Jesus’ relationship with his disciples is all too often a relationship of one step forward, two steps back—both with his first disciples and with us today. They, and we, make progress in the faith only to backslide into our old way of doing things. This back-and-forth dynamic is only display in Mark 8.22–9.1.
“Who do people say I am?” Jesus asks the disciples. We often read the Gospels in order to find practical guidance about how to live our lives, and it offers guidance aplenty. However, the Gospels are not about us, they are about Jesus. Therefore, the question we should be asking when we read the Gospels is not, “What does this say to me?” but “What does this tell me about him?”
The disciples list a variety of common answers to Jesus’ question: “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” The crowd’s answers are quite complimentary. John the Baptist was commonly—and rightly—believed by the people to be a prophet. The great Old Testament prophet Elijah was the forerunner to the Messiah (Mal. 4.5–6). Even as an ordinary prophet, Jesus is a spokesman for God.
But Jesus’ presses the disciples: “Who do you say I am?” In that day and this, it is not enough to know what others believe about Jesus. We must make up our minds about him for ourselves. Peter answers, “You are the Christ,” that is, the long-prophesied king of Israel who will put all things right.
The answer is true, of course, but open to misinterpretation. So Jesus takes pains to tell the disciples that his kingdom wears a cross, not a crown. This draws Peter’s rebuke. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus says to Peter. “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”
Having in mind the things of men means prioritizing crown over cross, power over sacrifice, judgment over mercy, and an easy-going spirituality over a disciplined following of Christ. It means choosing this world over the salvation of your own soul. Such a mind is satanic.
Having in mind the things of God means seeking a crown through the cross, employing spiritual power through personal sacrifice, letting mercy triumph over judgment, and pursuing the life of Jesus through the hard slog up Calvary. It means prioritizing the state of your soul over the size of your possessions. Having the mind of God is not an easy thing.
No wonder Peter’s rebuke called forth an exorcism. Peter was right to call Jesus “Christ.” But he was wrong—demonically wrong—to leave the cross out of the picture. The only question left for ourselves is whether in following Jesus we also seek to avoid the cross and all that it entails. Do we seek salvation through the cross of Christ, or apart from it? Do we seek spiritual growth through Christian self-denial (cross-bearing), or apart from it? Whether your spiritual journey is going forward or backward depends on how you answer those questions.