Chapter 4: What Peter Finally Learned; the Journey to Jerusalem

The Modern Reader's Guide to the Gospels
by William Hamilton

Chapter 4: What Peter Finally Learned; the Journey to Jerusalem

1. Messiahship and suffering, 8:27-9:29

a. Peter's confession; the Messiah must suffer, 8:27-33

Here is a crucial turning-point in the gospel. Jesus had not yet openly declared himself to be the Messiah, he had rather tried to "act it out" to his disciples. Now he seems to think they are prepared to go more deeply. Peter, who up to now had shown no special insight (and who likewise did not show much insight later), blurts out what many of them must have been thinking. As when the demons had recognized him, Jesus bids them all be silent about this new insight.

As soon as they have come to recognize his messiahship, Jesus takes them a step further with verse 31. For traditional Judaism "Messiah" meant the future king of Israel, powerful and victorious over all foes. Here Jesus declares that his kind of Messiah means suffering and death. The "must" in verse 31 is a divine necessity, and it comes not only from Jesus' acute estimate of the forces already set against him but also from his meditation on the great suffering servant passage of Isaiah 53 which he was beginning to see as a clue to his own ministry and life.

The idea of a Messiah who must suffer gets Peter out of his depth. He protests, and Jesus rebukes him.

Verse 31 represents the first of three predictions of the death and resurrection (the others are in 9:31 and 10:33-34). Mark places these sayings in their contexts to show that Jesus foresaw his sufferings and death, and this is certainly true. But to many it seems difficult to believe that Jesus predicted his own resurrection. The disciples do not seem to grasp these words; and at the crucifixion they flee in despair as if they had never heard them.

So here, something of the mystery of the Gospel is being dispelled. Jesus is the Christ, but in a different sense than anyone expected. A public announcement of the messiahship, therefore, without this deeper interpretation of it, would be foolhardy. The point of this section, then, is not merely that Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ; but also that to be the Christ, the Messiah, means to suffer and die.

b. The meaning of discipleship, 8:34-9:1

Here is a collection of sayings on the meaning of following Jesus. Notice their location immediately after the revelation of the inevitable suffering of the Messiah. Remember, too, the suffering that the persecuted Christians of Mark's day were having to undergo.

There are three conditions of true discipleship: self-denial is the first one (verse 34), which does not mean giving up things -- as we try to do during Lent -- but rather the giving up of our claim to control our lives and handing them to God. It is a confession that our wills for our lives need not be done, and that God's will shall be done, even if it denies what we wish. The second condition is taking up the cross. Bearing the cross has become trivialized in our day; it can often mean simply being brave when things go wrong. But in Jesus' words here, to be a disciple is to be willing to live and show forth the kind of suffering love that shines through the cross. To take up the cross is to acknowledge that discipleship may not win the plaudits of the world and bring to man the gifts of gratitude and success that the world can offer. Following Jesus is the last condition. This is not a lifeless imitation, but a decision to identify ourselves as radically as he did with both God's will and the suffering and need of men. This is a following that may lead to death. Verse 35 is the great paradox of biblical religion. "Saves" here means "seeks anxiously to preserve." Losing life does not mean merely death, but giving one's life up completely into God's hands. Verse 38 speaks of the consequences of disloyalty to Christ. The reference is to the last judgment. Does Jesus refer to the supernatural Son of man as another than himself or as himself?

c. The transfiguration, and coming down from the mountain, 9:2-13

This difficult story is sometimes interpreted as an historical incident in which the true glory of Christ was revealed to the three disciples, sometimes as a vision, and sometimes as a legend with only symbolic meaning.

It will help if we look at this as the counterpart for the disciples of Jesus' experience at baptism. Whatever happened, whatever a camera would or would not have recorded (and both a total acceptance as historical and a confident rejection as legendary are unwise), a significant moment in the disciples' understanding of Christ is portrayed. The relation of Christ to the Old Testament law and prophets is part of this new insight. Peter at first wants them all on the same level, and Mark (verse 6) apologizes for Peter's foolishness.

In verses 9-13 the disciples ask Jesus some further questions about what has happened. (Put the second half of verse 12 after verse 10; this will clear up the order a little.) They are wondering about rising from the dead, the suffering Messiah, and the relation of the Messiah to John the Baptist. The scribes have apparently been discussing the idea of the Messiah with the disciples, and their case against Jesus' claims apparently involves the fact that since a new Elijah traditionally must come as a forerunner, and since one has not come, Jesus' claims are false. But, Jesus reminds the disciples, the new Elijah has already come in John the Baptist.

d. The epileptic boy, 9:14-29

Jesus and the three disciples who were with him return from the mount of Transfiguration, and the contrast between the divine glory of Christ and the impotence of men (the remaining disciples) could hardly be more striking. The scribes and the disciples are arguing over the latter's failure to cure an epileptic boy. In the conversation with the father, the importance of faith and trust for healing is again emphasized. The honest cry of the father, "I believe, help my unbelief," proves his trust in Jesus, who takes the child by the hand and rouses him from the coma.

Jesus' reply to the disciples' question in verse 28 is instructive. Jesus is depicted in Mark as the Son of God with immediate power over the demons, yet here he says that prayer is essential in healing. This story is an important one for our whole approach to the healing miracles. They are not only wonderful works that proceeded from Jesus as Son of God. Here we see Jesus with such confidence in God that he expects the disciples to be able to heal, and we see him disappointed when they fail.

2. A journey through Galilee, 9:30-50

Here we find a rather loosely strung-together group of narratives, all more or less related to the meaning of true discipleship.

In verses 30-32 we notice the second prediction of the death. Why is it that the disciples don't understand? Is it because they are uncertain just to whom Jesus is referring as "Son of man"?

The next passage, verses 33-37, concerns the nature of true greatness. The disciples are embarrassed when Jesus learns that they were arguing about who was the greatest among them. Verse 35 gives his direct reply to this rather unattractive controversy; and the relation of this saying to the idea of the suffering Messiah is obvious. Then, summoning a little child, he makes his meaning even more vivid. True greatness means care for such helpless ones as this child; it means the wonder and humility that the child displays.

(Yet verses 36-37 are not precisely a direct answer to the problem of true greatness. Compare this story with the similar one in 10:13-16. Perhaps 9:36-37 should be the conclusion to the story in Chapter 10, and 10:15 the conclusion to the story here. Mark nay have exchanged the two sayings about children.)

The story of the rival healer in 9:38-41 gives a lesson in tolerance. Welcome anyone who acts in my name, Jesus says, even though he is not an official disciple. Is there a conflict between 9:40 and Luke 11:23, or can both be true?

It is difficult to see much order here unless we assume that this is a compilation of Jesus' sayings made by the early church for instructional purposes. Verses 37-41 center around the idea of Jesus' name; 42, 43, 45, 47, and 48 (verses 44 and 46 are left out in the best manuscripts) refer to offenses or causing to sin; 48-50 center around the idea of salt.

3. On the way to Jerusalem, 10:1-52

a. On adultery and divorce, 10:1-12

In the background of this lies an argument between two rival rabbinic schools on divorce. The school of Hillel said that a man could get a divorce for the most trivial of reasons -- if a wife burned his food, for example. The stricter school of Shammai declared that only unchastity was a just cause. Both these interpretations spring from Deuteronomy 24:1-4. But Jesus cuts beneath all this, and declares that Moses' permission of divorce was a concession to human sin and that according to Genesis 1:27 and 2:24, God ordains that the husband and wife shall be indissolubly one. The exceptions to this view, which we find in Matthew 5:32,19:9, and Luke 16:18, represent the practical needs of the early church modifying Jesus' clear position stated here.

The point of the verses 10-12 is that in Jewish law a woman could be accused of adultery, but a married man could not. Jesus here abolishes the legal exemption of the man. "Against her" in verse 11 means, apparently, against the first wife.

It seems clear that Jesus' own position is accurately reflected in this account, and that it is qualified in Matthew and Luke. But how do we apply this teaching to the complex problem of divorce in the modern world? This is not simple to answer. Some would say that because of this teaching, divorce is simply and unequivocally prohibited. Others would object to this legalistic use of Jesus' words, and would say something like this: What we have from Jesus is the reminder that God's will for marriage is indissoluble union. But sometimes divorce, which is against this divine will, must occur. When it must, there is a sense in which God's will is being violated, even when it seems necessary from the human point of view.

b. On children, 10:13-16

The disciples apparently try to protect Jesus from the children who are being brought to him, and he is sharply indignant. Let them come; we can learn from them how to receive the kingdom of God. It is not the much-talked-about innocence of children (which parents might well question!) that is being commended here, but their sense of dependence and their receptiveness. This is a touching story about children, but even more, it is a parable about the grace of God.

c. On discipleship and riches, 10:17-31

1. the "rich young ruler," 10:17-22

The traditional description of this man is a composite one; "rich" is from Mark 10:22, "young" from Matthew 19:20, and "ruler" from Luke 18:18.

The man kneels before the teacher, a genuine act of reverence, showing that he is in earnest and not trying to trap Jesus with his question. Jesus refuses the word "good," not to say that he is sinful, but that his goodness is not that of God and has to be learned step by step, just as our own does. God alone is truly good, truly sovereign.

After the man says that he has observed all the commandments from his youth, Jesus looks on him with affection, and makes the final demand. But it proves too hard, and the man turns away sadly. This demand must not be taken as a general requirement of discipleship, but as a specific call to a particular man whose money stood in the way of full allegiance.

2. The danger of riches, 10:23-27

Who then can be saved? The answer is simple and fundamental: as an achievement of man, salvation is impossible; as a gift of God, it is available to all. The saying of verse 25 is a humorous exaggeration that underlines the virtual impossibility of a rich man meeting the conditions for receiving God's kingdom.

3. On rewards, 10:28-31

Peter's remark refers to Jesus' final challenge to the young man. Jesus replies that though the disciples have given up their actual families, in the new corporate life of the kingdom a new family will be given, and in the final summing-up of all things, they will enjoy peace and eternal life with God.

d. The third prediction of the Passion, 10:32-34

The details of this prediction correspond closely to the actual events of the passion week, and are probably to be understood as added by Mark for dramatic effect.

The vivid picture of Jesus striding ahead of his disciples as he makes his way to his fate (verse 32) is an unforgettable scene. Already, the final tragic shape of the drama is beginning to unfold,

e. John and James ask a stupid question, 10:35-45

Just as Peter missed the point of the first prediction of suffering and death, so James and John here completely misunderstand the nature of the of an earthly nature of the kingdom Jesus has been talking about. They conceive of an earthly monarchy, and want to assure themselves of important places. (This is so unflattering a portrait of these two disciples that it cannot be anything but an actual historical reminiscence. The early church would hardly have created this incident.) You will participate in the kingdom, Jesus answers, but only by drinking my cup and being baptized with my baptism. Their ready agreement shows that they miss the identification of "cup" and "baptism" with suffering and death.

Verse 45 is the profound ransom passage, one of the few places in Mark where Jesus interprets the meaning of his own death. Notice how closely the life and the death are related. During the life of Jesus, serving, and not the demand to be served, was the central fact; the death is the final description of the meaning of his life. Behind the idea of ransom is the idea of men in captivity or, as we would say today, kidnapped by sin. Men cannot free themselves, just as a kidnapped victim is not free to release himself, but must wait for the ransom to be paid. The life, and supremely the death, then, serve as God's bearing the sins of men, taking them from men, so that they are no longer bound but free. Here again Jesus sees his own death not only as part of his story, but primarily as the decisive part of a story about God and what He is doing for men.

f. Blind Bartimaeus, 10:46-52

The trip to Jerusalem continues. Bartimaeus gives Jesus a messianic title, Son of David, for now the secret is beginning to leak out. Many try to quiet him, but Jesus does not. In verse 51 Jesus presents the same question to the blind man that he had put just before to James and John (verse 36). It is instructive to compare two responses. Perhaps Mark wants the reader to see that it is the disciples who are truly blind, and that the blind man has true and trust.