Jesus did most of his ministry in the Jewish areas of Galilee and Judea. But on at least one occasion, he traveled north of Galilee. He used the retreat to debrief his disciples, to discuss his mission, and to teach a fundamental lesson about what it means to be a disciple.
Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah (verses 27-30)
“Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi.” This was about 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. “On the way he asked them, ‘Who do people say I am?’” He already knew what the people thought, but the question led to an important teaching point.
“They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’” Some people thought that Jesus preached in the style of John; others that he was like Elijah, or some other prophet.
“‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’”
Peter said what the others probably thought but were afraid to say: “You are the Messiah.” They had seen him cast out demons, heal the sick, walk on water, and feed 5,000 people. Peter concluded, You are the man God will use to rescue us.
Peter’s response was correct. But “Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.” On several occasions, Jesus wanted his identity kept a secret (Mark 1:25, 34, 44; 3:12;5:43; 7:36). Large crowds were already a hindrance to his ministry (1:33, 45; 5:24). Further, Jesus did not want the rulers to see him as a political rival.
Jesus wanted his disciples to be quiet about his identity because what they meant by the word “Messiah” was quite different from what Jesus actually was. Peter had the right word, but a seriously flawed concept of what the Messiah would do. This is the next thing that Jesus teaches them.
Jesus predicts his death (verses 31-33)
For the first time, Jesus predicted his own death: “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.”
“The Son of Man” is a reference to Daniel’s vision of “one like a son of man” who was given a kingdom (Daniel 7:13). When the angel interpreted the vision, he said the kingdom would be given to the persecuted saints (7:18-27). The “son of man” represented all the saints. Jesus saw himself as this person who represented the persecuted people of God. He would accept the kingdom on their behalf — and be persecuted on their behalf.
Jesus also saw himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of a servant who would suffer on behalf of his people (Isaiah 53); Isaiah and Daniel were describing the same person.
This was not what most Jews thought — most people assumed that the Messiah would be a victorious king, not a suffering servant. So Jesus taught here that the “son of man” would be rejected by the Jewish authorities, killed on behalf of his people, and then rise again.
In some of his teachings, Jesus spoke in parables that hid part of the meaning (Mark 4:11); this time, however, “he spoke plainly about this.” But this new revelation was so contrary to expectations, that “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.”
One minute, Peter declares Jesus to be the leader God sent to his people. The next minute, Peter is contradicting his God-appointed leader! This is an emotional reaction. What Jesus said deeply disturbed Peter’s idea of what the Messiah would do — and what he would do for Peter himself.
The disciples expected to receive certain benefits for following Jesus. They had left family, jobs and homes, and it was natural that they wanted a reward (Matthew 19:27). Some wanted to be the greatest in the kingdom (Mark 10:37). They were thinking that the kingdom of Jesus would be similar to the kingdoms of this world, where the king’s closest friends got the most benefits.
Peter was looking forward to being the chief of staff, the secretary of state, or someone important in the new government. But Jesus had just taken his high hopes and smashed them.
Peter had the presence of mind to take Jesus aside and “correct” his teacher privately. Repent of this defeatist attitude! We won’t let it happen — we’ll take up swords and protect you!
We do not know if the other disciples could hear what Peter and Jesus said. But Jesus’ reply was said with them in mind: “But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ he said.” Jesus calls Peter Satan, the Hebrew word for “adversary.” Peter is opposing God’s plan. (If Satan had actually been there, Jesus would have rebuked Satan. But the text clearly says that Jesus rebuked Peter.)
You have called me your leader, and I am, Jesus might have said. So get behind me and follow— don’t try to get in front and lead. You don’t even know where you are going. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Peter was thinking about the things that ordinary human beings think about. He wanted what his friends and neighbors did: freedom from foreign oppression, safety, security, money, and a reward for the risk and the work.
But God has something a lot more important in mind than that. He can see an enemy that is stronger than Rome, an enemy that must be conquered by suffering and death, not by replacing Roman overlords with Jewish ones.
Take up the cross (verses 34-37)
The lesson Jesus wanted to teach Peter was needed by everyone. So Jesus “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.”
If you want to learn from me, he said, you must put aside your desires for fame and fortune, and be willing to die. You must be willing to follow me into death, if that’s where it ends up. I am not looking for people who simply want to benefit themselves. The world already has enough of those people.
And why should people be willing to give up their lives? “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” If your priority is on saving your life, you will be a loser, because you will die.
But if you are willing to lose your life for Jesus, and die for his kingdom, then you will save your life. Jesus is talking about life after you die, and that is the perspective we all need.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Michael Morrison in 2010 and updated in 2011.
If we focus on life in this age, we will lose it. But if we focus on Jesus and his message, we will have a better life in the age to come. The losses are temporary, but the rewards are eternal.
“What good is it,” Jesus asks, “for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” No matter whether you are thinking about military conquest or financial gain, what good would it do you, even if you have the maximum success possible? You are still going to die. (The Greek word translated “soul” can refer to life in this age.) There is an enemy here, an oppression that is far worse than Rome.
“What can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” Even if you had the whole world, you could not buy your life back. So why struggle for such a temporary victory?
What we need is a Messiah who conquers death itself — and that can be done only by someone who enters death and emerges victorious on the other side. We need a Messiah who dies and returns to life.
Jesus summarizes by pointing to the day of reward: “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
If we cannot accept the sort of Messiah that Jesus actually is, if we cannot accept what he teaches, then Jesus will be disappointed about the priority we chose. He is offering us an endless age of divine glory; tragically, some are seeking first a short-lived life in a very troubled world. He does not reject us permanently, just as he did not reject Peter, but he will lament that we chose such a small reward.
The Greeks had a Word for it
Hebrew had a word for it, and when the Old Testament was translated into Greek, Greek-speaking Jews found a word for it, too.
It starts with the Hebrew word mashah, which means to spread a liquid, or anoint with oil. An anointed person was called mashiach, an anointed one; it was most often used in reference to Jewish kings, but was also used for Cyrus, a Persian king.
When the Jews were in exile and looking forward to the restoration of the Davidic line of kings, they set their hopes on the anointed one, the mashiach who would restore the nation.
Similarly, the Greek word starts with chriō, meaning to anoint with oil. In secular Greek the adjective christos always referred to things that were “rubbed on,” and never to people. But the Jews applied this word to their hopes for a messianic leader, and Christians applied it to Jesus. Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed One.