Sunday, 28 February 2016

Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter - Part 9

For the next weeks, my Sunday postings will be a transcript of the book "Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter" by the Jersey historian, the Reverend G.R. Bailleine (1873 – 1966).

Most of Balleine's books are either currently in print - as for example his History of Jersey - or online in the form of PDF versions. This book is not, so this is something different. As well as being a Jersey historian, Balleine was also a priest in the Church of England, and Ministre Deservant at St Brelade's Church for a time.

The Disconcerting Messiah
by G.R. Balleine

WHEN next we meet Peter, he and his Master are still on foreign soil. They are now in the far north, near Caesarea Philippi. Here was the cave of the goat-god Pan, and as Pan's Sanctuary the district had the right of asylum. The exiles had found rest for a moment under the protection of a pagan god.

Now Peter had to face the question, what did he really believe about Jesus? By the Jordan Andrew had said, `We have found the Messiah!' Had Andrew been right? Jesus was quite unlike any popular conception of the Messiah. Some expected the Messiah to be a human King. Courtiers had even hailed Herod as Messiah, and Josephus hinted later that the prophecies were fulfilled in Vespasian.

Others thought of him as a triumphant warrior like Judas Maccabaeus. Others expected him to be an Archangel descending in the clouds of heaven. But no Messianic doctrine had been accepted as authoritative. Jesus, however, did not seem to fit into any known category.

Yet from the moment of His baptism He had been convinced that this was His vocation. The Voice that had said, `Thou art My Son,' could have no other meaning. To modern Christians the words may suggest the Incarnation or the Virgin Birth; but to a Jew of the first century `Son of God' meant `Messiah'.

The Second Psalm contained one of the great Messianic texts, where Jehovah says to the Messiah: `Thou art My Son. I will make the ends of the earth Thy possession.' The Gospels show that in the days of Jesus everyone took `Son of God' to mean `the Messiah'.

Nathaniel said: `You are the Son of God. You are the King of Israel.' Martha said, `I believe You are the Messiah, the Son of God.' Caiaphas said, `Tell us whether you are the Messiah, the Son of God.'

But what kind of Messiah? In the Wilderness Jesus had ruled out as Satanic every popular expectation. This imposed on Him a heavy handicap. He dared not mention His Messiahship for fear of rousing in His hearers disastrous, chauvinistic delusions.

On this vital point He must remain silent. He must train His friends to believe in His methods, before He could trust them with His Messianic secret.

This was not easy. The question kept arising. Demoniacs growled, `Are you the Messiah?' The Baptist sent to ask, `Are You He that is to come, or must we look for another?' Once came a serious crisis. Jesus had crossed the lake in Peter's boat to try to escape the miracle-gapers; but the crowd ran round by the shore, and, as the wind was light, they got to the other side first. Jesus faced the inevitable with a smile, and began to teach.

Towards evening His friends reminded Him that the people would be getting hungry. He said, `Give them something to eat.'

Startled they asked, `Do you want us to go and buy ten pounds' worth of bread?' He said, `Make them sit down.' A boy shyly offered his five barley cakes and two small pickled fishes. Then the supply seemed inexhaustible. When all were satisfied, Peter filled his basket with unused portions of bread.

It seemed miraculous, and later it was told as a miracle. Where the bread came from no one can say; but it seems unlikely that it was supernaturally multiplied. There was no urgency. No one was far from home. At worst they would only be late for supper.

And Jesus had firmly rejected in the Wilderness the temptation to attract notice by unnecessary marvels. Was the real miracle perhaps the result of the boy's example? Did others too, who had brought food, bring it to Jesus; so that, when all had pooled their store, no one remained hungry? Or had some rich disciple, to keep the people from scattering, sent to Bethsaida Julias for bread? (The probable site of the feeding is not far from that city.) Or-a not impossible suggestion in the light of what followed -did Zealots from the hills, seeing a chance of starting a revolt, bring down some of their stores of food?

The main fact, however, of that open-air supper is historical beyond a doubt. It is told in all the four Gospels, and the two reports of the feeding of four thousand are probably two more versions of the same event.' Somehow the crowd was fed.

[High numbers in the Bible are usually rough estimates. Solomon had 4,000 stalls for his horses; the Temple had 4,000 musicians. For the building of the Temple 5,000 talents of gold were prepared; 5,000 small cattle were sacrificed at its restoration.]

Revolutionists seized their chance. `Let us kidnap Him,' they said, `and make Him king.' It was a dangerous moment. Jesus could not trust even the Twelve, who thought the time of triumph had arrived. `He constrained them' (a strong word conjuring up a picture of Jesus grasping Peter by the shoulder and pushing him to the boat) `to embark and put out to sea.' He Himself, while the people were arguing together, walked up the mountain, as darkness fell, and disappeared.

Now comes a story, which was retold later in different ways.

The Apostles' boat ran into one of the squalls for which the lake is noted. Straining at their oars and making little headway, they saw, according to Mark, Jesus apparently walking on the water.

They thought it was a ghost; but He said: `It is I. Don't be afraid,' and stepped into the boat.

Remembering how hard-pressed soldiers at Mons thought they saw Angels, we might have guessed that the exhausted Apostles had a similar experience. But the Fourth Gospel, writes Archbishop Bernard, `retells Mark's story in such a way as to correct it by omitting any suggestion of a miraculous walking on the sea'. `John' says: `When they had rowed about four miles' (and therefore were almost home), `they saw Jesus walking by (not on) the sea. And immediately the ship was at the land.' Like the crowd on the previous day, He had come round by the shore.

We now reach the point at which this chapter began. Away in the pagan North Jesus decided to stake all on a visit to Jerusalem. But He wanted the Twelve to understand His aim. So He asked, `What are people saying about Me?' Their answer showed that no one now thought of Him as the Messiah. Those who did not shun Him as a sorcerer called Him a Prophet, perhaps the Baptist or Elijah risen from the dead. Next Jesus asked, `Who do you say that I am?'

Then Peter had one of those flashes of insight that sometimes lifted him head and shoulders above his fellows. He surprised Jesus; he surprised the others; perhaps he surprised himself by answering, `You are the Messiah." Deserted by the people, anathematized by the Church, suspected of dealings with a demon, no one could have looked less Messiahlike. Yet Peter declared, `You are the long-awaited King!'

[The Gospels, being written in Greek, use the Greek word Christos for the Hebrew Mashiah (Messiah). Both words mean `anointed'. Hence the English word `Christ': e.g. `We have found the Messiah, which is by interpretation the Christ' (Jn. i. 41).

It is not clear what answer Jesus expected; but it was not this. The commendation in `Matthew', `Blessed art thou, Simon,' seems so well deserved, that one is loth to suggest that it was never spoken. But it only occurs in `Matthew', the Antioch Gospel, which is probably the latest of the Gospels. It shows what Antioch thought of its first Bishop by the time it was written. Mark and Luke, however, reveal that, so far from winning praise, Peter's answer received a rebuke. Mark, Peter's disciple, says that Jesus `rebuked' him, saying, `Tell nobody that.' And Luke uses the same word.

The rebuke was due to the fact that Peter's idea of Messiahship was widely different from His own. On Peter's lips the word still stank of blatant jingoism. Jesus shuddered at the thought of well-meaning blunderers like the Twelve broadcasting that He was the Messiah of Nationalism. This might have started an armed revolt, and would certainly have precipitated the Passion. So He began at once to teach them that He `must suffer much and be rejected'.

`And He said this quite plainly.'

That word `rejected' recalls the Servant Songs in the later chapters of Isaiah. They picture the Servant of the Lord `despised and rejected of men', `led like a lamb to the slaughter', and `cut off from the land of the living'. To the original writer this Servant personified the righteous core in the nation, who by patient endurance of persecution would eventually redeem Israel. It seems doubtful whether any writer in pre-Christian days ever thought of identifying the Suffering Servant with the Messiah.

[`The remarkable thing is that the disciples are represented as being rebuked. The verb, which R.V. renders, 'He charged them', is the same which occurs in t. 25 and viii. 3z and 33, and means properly `He censured them' (Bishop Rawlinson).

But Jesus, faced with apparent failure, had been pondering on these chapters. He had begun His mission with high hopes of success. His message seemed so gloriously true, that surely everyone would accept it! Now all but a handful had rejected Him and it. He faced the possibility of having to follow in the steps of the Suffering Servant.

To modern minds it may seem of small moment whether later events tally with forecasts by long-departed seers; but to Jews every prophecy in their Scriptures must be literally fulfilled.

With the Servant's fate in His mind, Jesus began to warn the Twelve that their coming visit to Jerusalem might lead to His death. No wonder Peter `took Him and began to rebuke Him: `God forbid !This shall never happen.' The thought of a slaughtered Messiah was preposterous! But this won him a severe rebuke: `Get out of My sight, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to Me. Your thoughts are man's not God's.' Again and again in the next few weeks Jesus repeated the warning. He would be delivered to the Chief Priests, who would hand Him over to the Gentiles, who would mock Him, and spit on Him, and scourge Him, and kill Him.

The Evangelists, writing after the crucifixion, probably phrased these warnings in the light of later events; but there is no doubt that this new note came into the Master's teaching.

He warned His disciples: `Following Me is dangerous. Let no one follow, unless he is ready to shoulder a cross.' The word was far more startling to Peter than it is to us. Pietists speak of hayfever or a neighbour's wireless as their `cross'. But to Jesus a cross meant public execution. To bear one's cross was to go to the gallows. If they went to Jerusalem, all who followed Him must be ready to risk their lives.

Peter's honest heart was puzzled. He believed that Jesus was the Messiah; but why was He so utterly unlike the Messiah they all had been taught to expect? The Scribes, the experts who should have known, had repudiated Him. Elijah had not returned to herald Him, as Malachi had foretold. But six days after he had made his confession, Peter's perplexities vanished. He saw a vision.' Jesus, as He often did, went up a mountain to pray, and He took Peter, James and John with Him. If they were still near Caesarea Philippi, the mountain was probably Hermon. From his boat Peter had often seen its snow-capped peak, but he had never climbed it. Fishermen are not mountaineers, and that afternoon the climb tired them. While Jesus prayed, His companions rolled themselves in their cloaks and slept.

[Matthew explicitly calls the Transfiguration a vision. `Jesus commanded them,the vision to no man.']

At dawn, while still `heavy with sleep', Peter saw Jesus transfigured. Light from within seemed to shine through His clothes,making them `whiter than any earthly fuller could bleach them'. He was after all the Supernatural Being of Whom `Enoch' had spoken! And Moses and Elijah were with Him,

Moses perhaps with the tablets of the Law, and Elijah with his camel's-hair cloak. Scribes might reject, but the Law and the Prophets through their senior representatives were welcoming Him. Not even a vision could repress Peter the irrepressible. `Rabbi,' he cried, `it is lucky we are here. Let us build three booths, for You and Moses and Elijah.' He owned later that he had no idea what he meant.

Perhaps he had some hazy hope of prolonging the scene. Then something happened that silenced even his chattering tongue. A cloud overshadowed them, the Shekinah, that in Jewish thought veiled the Presence of God; and a Voice rang out, `This is My Son, the Beloved' (i.e. the Messiah).

What Peter had confessed was now divinely affirmed. And the command was added, `Listen to Him.' The vision vanished. Peter rubbed his eyes. He saw `no one any more, save Jesus only'. But every niggling little doubt was dead. Jesus was indeed the Messiah, acknowledged by the Law and the Prophets; and God Himself had told Peter to obey. 

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