This week we’ve looked at the strange two-stage healing in Mark 8:22-26, trying to work out what it’s all about. So far, we’ve looked at the chapters leading up to this story in which the disciples (and others) are blind to who Jesus is, despite all they have seen. This may explain the “blindness” element of the story. But what of the strange two-stage way in which Jesus heals them? The next part of the story may be important.
Because what happens next is universally identified as a key moment, a turning-point in Mark’s Gospel:Mk 8:27-30 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.
Finally, he gets it! After eight chapters – probably a couple of years of Jesus’ ministry – finally, Peter works out that Jesus is the Messiah! All of that cluelessness we read of earlier is behind us, and the disciples power on with their new-found understanding of who Jesus is – right? Um, let’s see what happens next.
Mk 8:31-33 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
What’s going on? Peter’s identified Jesus as the Messiah, but three verses he’s telling Jesus off. Contradicting him. Telling him that suffering and death bit – that there’s crazy talk, Jesus! It’s not something that’s going to rally the troops for a triumphant battle against the Roman oppressors. In a short space of time, Peter’s gone from getting it right, to being told by Jesus that he’s saying what Satan wants him to say! What went wrong?
Well Peter got something right. He understood – finally – that Jesus was the Messiah. But he shows us that he’s not quite there yet. He doesn’t fully get what the Messiah is on about. So Jesus explains:Mk 8:34-36 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?
That is, the Messiah isn’t going to be some conquering king in a military sense. He’s going to be a suffering servant, who dies for his people. And it’s this that marks out a turning point in Mark’s gospel. As the focus now shifts from the disciples’ learning who Jesus is – the Messiah. The lesson the disciples now need to learn is: what’s this Messiah figure really all about?
And I think there are two key stories in the next few chapters of Mark’s gospel that really illustrate this. We’ll turn to them briefly now.
The Suffering Servant
And if you ask me, this first story is one the disciples would have preferred to have been left out of the Bible. Because here, Mark presents two of them – James and John – at possibly their worst.
Firstly, they come off as slow learners. If you were reading Mark all the way through, you’d see that Jesus has already dealt with the same issue in chapter 9:Mk 9:33-35 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
OK Jesus, got that one. It’s not about status, we need to be servants. But then, just one chapter later we find James and John at it again:Mk 10:37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
In the royal court, the closer you were to the king, the more important you were. Again, James and John are vying for the most important positions in Jesus’ kingdom. So Jesus has to repeat the lesson:Mk 10:44 “and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”
At the very least, you have to say that they’re slow learners. But that’s not all.
They’re also socially clueless; relationally inept. They couldn’t have picked a worse time to ask. In the previous two verses Jesus has just predicted his coming suffering and death:Mk 10:32b-34 Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”
So what do James and John do? In the very next verse they ask for a favour. Ooh, ooh, Jesus? So anyway, can we get the best seats in the kingdom? He just said he was going to be tortured and killed! Don’t you think you could have saved the question for later? Talk about bad timing!
It’s like someone at work telling you they’ve just been retrenched the week before Christmas, and you respond by asking them if you can have first dibs on their office furniture. Social etiquette, not to mention common sense, tells you: at least wait until they’ve left the building…
They don’t seem to understand what Jesus’ kingdom is all about. ‘Cause this is the third time Jesus has had to predict his death – and each time, the disciples show by their reaction that they just don’t get it.
The first time was back in chapter 8, where Jesus predicts his suffering and death. And we saw how Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. He says it again in ch9:Mk 9:30-32 They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.
Instead, they started an argument about who was the greatest among them. And now here in chapter 10, James and John are asking for positions of power and prestige in the coming kingdom. Why?
It’s because they still don’t understand the kind of Messiah Jesus was going to be; the kind of kingdom he was bringing in. They thought it would be like all the other kingdoms of the world. So they’re lining up to get the positions of honour, just like you would in any other kingdom.
But Jesus ends up telling them that they’re behaving no better than the rulers of all the other kingdoms of the world:Mk 10:42-43 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant”
Don’t you get it? My kingdom is going to turn the normal way of doing things on its head! It’s radically different! A suffering Messiah, a spiritual kingdom – don’t you see?
Apparently not. They were too consumed with their own self importance; their own ability. So Jesus asks them if they’re truly ready to join him. Not just in his glory, but in the suffering that would precede it.10:38 ‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ Jesus said. ‘Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?’
Are you really prepared to go all the way with me? Their answer reveals an astounding self-confidence:10:39 ‘We can,’ they answered.
It’s a confidence that’s completely unfounded, as we see a few chapters later, when they desert him the minute things start to turn ugly. But for the moment, they’re completely ignoring that stuff; blinkered in their pursuit of status in human terms. By answering ‘we can’, they show that they think they’re worthy of what they’re asking. We want to be important in the kingdom, because we deserve it.
How clueless are they? And not just James and John. The other disciples are just as bad. Have a listen:10:41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John.
From Jesus’ reaction, it’s clear that they’re not indignant that James and John have been so foolish & inappropriate. They’re just annoyed that they didn’t think of it first – James and John beat them to the punch!
The disciples don’t come out of this story looking too good, do they. A bit thick. More than a little insensitive. And above all, so concerned with grasping for status in the coming kingdom, they couldn’t fathom how that kingdom was going to be completely different from anything on earth. How clueless were they!
To think about
But let me ask you: is the current generation of Jesus’ followers any less clueless? Are we any better than the disciples?
Think about this today. And I’ll give you my own thoughts at the start of tomorrow’s post.