UNDER QUESTIONING, the disciples confess who Jesus is (Mark 8:27-30). Christ is the Greek form of Messiah, which has a Hebrew background. This confession triggers a flood of fresh revelation from the Lord Jesus (8:31-38). Now he teaches that the Son of Man “must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again” (8:31). As Mark points out, Jesus “spoke plainly about this” (8:32). Apparently earlier comment on the subject was far more veiled.
Living as we do on this side of the cross, it is easy for us to be a bit condescending about Peter’s reaction and rebuke of the Master (8:32). From Peter’s perspective, Jesus simply had to be wrong on this subject. After all, Messiahs don’t get killed: they win. And how could a God-anointed, miracle-working Messiah like Jesus lose? Peter was wrong, of course, profoundly wrong. For even the disciples had not yet grasped that Jesus the Messiah was simultaneously conquering King and Suffering Servant.
But there was more to come. Not only did Jesus insist that he himself was going to suffer and die and rise again, but he also insisted that each of his followers “must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (8:34). To a first-century ear, such language was shocking. “To take up your cross” did not mean putting up with a toothache, job loss, or personal disability. Crucifixion was universally viewed as the most barbaric of Roman forms of execution, scarcely to be mentioned in polite company. The condemned criminal “picked up his cross,” i.e., picked up the cross-member and carried it to the place of execution. If it was your lot to pick up your cross, there was no hope for you. There was only an ignominious and excruciating death.
Yet that is the language Jesus uses. For what all of his disciples must learn is that to be a follower of Jesus entails a painful renunciation of self-interest and a wholehearted turn to Jesus’ interests. Yet Jesus’ blunt language is not an invitation to spiritual masochism, but to life and bounty. For it is an infallible rule of the kingdom that self-focus issues in death, while “whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (8:35). Only for a few will this commitment entail loss of physical life; for all of us it means death to self, discipleship to Jesus. And that includes a glad confession of Jesus, and principled refusal to be ashamed of Jesus and his words in this adulterous and sinful generation (8:38).