14. Taking Sides (Mark 8:33)

Peter has just shared his view of Jesus – “You are the Christ (Messiah)” (8:29). Immediately Jesus begins to explain what kind of messiah he will be – “the Son of Man who must suffer much and be rejected…and be killed and after three days rise again” (8:31). Jesus shares his message ‘boldly’. Mark’s story of Jesus is at midpoint and the disciples seem to be making progress in their understanding of Jesus and his mission.

What will the disciples do with this new information Jesus is presenting about his suffering and death? Jesus’ ideas about this kind of messiah who suffers and dies are radical, unexpected, and shocking – unheard of in Jewish religious thought of the first century. We see Peter taking him aside and ‘rebuking him’. I wonder what Peter’s words were? Mark’s silence let’s us fill in the gap.

Jesus responds decisively, even stridently, rebuking Peter. He sees Satan at work in Peter’s rebuke. “You are not taking God’s side, but humanity’s side!” Jesus says. The verb Mark uses here, usually translated ‘thinking’, can idiomatically have the sense of ‘taking sides’, ‘supporting the cause of someone’. For example, when Josephus recounts the story of David’s struggle to become king and the action of Abner, the commander of the opposing forces, to seek a political settlement with David (2 Samuel 3), he says that the elders of Israel ‘changed over to David’s side’ (Josephus. Antiquities 7.28). Mark uses this same idiom (8:33) to describe Peter’s action. So Jesus is accusing Peter of shifting his loyalties and pursuing the agenda of Satan and his kingdom.

It is intriguing to walk through this text and its parallel in Matthew 16. Jesus, in Matthew, declares that Peter only confesses Jesus as Messiah through a divine revelation. But despite God’s special intervention for this purpose, Peter has not received a full understanding of Jesus’ messianic program. As soon as Jesus gives details about suffering and being killed, Peter objects and suddenly he becomes Satan’s tool. How are we to understand this spiritual flip-flop? Does this sort of thing still occur among followers of Jesus after the cross, the resurrection and Pentecost?

Two observations could be offered. First, even though we might have in our possession God’s inspired word and possess God’s Spirit, this is no guarantee that we fully understand all of the implications of Scripture. Peter confessed, by God’s help, that Jesus was Messiah, yet he did not understand very well at all what messiahship would mean for Jesus. His assumptions led him astray. Similarly, we affirm that Jesus will return again, but do not understand very well the way this awesome event will unfold. Or, we affirm the reality of spiritual warfare, but do not fully comprehend how and in what ways current events in the world or our lives fit into this larger cosmic struggle. There are mysteries in the atonement, the nature of Jesus’ person, the operation of God’s sovereignty and other aspects of God’s revelation that we grasp only partially (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Secondly, then, while we must affirm what God’s word affirms and seek the help of the Holy Spirit, we must also exercise caution in presenting our personal interpretations about certain biblical or theological details. It is too easy for our human ignorance or short-sightedness to skew and distort God’s intentions. Too quickly sometimes we announce that we know God’s will on some matter, only to find upon further reflection, insight and advice that we had it quite wrong.

Perhaps this is why God’s Spirit has led the church from time to time to prepare creedal statements, summaries of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. By these sometimes flawed instruments we affirm as clearly as we can the essentials, but leave open for careful, humble discussion matters of detail over which sincere believers honestly and reasonably differ.

Application: as you reflect upon God’s ways today,

  1. review your theological boundaries – are you focusing in your life and ministry upon what God declares to be essential?
  2. identify the issue of current concern in your life and ministry and try to sort through what God clearly says about such matters in His word and what is left unstated. Then devise your approach to this issue in a way that keeps God’s priorities in focus

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