“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” (Mark 8:27–29).
Jesus and his disciples are journeying toward the outlying villages of Caesarea Philippi. As they are making their way, Jesus questions the twelve.
I wonder if in his two questions, Jesus is meaning to identify the disciples’ level of blindness? Has Jesus shown them yet whom they are following? Or, like the crowds, do they speculate that Jesus may be John or Elijah or another prophet?
Whatever Jesus’ exact intention may be, Peter answers correctly. He has received enough revelation from the Father to rightly confess Jesus’ Messianic identity. In Matthew’s account of this same event, Peter’s answer invites a blessing from the teacher (Matthew 16:17). He has done well.
That being said, Peter’s Messianic understanding (and that of the rest of the twelve) is not complete. Peter’s answers have simply invited further teaching and further clarification.
And so, in Mark 8:31, Jesus presents his inner circle with the first explicit prediction of his death.
Upon hearing that the one he correctly identified as the Messiah is to be rejected and killed, Peter begins to reprimand Jesus. This time, his words invite no blessing but arguably the harshest rebuke in the Gospels (8:33).
Again, Peter’s words invite further teaching.
This time calling the crowds in as well, Jesus plainly lays out the demands of discipleship. In what I imagine as a firm tone, he states, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (8:34–35).
I have spent a great deal of time in this passage through the years, usually focusing on Jesus’ explanation of discipleship. However, it occurred to me recently that each section of this passage contributes to the overall argument.
Consider its three parts with me.
First, Jesus reveals his identity through Peter’s good confession. He is indeed the Christ, the Messiah, the long-awaited King God promised to Israel.
Second, Jesus reveals his God-ordained path. Because he is the Christ (that is, God’s anointed One), he will follow the predetermined plan of his Father, in which the cross is a necessity.
Third, Jesus reveals the posture and path of his followers. A disciple is not above his or her teacher (Matthew 10:24), and therefore those who follow this Messiah will likewise have to leave everything and follow him through suffering and into victory.
Simply, Jesus’ identity determines his path, and his path determines the path of his disciples.
As I reflect on this passage, I can’t help but think that one of Jesus’ greatest purposes in his Caesarea Philippi instruction is to say that there is only one way to follow him: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me” (8:34, NASB, emphasis added).
This followership logically begins with self-denial, for who can rightly follow anyone without first letting go of all that holds him/her back?
It then requires cross carrying, for that is the path determined by our Lord’s own course. The cross was a necessity for him and so our own Christian suffering is a necessity to our discipleship. Suffering is “the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship).
All that is left now is to move. To set our eyes upon Jesus and go forward, not knowing exactly where we are going.
I must admit that I often try to tweak those conditions – to avoid suffering and retain a grip on certain elements from my old life, and even to attain some level of personal greatness. In various ways, I attempt to save my life. Yet Mark makes the way of the disciple quite clear, and there is no customizing of the call.
There is one way to follow; one way for all disciples; and one way to life.
—Ryley Heppner is from Grand Forks, B.C., where he is a member of Gospel Chapel. He holds a BA in youth work from Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, B.C., an MA in Christian studies from MBBS-ACTS Seminaries, Langley, B.C., and is working on an MTS with a major in New Testament studies. He is an itinerant minister and a contributor to www.TheExpositors.com.