Today we’re going to reach what commentator James Edwards calls the “continental divide” in the book of Mark. For the first time, a human being identifies Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah. And shortly thereafter, Jesus chews him out.
What’s interesting is that Mark introduces this story with another healing account. Jesus shows up at the town of Bethsaida, where a blind man is brought to him. He leads the blind man out of the village, spits in his eyes (!), and lays his hands on him. Then, instead of pronouncing a word of healing, Jesus asks him a question: “Do you see anything?”
Now, coming where it does in Mark’s account of Jesus’ life, this question is not just posed to the blind man. Jesus has rebuked his disciples for their spiritual dullness, asking them, “Having eyes do you not see?…Do you not yet understand?” (Mark 8:18, 21). This time, he’s questioning a physically blind man about his sight.
The man looks around and replies, “I see men, but they look like trees, walking.” His sight has only been partially restored. Now, this is a surprise! Jesus has cast out demons, calmed a windstorm, walked on water, and raised a girl from the dead; yet here, the blind man’s sight hasn’t been fully restored. Why not? Why does Jesus choose to give the man partial, distorted eyesight before he finishes healing him?
Our answers come at once. The scene shifts to the road leading to the Roman colony of Caesarea Philippi. Jesus has begun quizzing his disciples. “Who do people say that I am?” he asks. They report the speculation that has been swirling around Galilee: “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” In the popular opinion, Jesus is a great man, perhaps even one of the great prophets. He could even be the second coming of Elijah, a forerunner to the Messiah, God’s anointed king who is to reign over Israel.
Even today, people from all religions and ethnic backgrounds seem to respect Jesus. They agree that he’s a great teacher, a righteous man, possibly even a prophet. But is Jesus satisfied with this response?
The next question Jesus asks his disciples is a lot more personal. He isn’t interested so much in what other people think of him. He wants to know what each of his disciples is thinking. Jesus demands a response from each and every person. “But who do you say that I am?” he asks them, and you and I must consider this question as well and give him our answer.
In his customary manner, Peter blurts out, “You are the Christ!” And at once, everything changes. Now the veil has been removed. Peter and the other disciples have been observing Jesus’ divine and exclusive authority, and they’ve followed the bread crumbs to the only reasonable conclusion: this man is the long-awaited Messiah, sent from God. Like the blind man from Bethsaida, they’re finally able to see the truth. Jesus is more than just a great man, and he won’t settle for that label.
What’s funny is that Jesus strictly orders his disciples to keep his identity a secret. Remember that he asked the blind man to stay out of the village as well, rather than reporting the news of his healing. This has been a consistent pattern throughout the gospel of Mark. Why doesn’t Jesus want the general public to know he is the Christ? Well, again our answers come at once.
In a shocking turn of events, Jesus finally reveals to his disciples what he, the Messiah, has come to do. He hasn’t come to overthrow the Roman government and set up an independent Jewish state. He hasn’t come to reestablish the law of Moses or to bring social justice to the beleaguered people of Israel. Instead, he has come to suffer, to be rejected by the Jewish leaders, and then to be killed. And though Jesus also predicts that he will be raised to life again, Peter is so shocked by the idea of a suffering and dying Messiah that he doesn’t seem to notice this final prophecy. He takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. Jesus has it all wrong! The Messiah is a conquering hero, not a suffering wretch! How are they supposed to follow a man who offers only these gloomy delusions? What about the victorious life all the televangelists are promising? (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that one.)
Jesus looks over at the rest of his disciples. They’re watching to see what he will say; no doubt Peter is speaking for all of them. So when Jesus chews out Peter, he’s speaking to them as well. “Get behind me, Satan!” he orders him. “For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” In trying to derail Jesus’ mission, Peter is sounding an awful lot like Satan. He has his own plan for how Jesus should be glorified, but it isn’t God’s plan.
Like the blind man at Bethsaida, Peter and his fellow disciples aren’t seeing clearly. They do at least recognize that Jesus is the Christ, but they are confused about what that means. They don’t understand that he is to be a suffering Messiah, who will give his life “as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). As Edwards puts it, they’ve moved from non-understanding to misunderstanding. That’s why Jesus wants them to keep quiet about who he is. Lies circulating about him are bad enough; half-truths are even worse.
The story of the blind man helps us understand what the Holy Spirit is teaching us through this passage. Jesus doesn’t want us to misunderstand who he is. Yes, he is the Christ, and you and I can’t really know him unless we believe that. But neither can we know Jesus unless we understand what his mission is. And that’s what Mark will be explaining as he continues his story.