Biblical Commentary
(Bible study)

Mark 8:27-38




This lesson is bracketed by the story of Jesus healing a blind man at Bethsaida (8:22-26) and another blind man, Bartimaeus, at Jericho (10:46-25). During this period, Jesus is struggling with disciples who are blind to the truth that he would teach them. “Having eyes, don’t you see? Having ears, don’t you hear?” he asked (8:18). “Don’t you understand, yet?” (8:21). In his great confession (v. 29), Peter shows that he has caught a glimpse of the truth, but the following verses will show that his vision was distorted by his prior understanding of messiahship.

In verses 31-33, Jesus speaks to the disciples. In verses 34-38, he calls the crowd to join the disciples in hearing the criteria for discipleship.

This is the first of three occasions in this section where Jesus predicts his suffering and death (see also 9:31 and 10:33-34). On all three occasions, the disciples demonstrate their lack of understanding and Jesus responds by expanding his teaching on discipleship.


27Jesus went out, with his disciples, into the villages of Caesarea Philippi. On the way (Greek: te hodo) he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” 28They told him, “John the Baptizer, and others say Elijah, but others: one of the prophets.” 29He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ” (Greek: Christos). 30He commanded them that they should tell no one about him.

“Jesus went out, with his disciples, into the villages of Caesarea Philippi” (v. 27a). Jesus has most recently been at Bethsaida (8:22-26), a town on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. Now he travels to the villages of Caesarea Philippi, about 25 miles (40 km) further north, at the foot of Mount Hermon. This is far to the north, and symbolizes a major turning point in his ministry. He has been working in Galilee, a relatively friendly place, healing and teaching. Now he will begin his journey southward toward Jerusalem, the center of the opposition to him and the place where he will die.

“On the way” (te hodo) (v. 27b). The phrase, “the way” (te hodo) is important to this Gospel. John the Baptist came to prepare the way (hodon) of the Lord (1:2), and Mark uses the word hodo at 9:33; 10:17 and 10:32, 52 to remind us that Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem, where Jesus will be crucified. Caesarea Philippi seems like an odd place for Jesus to begin such a significant journey. Its roots are more Greek and Roman than Jewish.

“Who do men say that I am?” (v. 27c). Earlier named Paneas after the Greek God Pan, the city was then named Caesarea to honor Caesar Augustus. They built a temple to Caesar not far from the temple to Pan. Then they changed the name to Caesarea Philippi to honor the local ruler, Philip the tetrarch, son of Herod the Great—and to distinguish this city from another Caesarea located on the Mediterranean shore.

“John the Baptist; …Elijah; …one of the prophets” (v. 28). Earlier, when Jesus was performing miracles, people speculated regarding his identity and came up with these same three possibilities—and in the same order (6:14-15). The people think of Jesus, not as the Messiah, but as a great man like one of the great men of their history. They have their own ideas about the Messiah, and Jesus does not fit the mold. They think of the Messiah as David’s successor, who will drive out the Roman garrison, re-establish Israel’s glory, and usher in a golden age. To accomplish these goals, they expect the Messiah to use traditional power—military or economic dominance. They expect the Messiah to be a super-man—a man like other men except for his greater power. Jesus re-defines power to mean drawing people to himself through love. His love will be expressed in self-denial and cross-bearing.

“But who do you say that I am?” (v. 29). In the Greek, the “you” is emphatic—“Who do YOU say that I am?”

“You are the Christ” (Christos) (v. 29). Mark began this Gospel by saying, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ (Christou), the Son of God” (1:1)—thus establishing Jesus as both Christ and Son of God. Now in a parallel statement, Peter says, “You are the Christos,” which means “anointed.” The Jews anoint three classes of people: priests, prophets and kings. Jesus is all three.

• Shortly before Jesus’ death, the high priest will ask, “Are you the Christos, the Son of the Blessed?” and Jesus will answer, “I am” (14:61-62).

• At 15:39, at the conclusion of Jesus’ journey, the centurion will restate that Jesus is God’s Son.

“He commanded them that they should tell no one about him” (v. 30). Matthew adds an account of Jesus’ blessing of Peter for this confession (Matthew 16:17-19), but neither Mark nor Luke (9:18-22) includes it. Jesus orders the disciples not to tell anyone about him. Peter believes that Jesus is the Messiah, but will not understand how Jesus is redefining the role Messiah until after the resurrection.


31He began to teach them that the Son of Man must (Greek: dei) suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He spoke to them openly. Peter took him, and began to rebuke him. 33But he, turning around, and seeing his disciples, rebuked Peter, and said, “Get behind me, (Greek: opiso mou) Satan! For you have in mind not the things of God, but the things of men.”

The words, “he began to teach them” (v. 31a) signal a change. Until now, this Gospel has been establishing Jesus’ power and authority. Now Jesus turns his disciples away from Galilee, where he has experienced great success, and faces them towards Jerusalem, where he will die. As he changes to this new phase of his ministry, he must begin to teach the disciples what to expect.

“that the Son of man must suffer many things” (v. 31b). Jesus refers to himself as Son of Man rather than Christ or Messiah, which is how Peter identified him in verse 29. The title, Son of Man, is likely to stir less opposition than the title, Christos. The Jewish people expect the Christos to be a great king and military leader like David, but have no such expectations of the Son of Man.

While the Jews expect a triumphant messiah, Isaiah 52:13—53:12 speaks of a suffering servant who:

• “Shall be exalted and lifted up” (52:13).

• “Was despised and rejected by men; a man of suffering, and acquainted with disease” (53:3)—who “was pierced for our transgressions… (and) crushed for our iniquities” (53:5).

• “Was cut off out of the land of the living and stricken for the disobedience of my people. They made his grave with the wicked” (53:8-9). (See also Psalm 22, Psalm 69, and Zechariah 9-14).

“the Son of Man must” (dei—it is necessary) (v. 31b). This little word dei appears frequently in the Gospels, and in precisely this manner. Scholars speak of it as the Divine Imperative, because it is God’s will that Jesus suffer, die, and be resurrected.

“and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes” (v. 31c). These three groups comprise the Sanhedrin, the ruling body for the Jewish people. “It is not humanity at its worst that will crucify the Son of God but humanity at its absolute best…. (Jesus) will be arrested with official warrants, and tried and executed by the world’s envy of jurisprudence—the Jewish Sanhedrin” and Roman law (Edwards, 254).

“and be killed” (v. 31d). Jesus predicts his death, but does not yet reveal that it will be by crucifixion.

“and after three days rise again” (v. 31e). Upon hearing the word, “killed,” we are inclined to stop listening, because death usually spells the end of the story—but we must not stop listening prematurely. The bad news of Jesus’ death will be trumped by the good news of his resurrection.

“He spoke to them openly” (v. 32a). Many of Jesus’ teachings have been couched in parables or stories, which conceal as much as they reveal. Here, however, Jesus “spoke to them openly” (v. 32). Given this clarity, we wonder why the disciples fail to understand. The answer, of course, is that Jesus’ teachings run counter to everything that they believe. Regardless of what is said, people often hear what they expect to hear.

Also, the disciples have sacrificed a great deal to follow Jesus, and it is beginning to pay off. Jesus has been working wonder after wonder, and the crowds are responding nicely. The disciples see great possibilities ahead, and cannot welcome anything that suggests otherwise. We should not be too critical of them for refusing to accept Jesus’ talk of suffering and death. It must sound to them as if he is having a bad moment and needs a bit of encouragement. Even today, having known all our lives how the story turns out, we prefer a gospel that promises success. The cross has always been a hard sell—and will always be so.

“Peter took him, and began to rebuke him” (v. 32b). Note Peter’s boldness. He has just identified Jesus as the messiah (v. 29), but now he takes Jesus and rebukes him. How bold to rebuke the messiah! We too are tempted to rebuke Jesus when he fails to meet our expectations—when he fails to answer our prayers as we expect.

Note the parallel between “began to teach” (Jesus in v. 31) and “began to rebuke” (Peter in v. 32).

“Get behind me” (opiso mou) (v. 33a). When Jesus first met Peter, he said, “Deute opiso mou“—“Come after me” (1:17). Peter has been coming after Jesus ever since, however imperfectly—but in rebuking Jesus he steps out in front. Now Jesus orders him to resume his proper place as a disciple—coming after, following rather than leading.

“Get behind me, Satan!” (v. 33a). Jesus refers to Peter as Satan. This Gospel provides little detail about the temptation in the wilderness (1:12-13). Some scholars think of this encounter between Peter and Jesus as Mark’s version of the temptation story—the temptation being to sidestep the cross.

It seems likely that Jesus would find Peter’s temptation even more dangerous than the temptations mentioned in Matthew 4, because Peter is a disciple and friend rather than an opponent—a well-intentioned man rather than the personification of evil. We are much more inclined to listen to a friendly voice than that of a known evildoer.

Note the story’s twists and turns. First, Peter stuck out his neck and got the right answer (v. 29). How good it feels to get the right answer! Now Jesus calls him Satan. In the blink of an eye, Peter has gone from Star Pupil to Dunce. Imagine how confused he must feel. Jesus’ response makes it clear that the disciples belong behind Jesus. They are to follow, not lead.

“For you have in mind not the things of God, but the things of men” (v. 33b). Cousar thinks that Peter would see it very differently—that he would believe that he is thinking of divine things while Jesus is introducing human things. But, as Paul says later, “the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are dying, but to us who are saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18) (Cousar, 209).

Some scholars think that Peter was one of Mark’s sources for the stories in this Gospel. If so, Peter may be the source for this negative story about himself.


34He called the multitude to himself with his disciples, and said to them, “Whoever wants to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. 35For whoever wants to save his life will lose it; and whoever will lose his life for my sake and the sake of the Good News will save it. 36For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world, and forfeit his life? 37For what will a man give in exchange for his life? 38For whoever will be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man also will be ashamed of him, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

“He called the multitude to himself with his disciples” (v. 34a). Jesus has been speaking to the disciples, but now he calls the crowd to join the disciples for a lesson on discipleship. What he is teaching his disciples is applicable to everyone (Lane, 306).

“Whoever wants to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (v. 34b). Discipleship involves self-denial and cross-bearing. At the time in which this Gospel was written, Christians were literally bearing crosses and losing their lives. These words of Jesus speak very directly to their situation, and hold out a great promise.

Sports provide an analogy. Games are won, not just on the playing field, but also on the practice field. To experience glory on game day, the athlete must first push himself or herself to the limit on the practice field. Physical conditioning is painful and practicing fundamentals is tiresome, but the purpose of discipline is neither pain nor boredom but victory. So it is in the spiritual realm. Spiritual discipline begets spiritual victory. The church is always tempted to offer less costly discipleship in the hope of attracting more people. A weak call, however, produces weak disciples.

The challenge to lose our lives for Jesus’ sake conflicts with modern values. Preservation of life is a major industry. Modern medicine, proper diet, and exercise extend our lives. Cosmetics and plastic surgeons preserve our appearance. Funeral directors continue the work even after we die. We find it difficult to hear Jesus’ call to lose our lives for his sake.

When this Gospel was first written, Christians were literally in danger of losing their lives for their faith. They were tempted to deny Christ to save their lives. That is still true for many Christians today. Persecution of Christians is alive and well. More Christians died for their faith in the 20th Century than in the 1st Century. The list of nations where Christians are routinely persecuted is a long one: China, North Korea, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, East Timor, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Sudan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Cuba—to name only a few.

We who have not yet been threatened by martyrdom need to keep that issue before our congregations. We need to support and pray for Christian brothers and sisters to alleviate their suffering in any way possible. The fact that Christ blesses Christian martyrs is no excuse for allowing our apathy to contribute to the martyrdom of our Christian brothers and sisters.

The challenges that most of us face seem trivial by comparison to martyrdom. Workplaces are inhospitable to Christian witness. Coaches schedule games on Sunday mornings, forcing young people to choose between sports and Jesus. People label Christians as fanatics or bigots for beliefs that run counter to the prevailing culture. These are serious and painful issues, but fall far short of the kind of persecution that Christians endured through the centuries and are still enduring even today in many parts of the world.

We would be willing to die for Christ, but find it difficult to live for Christ day by day. Fred Craddock reminds us that most Christians are never called to make the grand gesture, but are instead called to pay the price of discipleship a quarter at a time. That is not as glorious as martyrdom, but our willingness to spend quarters when they are needed is more important than our willingness to die when that is not needed.

Jesus gives a threefold standard for discipleship. We are to (1) deny ourselves (2) to take up our cross and (3) to follow Jesus. Jesus does not call us to deny our value. We are created in God’s image, so how could we not have value? Neither does he call us to deny ourselves pleasure—the ascetic can be the most ego-centered person of all. Jesus instead calls us to make God the center of our affections—to subordinate our will to God’s will.

“For whoever wants to save his life will lose it; and whoever will lose his life for my sake and the sake of the Good News will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world, and forfeit his life? For what will a man give in exchange for his life?” (vv. 35-37). The game is for the biggest stakes of all—life itself—eternal life—meaningful life—life lived in the presence of the Father. There is no no-risk strategy where faith is concerned— no safe but profitable harbor. People speak of “the leap of faith” precisely because faith, at some point, involves letting go of traditional forms of security and leaping into the darkness in the faith that Jesus will help us to land safely.

Jim Elliot, a missionary who was murdered on the mission field by the Auca Indians as he tried to minister to them, assessed the risk that he was facing, saying: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

“For whoever will be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man also will be ashamed of him, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (v. 38). When Mark was writing this Gospel, Christians were being persecuted. In that context, being ashamed of Jesus equated to denying him to avoid persecution (Brooks, 138).

The picture is of a judgment scene where we will be utterly dependent on Jesus’ help. Jesus is portrayed elsewhere as our advocate (Greek: parakleton) (1 John 2:1). (The Holy Spirit is also called a paraclete—John 14:16, 26; 15:26, etc.) A paraclete is a helper—a defender. A defense lawyer is one kind of paraclete, and that is an appropriate image here. On Judgment Day, we will need Christ to serve as our paraclete—our advocate—our defender.

Because we live among an “adulterous and sinful generation” (v. 38), we cannot expect a pat on the back for faithful proclamation, but should instead expect opposition. An adulterous and sinful generation cannot abide truth. We should expect it to twist truth so it sounds like a lie—and to deal ruthlessly with truth-tellers. Living among such people, we will always be tempted to mute our witness to Christ to avoid controversy and to escape persecution.

However, Jesus warns that, on Judgment Day, he will be ashamed of the person who has been ashamed of him—the person who has muted his/her witness. Jesus warns that he will not “be there” for that person—will not serve as his/her advocate—thus leaving that person vulnerable—defenseless.

Jesus implies that the reciprocal is also true—that Jesus will “be there” to speak for the person who has spoken for Jesus—that he will serve as our advocate. Matthew and Luke make this explicit—“Everyone therefore who confesses me before men, him I will also confess before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32; see also Luke 12:8). Jesus’ purpose in v. 38 is not to establish grounds for abandoning us, but is rather to tell us how to gain his support and to avoid forfeiting life (v. 36).

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)

Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)

Edwards, James R., The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002)

Evans, Craig A., Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27—16:20 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001)

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Grant, Frederick C. and Luccock, Halford E., The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 7 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1951)

Hare, Douglas R. A., Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996)

Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark (Hendrickson Publishers, 1991)

Lane, William L., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974)

Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)

Perkins, Pheme, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)

Williamson, Lamar Jr., Interpretation: Mark (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983)

Copyright 2008, 2015, Richard Niell Donovan