The section of the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the chosen one that is offered in the lectionary this coming Sunday (Mark 8:27–38) contains two striking paradoxes.
It reports the paradox that the fundamental identity of Jesus was recognised by Peter—followed by a command silencing Peter from telling anyone else about this. It also includes the paradox that Jesus anticipates the public shaming that he will experience on the cross—followed by his call to his followers, to take up the cross themselves. Each paradox invites considered reflection.
The first paradox: the silence about the central identity of Jesus
Mark reports that Jesus asked his followers, “who do you say that I am?”; to which Peter answered, “You are the Messiah” (8:29). The identification of Jesus as Messiah (or Christ) is central to this book. (Messiah is from the Hebrew word to anoint; Christ is from the Greek word with the same meaning.) This identification appears in the very first sentence of the work, in what may well be regarded as the title of the book: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus, Messiah, Son of God” (1:1).
The identity of Jesus continues as a motif running through this Gospel. It is reiterated in a variety of ways in statements made at crucial moments in the story (see 1:11; 8:29; 9:7; 10:45; 14:62; 15:39). But it also forms a recurring question, asked by many characters throughout the story.
We can’t read Mark’s Gospel without being confronted, again and again, by this question, in whatever guise it comes: “what have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (1:24, from a possessed man); “who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41, from the disciples); “what have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (5:6, from the disciples); “what have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (5:6, from the Gadarene demoniac); “where did this man get all this? what is this wisdom that has been given to him?” (6:2, from his extended family in Nazareth).
Once he is in Jerusalem, Jesus encounters the same question from the High Priest: “are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (14:61); and from the Roman governor: “are you the King of the Jews?” (15:2). So, the key question remains for us: “who do people say that I am?” (8:27, asked by Jesus)—a question which he immediately sharpens into “who do you say that I am?” (8:28).
The question of the identity of Jesus is posed once again in the trial of Jesus before the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. Mark reports that the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”, to which Jesus replied, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (14:61–62).
And at the midpoint of the Gospel narrative, at the central climactic moment of conversation at Caesarea Philippi, the question is put by Jesus to his followers. The question posed by Jesus comes at the high point in his public ministry—just before he is transfigured, before he makes his fateful decision to turn towards Jerusalem, in the Synoptics.
The scene is located at Caesarea Philippi, at the foot of Mount Herman, to the northeast of the Sea of Galilee, in the Tetrarchy of Philip. It was the northernmost point in ancient Israel (in modern terms, it is in the Golan Heights, the Israeli-occupied territory overlooking Syria). It is as if the story needs to take us to the very edge to hear the clarifying conversation about Jesus.
And in this clarifying conversation, Peter goes to the heart of who Jesus is. Not simply one of the prophets—although he clearly stands in the tradition of the prophets. Not Elijah, the one charged with preparing the way for the Messiah, the anointed one, specifically chosen by God amongst all of humanity. Rather, it is Jesus himself who is that chosen, anointed one.
Peter has identified him accurately; Jesus is the Messiah. Yet immediately we hear the paradoxical note that Jesus “strictly charged them to tell no one about him” (8:30).
Yet, it is a striking fact that, in this gospel, Jesus never himself claims that he is the Christ. (The irony, of course, is that the term used to describe the followers of Jesus throughout the centuries, Christian, is based precisely on the claim that Jesus is the Christ.)
The closest Jesus gets to this self-identification is his clipped response to the question put to him by the chief priest, when he is asked, “are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (14:61). Jesus admits this in two short words, “I am”, before proceeding immediately to speak about the Son of Man coming in glory.
Indeed, in his final set of teachings given to his followers outside the Temple, when he speaks about the time still to come, Jesus explicitly warns against those laying claim to such a title: “if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it; for false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect” (13:21–22). The implication is that these other claimants are false, because Jesus is the true Messiah; yet he never specifically says this.
And Jesus persists in instructing people not to spread the news about him after he has healed them or cast out demons from them. He gives this instruction directly to demons (1:24; 1:34; 3:12), as well as to a healed leper (1:43), a healed blind man (8:26), crowds who have witnessed healings (5:43; 7:36), and the disciples (8:30; 9:9). (These verses provide the basis for the so-called “Messianic Secret” in Mark’s Gospel.)
There is one place where Jesus is acclaimed as Messiah, with no come-back from Jesus: when the crowd of onlookers cry out to Jesus as he hangs on the cross: “let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe” (15:32). This isn’t an affirmingly positive acclamation of Jesus; rather, the term is used to mock and deride him in his helpless state.
The second paradox: the shame of the central dynamic of crucifixion
The cross is, in fact, the place where the second paradox appears in the Gospel passage set for this coming Sunday. The cross is introduced by Jesus himself, when he teaches his followers: “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31).
So important is this teaching, that Jesus repeats it twice more: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise” (9:31) and “the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles; and they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him; and after three days he will rise” (10:33-34).
I don’t think that three predictions were spoken, historically, by Jesus, as he made his way towards Jerusalem. Rather, the author of the beginning of the good news of Jesus, Messiah placed them in this strategic place in the centre of his narrative. They mark the turn on the story from Galilee, where the earlier activity of Jesus took place (1:14–9:50), towards Jerusalem, where the final days of Jesus will play out (10:1–16:8). The dynamic of the narrative indicates that, as Jesus leaves behind the days of preaching and teaching, healing and casting out demons, his focus turns to the confrontation that he knows lies in store for him.
The public nature of crucifixion was humiliating and shaming. The typical process of crucifixion involved moment after moment of humiliation, undermining any sense of honour that the victim had, increasing the sense of public shame that they were experiencing. In the Roman world, crucifixion was variously identified as a punishment for slaves (Cicero, In Verrem 2.5.168), bandits (Josephus, War 5.449-451), prisoners of war (Josephus, War 5.451), and political rebels (Josephus, Antiquities 17.295). These were people whose situations or actions had generated shame.
In the case of Jesus, he is accused of treason through the inference that he is King of the Jews—a claim that was anathema to the Romans (John 19:12)—and he is crucified in the company of political rebels (Mark 15:27; Matt 27:38; the term used, lēstēs, is the one most often found in the writings of Josephus to denote a political rebel).
A public trial, followed by a public execution on the cross, was a ritual in which the accused person was shamed, through a public ritual of status degradation. Cicero, in speaking as the counsel of Rabinio, a man accused of treason, asserted that “the ignominy of a public trial is a miserable thing” and described a public execution as “the assembly being polluted by the contagion of an executioner … [exhibiting] traces of nefarious wickedness” (Pro Rabinio 11, 16).
And yet, immediately after he spoke this prophetic word, Jesus issued his disciples with a call to take up their crosses themselves: “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (8:34). He invites them—indeed, he commands them—to enter into the public shame that he will experience in his own crucifixion.
In the narratives that recount the crucifixion of Jesus, it is not so much the physical torment of Jesus which is highlighted (although, admittedly, a slow death by suffocation whilst hanging on a cross for hours, even days, was a terrible fate). Rather, it is the various ways in which Jesus was shamed: he was spat upon, physically struck on the face and the head, verbally ridiculed and insulted, and treated contemptuously.
This is the way of Jesus; and the way of his followers. Instead of saving their life, the followers of Jesus are instructed to lose their life (8:35). Instead of aiming to “gain the whole world”, and thereby “forfeit their life”, a follower is, by implication, to let go of all hopes of “gaining the world” (8:36–37). To gain the world was presumably referring to occupying a position of power, prestige, and popularity—precisely the kind of issues that later writers, Matthew and Luke, reflected in their more detailed accounts of the testing of Jesus in the wilderness.
Then, Jesus specifies the sense of shame that is involved in “taking up your cross” and “losing your life”, but he turns the tables as he declares that “those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (8:38).
This declaration of shame reflects the shame, in God’s eyes, of rejecting Jesus. Here is the paradox: to gain honour, Jesus had to be subjected to the shame of the cross. Likewise, to gain honour as a disciple following Jesus, a person must take up the shameful instrument of punishment (the cross), lay aside all desire to gain prestigious and powerful positions of honour, give up any claim on life itself, and (as Jesus later asserts), live as a servant, being willing to be dishonoured for the sake of the shame of the Gospel.
And that’s the second paradox of discipleship that the passage illuminates.