The incident at Caesarea Philippi is the turning point in Mark’s narrative. The city is at the most northerly point of Israel, and from there Jesus and his disciples will make the journey to Jerusalem.
It is also the point at which Jesus will begin to speak clearly about the suffering and death which await him there. So, he asks his followers the question which runs through the Gospel of Mark, “Who do people say I am?” Peter, the spokesperson for the group, gives the correct answer, “You are the Christ” (or “the Messiah”). This is the first time a human being has used the title about Jesus, and Jesus imposes the strict order to keep silence once more.
But Jesus does not openly accept Peter’s declaration: on a human level (and Mark gives no indication of divine revelation, unlike Matthew), Peter may have concluded that Jesus is the Christ/Messiah on the evidence of Jesus’ works of power (“miracles”), so he has come to the correct answer for the wrong reason. To attract a following on the basis of being identified as the Messiah would also possibly bring danger from the political and military authorities. So on different levels, Jesus’ command to silence makes sense, and then he goes on to explain what being God’s Messiah will mean: being rejected, suffering, put to death and raised, a suffering Messiah, which was not what the Jewish people were expecting. Jesus rebukes Peter severely for trying to deflect him from this path.
All through Mark’s narrative up to this point, a question about Jesus has kept recurring in various forms: “Who is this…?” This is not simply part of the historical story: it is addressed to each one of us. We may well have a great deal of sympathy with Peter’s reaction on hearing what was in store for his master and friend, and Jesus’ teaching is directed to ourselves as well. It can be difficult to see how Jesus’ passion and crucifixion could be part of God’s plan without turning God into a tyrant who can only be appeased by a human sacrifice – and of God’s own Son, at that. Perhaps it might help us to remember that the Gospels are written in the light of the resurrection and after reflecting on passages in the Prophets and Psalms which make sense of Jesus’ experience. Thus, the passion and Calvary are not predetermined: the elders, chief priests and scribes – and Pilate – have free will. What brings about the tragedy is human malice, not the divine will. The cross is the sign of Jesus’ dedication to his mission and of the extent to which God is prepared to go in reaching out to human beings. It may seem like avoiding the question to say that all this is a mystery: a mystery is simply something that we will never fully comprehend, but must keep on trying to understand; that is what being a disciple (student) is all about.
- Caesarea Philippi is a city at the northernmost tip of the land of Israel.
- Christ and Messiah mean the same thing: “anointed”
- Christ is the Greek term: Messiah is the Hebrew form
Put some olive or vegetable oil on your hand, or observe it when you use it in the kitchen: think about how Jesus is the Christ, Messiah, the Anointed One of God. Reflect on what this means to you.