Peter was a major source for Mark's gospel. Peter and Jesus were the only two participants involved in some of the events that Mark recounts.
I tried to imagine how Mark’s gospel and the particular events of Mark 8:31-38 came together. While it is generally thought that Mark wrote it in Rome about the year 70CE, it seems that this was the date when Mark finally compiled the different episodes that he may have written down over time. It seems improbable that Peter and Mark would have sat for the length of time that it would have taken to tell and write the gospel from end to end as we know it now in the circumstances of threat and persecution of the early Christian community.
I also wanted to read between the lines and understand why this conversation between Jesus and Peter had become so important that Mark recorded it in detail.
The sun was already setting west of Caesarea Philippi when Peter sat down, putting his bowl of stew on the table. He stared down at it quietly, deep in thought while Mark settled onto the stool opposite him, then Peter gave thanks.
In the fifteen years or so since Jesus had returned to his Father, Mark had travelled, first with Paul, Silas and Barnabas as they spread the good news to many communities throughout the Roman territories along the Mediterranean coast, as far as Athens, but he had returned to Jerusalem about five years before this evening. As he had walked with the trio, Mark had heard many amazing and inspiring stories about Jesus, the Christ. Paul learned about Jesus during the year he spent in Antioch, following his conversion. The stories made Mark want to get closer to Paul’s eyewitness sources.
When Mark had returned to Jerusalem, he made a point of finding Peter so he could learn everything about his time with Jesus.Since then, Mark had accompanied Peter virtually everywhere.
As they travelled, Peter often told stories about Jesus that had taken place at different locations they visited. Mark was an eager listener, quizzing Peter about the sequence and the people involved.
As Peter’s companion, one of Mark’s tasks was to write letters to brothers and sisters in other communities that Peter dictated to him. In quiet times, Mark also wrote down episodes in the life of Jesus that Peter had recounted.
Peter spoke vividly of Jesus and Mark wanted to capture the energy of Peter’s accounts. Mark thought, somewhat vaguely, that the stories would be useful to him as he instructed others. But the real reason was that he wanted to remember them and the details that he had come to treasure. He kept the parchments in a large old wine jug at the home where they stayed when they were in Jerusalem. As months grew into years, the scrolls accumulated.
That evening, after Peter had eaten, he went to find some of the other disciples to hear about their recent work. Mark got out his quill and by the light of an oil lamp began to write down his recollection of Peter’s striking reminiscence earlier that day.Peter said that they had had been with Jesus near this place, Caesarea Philippi. Mark wrote, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter told Mark that he had answered him, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.Mark paused as he wrote the words. Peter said that Jesus’ question about who people said he was, and his own response was etched in his memory.
Peter was emphatic about what he had said. He knew that he was right to call Jesus the Messiah. Still, he emphasized that Jesus told them “sternly”, not to speak of it to others.After a brief pause, he told Mark that his idea of the “Messiah” had been wrong. He had imagined someone like David or Solomon, only greater. At the same time, Peter said that it seemed improbable that he was personally witnessing the Messiah. He wasn’t a priest or a king. He was an illiterate fisher. He had thought that the Messiah would appear to leaders and other important people first.
Peter admitted that he was also confused at Jesus instruction to tell no one. It seemed inconsistent, at the time when he had fed thousands and healed blind people (Mark 8). Many people already saw him as a prophet and holy man… why not tell them that he was, indeed, the Messiah? He knew now that Jesus needed to correct their idea of a messiah.
Mark continued inscribing the words the Peter had said next, as accurately as he could recall them. (This is the point at which the gospel for Feb. 28 begins.) Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly.
Peter told Mark that when they heard this, the disciples were stunned. He said that they only heard “great suffering” and “be rejected” … “and be killed”. It seemed impossible. Jesus’ popularity had grown every day with the people he had fed and cured and taught. Peter said that they knew the priests and scribes didn’t like him but every time they had tried to trap Jesus they had failed miserably (Mark 2:15-17, 3:21-23, 7:4-6) The disciples had not taken their antagonism towards Jesus seriously …at least as long as they stayed away from Jerusalem.
Peter admitted that they did not hear and after three days, rise again. They could not make the connection between Jesus’ prediction of his suffering and death and his words about resurrection, or Peter’s recognition that he was the Messiah. It did not match their expectations.
Later Peter had noticed that Jesus did not refer to himself as the “Messiah”; instead, he called himself the “Son of Man”, as though this was different. Peter realized that when Jesus referred to himself as the Son of Man he was telling Peter that his idea of messiahship was wrong. It was as though he was distancing himself from the idea by using the term from Daniel 7:12-14.
Mark continued writing the episode as Peter had described it. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. Peter said that he could see that the other disciples were even more dismayed at Jesus’ words than he was. Jesus’ prediction defied what they had seen of the way people were attracted to him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Jesus’ words had stung him, Peter said. He had been trying to reassure Jesus that his popularity with the people, the support of his disciples and caution with respect to the priests and scribes, would be enough to prevent anything like this happening. They cared about Jesus and didn’t want something this bad to befall him. What could be wrong with that, Peter had thought.
Mark knew that the next part of the story was central to Peter and Paul’s understanding of Jesus. He wanted to quote the exact words as they had come from Peter’s mouth, as disturbing as they sounded. He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
Peter said that when they heard this, everyone fell silent. Following Jesus had been good for them. They enjoyed his company. They had been welcomed because of him. People asked them about Jesus and his teachings, and they had been recognized as his followers. Now this! Did he really make take up the cross beam?
They had seen crucifixion. Romans used it to torture people to death if they judged them treasonous. They hung the victims near major roads so people could see the suffering, hear their screams and learn to be subservient. Many disciples recoiled in horror at crucifixions and would travel by different routes to avoid seeing one. It was inconceivable to them that this is what Jesus was talking about. The shock intensified when Jesus had said, take up their cross and follow me.
Saying they should follow him to this kind of death made no sense. He wasn’t going to die. They didn’t want him to die. THEY didn’t want to die, especially that way. By this point they rejected and denied everything Jesus said.Peter shook his head as he recalled that they…he… still didn’t see.
Mark paused to think of what the disciples’ reaction to these words must have been then he continued writing what Peter had quoted from Jesus. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Mark put down his quill and recalled Peter’s reflection on this event near Caesarea Philippi.Peter said that only after Jesus’ resurrection and the coming of the Spirit did they see clearly that Jesus’ death showed that he loved each person so much that there was no suffering he wouldn’t endure for them. No one would be asked to undergo more than he experienced. Even if the suffering was self-inflicted and the person deserved it, Jesus “hung with” the person, in love. Jesus wanted his followers to love as completely.
Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection were one continuous “love event". Peter told Mark that these were not just words. He had personally experienced the totality of that love. While he had denied knowing Jesus in cowardice, he said that the angel at the tomb had singled him out when he had gone into hiding from the other disciples in shame and remorse, go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.(Mark 16:7)
Peter recalled the amazement of the disciples at seeing Jesus after the resurrection. He told Mark that, not only were they overjoyed…their hearts exploding with excitement…but they remembered him saying and after three days, rise again. Jesus had known and told them, beforehand, but they had not understood.
Jesus’ presence after the resurrection was like sunshine suddenly entering a dark room, he said. Every detail of texture and tone had become clear. Jesus’ resurrection “interpreted” the cross, made sense of it. It did not mean that there would be no suffering or anguish. Instead, it meant that even the worst suffering paled when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels to reward those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel. Jesus was living proof. It also meant that Jesus’ love was offered to all, however many times they had refused it.