, and no less dangerous than the ones we read about yesterday.
The pattern of these verses recurs again through the next few chapters: Jesus predicts his death, his disciples misunderstand, and then he teaches on the cost of discipleship. It’s not just Peter in chapter 8; the disciples get it wrong in Mark 9:30-37, and again in Mark 10:32-45.
Through this pattern Mark is pointing us towards what the work of the Messiah is really all about. The picture is not of a victorious army general, but of suffering servant – a suffering that expresses its ultimate depth on the cross.
Jesus is clear. This is what his ministry is building towards, that he would die at the hands of his enemies.
Now we know that Jesus’ death on the cross was far more than just an example for us to follow, but it was also not less. Jesus’ life was uniquely given as a ransom for many, but it is also still a pattern for us.
Jesus’ call for his disciples to ‘take up their cross and follow me’ is as true for his disciples in the 21st Century as it was for his first disciples. Just as Jesus did not come to be served, but to serve, so we are called to be servants of all.
In these verses the cross is not just the mechanism of our salvation, but it is the model upon which our lives should be based. Our lives are to be characterised by the same sacrifice, the same self-giving love that Jesus demonstrated to us.
Questions for Reflection
- How would you answer Jesus’ question in verse 29 “But what about you? Who do you say that I am?” Do you accept Jesus’ way of being Lord, Saviour and Messiah, or are there ways in which you, like the disciples, try to force Jesus into your own mould?
- Do you recognise the cost of following Jesus? What might you need to put down in order to pick up your cross and follow him?
O my Saviour,
I thank you for your wondrous grace and love in bearing my sin in your own body on the cross. By your cross you crucify my every sin; make it the ground of my comfort, the vigour of my love, thankfulness, graces. And by it give me that rest without rest, the rest of ceaseless praise.
O my Lord and Saviour, you have also appointed a cross for me to take up and carry. Teach me, gracious Lord and Saviour, that with my cross you send promised grace so that I may bear it patiently, that my cross is your yoke, which is easy, and your burden which is light.
(Prayer based on ‘The Grace of the Cross’ found in The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions.)
If you find yourself with some extra time today, why not read and reflect on Mark 8:31:38, 9:30-57, 10:32-45.
You may also want to listen to the third session of Theology Matters: The Gospels in which Liam Thatcher and Andy Tuck look at Matthew and Mark’s gospels. And for further reading, check out The Challenge of Jesus by N.T. Wright
You may want to join us for one of our meetings over the Easter Weekend:
Good Friday. 3 April. 11.00-12.30. Pimlico Academy, SW1V 3AT
Easter Sunday. 5 April. 11.00-12.30. The Mermaid Theatre, EC4V 3DB