“And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.””
It’s an uphill battle for anyone in Mark’s Gospel to see Jesus for who he is. Although Mark tells us in his first line who Jesus is: “Jesus Christ, the Son of God”, prophets point to his coming (Mark 1:2-3; 7-8), God calls him “my beloved Son” (1:11), and even demons recognize “the Holy One of God” (1:24)—the people watching ask, “What is this?” (1:27).
But finally, in Mark 8:29, a human being gets it! Mark 8:27-30 is the watershed of the whole Gospel—here, the landscape changes.
Before chapter 8, Jesus wanders around the Sea of Galilee and across it (not always by boat), calling disciples, healing the sick, casting out demons, feeding the hungry and, supremely, “proclaiming the gospel of God”:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (1:15)
But Mark never mentions this sea again—the landscape has changed. Jesus will now head straight through Galilee (9:30), down the Jordan valley (10:1), and up to Jerusalem (11:11). Straight away, from Mark 8:31, and twice more on the journey, Jesus teaches his disciples in private (9:30-31) what will happen in Jerusalem. The second half of the Gospel looks ahead to Jerusalem, and the ministry Jesus will do there.
And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”
‘Who?’ is a recurring question in Mark’s Gospel. The scribes ask it in anger (2:7), the disciples in fear (4:41). Guilty King Herod chews over the same list of options (6:14-16; cf. 8:28). So our ears should prick up when Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” and is told, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets” (8:27-28). We should remember the kingdom-proclamation that led to these conclusions. Like John the Baptist, Jesus has been calling people to repentance. Like Elijah, he has performed miraculous signs of God’s rule over Israel.
We should also recognize—as Mark told us in chapter 1:2-3—that Jesus’ actions interweave with the great promise of the Old Testament: that God would restore exiled Israel for himself. The Jews expected God to raise up a son of David (2 Sam 7:16), an ‘anointed’ king (Hebrew: Messiah; Greek: Christos) who would deal with the hostile nations (Psalm 2).
Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”
Peter’s answer confirms the Old Testament link, but corrects the error common to the other options. John was preparing for someone “mightier than I” (Mk 1:7-8). Elijah was to get Israel to repent before the day of the Lord, to which the prophets looked forward (Mal 4:5-6). But Jesus isn’t preparing for anybody. Peter is right: Jesus is The Main Event. Jesus is that son of David, the Lord’s anointed. Jesus is the mightier one, who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. Jesus brings the day of the Lord. The prophets looked forward to Jesus Christ.
Peter is the first disciple named (Mark 1:16-17) and the spokesman for all (9:5, 10:28). By extension, he represents us. As we read the Gospel, we are hearing the gospel of God proclaimed by Jesus. Are we hearing Jesus? Are we climbing the hill to our own watershed moment?
Mark 8:14–21 should make us nervous. When Jesus crosses the sea with his disciples, we may remember two previous crossings. “Who is this?” they asked when he calmed the storm (4:41), and when he walked on the sea they were terrified and astounded, “for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (6:52). Jesus mentions Herod and the Pharisees, who have hardened against his ministry (cf. 3:6). He reminds us of his two feeding miracles, and asks us (8:17-18a):
“Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see…?”
Mark 8:22-26 gives us some hope. A blind man is given sight—at first poor, but then fully restored. Although we need a miracle, Jesus is in the miracle business.
But the title ‘Christ’ alone is very blurry. Some Jews expected everything of the Messiah (cf. John 4:25)—and ‘everything’ can span a lot of disagreement. Much like the half-blind man, we can’t see what Peter means by ‘Christ’—but we can see that Jesus disagrees with him: “Get behind me, Satan!” (8:33)
People say all kinds of things about Jesus, but he asks us, “Who do you say that I am?” When we have answered, when we have crossed the watershed and started the journey, we need Jesus Christ to define and reveal himself for us. As we keep reading through the Gospel of Mark, we look back at the liberating joy of his kingdom proclaimed, but we also look forward to hearing more from him—and that very soon—on the staggering cost of his kingship lived out.