You are hereSimon Peter bar Jonah : A Theology of the Cross

Simon Peter bar Jonah : A Theology of the Cross

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By jcarter - Posted on 08 January 2007

by Jeff Carter
Peter is a bi-polar disciple; first he’s up – way up, and then he’s down – way down. He’s brilliantly insightful, and then he’s dense as a stone. He’s enthusiastic – he’s rash. He receives the highest praise from Jesus and moments later the sternest of rebukes. He’s brave – he’s cowardly. Peter is the embodiment of all the best and all the worst of the disciples. He is the disciple exemplar. Peter is a bi-polar disciple; first he’s up – way up, and then he’s down – way down. He’s brilliantly insightful, and then he’s dense as a stone. He’s enthusiastic – he’s rash. He receives the highest praise from Jesus and moments later the sternest of rebukes. He’s brave – he’s cowardly. Peter is the embodiment of all the best and all the worst of the disciples. He is the disciple exemplar. Mark 8 comes during Jesus’ period of journeys outside of Galilee. Peter’s home in Capernaum was in the region of Galilee. It was where he’d been raised by his father, Jonah. Peter and his brother Andrew had spent their lives fishing in the Sea of Galilee. Peter lived in Capernaum with his wife and his mother-in-law. You can go to Capernaum in Galilee today to see the house it’s believed that belonged to Peter.

But now, Jesus is leaving Capernaum – the city that had been his “base of operations” up to this point. He’s leaving Galilee – the region where he’d grown up. And now he’s traveling north to Tyre by way of Sidon, and then to Bethsaida and then further north towards the Israel / Syria border and the villages of Caesarea Phillipi at the base of the snow capped Mount Hermon, the tallest mountain in Israel

Caesarea Phillipi was the site of a rather famous grotto or cave that was the mouth of a gushing spring; one of the sources of the Jordan River. This grotto had long been used for the worship of the Greek god Pan, later a temple was built there by Herod the Great in honor of, and for the worship of Ceasar Augustus. His son Phillip had built a city there, but Philip and his city were largely despised by the Jews because they considered him to be a pagan and an idolater.

As they walk – Jesus and his disciples – he poses a question to them. It is a personal and intimate time for Jesus and the twelve. The crowds that had followed, and clamored had been sent home after the miraculous feeding of about five thousand men (the women and children were not counted), and the cures at Gennesaret. Jesus is alone with his friends. They walk together, talk together, laugh together and learn from Jesus. While they are walking toward the villages of Caesarea Phillipi, near the grotto and the spring at the base of the towering Mount Hermon, Jesus poses the following question to them:

Who do they – the crowds – say that I am?

The disciples are quick to answer: John the Baptizer, Elijah, or one of the other prophets… Their report of the crowd’s perception is curious: no one to this point suspected who Jesus might really be… though perhaps they suspected he might be the Prophet that Moses predicted would come.

But you, Jesus picked up the question again, who do you say that I am?

I imagine a moment of awkward silence as the disciples realize that they – though they’ve spent so much time with him already- still don’t really know either. It wasn’t too long before this that Jesus was asking them, “Have you eyes and do not see, ears and do not hear? Do you still not realize?"

Now, in a sudden flash of inspiration, Peter pushes forward to Jesus and says, “You are the Chosen One.” Jesus affirms, that yes indeed, this is true.

To this point in Mark’s gospel nothing has been said in the narrative about Jesus’ being the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed, the Chosen One of God. The demons in chapter 1 are the only ones to recognize him as the “Holy One of God.” The people, the crowds, the disciples - no one else has recognized him as The One.

First century expectations for the Messiah were varied and diverse – but its very likely that Peter, along with the other disciples, and the crowds expected that Messiah, the Christ, the Chosen One would be a powerful ruler, one who would rescue the people of Israel from their foreign overlords, who would re-establish the kingdom of Israel from the throne of David in Jerusalem. They expected that he would usher in a rule of peace and prosperity and power.

And now having realized for the first time that this King, this powerful ruler, this Chosen One of God was their teacher, their master, I’m sure that the disciples were thrilled. The hope of their people for generations, the coming King of Israel was there with them. He was their rabbi, and their friend.

But Jesus puts a brake on their excitement. He gives them “strict orders” to keep silent about it. The disciples are sworn to secrecy concerning his role as the Anointed. He wants the people to discover and to realize this for themselves. Not too long before Jesus was saying to these very disciples, “Have you eyes and do not see, ears and do not hear? Do you still not realize?” He wants his followers to have a transcendent event – an a-ha moment – when they realize for themselves that Jesus is the Christ; that he is more than just a teacher, more that just a prophet, but that he is God.

Peter has had the first flash of understanding. He’s realized something that no one else to this point has realized

and yet…..

Following Peter’s sudden realization Jesus begins to teach them just what it will mean for him as the Chosen One – what he had been chosen to do. He begins to teach them plainly, clearly, frankly that he must…he is destined to suffer grievously, to be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, to be put to death, and after three days to rise again. All of this he says openly and plainly. He hides nothing from them.

Up to now he’s not disclosed his mission. He has preached. He’s taught. He’s healed. He’s cured. He’s fed. He’s calmed storms. He’s even raised the dead. But he’s not revealed his mission. Now, as the disciples are beginning to realize who and what he really is, he’s dropping a terrible surprise on the - the bombshell that before long he will suffer and die terribly.

This does not square with their expectations. Peter interrupts Jesus and pulls him aside from the others, and begins to rebuke Jesus. Peter, the disciple, scolds Jesus, the master. Or Peter tries to, anyway. Instead of listening to Peter, Jesus looks at his disciples, making eye contact with each of them. He knows their confusion, but he can’t allow Peter to interrupt in this way. He rebukes Peter,

Get behind me, Satan. You’re thinking not as God thinks, but as human beings do.

Peter who in one moment had a flash of insight, a transcendental event when it wasn’t just information about God being communicated but God himself, now finds himself being called “Satan” – that is, an adversary, an opponent. Matthew describes it him as a skandalon – a “stumbling block” to God’s chosen servant.

He’s up. He’s down. He’s filled with brilliant insight. He’s dense as a stone. He’s blessed by Jesus. He’s rebuked as Satan…. Peter is the embodiment of all the best and all the worst of the disciples.

Now Jesus gathers the crowds to him again and he begins to teach them and the disciples what it really means to follow him. Up to now they’ve seen him as the healer, the miracle-worker, the exorcist, the teacher, the preacher…. But now he tells them that if they really want to follow they need to be prepared to take up their cross and to loose their lives.

This is obscenity in their ears. The cross was a scandalous Roman method of execution reserved for the vilest of offenders and political rebels. To speak of the Chosen One of God and the cross in the same breath was unheard of.

I think many Christians today would be content to leave Jesus in Galilee – before these journeys outside of Galilee and the revelation that the Chosen One was chosen to suffer. Many Christians would prefer to worship Jesus the healer, the miracle-worker, the provider….

If you’ve watched any amount of “Christian Television” you’ve probably seen them… the sharply dressed preachers talking about the healing power of Jesus, the miracle blessings of Jesus, the wonder after wonder after wonder and the claims of outrageous supernatural displays of power. ‘Whatever you ask for in Jesus’ name,’ they tell us, ‘you’ll get it! And you’ll get it now!”

They have what reformer Martin Luther described as a “theology of glory, (Thologia Gloria)” a theology which bypasses suffering and death. They revel in the power and might of God. They make triumphant poses and seek after God through his acts of power, and victory and miracle, and joy, and blessing and glory.

It’s the kind of theology behind the “prayer of Jabez,” happy-happy-joy-joy, “your best life now,” feel good, “name-it-and-claim-it” prosperity gospel that permeates so much of our Christian culture. They believe in the Jesus who never left Galilee…

But here at the apex of his power, at the high point of his ‘theology of glory’ he’s introduced something traumatically new, something Martin Luther called a “theology of the cross, (Theologia Crucis)” the contrast or inverse of the “theology of glory.” The ultimate display of God’s power and victory is not in his miraculous healings and feedings or in the promise of prosperity, but in the self-denial, testing, and suffering of his human servants. God’s power is displayed most greatly in human weakness.

Mark’s gospel next takes us high up Mt. Hermon to the transfiguration of Jesus. The inner circle of Jesus’ closest friends – John, James and Peter – saw him transfigured, changed, shining in the brightest light, conversing with the heroes of Jewish tradition, Moses and Elijah. At first glance this, too, appears to be another part of that “theology of glory,” but it’s not.

There atop Mt. Hermon, Peter saw Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah – talking about his exodus; his passing. Jesus was there to talk about his suffering and death (as noted in Luke's gospel). When he descends from the mountain top he moves confidently towards his death. From this point onward Jesus moves inexorably toward the cross.

Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Chosen One marks the turning point in Mark’s gospel and the turning point in Peter’s understanding of Jesus. It’s here that his theology begins to move from a ‘theology of glory’ to a ‘theology of the cross’. Though he didn’t understand it all at once, this transcendent moment of insight from God changed Peter from one who looked only for the power, and victory and glory, to one who was prepared to accept a suffering and death in which God’s true glory would be revealed.

Peter spent the end of his life in a Roman prison on account of the gospel and was crucified upside-down because of his faith in the man of sorrows:

Man of Sorrows! What a name,
For the Son of God, who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim!
Allelujah! What a Savior!

I realize that I’ve said this that perhaps I’m swinging the pendulum too far – overcorrecting for the “prayer of Jabez,” happy-happy-joy-joy, “your best life now,” feel good, “name-it-and-claim-it” prosperity gospel that permeates so much of our Christian culture. It is, of course, true that God is a God of glory, and victory, and success and joy and blessing. I do not want to deny that God is good.

Nor do I want to leave you with the impression that we should run after suffering, that we should seek persecution. We don’t need a “martyr complex.”

But it needs to be remembered that that victory, success, joy, and blessing of God come through a “theology of the cross.” Jesus told his disciples that they would – be sure of it – in this world you will have trouble. Persecution, expulsion, hatred, enmity, slander, rejection, and abuse are what the world will give to Jesus’ disciples – but God gives peace, and glory and honor through these sufferings just as he glorified his Son through the passion of the cross.

The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians that “the message of the cross is folly for those who are on their way to ruin, but for those of us who are on the road to salvation it is the power of God…While the Jews demand miracles and the Greeks look for wisdom, we are preaching a crucified Christ: to the Jews an obstacle they cannot get over, to the gentiles foolishness, but to those who have been called, whether they are Jews or Greeks, a Christ who is both the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

I worry that many Christians today are repeating those mistaken expectations that Paul wrote about: too many who call themselves Christians are looking for a miracle and the next miracle and the next bigger miracle…. Too many are looking for a self-help-motivational-speaker Jesus who’s going to give them the secrets to guaranteed success and prosperity.

The Epistle of Barnabas – a letter written by one of the early Church Fathers (AD 130 – 138) says this, “[Jesus] must needs be manifested in the flesh…He preached teaching Israel and performing so many wonders and miracles and he loved them exceedingly… He chose his own apostles who were to proclaim his gospel. But he desired so to suffer, for it was necessary for him to suffer on a tree.” The author of this letter understood that the “theology of the cross’ – the necessity of suffering – was the greatest glory of God.

Towards the end of his life Peter wrote a letter to the Christians under his care in which he spoke of his anticipation of death: “that is why I will always go on recalling the same truths to you, even thou you already know them and are firmly fixed in these truths. I am sure it is my duty, as long as I am in this tent, to keep stirring you up with reminders, since I know the time for me to lay aside this tent is coming soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me. (2 Peter 1: 12 – 15) Jesus told Peter that when he became old, he would be led to his death, taken where he would rather not go. (John 21: 18-19).

The impetuous fisherman who met Jesus in Capernaum in Galilee, the Peter who wanted Jesus to continue in the ‘theology of glory’ had come to recognize and accept and even find God’s true glory in the ‘theology of the cross.’

jcarter's picture

One interesting comment that i ran across in preparing this little bit concerned the change in theologies brought about by good ole' Constantine.

Before him the Church had a theology of the cross -willing to suffer, accepted persecution...

Then the emperor has his vision of the cross

and the Chruch became powerful and strong and traded in that theology of the cross for a theology of power....

I'm curious about the daily experiences of Christians in places like Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, China, Vietnam, India... places where the theology of glory must seem like an absurdity.

There is no life without prayer. Without prayer there is only madness and horror. - Vasilii Rozanov

Virgil's picture

To me the "nonviolent" aspect of Christianity is missed most of the time so we have Christians going from the extreme of letting anyone roll over them for any reason, to the extreme of power-politics and world domination. As usual, I believe Jesus offers us a third way, a better way. :)

Virgil's picture

He wants the people to discover and to realize this for themselves.

That's a key observation you've made Jeff, and I believe it is a crucial part of one's faith and journey. I've come to realize that Christianity is all relational as much in the sense of self-discovery as it is in the sense of God-discovery. As we learn more about Christ, we learn more about ourselves and how to become more like Him. And we cannot become more like Him without experiencing His story, suffering and sorrow. Not to search for those things or bring them on ourselves purposefully, but their coming is almost a guarantee should we stick to Christ's story and example.

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