Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that 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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (NRSV)
Peter’s is a moment of clarity. Briefly the clouds part and he speaks from the heart: “You are the Messiah.” It is the discovery of one who has followed, asked, watched, and questioned.
But as our story unfolds we realise Peter knows almost nothing about the implications of his declaration. He speaks a seed of truth without knowing how, when, or where it will grow.
Jesus’ identity was widely debated. The disciple’s summarise a guessing world: John the Baptist, Elijah, a prophet of old. The strange list reveals a struggle to cram all they see and hear into constantly breaking boxes. Jesus casts minds back to one recently murdered and to legends of old. All they really know is this one is very different.
But no one has a clue just how different Jesus really is.
It will be quite a process to put flesh on Peter’s bare insight. For the disciples the declaration implies political freedom, armies, war, riches, power. God’s Messiah will set Israel free from the clenched fist of Rome. We will soon read an argument over who is the greatest; a little later a request for positions on Jesus’ right and left. They are imagining a king, a court, and multiple thrones.
So Jesus begins the monumental task of redefining their expectations. He speaks plainly of suffering, rejection, death, resurrection. Peter offers his quiet word of correction. After all, no one will follow into battle if Jesus talks like this. They expect blood to be shed – but not the blood of Jesus.
Over the next couple of chapters Jesus speaks this way three times (Mark 8:31, 9:31, and 10:33-34). His words are clear but, with the exception of Peter’s rebuke, each time the disciples have nothing to say. Our author offers the only word of explanation: “…they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask…” (Mark 9:32).
They can feel the paradigm shifting. This is a foreign, strange, and completely unexpected path to victory. They hear the words but they simply have no categories for a Messiah who suffers.
After all, it is so unexpected. The whole world – as the disciples see it – operates from a firmly set paradigm that has no room for such an act. Jesus must slowly open a space in which to reveal God’s suffering heart that lies at the core of all that is. It is a precious process to watch.
Over the remainder of this gospel these common men will gradually come to see that God’s way is more radical than they ever dared to dream. I hope the same can happen for us.