It seems like an eternity since I last stood before you and left you hanging in the middle of Mark Chapter 8. I began a sermon on the blindness that each and every one of us has, and I finished by describing a healing that Jesus performed on a blind man. This healing is unlike any other recorded healing in scripture. It is a healing performed in stages. First the blind man is touched, and he sees, but not clearly. The second time Jesus lays hands on the man and looks intently at him, the man is healed. This healing was not only historical, but it was metaphorical. It was meant to teach a lesson not only to the disciples, but to you and to me. As we finish Mark Chapter 8, I hope that we will see the significance of our blindness, our need for healing, and how we too are healed in stages.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus and His disciples are traveling toward Caesarea Philippi, and Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” It was very uncommon for rabbis to ask their followers things. Usually, it was the other way around. Usually, the rabbis students were constantly asking questions, but Jesus is no ordinary rabbi. Like a master teacher, Jesus has a point to draw the disciples toward.
The disciples begin spouting off all the things they have heard. “You are John the Baptist returned from the dead. You are Elijah who was taken bodily up into heaven who has returned to prepare the way for the Messiah. You are a prophet, perhaps the promised prophet Moses spoke about before he died.” It is an interesting list. One thing is for sure, all of these agree that Jesus is from God, and that He is in the prophetic line. Of this there is no dispute. Of course, these answers are not adequate. Jesus knows this. The disciples do too. How so?
Jesus continues, “Ah, but who do you say that I am?” Jesus is now putting the screws to His disciples. One of my commentaries said it best, “Who do you, my most intimate and trusted friends–in contrast to the other people who neither know me nor understand me–think I am?” There is no beating around the bush. There is no hemming and hawing. This is laying it all on the line right here. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks. The answer to this question is the most important answer that the disciples–and that we could ever give.
Peter speaks for them all, “You are the Messiah.”
Now, you need to know that this statement is quite loaded. Today, we unhesitatingly say that Jesus is the Messiah, and we think about the cross and the salvation of the world. Not so with the ancient Jews. Not so with the disciples. Such matters would have been very far from their minds. Let me quote biblical scholar N.T. Wright in this matter:
By no means all Jews wanted or expected a Messiah. But those who did were clear (not least from their readings of scripture) that he had to do three things. He had to rebuild, or cleanse the Temple. He had to defeat the enemy that was threatening God’s people. And he had to bring God’s justice–that rich, restoring, purging, healing power–to bear both in Israel and out into the world...The Messiah would be God’s agent in bringing in the kingdom [of God] in sorting out the mess and muddle Israel was in, in putting the Gentiles in their place. (Mark for Everyone)
This is what the disciples would have thought about Jesus. They would have thought that He was going to cleanse the Temple; defeat the enemy that was threatening them–which at the present time was the Romans; and then bring God’s justice to bear on Israel and the world which meant cleaning up Israel and then putting the Gentiles into their place. This was the expectations of the Messiah. Every Jew that believed in the arrival of the Messiah believed these three things, and Jesus would accomplish all three–just not in the manner everyone thought. And as Jesus begins to tell the disciples about what Messiahship entails, we see that even though the disciples have begun to see, they cannot yet see clearly.
Jesus first tells everyone to keep silent about these matters. Some folks wonder why, I don’t any longer. Jesus doesn’t want them to give everyone the idea that He will be their Messiah. Jesus doesn’t want everyone in the surrounding countryside to think He is going to lead some sort of rebellion and religious/societal cleansing by force of arms. Jesus needs to open the disciples’ eyes. He needs to help them see clearly before they began to proclaim His rule. And Jesus begins to do that immediately.
Mark records, “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly.” The Greek word for openly is “parrasia” which carries the connotations of someone who is completely free who speaks without restraint, who hides nothing. (Kittel–Theological Dict. of the N.T.) Jesus is being perfectly clear with His disciples about what will happen to Him–what will happen to the Messiah. But there are two fascinating things in what Jesus says. First, Jesus refers to Himself as the Son of Man. Jesus doesn’t use “Messiah” in reference to Himself. In fact, Jesus much prefers “Son of Man” instead of Messiah. Why? For two reasons: Messiah, as I said before was a loaded term which connotes military conquest. Jesus wasn’t about that. Secondly, there is a much broader scope with tying Messiah and Son of Man. Jews would have tied Jesus’ words with Daniel chapter 7 where the following is written:
13As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. 14 To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.
The reign of the Son of Man extends much, much further than the much smaller scope of the Jewish understanding of the Messiah. Jesus is trying to expand the disciples’ vision so that they see Jesus’ purpose for the whole world. Let me repeat that: Jesus is here for the whole world, not simply the Jews, and the salvation of the world will not be brought about by military conquest and purification, but by Jesus’ death. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes...”
There are two comments to be made here. First from N.T. Wright again who pricelessly says, “Messiahs don’t get killed by the authorities. A Messiah who did that would be shown up precisely as a false Messiah.” And secondly from James Edwards in the Pillar New Testament Commentary on the book of Mark:
The prediction of Jesus passion conceals a great irony, for the suffering and death of the Son of Man will not come, as we would expect, at the hands of godless and wicked people. The suffering of the Son of Man comes rather at the hands of “the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law.” It is not humanity at its worst that will crucify the Son of God but humanity at its absolute best. The death of Jesus will not be the result of a momentary lapse or aberration of human nature, but rather the result of careful deliberations from respected religious leaders who will justify their actions by the highest standards of the law and morality, even believing them to render service to God (John 16:2). Jesus will not be lynched by an enraged mob or beaten to death in a criminal act. He will be arrested with official warrants, and tried and executed by the world’s envy of jurisprudence–the Jewish Sanhedrin and the principia iuris Romanorum.
These things are just too much for the disciples. They contradict everything they had ever been taught. They contradict everything they had ever thought for themselves. They believed such things to be absolutely, totally wrong. Hence, Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes Him. Now, mind you, the same word that Mark uses for Peter rebuking Jesus is the same word Mark uses when Jesus rebukes the demons. It’s that strong a reaction from Peter.
But Jesus is just as strong. Jesus is just as harsh, perhaps harsher. “Get behind me Satan,” Jesus retorts, “For you are setting your things on human things and not the things of God.”
And now, we come to the crux of this whole passage–indeed one might say this is the crux of the Christian message itself. Jesus calls the crowd together. Jesus wants to make sure that everyone understands this, not simply the disciples. This teaching is for everyone–not simply those closest to Him. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Oh my. Oh my. Oh my. Jesus plainly, openly, clearly teaches that if we want to see clearly; if we want to know clearly; if we want to understand clearly–we must die. At this point, let me ask you, do you still want to be a Christian? Do you still want to even consider following Jesus? Do you still want to be a disciple if He says, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” “For if you want to save your life, you will lose it, and if you lose it for Jesus sake and the sake of the Gospel, you will find it.” How can this be?
The Christian worldview starts with a very basic assumption about humanity. We were created to be good, but that goodness became warped. That goodness was over ridden by a deep selfishness which sought its own good; its own power; its own prestige; its own satisfaction; its own survival above its dependency upon God. To this day, our selfishness reigns. To this day, our ego tries to claim superiority. To this day, we do a lot to establish and preserve our identity and our self. I am who I am, and I will change for no one. And the world around us encourages this. And many churches do too.
I mean, I can tell you many, many churches who lead with the following sayings: Be yourself. Rejoice in your identity. Claim your heritage. God loves you just the way you are. All are welcome just as they are. I don’t know of a single church that leads and invites people with the following: deny who you are, come and die. It’s not a very popular advertising campaign. But it is Jesus. It is His call. And it is because He knows that if we spend our lives trying to maintain our identity and preserve ourselves, we will die a thousand deaths; never find fulfillment; and be searching for affirmation over and over and over again.
You know this as well as I do. Deep down you know this is the way the world works–that we are constantly taught to look out for ourselves, and we are constantly worried and burdened that we haven’t done enough. We tell our kids over and over, and you were probably told, “Work hard. Do well in school so that...what?” “You can get a good job and make enough money to live.” “Work hard, save your money, invest wisely so that...what?” You can retire and enjoy the years you have left. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” we repeat to ourselves striving to put off the pain of rejection when someone insults us. We try to preserve ourselves because we find our value and worth in ourselves.
And Jesus says, deny it. Deny yourself and find your value in me. For the world around you will strive to cut you down. The world around you will take every advantage of you it can. The world around you will try to drain your wealth and leave you poverty stricken. The world around you will demean your skin color and your heritage. The world around you will bash your gender and your sexuality. The world around you will cut you down at the knees because it will find your faults. It will find your weakness, and it will exploit them.
Now, here’s a question for you: how can the world exploit your faults if you no longer try to hide them but openly profess them? How can the world bash your gender and sexuality if you have denied them? How can the world trash your skin color or heritage if you say they don’t matter? How can the world harm you if you don’t find your value in what the world thinks of you?
Deny yourself. Die to yourself. See yourself as a dead person walking–for that is what carrying the cross means. Ah, but it doesn’t just mean death. No for whoever loses their life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel will find it. Find it? Yes. You will find it. For in Christianity, death is followed by resurrection. The cross is followed by the empty tomb. Denying one’s self is followed by finding one’s true self; true identity; true value and worth in the Savior who willingly died for you when you least deserved it.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him.
Find your self in Jesus. Understand what He did for you as He stretched out His arms and died for you. Grasp the power of the resurrection as it removes your fear of death. You will cease being caught up in the daily battle for self-preservation, you will find freedom, and you will truly see. Amen.