It’s good to read Christian books… but some of them don’t half make you feel inadequate. ‘The normal Christian life’ is the title of a classic book by Watchman Nee – which I’ve never actually read, but from what I’ve heard of it a better title might have been “The Ideal Christian Life”!
Many years ago, when we were going through a very rough patch spiritually, my husband and I were loaned a book – a biography of the charismatic healer Smith Wigglesworth. It was intended to encourage us, but unfortunately it had the very opposite effect! The man portrayed in the book was a man who never made a mistake, never had doubts or struggled in faith, never had a prayer go unanswered, and was never ill himself – in other words, he just didn’t seem real. Is that what a normal Christian life is meant to be like?
Reading through this part of Mark’s gospel (8:27-9:29) is a bit like riding a rollercoaster. One minute Peter has a sudden flash of divinely-inspired insight as to who Jesus really is; the next minute he’s acting as the devil’s mouthpiece. One day the disciples are receiving a stupendous vision of Jesus in all His glory; the next day they’re struggling to deal with a routine exorcism. Is this what the normal Christian life is like?
Following Jesus (Mark 8:27-30, 9:2-13)
What is a Christian life? It’s following Jesus. So we’d better start by looking at Jesus. Who is Jesus?
Or, as Jesus put it, “Who do people say I am?” (Mark 8:27)
When Jesus asked His disciples this question, they came up with a range of answers: the general consensus of public opinion was that He was a great religious figure, probably a reincarnation of some famous prophet from the past.
If we asked the same question today, what sort of answers would we get? Probably some fairly similar ones, but with a different cultural slant: a good moral teacher, a famous healer, maybe a reincarnation of the Buddha.
But that isn’t the real question. The question that has to be asked is: “Who do you say I am?” (Mark 8:29) Because the identity of Jesus isn’t the subject of an abstract theological discussion. It’s personal! “Who do you say I am?” And how you answer will make a profound difference to your life.
Now Jesus’ disciples had seen and heard everything that the general public had seen and heard – but they’d also seen quite a few more things that the general public hadn’t seen. They’d seen Jesus stop a violent storm in its tracks. They’d seen Him raise a little girl from the dead. They’d seen Him walk on water. All this was evidence that He was Somebody very unusual – no ordinary prophet or teacher but… who?
We don’t know if the disciples had been discussing this amongst themselves already, we don’t know if Peter was speaking for all of them or just for himself. But Peter is the one who says it: “You are the Messiah!” (Mark 8:29)
Peter’s right, of course – Jesus more or less says so – but what did the disciples understand by the term ‘Messiah’? They were expecting the Messiah to be a Saviour, someone sent by God to rescue His people – but if they had been pressed on the subject, they would probably have said that the Messiah was an ordinary human being – someone exceptionally powerful, gifted and blessed by God, but still human.
So they still had a lot to learn, and the next lesson wasn’t long in coming. The mountain near Caesarea Philippi (Mark 9:2) was probably Mount Hermon, the highest mountain in Israel. Now mountains are traditionally places where you can feel close to God (perhaps it’s something to do with remoteness and altitude). When God rescued the Israelites from Egypt, the first place He took them was a mountain – Mount Sinai. And at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19) there was a thick cloud (concealing the presence of God), an audible voice like thunder, and a manifestation of glory. Another strange thing that the book of Exodus tells us is that after Moses had spent time talking to God on the mountain-top, his face shone with the glory of God for a short time (Exodus 34:29-35). And those who saw it were afraid.
Now that’s all very interesting, because when we read about the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-13) we find those same elements all present: we have a mountain, we have Moses (and Elijah, who also had an encounter with God on Mount Sinai – I Kings 19); we also have a cloud, the voice of God, and a manifestation of glory. But what happens to Jesus on Mount Hermon is a little different from what happened to Moses on Mount Sinai. It isn’t just Jesus’ face but His whole body that begins to glow. The dazzling glory of God isn’t reflected (like the glory shining from the face of Moses) but comes from within Him. And whereas Moses was able to hide the divine radiance by covering his face with a veil, it shines right through Jesus’ clothes!
What are we to make of this? It’s obvious that the disciples didn’t have a clue what to make of it at the time. Peter seems to think that Jesus is on the same level as those two great men of God from the past, Moses and Elijah. He starts babbling about building shelters for Jesus and His two ‘guests’. But then God speaks. He doesn’t say very much, but it’s all highly significant. “This is My Son.” echoes Psalm 2, which was regarded as being a prophecy of the Messiah. “Whom I love” is a hint at Isaiah 42:1, one of the prophecies about the Servant of the Lord. In other words, Jesus is the Chosen One. And how we to respond? “Listen to Him!” Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets, pointing towards Jesus. They were great men of God, they came and did work of amazing significance… and they went away again, to signify that their work is now done. The revelation of the past was good and true, but now that Jesus has come, we must focus our attention on Him! The writer to the Hebrews puts it like this: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son.” (Hebrews 1:1,2) A completely new era has dawned. Jesus isn’t just another prophet, and He doesn’t merely speak God’s word to us – He is God’s Word. He doesn’t just tell us about God – He is God. Moses was sent by God to rescue his people from Egypt and lead them to the Promised Land, but Jesus will lead us to glory!