Any consideration of how the kingdom of God is coming must grapple with one of the most striking and surprising passages in the New Testament. The first chapters of the Gospel of Mark chronicle Jesus’ healings, exorcisms, parables, and controversies. Through his words and works, his true identity is seen, but not seen; it is revealed, and yet secret.
In Mark 8 Jesus asks his disciples “Who do people say that I am?” (8:27). Some think that Jesus is John the Baptist reborn. Others think he is Elijah, the prophet whose return signals the coming of the kingdom. Others regard Jesus as “one of the prophets” – a label Jesus himself accepts (see Mark 6:4; Luke 4:24; 13:33). After warming up his disciples with a safe question about what others think, he becomes much more direct and personal: “But who do you say that I am?” (8:29). Peter, always the impetuous one, sticks his neck out with a bold answer: “You are the Messiah” (8:29). In the amplified version we’d read, “You are the one anointed by God to establish the kingdom. You’re the one who will lead the Jews in expelling the Romans from Judea.” Finally the secret is out. Jesus is the Messiah. Peter hit the bull’s eye . . . well, sort of.
No sooner does Peter finish than Jesus shocks him and his colleagues with unprecedented news: “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” (8:31). Peter is so unsettled by this that he actually takes Jesus aside, no doubt to keep Jesus from being embarrassed with public admonishment and begins to rebuke him. Though Mark doesn’t provide the transcript of this conversation, it isn’t hard to imagine how it might have gone: “Now, c’mon Master. The Son of Man will bring God’s judgment upon the wicked and inherit God’s glorious kingdom (Daniel 7). No suffering and dying here. And the Messiah will lead us to victory over the Romans. Don’t talk about this suffering and dying stuff. It makes no sense.”
Jesus’ responds by rebuking Peter in language that is rather blunt, to say the least: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (8:33). Yeow! This is not what you’d want Jesus saying to you, that’s for sure.
It’s easy for us to look down on Peter as hard-headed, given what we know of Jesus and his ultimate fate. But we must be fair here. What Jesus said about the Son of Man was utterly unexpected. It seemed completely backwards to Peter and the other disciples. The glorious one to be humiliated? God’s victor to be killed? The healer to undergo great suffering? The king of the Jews to be rejected by the Jewish leaders? Peter’s response to Jesus wasn’t foolish or narrow-minded. In fact, it’s the response that I’m quite sure I would have made, if I’d even had the courage to speak up at all.
Given how hard it is for us to grasp the radical and apparently ridiculous nature of what Jesus said about the suffering Son of Man, let me offer the following hypothetical story. As you know, we’re in the beginning stages of the presidential election of 2012. Of course it’s most likely that Barack Obama will be the Democratic candidate, with David Axelrod as one of his major advisors. The Republican race is wide open right now. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Ron Paul get’s the nomination. (According to polls, this isn’t likely, so it’s just a supposition for the sake of this illustration. And, to be clear, I am not using Mr. Paul as an example in order to sneak in an endorsement.) Now, when the election starts going hot and heavy, the candidates would, of course, pummel each other with words even as they endlessly boast of their own accomplishments. But suppose President Obama gathered a small group of his closest supporters and said: “Friends, we’re going to run a very different kind of campaign this year. Instead of blasting away at Ron Paul, we’re going to praise him. We’re going to highlight everything good about him. Moreover, we’re going to admit all of my mistakes, without evasions or excuses. The best thing for the country will be doing everything we can to help Ron Paul get elected.” Don’t you think at this point David Axelrod would take the President aside and rebuke him? Maybe he’d suggest that Mr. Obama needs some serious rest, or perhaps electroshock therapy? This is akin to Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ incredible suggestion that his calling as Son of Man includes suffering and dying. From Peter’s point of view, it makes absolutely now sense whatsoever.
Jesus appears to accept Peter’s confession “You are the Messiah,” even as he refers to himself as “The Son of Man.” But then Jesus redefines the mission of the Messiah/Son of Man in a radically new way. He will bring the kingdom of God, to be sure, but only through suffering and dying. This is how the kingdom will come.
But this answer begs another question: How will the death of Jesus be a pathway for the coming of the kingdom of God?
I’ll pick this up in my next post in this series. Stay tuned . . . .