The Messiah Begins the Journey to the Cross

The ministry of Jesus generated widespread speculation about his identity. Was he the resurrected John the Baptizer? Or, Elijah? Or, another prophet in the long line of prophets? There was no consensus, but many believed God was doing something through Jesus.

Jesus, however, is most interested in what his disciples think. They had, no doubt, pondered this question many times, and at a key moment in the ministry Jesus, when Jesus is turning his face toward Jerusalem and his death, Peter confessed, “You are the Messiah.” (Mark 8:29). It is a bold statement; it is a political statement. It is about the reign of God in the world. God’s anointed king was on the earth. That was dangerous language in the context of imperial Roman occupation, and many claimants to the title had already been executed in the past couple of generations. Peter’s confession is courageous, but Jesus immediately silences him. The message is too provocative, and the time for Jesus’s public witness as Messiah had not yet come. The messianic secret must still be kept.

At once, however, we see a contrast between Jesus’s understanding of his messianic mission and Peter’s take on it. Peter sees glory without suffering; perhaps he sees a great military overthrow of Roman oppression and the imminent enthronement of Jesus as king in Jerusalem. If Jesus can command the demons, death, and waves of the sea, he can certainly defeat the Romans. Peter’s understanding, however, is Satanic. It is the way of violence rather than self-giving love. The political order—the way of sinful humanity—pursues violent means for safety and preservation, but God will secure peace and justice through the suffering of Jesus.

 Jesus understands that there can be no glory without suffering. The Son of Man, the one who ultimately triumphs over the enemies of God, must first suffer death before he experiences resurrection glory. The reign of God comes through suffering rather than military conquest. The cross comes before the crown.

To follow Jesus—to become a disciple—is to deny ourselves and bear a cross. Too often we trivialize this language and tend to think of the cross as only the symbol of love and reconciliation that it has become in the history of Christianity. But in Roman occupied Palestine, it was a symbol of horror, pain, and shame. Using the word cross, Jesus pointed to the manner of his own death.

Following Jesus involves a willingness to suffer for the sake of the kingdom of God. Following Jesus means taking up a cross–putting that crossbeam on our backs–and dying with Jesus. To take up the cross means to follow Jesus to a cross. If we followed Jesus into the water, we must also follow him to a cross. The ministry of Jesus has now turned a corner. His disciples confess him as the Messiah, and Jesus begins to tell those disciples how this will mean his suffering and death. They can’t fathom that, but Jesus knows what lies ahead. After several years of ministry among the Jews in Galilee, Jesus now turns his face toward Jerusalem where death awaits him.

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