Towards the end of Mark 8, Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah. In other words God’s anointed King. When Peter realises King Jesus intends to go to a cross, he doesn’t answer by saying ‘lead me to the cross.’ He says ‘But King Jesus, that’s not very king-like. Wouldn’t it be better if …. ’ Jesus’ response is uncompromising. “If you want to be my disciple, take up your cross and follow.” This point is seen as the turning point in Mark’s Gospel. Geographically they are north of the Sea of Galilee – at the very top of the Jordan Valley. Mark’s Gospel now heads down the valley, all the way to Jerusalem. All the way to the cross.
On Sunday it was my turn to preach at church. We are going through the Gospel of Mark. This blog is from that sermon on Mark 8.
Feeding the 4000
Two more loaves, a few more fish, a thousand less people and 5 less baskets left over, another mass feeding. What does it mean? Do the numbers mean anything? Some suggest that the 12 and the 7 are significant. I suspect they aren’t. Mark style is to just tells us how it is. Jesus reaction to the crowds is the same as two chapters earlier. – he had compassion on the thousand of people a long way from their next meal. Jesus invites the disciples to share in his work of compassion. All they do is bring what they have. It doesn’t amount to very much, but Jesus takes it and uses it to reach out to thousands of people. It’s a good picture of what Jesus still does through his church. As we look to administer his compassion to the world around, we don’t have much. But Jesus can use the little we have and multiply it over and over.
As before with the feeding of the 5000, there are a lot of leftovers. Why so much? These baskets were big. Seven of them would be able to feed many more people. In wilderness, miles from anywhere, what would have been the most the disciples could have hoped for? They could well have thought of another wilderness feeding, when God fed the people of Israel with manna. The Israelites were told not to stockpile the manna, because it had to be used the same day, or it would spoil. But here we have Jesus doing much more – there’s enough and then even more left over. The message is clear – the events surrounding Jesus are bigger than the disciples were realising.
There may be another way that what Jesus is doing is bigger than those at the time perceived. Sandwiched (excuse the pun!) between the feeding of the 5000 and the feeding of the 4000, there is another story involving leftovers or crumbs. In chapter 7 there is a seemingly out of character exchange between Jesus and the Syro Phoenician woman. She asks for healing but Jesus says the children need feeding first. She says that even the dogs get the crumbs dropped from the table. This exchange is normally interpreted in a Jew / Gentile context. In the very next chapter though, there are a huge amount of crumbs falling from the table, seven basketfuls! It is likely that the feeding of the 4000 took place in Gentile territory. Maybe Jesus is again pointing to something much bigger about his work than the disciples perceived at the time.
The Yeast of the Pharisees and Herod
The pharisees had missed the feeding of the 4000 so probably thought they were doing their pastoral duty in checking Jesus out. He was getting a lot of press. They ask him for a sign, but Jesus takes their asking to be a sign of their own obtuseness. Despite all the evidence they were determined to cling onto their way of thinking – their little kingdom. Yeast is a picture of something that pervades and corrupts the whole batch. It only takes a little yeast and the whole characteristics of the loaf changes completely.
The disciples miss the point. I have read at least 2 commentators who use an analogy of a frustrated maths teacher explaining something to a student who still just doesn’t see. (A further example of the literary bias against maths. If only mathematicians were better authors to counter this bias!) The evidence of the two feedings, with so much spare bread, surely should say to the disciples that being without bread is not going to be a problem for Jesus!
What is the problem then? Jesus quotes from Jeremiah. This is a deliberate connection, because all the issues of Jeremiah’s day, when people were so concerned with their right form of worship that they were left unconcerned about the injustices, oppression and wickedness of their society. This self righteous, uncomprehending hard-heartedness is the yeast that Jesus is warning them about. This yeast had completely pervaded the leaders in Jeremiah’s day, and was equally evident in the leaders of Jesus’ time.
The Blind disciples now see
Mark now puts together two parallel stories. The first is Jesus healing a blind man in two stages, and the second is the disciples gaining their insight into who Jesus is. Those who think Jesus is John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the prophets are like the man seeing trees walking around. There is some insight into what God is doing, but not the full picture. So when Peter declares Jesus to be God’s messiah – now that’s seeing things as they really are.
Kings were traditionally anointed with oil as a kind of coronation. Messiah means anointed one. It is a royal title. Peter was declaring Jesus to be God’s king. That’s what it means to see things clearly, as they really are, when we see Jesus as king.
Jesus warns them not to tell anyone yet – because being king is a dangerous business. This was particularly evident in a place like Caesarea Philippi. It was here that Herod had built a temple to honour Augustus, the Roman emperor. Neither men were that fond of rival claims of kingship!
But do they really see?
Jesus accepts the title. ‘I am king, but a king going to a cross.’ He then explains how the Son of Man must suffer. That word must is a powerful word. It is probably this that makes Peter object. This isn’t a ‘for king and for country’ rallying call. We’re going to take the throne! Right is on our side and as we march to victory there may be some suffering. This is different. This is that the royal plan is to suffer and to die.
The notion that the Messiah must suffer doesn’t make sense. The Messiah was supposed to defeat evil and injustice by taking his rightful throne. It’s ridiculous to suggest that suffering and dying would accomplish this. The passages of the suffering servant in Isaiah were not considered to be messianic, until Jesus showed they were. Jesus is saying ‘I’m the messiah, I’m king, I’m taking my throne, but my throne is the cross, I’ve not come to live, but to die. I’ve not come to take power, but to lose it. I’m not here to rule, but to serve – and that is how evil is going to be defeated’.
The Jewish leaders and the Roman rulers should have been upholding values of justice and fairness. They had one of the more developed legal systems. The cross reveals the systems of the world to be corrupt, self serving abuses of power, not systems of justice and truth. In condemning Jesus, the world was condemning itself. Peter wanted Jesus to play the power game as all conquering hero, but instead Jesus turned the values of the world completely on their head. He didn’t take power. He gave it up and so triumphed over evil. ‘The Son of Man must …’
Lead me to the cross …
Jesus doesn’t stop with ‘I am king, but a king on a cross’ – but continues by saying ‘and if you want to follow me then you must go to the cross.’ What does it mean to lose our life for the gospel in order to save it?
Something I hadn’t noticed before in this well known section is that the Greek word translated ‘life’ is the same word that is translated ‘soul’. There are actually 3 greek words in the New Testament typically translated as life. Bios – where we get words like biology from. Poignantly Mark uses this word in chapter 12 to describe the widow’s offering. “They gave out of their wealth, but she, out of her poverty put in everything, put in her bios.”
The second word is zoe. This is a much fuller word, often used with eternal. In Mark 10 the rich man asks “What must I do to inherit eternal Zoe.” The Greek word here though for life / soul is different and deliberately chosen. It is psyche, the root for our words psychology etc. It’s a word that denotes your identity, your sense of self.
What is my identity built on? Where is my sense of worth? All cultures have ideas of what it means to be successful. In the West these tend to be based on personal achievement and performance. If I do this, this and this I will be someone. I can’t remember who said it, but a famous quote that sticks in my mind is “I climbed the ladder of success, only to find it was leaning against the wrong wall.” What good is it if I gain everything the world has to offer, but lose me? If I become defined by all those things and the me is lost? I like this CS Lewis quote from Mere Christianity. “In fact what I so proudly call “Myself” becomes merely the meeting place for trains of events which I never started and cannot stop.”
Tim Keller puts it like this. In following Jesus, we’re not swapping from one performance based way of living to another. Jesus wants us to find a whole new way, one where our selfhood is based on him and the gospel. To deny ourselves means to recognise that the only identity worth having is our identity in him. Let’s take up our cross and follow. Recognising him as a king like no other, who turned the power structures of this world upside down, and in recognising him as king losing ourselves so that we can truly find ourselves. King Jesus, lead me to the cross.
(Here are 2 books on Mark that I would recommend. Neither are a verse by verse commentary, but more like a thematic commentary, picking up the important aspects of the story of Jesus as presented by Mark. The first is ‘The Message of Mark’ by Morna D Hooker; published by Epworth, 4th impression 2005. The second is “King’s Cross” by Timothy Keller; published by Hodder, 2011.)