One of the themes throughout the gospel of Mark is that Jesus is the Messiah, and that those who meet Jesus do not understand this fact. Who knows that Jesus is the Son of God? Clearly God the Father knows this, because it declares it to be so at Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:11). And since this declaration comes to Jesus, the reader knows that Jesus knows this as well. In addition to these two, we know that the evil and unclean spirits recognize Jesus in the Gospel of Mark when they encounter him (see Mark 1:24 and 3:11). Who else knows Jesus’ true identity? Only the author and the reader are “in” on the secret of Jesus’ identity.
His friends say he’s crazy – Mark 3:21
Others say he’s possessed – Mark 3:22
Jesus as a misunderstood Messiah is a major theme of the text – Mark 4:10-13
He’s just a carpenter, Joseph’s son! – Mark 6:1-6
Even the disciples don’t understand – Mark 4:41; 6:51-52; 8:15-21
At the conclusion of the narrative in Mark 8:21, Jesus is exasperated when he says, “How is it that ye do not understand?” The disciples still are confused, but it is at the center of Mark’s message when all of this is about to change, and they will begin to see and understand exactly who Jesus is.
One of the keys to understanding the portrayal of Jesus in Mark’s narrative lies in the order of stories that follow Jesus’ question in Mark 8:21. The sequence of related events begins with possible the most important healing story in the text of Mark, the account of the blind man who has his sight restored by Jesus in a peculiar manner. I believe that this story has symbolic meaning to the author of Mark and that it is central to our understanding of Jesus as a misunderstood Messiah as Mark tells the story.
It is significant that the healing of the blind man takes place in stages. It seems to be the only miracle in Mark that takes place in this manner. When Jesus is asked to heal this man, he takes him by the hand, leads him out of the village, spits on his eyes, and asks if he can see. The man replies that he can, but only uncertainly, for he says, “I see men as trees, walking” (Mark 8:24). Jesus then lays hands upon the man’s eyes and looks at him, and the man begins to see with certain clarity.
I believe that there is symbolic meaning in this narrative, and it has to do with recognizing Jesus. In the very next story, the disciples themselves, who until now have been blind to Jesus’ identity (see Mark 8;21), gradually begin to see who he is, in stages. It begins with a question from Jesus: “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27). The disciples reply that some think that he is John the Baptist brought back from the dead, others that perhaps he is Elijah, and others think Jesus is one of the prophets brought back from the dead. Jesus then asks the question, “But whom say ye that I am?” (Mark 8:29) Peter, the chief apostle, states, “Thou art the Christ.”
This is a pivotal moment in the Gospel of Mark. Up until this point in the narrative, Jesus has been misunderstood by all people: religious leaders, his family, his friends, and even his apostles. Now that we are halfway through the narrative, someone finally sees Jesus for who he is: the Christ, the Messiah. Jesus then instructs his followers to not tell people that he is the Messiah, what some students of the Bible call “The Messianic Secret.”
Still, Peter’s understanding that Jesus is the Christ is precise only partially. For Peter has begun to see Jesus for who he is, but he has a ways to go still! The reader of Mark knows this to be true because of what happens next. Jesus begins to teach his apostles that he “must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). Jesus is the Messiah, but he is not the kind of Messiah Peter is expecting! This teaching is confusing to Peter, and so he rebukes Jesus (Mark 8:32).
Why would Peter reject Jesus’ teaching of his approaching crucifixion? It probably has to do with his understanding of what a Messiah should be. Evidently Peter uses the term Christ/Messiah differently than Mark and Jesus do! Peter used the term Christ in the way most Jews in the first century did, he understood the Christ to be the deliverer of Israel, a man of military might, power, and ultimate influence who would usher in God’s kingdom, dash the Gentiles to pieces, and establish self rule. This could either come in a cosmic way or through military means, or both. But for the author of the Gospel of Mark, this was only part of what Jesus would do, and certainly something that was to be in the future. Jesus was so much more than a king who would deliver the political kingdom of Israel! For Mark, Jesus is the Messiah that must suffer and die in order that he may bring salvation to the entire world.
To not understand Jesus’ role in the salvation of man, is, in the eyes of Mark, to miss the entire point of Jesus’ mission. The idea that the Messiah had to suffer may have appeared totally unnatural to most Jews of Peter’s day, including Jesus’ own apostles, but in Mark’s view, to understand Jesus in any other way is to give in to the temptations of Satan. Thus for Peter, he begins to see Jesus for who he is, but not completely. And, like the blind man, his sight will come in stages.
How many times in our learning of Jesus and his ways do we find ourselves, like Peter, seeing, but only partially? How many times have you read a scripture, and only later in another reading, found its true value to you? Perhaps you were under the influence of the Spirit in a different way, or you were crying out to the Lord for help concerning a problem that is vexing you, and you prayed more earnestly for help. Whatever the reason, I believe we are all like Peter at certain points in our lives. Jesus meets us where we are, and he always reaches out his hand, stretching us, encouraging us to see more clearly, to live more purely, and to see things as he does.