Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? (First posted 2/23/2021)
Who is Jesus and what is he like? This is a topic for heated discussion in our churches and our culture. For a significant portion of Christian culture on this continent the distance between Jesus and John Wayne hardly exists. I would refer you to the excellent work in this regard by Kristin Kobes Du Mez in Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.
Du Mez describes, for example, the image of Jesus promoted by Billy Graham, especially in his early career as an evangelist. According to Graham, “Jesus was no sissy—he was a ‘star athlete’ who could ‘become your life’s hero.’” Athletic metaphors gave way to militaristic ones for Graham, especially in the context of World War II. “The Christian life was ‘total war,’” Du Mez reports for Graham, “and Jesus was ‘Our Great Commander.’ Graham’s Jesus,” she concludes, “was ‘a man, every inch a man,’ the most physically powerful man who had ever lived” (page 23).
There is the ongoing struggle over Warner Salmon’s Nordic depiction of Jesus which adorns thousands of church basements and dining room walls in numerous American Christian homes. In contrast, there is the reconstruction by anthropologists and archaeologists of a typical first-century Palestinian Jew from Galilee. As opposed to Salmon’s fair-skinned, straight-haired, nearly blond and blue-eyed fashion icon, the reconstruction shows a smallish fellow with curly black hair, olive skin, dark eyes, and a more bulbous nose. You can learn more about that reconstruction at https://www.medicaldaily.com/was-jesus-white-forensic-facial-reconstruction-allegedly-shows-what-jesus-really-365668.
There is the laughing Jesus we often see on Holy Humor Sundays. We have seen various white versions of Jesus in film for as long as people have been putting images on celluloid. As we will see below, our preferred images of Jesus function much more as mirrors of our own preferences and prejudices than they do as windows on to any “real” history.
And yet people ask. Will the “real Jesus” please stand up?
I would read verses twenty-seven through thirty as well as the appointed verses in order to give the full context for the reading. Hurtado suggests that continuous reading and includes Mark 9:1 as well, but we did that for the reading on Transfiguration.
Mark does not spend a great deal of time on geography in his account. So, when we get a map reference, it’s worth reflecting on why Mark would include such a detail. Caesarea Philippi is really outside the accepted borders of Israel. At the end of Mark 7, Jesus and the disciples sojourn in Gentile country and meet a deaf man and the Syro-Phoenician woman. Chapter 8 begins with the second mass feeding account in Mark, but this feeding occurs in Gentile country as well.
Hurtado suggests that “the larger narrative into which this feeding account is set is full of growing tension between Jesus and the Jewish religious establishment. It also contains teaching and events,” he writes, “justifying a proclamation of the gospel beyond Jewish borders” (page 122).
Our gospel reading is preceded by the healing of a blind man. Without a doubt, Mark uses this healing to illustrate and unpack the spiritual “blindness” of the disciples in the preceding paragraph. “Do you have eyes, and fail to see?” Jesus asks them in verse 18. “Do you have ears, and fail to hear?” It is clear that they do not see or hear yet. Jesus quizzes them on the meaning of the Feeding of the 4000, and they fail to connect the dots. “Do you not yet understand?” Jesus’ exasperation comes through that question loud and clear.
N. T. Wright points out that Jesus is actually quoting Jeremiah 5:21 at this point (Kindle Location 1935ff). The problem in the Jeremiah passage isn’t simply blindness. It is, rather, that the people have abandoned the worship of Israel’s God and gone after foreign deities. The people have stubborn and hard hearts and insist on going their own way (thinking from a human perspective, as we shall see in the next paragraph). The inability to see what’s happening is not a function of one’s eyesight but rather a function of one’s vision of reality.
This is the only healing that happens in two “stages” in the gospel accounts. “It is the unparalleled phenomenon of a healing occurring in two stages,” Hurtado writes, “that particularly connects this story, not only with the preceding passage, but also with the following ones (8:27-38), in which the disciples show the need for a similar two-stage lifting of their spiritual dullness” (page 133). He concludes that “this story provides a fitting introduction to the account of the disciples’ limited perception and their need for a fuller understanding of Jesus’ mission” (134).
It’s good to remind ourselves often that we are in the role of the disciples in Mark’s account. It may have been difficult for our imagined baptismal candidate to see Jesus for who he really is on the first glance. That awareness may have come in stages, just as sight came in steps for the blind man. This is an encouragement to expect growth in faith and knowledge on our journey as disciples. This is an encouragement, as well, to continue to study and learn the faith for a lifetime. I have always found it to be one of the privileges of pastoral ministry that people paid me to continue that focused study of scripture and theology, worship and prayer, speaking and service, for a lifetime.
Jesus’ question in verse 27 is much more of a “mirror” than it is a “window.” The responses say as much about the respondents as they do about Jesus. “Now of course all three opinions are wrong in Mark’s view,” Hurtado writes, “yet he cites them to show not only that people were blind to Jesus’ true significance, but also that people did recognize in Jesus some sort of special significance like that of the OT prophets” (95).
The question of Jesus’ identity is an important issue for Mark’s account, because this is the second time we get this list of answers. We read about King Herod Antipas’ anxiety in response to the reports of Jesus’ authority and acclaim. Some in the gossip network wonder if John the Baptist had been raised from the dead. Others believe Elijah has returned in Jesus. Still others think he is “like one of the prophets of old.” Herod goes with the first answer – Jesus as John 2.0.
In Mark 6, the listing of identity options for Jesus comes right before a full description of the execution of John the Baptist. So, identifying Jesus comes right before a description of a state-sponsored lynching here in Mark 6. Identifying Jesus comes right before a prediction of Jesus’ own state-sponsored lynching in Mark 8.
The extended description of John’s imprisonment and death is a preview of what is in store for Jesus. Hurtado lists the similarities. Both are John and Jesus are executed by a civil power. Both Herod and Pilate hesitate to carry out the sentence but do so because they fear what will happen if they don’t. Herodias and the Jewish religious establishment demand satisfaction for how they’ve been dishonored. The followers of John bury him, and Joseph of Arimathea buries Jesus.
As Hurtado notes, the proximity of miracle stories and executions reminds us that the cross overshadows everything else for Jesus. “For Mark,” he writes, “it is not finally the power of the miracles but the sacrifice of the cross that most clearly discloses Jesus’ significance” (page 95).
Peter’s response is partially correct, but we readers of Mark know the full answer. We received it in the first verse of Mark’s account: “The Good News of Jesus Christ (Messiah), the Son of God.” Like the blind man at Bethsaida, Peter has a partial vision of who Jesus is. But his partial vision may lead him to the wrong conclusion, like the blind man who saw people as walking trees (Lord of the Rings fans will not be able to resist connecting that one to the Ents of Fangorn fame – I know, I am an unrepentant geek).
We can’t know for certain what Peter intended by his response, but it seems likely that he connects Jesus to a Davidic Messiah – one who would “restore the kingdom to Israel” as we read in Luke’s later account. While Jesus answers to the title of “Son of David” at points in Mark’s gospel, that title only captures a small part of his vocation and mission. The title of “Messiah” by itself in Mark often leads to misunderstanding and even unbelief. It is only part of the answer, a partial vision, not the whole story.
Unlike Matthew’s account, Mark’s gospel does not report clearly that Peter got the “right answer.” Peter responds, and Jesus gives orders that the disciples are not to share this information with anyone. That’s an indication that Peter got it at least partly “right,” since Jesus orders the disciples and others to keep quiet about full reports of his power and authority. Peter’s response indicates “that for Mark the title is a correct one,” Hurtado writes, “and that Peter’s use of the title displays some recognition of Jesus’ true significance” (page 135). Nonetheless, Jesus does not give Peter an “A” on his theology exam.
“Thus, the present passage brings into the open the use of the term Christ (Messiah) as a proper confessional term to apply to Jesus,” Hurtado writes. “But the following material will show that the term can be used properly only when it is informed,” he continues, “by a genuine understanding of what it means for Jesus to be God’s Christ” (page 136). This partial understanding of Jesus’ vocation and mission, if widely circulated, will do more harm than good. “It is not just that others would not understand its proper meaning,” Hurtado concludes, “even the disciples do not yet know what they are saying!” (page 136).
Who do people say Jesus is? More to the point, who does God say Jesus is? We began that conversation last week with the baptism and testing. We will come to a powerful and profound conclusion to that conversation on the Sunday of the Passion when we read the Christ hymn in Philippians 2. We can have some interesting conversations on the way.
References and Resources
Cone, James. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, NY.: Orbis Books, 2011.
Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.