Jesus and the Mountain (Mark 9:1-13)
Sermon Audio: https://qbc.org/sermons/642564--jesus-and-the-mountain
1 And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.”
2 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. 5 And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6 For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” 8 And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.
9 And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean. 11 And they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” 12 And he said to them, “Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? 13 But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.” - Mark 9:1-13
In the form of a pillar of smoke and fire, God led His people to His holy mountain. It had maybe been a couple of weeks since the ultimate act of deliverance in the Old Testament had been worked. An enraged and murderous Pharaoh chased the Hebrews to the very edge of the Red Sea, only to see the waters explode heavenward making a dry pathway for the Israelites to cross through. And as Pharaoh rushed in after them, the walls of water came crashing down. The horse and his rider He has cast into the sea! But now, God made it clear that He did not merely intend to deliver His people from the slavery of Egypt, but to enter into a covenant relationship with them and to make them into, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” Ex 19:6. But, for this to happen, Israel needed a representative to be a mediator between them and God. At Mount Sinai, God speaks directly to the people as they are gathered at the base of the mountain, but they quickly beg Moses to go speak with God instead because they are certain that if God keeps speaking, they will all die (Ex 20:18-21). God’s holiness is just too overwhelming; He appears on the top of the mountain, wrapped in thick smoke and scorching the mountain with shafts of fire; trumpets from heaven are blowing so loudly that the mountain is trembling; and when God speaks, it sounds like thunder. The people are not afraid for no reason. God even tells Moses that if anyone comes to close to Him they will just drop dead; God’s presence is like a nuclear reactor, emanating such power and glory that it will simply overwhelm any sinful human who comes to close. And yet, this is precisely what Moses now must do: draw close to this awesome, holy and terrifying God. How will he do this and not be consumed?
Well, even within the cloud that Moses enters, we are told that He is still not permitted a direct experience with the face of God. He is given a passing glance, a partial glimpse of the fringes of God’s glory that is figuratively described as “the back of God” (Ex 33:18-23). But still, his near proximity with God and His glory changes Moses. When Moses descends the Mountain, He is surprised to see the rest of the people reel back in fear: Moses’ face is shining (Ex 34:29-35). Moses has to hang a piece of fabric over his face to shield the people from the reflected glory of God in the face of Moses.
Hundreds of years later, on that very same mountain, another prophet meets God. Elijah, after fleeing for his life from the wicked queen Jezebel, arrives at the mountain of God (1 Kings 19:1-8). There, just like Moses, Yahweh reveals Himself to Elijah through speaking His word to the prophet (1 Kings 19:12; compare: “The LORD passed before him” Ex. 34:6 and “the LORD passed by” 1 Kings 19:11). But, unlike Moses, when Elijah hears God’s Word, he veils his face prior to hearing the word, not after: “And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave,” 1 Kings 19:13. Elijah does not presume to be able to speak “face to face” with God as Moses did (Ex 33:11), so he hides his face. Both Moses and Elijah, however, are up on the mountain of God while God’s people down below are in the process of violating the covenant and both receive God’s instructions on how to respond to these covenant-breakers.
Nearly 900 hundred years later, we see these two figures return at another mountain where God will once again reveal Himself in shining glory, where God’s people will again almost wholly be violating His covenant, and where God will again reveal instructions about what must be done in response. But this time, God will reveal Himself in a way that He never had before. The terror, and glory, and power that had made an entire mountain tremble like an earthquake was now condensed into a solitary human being: a travelling peasant from Nazareth.
The Kingdom in Power
Peter, upon confessing that Jesus was the Messiah, is immediately baffled by Jesus’ explanation of what the Messiah must do: die (Mark 8:27-33). The Messiah being rejected and put to death sounds like failure to Peter’s ears, not success. So he begins to rebuke Jesus over this idea, only to receive the stinging words of Jesus: Get behind me, Satan! The disciples don’t understand why Jesus, as the Messiah, must die, and therefore don’t understand what it actually means to follow Jesus. Jesus clarifies for them that following Him does not mean getting on the fast track to the life of “the rich and the famous.” Rather, following Him looks like denying ourselves, picking up a Roman crossbar, and walking in Jesus’ footsteps (Mark 8:34-38). Discipleship to Jesus leads to life, but only after we surrender control over our life to Jesus and follow Him wherever He leads us, even when it is hard, embarrassing, and painful.
But, lest the disciples be left too confused by this teaching, Jesus then quickly offers this explanation: “And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.” (Mark 9:1). Jesus is not explaining that He is going to die, or that His disciples must submit to this life of self-denial and cross-bearing because He lacks power. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche hated Christianity in part because he thought that all its teaching of self-denial, forgiveness, and turning the other cheek was just a religious charade to disguise and encourage weakness by calling it a virtue. He called it “slave or herd-morality.” If one had power, they would use it to exalt themselves and dominate others—there would be no need for this limp-wristed notion of “turning the other cheek.” Thus, Nietzsche concluded, one would only “turn the other cheek” because they are weak and are just looking to make their weakness look like virtue, since that was the only kind of “power” they had. Of course, Jesus blows a gaping hole in Nietzsche’s theory. Jesus’ death (and the life of discipleship He is calling us to) did not occur because He lacked power, but the exact opposite. But to help and strengthen His disciples, to make it clear that His death on the cross does not come at the expense of His power, He lets them peak at what “the kingdom of God in power” looks like.
So Jesus summons Peter, James, and John to the top of a mountain where Jesus is “transfigured before them and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus.” (Mark 9:2-4).
Why do Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus? Why not Abraham? Why not David? The last book of the Old Testament, Malachi, written about 400 years before the coming of Christ ends with a command and a promise: “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes,” Mal 4:5-6. Remember Moses; I will send Elijah. Do you remember how Mark begins His gospel? By citing Malachi’s promise of the messenger who comes like Elijah, preparing the way of the Lord (Mark 1:2-3). Here again we see Moses and Elijah, another seeming nod to Malachi’s closing promise of what would happen before the “great and awesome day of the Lord.” The appearance of Moses and Elijah show us that Jesus is not representing a fundamental break with the Old Testament. God is not switching from “Plan A” to “Plan B.” Rather, Jesus is fulfilling what the Old Testament, what Moses and Elijah promised and pointed to all along. What do I mean?
Mark just tells us that Jesus is talking with Moses and Elijah, but does not tell us what they are talking about. Luke’s account, however, explains that Jesus is discussing with them his “departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem,” (Luke 9:31). The word for “departure” is literally the word “Exodus.” Jesus is speaking with Moses and Elijah because Moses promised there would one day be another prophet that would arise like him (Deut 18:15) and the “Day of the LORD” that Malachi refers to, that Elijah is to prepare the way for, is repeatedly described in the Bible like a new Exodus. What did Moses do? Led the people through the Exodus. What will a new Moses do? Lead his people through another Exodus. What is the second coming of Elijah to prepare the way for? A new Exodus. What is Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah about? His Exodus which he is about to accomplish in Jerusalem. What is Jesus about to accomplish in Jerusalem? He is about to be nailed to a cross. You see, Jesus, like Moses and Elijah, is up the mountain while most of Israel down below is busy breaking God’s commandments, violating the covenant. The nation of Israel has so far largely ignored, misunderstood, and flat out rejected the arrival of its very own Messiah! But this time, Jesus’ remedy for these covenant breakers is different than what Moses or Elijah did. Moses and Elijah called the people to back to obey the covenant they had broken. Jesus has not come to call people to work harder at keeping the old covenant. He has come to establish a new covenant through His death and resurrection. A covenant supersedes the glory of the old in its profound promise of forgiveness: Jesus will bear our sins to the cross, and wash them away. Jesus will forgive our sins!
What does all of this mean? It means that Jesus is the new prophet that Moses promised would come. Jesus is like a new Moses, but the exodus He is going to lead His people on isn’t a delivery from physical slavery, but a spiritual one. Jesus has come to redeem His people from their slavery to sin and the devil, to make them into a kingdom of priests, a holy nation, to give them His new law that isn’t merely written on tablets of stone but on their very hearts! He has come to bring about the new covenant.
But Jesus isn’t merely another human prophet the same way Moses was. No, He is much more than that. We are told that on the mountain Jesus suddenly begins to radiate light, similar to Moses’ experience with his face shining, but Jesus is so radiant that the disciples only speak of his clothes because they seemingly cannot see Jesus’ face. Moses could simply put a veil over his face—but Jesus’ whole body is luminous! What is happening? Moses would reflect God’s glory after entering into His presence (the glory cloud), but Jesus hasn’t entered into the presence of God, yet He is shining—He is the presence of God. The light is not reflecting off Him, but emanating from Him! Jesus is like a new Moses, but unlike Moses. To put it more starkly: Jesus is the God whom Moses worshipped.
You see, most religions often view the pathway of their teaching like a journey up a mountain. There is a goal (heaven, nirvana, bliss), and if you will strive diligently enough, work hard enough, you can make the courageous climb up the mountain. Whether that be traditional religions or more garden variety western secular ones. But Jesus sets Himself apart by not staying atop a mountain and calling people up to Him, but by coming down the mountain itself and coming to us. Jesus does not wait for us to prove we are morally worthy of Him; He tromps down the mountain to the muck of our sin that we are mired in and plunges His hands into our filth to lift us up and carries us to Himself.
It is hard to imagine how we would have responded were we in Peter’s shoes. Seeing Jesus become robed in lightning, speaking with two of the most significant human beings who have ever lived, upon whom much of your faith has depended on. Peter is understandably struck dumbfounded: “Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” (Mark 9:5-6). Why Peter suggested they make three “tents” is unclear. While Moses was up on the mountain in Exodus he was given the instructions for the tabernacle, a tent in which the presence of God would make Himself manifest. Maybe that’s what Peter is thinking of, though it wouldn’t make sense for Moses and Elijah to have a tabernacle, since that is reserved for God alone. Perhaps he is slipping into a kind of superstitious veneration of these heroes of the faith, or maybe he just, as Mark tells us, doesn’t really know what he is saying. It does seem clear, however, that Peter still doesn’t fully understand the truth of Jesus’ identity since he seems to put Jesus on the same level as Moses and Elijah. But, this will be corrected quickly.
“And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.” Mark 9:7-8. The glory cloud of Exodus reveals itself, like at Mount Sinai, a voice booms from within. But, unlike Sinai, it does not give us a Law. No, it identifies Jesus: we are to listen to Him. The fact that Jesus alone is left is a subtle nod in the narrative to Jesus’ unique status over Moses and Elijah. Jesus is not just another prophet; He is the Son of God.
Listen to Him!
In a world that is crying out with a thousand different voices to listen to, isn’t it so comforting to know, dear Christian, that there is one voice that we must listen to. Maybe you are perplexed by what is going on in the world today. Which news channels should you listen to? What narratives should you buy? If you don’t act, if you don’t vote now, the world as we know it is doomed! If you don’t speak up and join our side, YOU are the problem! These apocalyptic cries are coming from several mutually contradictory sides in our country—who are we to listen to? What are we to do? Listen to Him. Pay attention to what Jesus has to tell you and be faithful to simply follow it. There will still be issues you are confused on, things that you won’t understand. But if you simply pursue faithfulness, listening to Jesus, in the here and now with what is in front of you, then God will provide what you need. Like the birds and the lilies, don’t worry about tomorrow; seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and the rest will be added to you (Matt 6:33). Listen to Him most.
We need worship
Jesus gives Peter, James, and John this mountain top experience to help alleviate their doubts and provide a powerful encounter with who he really was so that they could endure the difficulties that discipleship would demand of them. We likewise need worship to propel us through the demands of the Christian life. If we simply try to grit our teeth and bear it, we will either wind up with a cold, Pharisaic heart, or we will simply burn out in a pit of immorality. But how do we have a worshipful experience like Peter, James, and John? We can’t necessarily just hike to the top of the nearest hill and have Jesus appear transfigured before us. Peter helps us in his recounting of this event in his second epistle:
16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” 18 we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. 19 And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. – 2 Pet 1:16-21
Peter is relaying his experience up on the mountain and uses that as one of the evidences for why his account is trustworthy. However, notice what he says in verse 19 after relaying these details: We have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention. What is Peter saying? In the prophetic words of Scripture we have a “more fully confirmed” word than what Peter had while he was up on the mountain. While Peter was up on the mountain, he had his own experience to draw from, which was certainly powerful. But, now, Christians have the Holy Spirit inspired and authoritative word of God that is “more confirmed.” When we open our Bibles we can climb the mountain, so to speak, with Peter and see Jesus revealed. So this means that if we are to prioritize (as we should) worship in our life, we need that worship to be centered on and derived from God’s Word. So we spend time, day by day, in God’s Word. We prepare ahead of time for Sunday morning where we hear God’s Word declared to us. Why? Because we need worship, or we will putter out. And worship, true worship, will always be fueled by God’s Word.
There are only two other places in the Bible that use the word that is used here to describe Jesus being “transfigured.” One place is Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. In the third chapter Paul is describing what happened to Moses’ face when he would speak with God and how he had to veil his face to hide the glory that was reflected. Paul uses this as an analogy to describe the inferior nature of the covenant Moses was under. It was a covenant that revealed God’s glory, but that glory led to people being terrified and wanting the glory to be hidden. Paul calls it a covenant of “condemnation” (2 Cor 3:9), but now the new covenant exceeds the old in glory. It does not bring about condemnation, but righteousness! It does not bring about the covenant members fleeing in fear, but drawing near to God through the Spirit. Paul writes: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” – 2 Cor 3:18. We, members of the new covenant, do not veil our face. We behold the glory of God, and as we do, we are “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” The word for “transformed” is the exact same word translated as “transfigured” in Mark 9. Under this new covenant, as we behold God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 4:4), we ourselves are being transfigured, degree by degree, into His very likeness. Shockingly, this is telling us that Jesus’ display of radiant glory at the Mount of Transfiguration is no mere power display—it is a veritable preview of what the children of God will one day be like, and are in the process of becoming even now.
C.S. Lewis reflects on this truth in his profound essay The Weight of Glory:
We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it …That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods. They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can’t. They tell us that “beauty born of murmuring sound” will pass into a human face; but it won’t. Or not yet. For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy. At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.”
But how do we do that? The one other place this word is used is in Paul’s letter to the Romans:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed (transfigured) by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. – Rom 12:2. Through renewing your mind we can be transfigured. What is renewing your mind? It is the process of setting your mind on the things of God, which we can do by meditating on and reading God’s Spirit inspired Word. So, degree by degree, as we read our Bibles, as we attend corporate worship, as we speak the truth to one another in live, as we memorize verses and teach them to others our minds are being renewed, and we are being transfigured into the same image of Jesus Christ, from one degree of glory to one another.
Jesus and Discipleship (Mark 8:34-38)
Sermon Video: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=872009789998087
34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” – Mark 8:34-38
The cave system was intricate. The cool, dark shade provided some relief from the intense, muggy summer. Thailand’s monsoon season was upon them, but the soccer team, wishing to celebrate one of the player’s birthday, gathered with their assistant coach at the cave after a soccer practice and did what any 11-16 year old boy would do: they began to explore. Before long, they were 4 kilometers into the cave when suddenly a flash flood from the rain fall surged into the mouth of the cave, sealing the team in pitch blackness. By nightfall, it had become apparent what had happened and expert cave divers and rescue teams began to work to find the team. But the task was nearly impossible. The cave was an intricate labyrinth of tunnels, the divers had no idea where the team was, and the muddy flood waters made the visibility in the water nearly impossible. It took nine days for the team to be found. It took another eight days, thousands of workers, hundreds of divers, before all of the boys and the coach would be rescued. But the rescue was fraught with danger. The journey out of the cave was a maze of murky water and razor sharp rocks, with passageways sometimes as narrow as 2 feet in diameter and because of this, the oxygen tanks the divers had to wear had to be small, so they were very limited on time spent underwater—one Navy Seal tragically died after running out of oxygen. None of the boys or the assistant coach would have been able to make the 3 hour long dive to escape out of the cave, and would most likely have a panic attack and suffocate if they attempted to swim out on their own power following the divers. So, the professional divers explained to them that they would sedate them and would push them along, guiding their unconscious bodies out of the cave. They would run out of oxygen and the sedatives would wear off halfway through the journey out, but the divers would find a place where they could reattach more oxygen and readminister the sedatives to them.
Could you imagine being in their position? What a terrifying prospect! The only way for me to survive is if I let you drug me, and just trust that you can guide me through this murky, deadly water? When the first diver had found the boys they had dug a 5 foot hole into the side of the wall, hoping to bore their way out, unaware that there was thousands of feet of digging left before they would be free. But you had to wonder if any of the boys, while hearing the plan laid out by the divers, though maybe they should take another crack at the digging option. But, miraculously, one by one, over the period of a couple of days, the boys were ferried along through the underwater cave system and brought to safety.
Now, more than just an evocative anecdote to open a sermon with, this story of rescue serves as a helpful parable of what Jesus has to teach us today. What was offered to each of these young soccer players by the divers sounded like the opposite of safety, it sounded deadly. And friends, what Jesus has to offer us today is far from safe, is far from comfortable. But, like these young boys trapped in the cave, it is Jesus’ daring and perilous offer that is our only option for salvation, for rescue.
Peter has just (rightly) confessed that Jesus is the Christ but has (wrongly) attempted to rebuke Jesus once He began to explain that He was going to go to the cross to die. Last week we talked about how Jesus is recalibrating the disciples understanding of what the Messiah is—He is not coming as military leader who has come destroy the Romans and establish an earthly kingdom. He has come to redeem His people from their sins, which He will accomplish through His substitutionary death on the cross and resurrection. He rebukes Peter, explaining that He has missed this because Peter has set his mind on the things of man, not on the things of God (Mark 8:33).
Jesus launches directly off of this misunderstanding about the Messiah to then correct a misunderstanding about what being His disciple means. Jesus is going to do this by showing His disciples the cost of being a disciple, and the reward of being His disciple, and the warning of not being His disciple.
Jesus, directly after rebuking Peter, turns to the twelve and summons the crowds of onlookers to Him and explains, “If anyone would [follow] after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” Mark 8:34.
So, Jesus is explaining to His disciples and the crowds: So, you want to be my disciples? Here is what that means: deny yourself, and take up your cross as you follow my example. That is what it means to be my disciple. So, we know that “follow me” means to pattern our lives after Jesus, to do what He did, to let Him be the One who guides us in our lives. But what does Jesus mean by “deny yourself, take up your cross”? Well, it simply means that there is a cost that comes in following Jesus.
In Luke’s account of this (Luke 14:25-33) Jesus is actively encouraging people to stop and consider the cost of following Him before they join Him. Following Jesus is not like following someone on social media, its like entering into a marriage. It is a radical commitment that will ask things of you, that will push you, and will require you to set aside your preferences. Perhaps you are not a Christian listening today and you are contemplating the claims of Christ. You should know that we would be thrilled if you became a Christian, we pray that you do. But, it would be dishonest and deceptive if we were not up front with you about what would be entailed in being a Christian. You know what its like when you sign a phone contract or some TV service and they advertise how low their prices are, but then when the bill arrives next month you are shocked to find all of these extra charges that you didn’t know about. So you call and plead your innocence to a sales representative; you explain that you were never told about this and that charge and there must be some mistake. And with a razor-thin veneer of apology in their voice, they let you know that all of those charges were on your contract, but were just buried in the fine print, so tough luck, buddy. Jesus isn’t like that. He is going to tell you up front, He is going to treat you like an adult: there is a cost to becoming my disciple and you should consider it seriously.
Becoming a Christian, a disciple of Jesus, is not primarily a program of self-improvement, but of self-denial. Maybe when you became a Christian you had an idea in your mind of how God would improve your life: get rid of those bad habits, provide happiness, some measure of comfort and peace. And that does happen, in a way. But God has come to do something far, far more radical, far more disruptive. We are not told that following Jesus means denying certain things the way someone may give up chocolate for Lent—no, we are told we to deny ourselves. To “deny yourself” is to say, in effect: God, you get to decide what is good for my life, not me. You have control over my life, not me. You see, if you come to Christ thinking: Okay, I know what He will do here: He is going to help me get rid of this addiction I have, this bad temper, that nagging guilt over my previous marriage, etc. you, unconsciously, are brokering the terms on which Jesus is your Lord. It’s great to have you in my life, Jesus! Here are the areas I would be happy to let you have total control over. But that isn’t what Jesus has in mind at all. What happens when Jesus begins to push beyond your preconceived boundaries? What happens when He begins to point out things you didn’t think were a problem at all, or summons you to do things that you had no intention whatsoever of doing? What will you do? Who will you listen to?
In Eden, Satan’s first temptation was for Adam and Eve to decide for themselves what good and evil was, not rely on God’s definition, but define it themselves. Satan does the same thing today. Jesus’ call for us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus is a call to reverse what happened at the Fall—it is an admission that God is God, we are not, so He decides what is good and what is evil. Our job is to submit ourselves to that definition, which is hard, which requires self-denial, which sometimes feels like death.
This is why He compares discipleship, self-denial, with a cross. It is unfortunate that we use the phrase “bearing our cross” to refer to frustrations or inconveniences, like an obnoxious mother-in-law or a bad back. No one listening to Mark’s account would have thought of that when hearing Jesus tell them to “take up their cross.” As we discussed last week, a cross was the symbol of Roman terror. It was a ghastly, terrible way to die, reserved for the lowest of criminals: slaves who disobeyed their masters, or revolutionaries who sought to resist Rome. Classics scholar Tom Holland writes: “No death was more excruciating, more contemptible, than crucifixion. To be hung naked, ‘long in agony, swelling with ugly weals on shoulders and chest’, helpless to beat away the clamorous birds: such a fate, Roman intellectuals agreed, was the worst imaginable.” - Dominion, pg. 2.
The phrase “take up your cross,” of course refers to the practice of having the condemned criminal carry his crossbar through the city as a public spectacle of humiliation, bearing one’s own instrument of torture and death to the place of execution. This, Jesus tells us, is what you must be willing to do to be His disciple. Why would Jesus use such a repugnant and barbaric metaphor for discipleship?
Undoubtedly, this had to do with the fact that this was to be Jesus’ own fate. If we are to “follow” Jesus, than we should not be surprised to be treated by the world as Jesus was. “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you,” Jesus explains (John 15:20). As Mark is writing his gospel, the first Christians in Rome to read it would have likely been suffering under the persecution of Nero, seeing many of their fellow Christians being nailed to crosses. There would have been no confusion in their minds: following Jesus might cost you your life. And that is still true in many places today.
But it isn’t restricted only to a literal death on the cross. Luke’s gospel tells us that we must, “take up [our] cross daily” and follow Jesus (Luke 9:23). If we are to “daily” take up our cross, it must also refer to a metaphorical kind of death: a dying to your own autonomy and self-rule; a willingness to suffer embarrassment, scorn, shame for following Jesus; a willingness to surrender to God, even when it is uncomfortable, perplexing, or painful. Which, of course, if you are going to be taken to a literal cross, you must have already done.
Aside from the costliness and difficulty of following Jesus, this assumes two things:
1. That submission to Jesus will be hard, even embarrassing. A criminal forced to carry their cross through the city on their way to the execution was meant to humiliate them. Sometimes, as we follow Jesus, we will receive the jeers and scorn of the world around us. I think this is the primary means of persecution Jesus is considering here, since he bookends this teaching with this idea of shame: "For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels," Mark 8:38.
But it provides a good question for us: Christian, will you follow Jesus even when it becomes difficult? Will you follow Jesus when it runs the risk of you being misunderstood by others, when it leads to friends and family laughing at you, mocking you? Is there anything that Jesus teaches that you are tempted to feel ashamed over?
2. That when you come to Jesus you will have desires that will feel normal and natural to you that must be “denied.” So, just because you have a strong inner urge and desire to do something, it does not mean that it is right. We live in a world that strongly disagrees with that sentiment, and so is at direct odds with Jesus Himself. The highest good for many is the idea that you should be uninhibited to be true to yourself, express yourself, love yourself, follow your dreams, and above all don’t let someone else tell you how to live your life or who to be.
Now, this is such a central issue in our culture today that it is worth thinking about. First, we should realize that no one in our culture functionally lives like this. Our culture looks at evangelical Christianity as ridiculous because we say that you shouldn’t look inward to define who you are, but you should align your life with God’s design for it. How oppressive, how intolerant! Well, our wider culture is actually doing the same thing, just with a different set of dogma. And this is widely evident by just looking at what our culture condemns. If I begin spewing racist propaganda, no one in our culture is going to say to me: Well, you just need to be true to yourself! Follow your heart! Not a chance! They are going to say that I have a wicked heart—which would be true. So, when they sat “follow your heart,” they really mean, “follow your heart…so long as it doesn’t break these rules” which sounds a lot like the religions they are so quick to denounce. You see, they can’t escape the fact of holding people to a standard, a set of norms. And, we Christians, likewise want to hold people to a certain set of standards. But where do those norms come from?
Awhile ago my wife and I housed an international student from Tanzania. He grew up in a village where polygamy was widely practiced and his own father had two wives. He had since become a Christian and intellectually knew it was wrong, but found it amusing how flabbergasted I was at the idea of polygamy still being practiced somewhere. One day, while we were out getting groceries somewhere, Samson saw two men holding hands while walking in front of us. He was visually repulsed and began to, literally, laugh out loud at them. I had to pull him aside and inform him that he could not point and laugh at people who lived differently than he did. Now—why was I so outraged at the idea of polygamy, but Samson was so outraged at the idea of homosexuality? Where did we get those intuitive, unconscious responses from? We picked them up from where everyone picks them up: the culture we were raised in. Our different cultures have different value systems and we imbibe them without thinking. But this is precisely why Jesus is telling us to “deny ourselves.” We are not reliable guides for determining what is right or wrong, praiseworthy or wicked. This is why we need to "deny ourselves" and follow Jesus and His moral compass for our life. All cultures have values that run in contradiction to Jesus' values, so all cultures need to be submitted under His Lordship. But for us to do that, we have to be willing to let Jesus confront us, willing to set aside our immediate assumptions, and be willing to undergo the painful process of relearning what is good, true, and beautiful.
Following Jesus is difficult, but it is worth it. Jesus explains, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it,” Mark 8:35. This matches Jesus other paradoxical teaching: to become first, you must become last; if you want to be great, you must become a servant. Even the most basic principle of self-preservation is reversed: to save your own life, you must lose it. To live, you must die. But if you clamor to preserve your life, you will die. What does this mean? If you refuse to cede control over your life to Jesus, if you look at the cost of what He is asking you and say Oh no, that is far too dangerous, far too painful for me, you think you are saving your life, you think you are protecting yourself, but you unwittingly are dooming yourself. You are like the soccer players in the cave saying, “I’m not going to trust you to guide me through this cave, no sir. I’m going to stay here where I’m safe.” You must trust Him, You must follow Him, or you will perish. Yes, there is a cost, yes it is dangerous, but what other option do you have?
But notice, Jesus isn’t just threatening the danger, He also is enticing the disciples with the value of their souls. Jesus explains: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” Mark 8:36-37. “Soul” here doesn’t merely refer to physical existence, but refers to our whole personhood, our immaterial “life” that persists even when our physical life is extinguished. And Jesus is wanting you to see the infinite value of your soul. Jesus says that you could gain the whole world, yet if it resulted in the damnation of your soul, it would be a ridiculous exchange. Heap together all of the pleasures, thrills, comforts, applause, and power that this world has to offer—make yourself richer than any billionaire, more powerful than any sultan, more beloved than any figure in history, and more beautiful than any movie star, and all of that pleasure will pale in comparison to the worth of your soul. Goethe wrote of the classic tale of Faust who sells his soul to the demon Mephistopheles in exchange for any worldly pleasure he desires. He is given anything he wants, yet the more he receives, the more miserable he becomes. Ecclesiastes tells us of the king who had all the wealth of the world at his fingertips, only to find that it was like smoke and vapors, leaving him empty and despairing. Don’t trade what is eternal for what is temporary. Don’t exchange a birthright for a bowl of stew. Don’t put your treasure where moth and rust can destroy.
1. The paradox of life.
Jesus explains that "life" can only be found when we stop clamoring for it. If we truly want to live, we must die. But if we are obsessed with keeping our life, we will die. Friends, true life, a full life, the good life is only found when we stop making it the center of our existence. If we make our main aim trying to live as happy of a life as possible, we will never be happy. We will constantly be peeking back inwards at ourselves, evaluating whether or not we are happy, and so spoil it, like the lover of flowers who keeps deconstructing his lilies, trying to figure out why they are so beautiful. But, if we make our aim in life faithfulness to Christ, obedience to Him, and glorifying God, if we submit to the knife of dying to ourselves, we will, ironically, find true life, true happiness. Aim at heaven and you get earth thrown in, aim at earth and you get neither.
2. Look to Jesus, your captain
Submitting to this "death" is hard, but we can look to Christ our captain. Jesus, through His death on the cross has experienced the ultimate death. He surrendered over His life to pay for our sins and ensure our forgiveness, but He has also punched through the other side and emerged victorious over sin and death! So now, as we follow our captain, we know that our sins will not condemn us, and our suffering under this process of dying will, as it did our Lord, result in our resurrection, in newness of life.
3. Overcome desire with desire
Jesus appeals to our desire for life. We can die to ourselves, deny ourselves, because it is through it that we find real life. We want life! We want satisfaction, we want fulfillment. And Jesus is offering it to us. Sin, is offering us a deceptive offer. It says: You want life? I'll give you life. I'll make you happy. If you go to Jesus, He will kill you! He will rob you of joy! So both sin and Jesus are offering you life. The trick to submitting to this kind of discipleship Jesus is offering is to (1) realize that sin is a liar and Jesus is telling you the truth, and (2) overcome your sinful desires with deeper desires. You want to be fulfilled and sin is offering to satisfy that craving; the answer isn't to deny that craving, but to turn to Christ instead to fill it! Kill your sinful cravings, deny yourselves, put it to death, and in its place find life.
C.S. Lewis, in his wonderful fictitious story, The Great Divorce, imagines shades from Hell taking a trip to the outskirts of Heaven and being offered an opportunity to stay, if they like. (Lewis is not making a theological point about post-mortem salvations, it is just an imaginative story meant to illustrate deeper truths). Lewis imagines himself walking among these ghosts and seeing them interact with angels from Heaven who are offering them an opportunity to stay, if they would like. Nearly all of them hate it and decide to turn around and go back to Hell. But, Lewis notices one that sticks out that demonstrates what Jesus is trying to teach us here:
What sat on his shoulder was a little red lizard, and it was twitching its tail like a whip and whispering things in his ear. As we caught sight of him he turned his head to the reptile with a snarl of impatience. ‘Shut up, I tell you!’ he said. It wagged its tail and continued to whisper to him. He ceased snarling, and presently began to smile. Then he turned and started to limp westward, away from the mountains.
‘Off so soon?’ said a voice.
‘Yes. I’m off,’ said the Ghost. ‘Thanks for your hospitality. But it’s no good, you see. I told this little chap’ (here he indicated the Lizard) ‘that he’d have to be quiet if he came – which he insisted on doing. Of course his stuff won’t do here: I realize that. But he won’t stop. I shall just have to go home.’
‘Would you like me to make him quiet?’ said the flaming Spirit – an angel, as I now understood.
‘Of course I would,’ said the Ghost.
‘Then I will kill him,’ said the Angel, taking a step forward.
‘Oh – ah – look out! You’re burning me. Keep away,’ said the Ghost, retreating.
‘Don’t you want him killed?’
‘You didn’t say anything about killing him at first. I hardly meant to bother you
with anything so drastic as that.’
‘It’s the only way,’ said the Angel, whose burning hands were now very close to
the Lizard. ‘Shall I kill it?’
‘Well, that’s a further question. I’m quite open to consider it, but it’s a new point,
isn’t it? I mean, for the moment I was only thinking about silencing it because up here – well, it’s so damned embarrassing.’
‘May I kill it?’
‘Well, there’s time to discuss that later.’
‘There is no time. May I kill it?’
‘Please, I never meant to be such a nuisance. Please – really – don’t bother.
Look! It’s gone to sleep of its own accord. I’m sure it’ll be all right now. Thanks ever so much.’
‘May I kill it?’
‘Honestly, I don’t think there’s the slightest necessity for that. I’m sure I shall be able to keep it in order now. I think the gradual process would be far better than killing it.’
‘The gradual process is of no use at all.’
‘Don’t you think so? Well, I’ll think over what you’ve said very carefully. I honestly will. In fact I’d let you kill it now, but as a matter of fact I’m not feeling frightfully well today. It would be most silly to do it now. I’d need to be in good health for the operation. Some other day, perhaps.’
‘There is no other day.’
‘Get back! You’re burning me. How can I tell you to kill it? You’d kill me if you did.’
‘It is not so.’
‘Why, you’re hurting me now.’
‘I never said it wouldn’t hurt you. I said it wouldn’t kill you.’
‘Why are you torturing me? You are jeering at me. How can I let you tear me in pieces?’
Then the Lizard began chattering to the Ghost. ‘Be careful,’ it said. ‘He can do what he says. He can kill me. One fatal word from you and he will! Then you’ll be without me for ever and ever.
‘Have I your permission?’ said the Angel to the Ghost.
‘Damn and blast you! Go on, can’t you? Get it over. Do what you like,’ bellowed the Ghost: but ended, whimpering, ‘God help me. God help me.’
Next moment the Ghost gave a scream of agony such as I never heard on Earth. The Burning One closed his crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken-backed, on the turf.
‘Ow! That’s done for me,’ gasped the Ghost, reeling backwards.
For a moment I could make out nothing distinctly. Then I saw, …what seemed to be happening to the Lizard. At first I thought the operation had failed. So far from dying, the creature was still struggling and even growing bigger as it struggled. And as it grew it changed. Its hinder parts grew rounder. The tail, still flickering, became a tail of hair... Suddenly I started back, rubbing my eyes. What stood before me was the greatest stallion I have ever seen, silvery white but with mane and tail of gold. It was smooth and
shining, rippled with swells of flesh and muscle, whinnying and stamping with its hoofs. At each stamp the land shook and the trees dindled.
The new-made man turned and clapped the new horse’s neck. It nosed his bright body. Horse and master breathed each into the other’s nostrils... Turning in his seat he waved a farewell, then nudged the stallion with his heels. They were off before I knew well what was happening….
…What is a lizard compared with a stallion? Lust is a poor, weak, whimpering, whispering thing compared with that richness and energy of desire which will arise when lust has been killed.’ - C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
Jesus the Messiah (Mark 8:27-33)
27 And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” 29 And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” 30 And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.
31 And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” – Mark 8:27-33
What would you say your biggest problem is? As you think about your life, your current situation, how this morning went for you: what is your biggest problem you are dealing with? It has been one heck of a year. Our normal routines have been tossed into a woodchipper and we are all left sorting out the pieces. Maybe you are adjusting to a new school rhythm and became, suddenly, a homeschooling parent when you did not intend to. Maybe you are find yourself repeatedly frustrated by your parents. Maybe you are frustrated by your kids! Maybe your spouse has been pressing your buttons and feels like they are going out of their way to aggravate you. Maybe 2020 has been a year that has led you to experience more depression, anxiety, frustration, and angst than you had ever experienced before. Maybe, as you look at our nation and our political climate, you are left feeling deflated, despairing, and despondent.
Wherever we are today, today I want you to know that Jesus Christ has come to deal with your biggest problem. But, we may be left surprised by His diagnosis of just what that problem precisely is. Like a person who goes into a doctor for stomach pain, thinking he has just eaten something bad, only to find that he actually has stomach cancer, so too may we be alarmed to find that what appears to be our biggest problem in life is nothing but a mere tooth ache, masking the far deeper and more sinister problem that we are facing.
In our text today, Jesus is going to encounter the disciples’ assumptions about what their biggest problems are, but is going to confront them with a confusing diagnosis that will leave them totally shell-shocked.
While Jesus and His disciples are on the day-long journey to Caesarea Philippi, He asks them this question: “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples respond, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” But Jesus is not content in only knowing what other people think of him in general—He wants to know what the disciples think of Him. “But who do you say that I am?” Peter, representing the rest of the disciples correctly responds: “You are the Christ.”
The English word “Christ” is just a transliteration of the Greek word christos, which simply means, “anointed one.” In Hebrew the word is meshiach, which is where we get our English word “Messiah.” There were three types of people in the Old Testament who were anointed: prophets, priests, and kings. These people would have oil poured over their heads as a way of identifying and consecrating them to a special role for God’s people. But as the Old Testament progressed, there was an expectation that there would come the anointed one, the Messiah, who would be a prophet (speaking God’s truth to them), a priest (mediating God’s presence to them), and a king (ruling on behalf of God). So, when Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, he is saying that He is the Messiah, the anointed one that God’s people have been long waiting for. The one who would restore Israel, bring an end to their exile, and usher in the new creation.
And we may simple pause for a moment here to consider what Jesus does. Jesus is not content with a generalized opinion of who He is. He wants to know what the disciples themselves think of Him, so He asks them directly—He confronts them. Maybe you are not a Christian here today and you have been exploring who Jesus is and what Christianity is. I would encourage you to take your time to diligently examine this faith and evaluate its claims. But you should know that there will come a moment where your diligent examination must reach a conclusion; you must make a decision about who Jesus is. Jesus did not rush His disciples into this—He spent months with them, teaching them, revealing Himself to them before He asked them this question—but He did not wait forever. And there will be a moment where you must decide: who do you say I am?
Maybe you are a child here today who has grown up with Christian parents. You should know that this is a tremendous blessing, but dear children, it comes with this danger: you may think that you don’t have to reach a conclusion for yourself on who Jesus is. You may think my parents believe in Jesus, my pastor believes in Jesus, my friends believe in Jesus, and then not give it much thought for yourself. You are surrounded by people who believe in Jesus, but children, Jesus wants to know: who do YOU say that I am? There is a danger that comes with being so familiar with Jesus that we do not take Him seriously, do not consider what His claims are.
Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College, wrote an imaginative book called Socrates Meets Jesus, where Socrates is transported from ancient Greece to Harvard’s divinity school in modern times. And there he reads the Bible and is converted and believes in Jesus. But he is surrounded by people who have a shallow, skeptical faith in Jesus—they are familiar with Jesus, but do not actually trust in Him and worship Him. Socrates is outraged at this.
Socrates: “You think you are studying a dead man, don’t you?...rather than someone alive, and present, and active, as I am now.”
Bertha: “But Socrates, Jesus isn’t here as you are here.”
Socrates: “Your book says that he is. His disciples believed and acted as if he was. He himself promised to be. If its not a myth, if he really rose from the dead, then he’s not dead, but alive, like an animal—at least as alive as an animal. But you seem to be studying him as if he were a picture or a bump on a log. Have you ever sat down on a bump on a log and found it to be a frog? Or perhaps the whole log turned out to be an alligator? “Look out! It’s alive!” you say. I have not heard anyone say anything like that here.” – Socrates Meet’s Jesus, pg. 157
But it doesn’t take long for us to realize that Peter only is partially correct. “And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”” Mark 8:31-33. Last week we looked at how this showed us that though Peter accurately confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, he is still somehow filled with unbelief. But let’s now drill down into what it is that leads Peter to such confusion. Why does Jesus’ rejection, death, and resurrection seem so bizarre to Peter?
One of the primary sources of what the Messiah would be like that Peter is likely drawing from is the Bible itself. Psalm 2 is one of the most prominent of sources, so let’s take a closer look at it:
1 Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,
3 “Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
4 He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
6 “As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”
7 I will tell of the decree:
The LORD said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
9 You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel.”
10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the LORD with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
12 Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him. – Psalm 2
What is psalm 2 telling us? That the kings of all the earth, despite superficial differences, are all united in rejecting God and His Anointed (Messiah). But at this united front, God merely laughs. And then He speaks in fury and wrath, letting the kings of the earth know that His Messiah, His Son, has been appointed as the King in Jerusalem, and to them the nations have been given as His possession, and His Messiah will judge the nations with a rod of iron, shattering the nations the way a bar of metal shatters a clay pot. Unless the kings of the earth come trembling in obeisance to the Son, they will be utterly annihilated by His wrath. Now, how do you work Jesus’ teaching that He will be killed into that psalm? This is why Peter is baffled. Even more baffling, Jesus refers to Himself here with the title of the “Son of Man” (and in every other prediction of His death, this title will be used). This comes from Daniel 7, an apocalyptic section of Scripture that shows via dramatic imagery God’s rule over the pagan nations of the earth. These nations are depicted as savage beasts who are ultimately destroyed, and then Daniel sees this:
And behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed. – Dan 7:13-14
Jesus takes the title “Son of Man” twice earlier in the gospel of Mark to demonstrate His heavenly authority (Mark 2:10; 2:28), but from this point on He, strangely, only uses it in reference to His death. But Daniel seems to see the “Son of Man” figure to be doing anything but dying—He is ruling and reigning! Thus, we could see why Peter (and the disciples) would be shocked by Jesus’ prediction of His death. But this isn’t the only reason.
The cultural landscape of Jesus’ day was rife with would-be-Messianic upstarts. The nation of Israel had been under the thumb of foreign rulers since 587 BC—that is nearly six hundred years of being dominated by (often) brutal masters. And, of course, as shameful and painful as that would be for any country, this wound is particularly grievous for the Israelites because God had promised them that land and had promised that they would be ruled by a king from the line of David. So, their problem with Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome ruling over them isn’t merely political—its theological. They have a God-given claim to the land and to their sovereignty. Now, it is important to also remember that when God had promised them all these things He also warned them that if they violated the covenant they would forfeit these promises (which they did). But God still promised that one day He would send a Messiah, a son of David, who would come and again restore Israel.
But it is hard to overstate just how severely the Jewish people suffered under the hand of foreign rulers. In the 2nd century BC the Greek general Antiochus Epiphanes ransacks Jerusalem, plunders the temple of every piece of gold and silver in it, slaughters thousands and enslaves even more. Then he erects a statue of Zeus in the temple and commands that pigs and other unclean animals be sacrificed in the temple, and forbids adherence to Jewish law—so much so that if a mother was found to have circumcised her child, her and her child were immediately killed, or if one was caught observing the Sabbath, they were immediately put to death. If you failed to offer sacrifices to the Greek gods, you were put to death. This led to what is now known as the Maccabean revolt, where a Jewish family starts a violent revolution to resist these blasphemous and oppressive laws. While it is surprisingly successful for some time, the movement itself eventually devolves into infighting and political power plays, showing themselves to be little better than the Greek overlords they were originally fighting. Eventually Rome besieges Jerusalem in 63 BC and brings an end to the Maccabean period.
But, if you can, enter into the collective psyche of the Jewish people at this point, try to picture how they felt: they, God’s chosen people, have been brutally dominated for hundreds of years; they have seen their temple desecrated, their city burned, their laws flaunted and ignored, and their divinely given sovereignty trampled over by pagan nation after pagan nation. They have tried to forcibly rest power out of the hands of these Gentile oppressors, only to see it devolve to the same kind of immorality and wickedness, and now another pagan nation has dominated them. What are they left to do? Find the Messiah. The Messiah, the promised coming Davidic King would come, and He would dole out justice against all these foreign oppressors, He would set Israel back on their position of privilege, He would make Jerusalem radiant once again, and He would expel all of the Gentiles from their land. Thus, there is a flurry of revolutionary quasi-messianic movements in the first century BC and the first century AD (some of them even mentioned in the book of Acts, 5:36-37; 21:38), but they all fit the same bill—they all withdraw out into the wilderness, collect a following of a some notable size (from a few hundred to a few thousand), and then seek to use violent revolt to overthrow Rome (all of them fail). This is what leads to the eventual destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD. And what was the most common form of execution used for brigands and revolutionaries like this? Crucifixion.
And then along comes this Jesus of Nazareth who is announced as being the Messiah, to much fanfare of the disciples and the masses, even if he is rejected by the intelligentsia of the day. And at the pinnacle of Mark’s gospel, when the disciples finally come to realize and to truly believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah, what does Jesus do? He explains that He is going to be crucified.
That would be like me explaining that I was going to get a promotion at work, but I planned on getting the promotion by being fired. That just doesn’t make any sense. Crucifixion was the ultimate sign of a failed Messiah. This is why the Pharisees are so eager to have Jesus be crucified—they were already convinced that Jesus must be a false Messiah because He seems to welcome and invite Gentiles and disregards the Sabbath—so He must be an imposter—and they know how heavy Rome’s boot can fall on the community from another revolutionary upstart. The Roman General Varus crucified 2,000 Jews after a messianic revolutionary upstart in 4 BC. This is no laughing matter. If he can be crucified, they think, that will prove without a shadow of a doubt that he is just another pretender trying to grab power.
So, do you see how baffling this is for the disciples: as the words of Peter’s confession are leaving his mouth, proclaiming that Jesus is not another pretender, but the real-certified-deal Messiah, Jesus says: Yes! You’re right Peter. And I am going to be nailed to a cross and die. Those are mutually exclusive realities in Peter’s mind, so he pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him.
How are we supposed to reconcile the seeming incongruity of Daniel 7’s understanding of the victorious Son of Man with Jesus’ understanding of the suffering and dying Son of Man? The key is in Jesus’ rebuke of Peter: “You are setting your mind on the things of man, not on the things of God.” In other words, you are just thinking about things from a worldly, human perspective; you need to start setting your mind on God’s priorities and purposes. You can see the disciples’ tunnel vision on “the things of man” in the fact they completely ignore what Jesus says about resurrection. Three times in the gospels Jesus explains that he will be put to death, and then three days later rise again. However, none of the disciples remember this after Jesus is put to death—even when the women come to tell the disciples that Jesus’ tomb is empty on the third day, they initially don’t believe them. How could they be so forgetful, so dense? Well, their minds were locked in on their preconceived idea of what the Messiah would be like, and dying was not part of it. As soon as they heard Jesus say he was going to die they, “did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him,” Mark 9:32.
So what are the “things of God” that the disciples are not setting their minds on? What happens in Jesus’ death and resurrection that does not contradict what we read in Psalm 2 and Daniel 7? How can you be a king but be killed? Be crowned, but crucified?
First, Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. Under the Old Testament, God’s Kingdom was fought for with the sword. It was a geopolitical landmass with borders that had to be defended. But Jesus has brought new wine that cannot be put into old wineskins, He has come to do something new. The kingdom that Jesus has come to inaugurate is a spiritual kingdom on earth that will one day be manifested fully on earth when Christ returns a second time. And because it is a spiritual kingdom, Jesus will not rely on the usual earthly means by which one typically uses when trying to expand their kingdom. Directly before Jesus is to be crucified, Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?”… Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” John 18:33, 36. Jesus willingly goes to his own death—no king who was seeking to establish their earthly empire would do so. But that is precisely the point—Jesus isn’t creating a worldly kingdom, but a spiritual one.
Now, when I say that Jesus’ kingdom is a spiritual kingdom, that doesn’t mean a not real kingdom. Jesus is the king, the Messiah. Pilate responds to Jesus “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world,” John 18:37. When Jesus is being investigated before the Sanhedrin in the gospel of Matthew, right before he is delivered over to be crucified, the council asks Jesus: “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Matthew 26:63-64. That is Daniel 7! Jesus is saying that “from now on” they are going to see the fulfillment of Daniel 7 happen. It is through Jesus’ death on the cross that he will ascend to the Ancient of Days and on the clouds of heaven and be seated at His right hand of power. So though Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, it exercises its dominion over this world—we do not see it the way we see the kingdom of America, because it is an internationally dispersed kingdom that exists de facto wherever Christians are, but exists de jure over the whole of creation. All of the kings of earth must come and kiss the Son, lest they perish in the way. They, and every human being, must submit to Jesus the Messiah.
But why did Jesus have to die to bring about this kingdom? Why did he immediately start teaching about his death after Peter confessed that He was the Messiah?
Here is what the Pharisees and chief priests and scribes and even the disciples were blind to: Rome was not their biggest problem. There was something far more oppressive, far more deadly that Jesus came to deal with.
The disciples assumption was that the Messiah would come and destroy all of the sinners from the land. But, what happens when the disciples, God’s people, realize that they too are sinners? Were Jesus to come and establish a kingdom that simply destroyed all of the sinners on the face planet, Jesus would be the only person left. He has come to make a way for wretched sinners like you and me and the disciples to be forgiven of their sin and then made into citizens of His kingdom.
How did He do that? Look at Col 2:13-15, “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” So you who were dead in your sins were made alive. How? Through your sins being forgiven. How were you sins forgiven? Your record of debt that stood against you with its legal demands was cancelled. How was it cancelled? It was nailed to a cross. So your sins against God were being recorded in a heavenly record, and this record had legal demands against you: you deserved to be legally condemned before God and put to death. But, God took that record of sins and nailed it to a cross. Now, you know that your record wasn’t nailed to a cross—Jesus was nailed to a cross! But, don’t you see, Jesus has so identified with your sin, your guilt, that Paul can say it was “your record” that was nailed to the cross! Jesus was nailed to the cross as your stand-in, taking the guilt and condemnation that your heavenly record had demanded, and left in its place “forgiveness.” But not only that, through His death Jesus also “disarmed the rulers and authorities” through His death on the cross. “Rulers and authorities” refers to political rulers and authorities, but it also refers to spiritual rulers and authorities that are at work behind the scenes of this world. So, for Paul, behind earthly rulers and kingdoms, there are supernatural, demonic entities at work behind them (see Eph 6:10-20). And Jesus, through His death on the cross and the forgiveness of His people’s sins, has triumphed over these demonic enemies by robbing them of their condemning power. So, ironically, Peter wanted Jesus to destroy Rome—and, He did, in a way. Jesus severed the supply line to Rome’s power at work behind the scenes by severing the demonic power that animated the wicked government, through forgiving Christians’ sins.
Beware of Cultural Blinders
Like Peter, we too can be prone to letting the cultural pressures of our day blind us from how read our Bibles. Depending on our cultural location and point of view, there are likely parts of the Bible that we really like, that really support our perspective…and likely parts that make us feel uncomfortable and we really don’t understand. We are living in a tumultuous time and we must be careful of not letting that pressure drive us to become lopsided as we apply God’s Word to our lives.
How do we guard against that? There are many things we can do, but one thing we can do is to pursue meaningful community within our church. We want to read and study our Bible together so that we aren’t boxed in by our own perspective. So we want to read our Bibles with people who look different than us, are older or younger than us, who come from a different cultural location than we do so that we aren’t left with a myopic, one-sided perspective and left blind to truths we desperately need.
Remember which kingdom you belong to
We are citizens of a heavenly kingdom. And we must never confuse that heavenly kingdom with an earthly one. We do not pursue the expansion of Jesus’ kingdom the way earthly kings view the expansion of their kingdoms. This means that we must avoid utopianism. We do not try to create heaven on earth, because we know that we will never make heaven on earth. If you are striving to create a utopia, you will resort to any means necessary to make it happen (you must crack a few eggs to make an omelet). Christians will not resort to lying, cheating, stealing, killing to expand their kingdom—we follow our crucified Messiah as sojourners and strangers on this world who are simply passing through as we await the heavenly kingdom to come in its fullness here on earth.
However, this also means that we do not fall into quietism. Jesus’ kingdom is a heavenly kingdom, but it is a real kingdom. We are not of the world, but we are in it, and we must live into submission to our heavenly kingdom here and now, as we do our work, raise our families, participate in the public square, etc. We cannot recede into the hills and stockpile cans of lima beans as we await the second coming. We must go forth and make disciples of all nations and live as ambassadors of reconciliation in this lost and dying world, demonstrating what this Heavenly King is like through our submission to Him.
Lastly, we should always remember what our biggest problem is
Peter thought his biggest problem was Rome. And Rome was a serious, major problem. However, it was nothing but a flea bite compared to what his far more serious problem was: his sin before a holy God. This was why he was so baffled by Jesus’ mission to die—he had forgotten that unless God provided a means to forgive his sins, it didn’t matter whether Rome was toppled or lasted another millennia—if his sins weren’t forgiven Peter would spend countless millenniums in hell. And dear friends, we must not forget what our biggest problem is. Your biggest problem is not Donald Trump winning the election. It is not Joe Biden winning the election. Do not be seduced by the panic of our world that wants us to believe that something as temporary as politics is your biggest concern. Your biggest problem is how your sin will not lead you to being incinerated by the wrath of the Lamb at the final day, where all of the kings and presidents and governors of the earth will be crying out to the mountains to fall on top of them so that they may hide from the wrathful eyes of God.
When you see that as your biggest problem, and how Jesus has provided the solution to that problem through His death and resurrection, then all of the other problems will be set in proper perspective. You will not be gripped by such intense fear, anxiety, or depression about the problems of this world. They are real, serious problems, and we must engage them. But we can always, always, always breathe a sigh of relief that our biggest problem has been, mercifully, graciously, gloriously, solved.
Jesus and Blindness (Mark 8:11-33)
11 The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. 12 And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” 13 And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side.
14 Now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. 15 And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” 16 And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread. 17 And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” 20 “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” 21 And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”
22 And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. 23 And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” 24 And he looked up and said, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” 25 Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. 26 And he sent him to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village.”
27 And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” 29 And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” 30 And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.
31 And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” – Mark 8:11-33
Draw three three circles on a piece of paper, with a dot in the center. These three circles represent three different types of “knowledge.” The dot at the center represents Truth, and the circle represents our distance from the truth. On the first circle, draw a line from the edge of the circle directly towards the dot at the center. This could be what we call “simple knowledge.” It is knowledge that comes about by a direct exposure to evidence. So, if you had never known that a kiwi was fuzzy because you had never seen a kiwi and then one day found a kiwi, you now know that a kiwi is fuzzy.
On the next circle, draw a line that traces the outside edge of the circle. This could be called “relativistic knowledge.” This is the belief that it is impossible to ever arrive at the truth and that our own previous experiences, commitments, worldviews permanently blind us from ever arriving at Truth—all we have is our own relative perspectives. So maybe you have one perspective on systemic racism and police brutality and someone else has a perspective on Covid-19 and someone else has a perspective on how to vote this November, but because Truth is relative, all you can do is yell and intimidate one another because there is no concrete Truth that has sway over all of us, regardless of our perspectives and worldviews.
On the last circle, draw a line from the edge of the circle that spirals in around and towards the center of the dot. We could call this “tempered knowledge.” This is the belief that acknowledges that we all are powerfully affected by our previously held commitments, worldviews, experiences, and those often create roadblocks that prevent us from having a direct access to knowledge (at least in the way “simple knowledge” does). But, this disagrees with “relativistic knowledge” in that it admits that there is such a thing as Truth, and we, from one degree to another, can move closer and closer to the Truth. And with each step closer, we realize what some of our baggage is that is limiting us from accepting the Truth, choose to set it aside, and move even closer, which reveals more limitations we were previously blind to, and can choose to set those aside, and so on and so forth.
As we look at our text today, we are going to get to interact with all three of these different perspectives as we ask the question: How can I arrive at the Truth of knowing and embracing Jesus Christ?
Mark opens up with Jesus being accosted by the Pharisees: “The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. 12 And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” 13 And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side.” (Mark 8:11-13).
In Mark’s gospel the word “to test” is not a positive word. It can also mean “to tempt” and it is only used of the Pharisees accusations and of Satan’s temptations of Christ. It is not an impartial, unbiased evaluation of the evidence. It is motivated reasoning. It is an intentional effort to interpret Jesus in as negative of a light as possible. They are looking for ways to discredit Jesus as a false Messiah (cf. John 8:6). Like spiders weaving webs to catch their prey, the Pharisees are engaging in questions with Jesus only to entrap Him.
Jesus asks why the Pharisees are even seeking a sign before curtly telling them that He will not give them any signs, and then promptly leaves. Why doesn’t Jesus perform a sign for them? The simple answer, of course, is that Jesus has given them signs. Repeatedly, throughout Mark’s gospel account the Pharisees have witnessed Jesus’ miracles, healings, and exorcisms. And what is the conclusion they have reached? In Mark 3, they are convinced that Jesus performs all these wonders because He is in league with Satan! They have already begun to plot out His death (Mark 3:6). Any other signs Jesus would have performed would have done nothing to allay their doubts. Even after Jesus is put to death and resurrects from the dead, what do they do? We are told that they pay off the Roman guards to tell everyone that the disciples stole Jesus’ body while they were asleep (Matt 28:11-15). That is a remarkable, willful resistance to accept the truth.
While I was in seminary, a certain professor was giving a lecture that a friend of mine and myself attended. I had read a book by this professor ahead of time that I disagreed with and I walked away from the lecture fairly unimpressed. But my friend, who is far smarter and far godlier than I am, went away raving about how enlightening the lecture was. Why didn’t I get the same experience? Well, likely because I went into the lecture predisposed to look for something to disagree with, and so I was blind to be able to receive anything profitable from him. My friend didn’t have that predisposition, and simply had a heart and mind that was prepared to receive, and this enabled him to glean fruit that I couldn’t. This is what the Pharisees are like—they do not lack evidence, they lack hearts that are willing to accept that evidence and all of its implications. They lack the ability to admit that they were wrong. And so they persist in their unbelief.
This is a sobering reminder for us: our commitments radically affect how we interpret reality. The woman who is in an unhealthy relationship which everyone can see but her; those on the extreme edges of the political spectrum who can see no wrong with their candidates; the self-righteous man who angrily denies he has done anything wrong. We all can be blinded by previously held commitments and can warp and twist any evidence, any information to the contrary so that the arrows of conviction that should wound us, should tell us we might be wrong, are blunted and bounce off of us. How do we guard our hearts from this? What should you do when confronted with a claim that seems to contradict a previously held belief?
This could turn into a lengthy rabbit trail, but it basically boils down to humility. Are you willing to admit you might be wrong? Are you willing to acknowledge that your understanding, the narrative you have been telling yourself may be incorrect? Perhaps you are a skeptic listening today, and I wonder if you are, in your heart of hearts, willing to admit that your previously held commitments might be wrong? Are you willing to extend the same skepticism towards your own worldview that you extend towards the Christian faith? Maybe there is a worldview with more explanatory power, more satisfying answers for the problems of this world that you have been cut off from because you have dismissed it out of hand. Can you be consistent with your skepticism and apply it just as much to your own previously held commitments?
The Pharisees could not, and so were left utterly blind to who Jesus was. But what of Jesus’ disciples? Surely, here there must be a deeper understanding, more accuracy of who Jesus is, right? Well, sort of.
Jesus speaks a parable of warning to the disciples: “Watch out: Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod,” (8:15). Jesus is speaking, as He usually does, in the form of a parable—there is a spiritual truth cloaked behind the literal meaning of the words that requires spiritual eyes to discern its meaning. Jesus is not concerned about bread products that come from the Pharisees or King Herod. “Leaven” was a metaphor for the teaching, the lifestyle, the worldviews of the two: the leaven of rigid, cold hearted self-righteousness (Pharisees) and the leaven of a lawless, sensual worldliness (Herod). There are two extremes by which one can run away from God—religion or sensuality, the prodigal son or the elder brother, self-righteousness or self-indulgence.
But the disciples completely miss this and think instead that Jesus is making a comment about their lack of literal bread. Jesus then launches into a barrage of critiques, piling up question after question: “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?” (Mark 8:17-21). The two words that Jesus begins his warning in verse 15 with are verbs for “see”—Jesus in effect says, “See, see!” only to discover that his disciples “having eyes do…not see.”
Jesus abandons his lesson of the parable and turns towards the profound unbelief of his disciples by asking them about the two feeding miracles. The disciples are worried about not having enough bread; they are consumed with their immediate needs and this has blinded them from being able to see the real meaning of Jesus’ teaching. So their unbelief is twofold—(1) their worried about running out of food, when they have just witnessed Jesus miraculously multiply bread and fish (twice!). Jesus is a walking grocery store, but they are still worried. And (2) this worry—setting their minds on the things of man—has led them to totally misunderstand Jesus’ teaching. Jesus is astounded at their unbelief.
Jesus disciples are not made up of sage gurus, mystical gnostics, or brilliant philosophers who have peered into the mysteries of the universe and discerned the beginning from the end. Mark has written his gospel account so that the reader is left somewhat shocked by the unbelief of the disciples—I mean, if you witnessed the feeding miracles, don’t you think you wouldn’t be worried about not having enough bread? Right?
Well, maybe. It is easy while reading to laugh at how dense the disciples appear to be, but I wonder if we were in their shoes if we would be any different. How many times has God answered prayer, come through, revealed His goodness to you, and yet we still doubt? I know God has gotten me through hard times before, but I don’t know about this, our hearts often tell us. Friends, we are very much like the disciples.
Sight in Stages
Mark expertly places Jesus’ next healing account in his story for a very specific purpose. After marveling at his disciples’ unbelief, Jesus travels to Bethsaida where he is immediately met by a group of people bringing a blind man to him, begging Jesus to heal him. Jesus pulls the blind man aside and (just as we saw last week with the deaf man) uses his spittle to heal him. As odd as this is to us, saliva was often used in healings of the first century. But what is more intriguing about this healing is that it is the only healing recorded in all of the gospels that happens in stages. After Jesus spits and lays his hands on the man, he asks him, “Do you see anything?” And he looked up and said, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking,” (Mark 8:23-24). So, the man’s sight is restored—but only partially. “Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly,” (Mark 8:25).
What is happening here? Jesus is showing us, and his disciples, a physical picture of what is happening to them spiritually. Remember, Jesus tells his disciples to “look, look!” back in verse 15, and then lamented, “you have eyes, but you do not see, you do not perceive” in verse 18. Blindness is repeatedly used by Jesus and the Bible as a metaphor for the spiritual state of those alienated from God. The disciples are like this man has had his sight partially restored. They are not like the Pharisees, who are totally blind. But they also do not see everything clearly. They see dimly. This is illustrated again by the immediately following story (which we will look at much more closely next week).
Jesus asks His disciples who He is, and Peter gives the correct answer: “You are the Messiah.” In Matthew’s account of this, Jesus praises Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven,” (Matt 16:17). God is at work in Peter’s heart, revealing truth to Him. “Flesh and blood” is a biblical idiom that just means what is natural and normal to mankind, apart from God. In other words, Peter could not have come to that conclusion on His own—God revealed it to him. If that isn’t a description of “seeing clearly” than I’m not sure what is!
Nevertheless, the great confession of Peter, is ironically almost immediately met by the great rebuke from Jesus. Jesus begins to teach his disciples that he will be killed and three days later, rise again. Mark tells us, “And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man,” (Mark 8:33).
Isn’t this astonishing? In one breath, Jesus is praising Peter and acknowledging that God has revealed truth to him, then in the next he acknowledges that Peter is thinking like Satan! Peter is somehow filled with God’s insight, and Satan’s thinking, simultaneously. This is Peter, the leader of the disciples, representing what all of Jesus’ disciples are like—seeing partially, but still blind; understanding in a way, but still confused; believing, but still filled with unbelief.
So, how should we apply this truth to ourselves today? What should we do when we come face to face with our own unbelief?
Do Not Despair
Jesus’ own disciples, the core team of the Jesus movement, the foundation on which the church is built, were filled with doubts, ignorance, and unbelief. And yet, Jesus still chooses them, still uses them, still calls them “friends” and “brothers,” still loves them. If you find within yourself unsettling depths of doubt, seasons of skepticism, or even the lingering thought do I really believe this? while walking the Christian life, do not despair. God rescues us from our blindness, but we only see partially. While in Jesus we are saved from the penalty of sin, and the power of sin, we are not yet delivered from the presence of sin, and won’t be till the day we die. So, we ought not despair when our sin still taints even the best of our good works with lingering doubts, unbelief, misunderstandings, or total misapprehensions about God.
Two friends are skating on a frozen pond. One is under the impression that the I ce will become thinner the further out you go, so he is anxious and timid as he skates towards the center. The other knows that when a pond freezes, the ice is actually the thickest in the center, so he skates at the center of the lake with a peace of mind. One of the skaters is filled with fear, the other with serenity, both have very different levels of faith, and yet both remain safe as they skate, because it is not their confidence in the ice that keeps them from breaking through, it is the strength of the ice itself that holds them up.
You are not saved by the strength of your faith, but the object of your faith. Jesus is willing to take you, forgive you, embrace you—even if you are still filled with some measure of unbelief. He is not scared by your doubt. I think that is hard for us to really come to grips with because we often think, Well, if I was in God’s shoes, I wouldn’t put up with this, I wouldn’t stand for this flighty, mixture of doubt and faith, and so we assume that, in our darker moments when we realize just how much unbelief lies under the hood, we assume: Surely, God couldn’t want me! But friends, praise God, God isn’t like you! Hear this good news from Isaiah 55:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa 55:8-9). Perhaps you are familiar with that verse; I’m guessing that you have heard it used at times to describe when God does something that just doesn’t make sense to us, whether that be not answering a prayer the way we would like or sending some strange season of suffering into our life. Why would God do this? we think, and we often hear, “Well, God’s ways are not your ways.” And that is, of course, true. But have you ever read the verses right before that passage? Let’s read it all:
“Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD,” (Isa 55:6-8). What is the most baffling, confounding heavenly mystery that makes God’s ways so unlike our ways? God’s compassion for the wicked; his abundant mercy towards the unrighteous. So, friends, do not project your own human limitations of forgiveness onto your heavenly Father. He is not like you. You may wrestle with how you could love and forgive someone who is as inconsistent and disingenuous as you are—but God doesn’t. He has an abundance of forgiveness that He is eager to dole out upon his stumbling, wayward children, even as they harbor suspicions that maybe He doesn’t really care for them. Rest in the sweet thought that your God is not like you. Paul reminds us, “If we are faithless, he remains faithful,” 2 Tim 2:13. Do not despair.
Jesus rebukes his disciples for their lack of faith, and gives Peter one of the most stinging rebukes in all of history. But this is precisely what can happen when you realized just how radically God loves you. When you know that you are not accepted on the basis of your performance, by the strength of your faith, then you become far less protective and sensitive, you become far more open to accepting correction, even criticism. You will even see brothers and sisters who bring correction to you as an act of love. If we are to love one another as Jesus loves us, then we must speak the truth to one another as Jesus does to us.
While Jesus accepts us and loves us as we are, He has no intention whatsoever to leave us as we are. Unbelief is a terrible plague on our joy, on our faithfulness, on our consistency. We no more want to maintain our unbelief than we would want to keep poison in our system. So, friends, lean into the rebukes from the Lord. Remind yourself that you are not justified by your performance, so when your performance is exposed to be lacking, your salvation is not in danger! This means that when a brother or sister points out areas in our life that seem to reflect a lack of faith, don’t become defensive! Don’t ignore it and tell yourselves a bunch of lies about how awesome you are (so they must be wrong), or how abysmal you are and don’t deserve to be called a Christian (so there is no hope for you ever changing). Both of those responses show that you do not really believe that you are saved apart from your works. Both of those responses say: I am saved by how good of a person I am, therefore I will either defend my righteousness intensely against any assaults, or I will admit that my righteousness is insufficient and will collapse into a pit of despair. Both are a rejection of the gospel, and both will keep you from ever actually changing.
Faithful are the wounds of a friend (Prov 27:6), so let yourself be wounded so that you may recognize your persisting unbelief, repent, ask the Lord for help, and grow.
Long for Heaven
There will be a day when you will be freed from all unbelief. Paul explains, “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known,” 1 Cor 13:9-12. When Jesus returns, He will remove all of the scales on your eyes. He will pull all of the venom of sin from your heart, all of your cravings for the flesh, all the worldliness that has polluted your mind. And your knowledge, your faith will flower into full maturity, the way a child grows into a man.
So, as we labor on the way, beset with sins, temptations, and unbelief, as we mourn our lack of faith, remember—a day is coming when it will not be so. We will behold our God with our eyes, and He will dwell with us, forever. Long for that day, hope for that day, rest knowing that day will soon come.
Jesus and Outsiders (Mark 7:24-8:10)
24 And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. 25 But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs.” 29 And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” 30 And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.
31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. 34 And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
1 In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, 2 “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. 3 And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.” 4 And his disciples answered him, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” 5 And he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” 6 And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. 7 And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. 8 And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. 9 And there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. 10 And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha. – Mark 7:24-8:10
One interesting cultural dimension we regularly come across when reading the Bible is the distinction of “clean/unclean.” It seems foreign to us modern Westerners because our society simply doesn’t have this same emphasis. At least, we don’t think we do. While we may not have official, political and religious clean/unclean distinctions (as some countries still do today), we have unofficial categories of individuals, groups, and types of people whom we would never want to associate with. Today, with the political tensions in the air, that may come across political divides. But it is easier to see when looking back on history.
Just this last week, on September 8th, was Ruby Bridges 66th birthday, the first African-American student to integrate an American elementary school in the South, at the tender age of six years old. Ruby and her mother had to be escorted by US Marshalls on their way to school in New Orleans every day of the year, as they marched pass protestors screaming slurs and threats at them, at one point seeing a woman holding a small coffin with a black baby doll in it. The entire school board assumed that Ruby, being black, would simply not be academically capable of keeping up with the other white students. There was only one teacher who was willing to take Ruby on as a student, and the rest of the students in that class were removed by their parents to other classes or pulled entirely from the school—Ruby spent every day of that school year eating lunch alone. Ruby’s father lost his job, her mother was refused service at grocery-stores, and her grandparents, share-croppers, were evicted off their farm.
Today, as we look back on the bravery of a young six-year-old girl and her parents and are appalled at such overt racism, we are given a helpful analogy for how the people of Jesus’ time would have viewed those who were deemed “unclean.” Why did parents pull their children from being in Ruby’s classroom? While there was no law or religious code enforcing it, they all felt, in some degree, that being around an African-American was somehow detrimental to their children. Of course, this is not a perfect analogy for the clean/unclean of Jesus’ day—which was not exclusively race based (Jews could make themselves ritually unclean), but the posture that ardent Jews of Jesus’ day felt towards outsiders, non-Jews, was very, very similar. As we look at the story of Jesus we will see, time and time again, that Jesus seems to always go out of His way to push against this mentality. Jesus works intentionally to show that with His coming, those who are on the “outside” are brought in.
A Gospel Recap
As Christian preached last week, Jesus has come as the long expected Jewish Messiah, “from the right line at the right time.” However, He also wasn’t what anyone expected. Jesus is extremely popular with the common people, but He associates with individuals and does things that lead the religious elites to become incredibly skeptical, even to the point of being convinced that He needs to be put to death.
At the beginning of Mark 7, Jesus enters into another debate with the religious leaders, who note that His disciples do not follow their traditions of ceremonially cleansing their hands before they eat. This was not a teaching from the Bible, but was an additional practice that they had built around the Old Testament’s purity laws. After Jesus exposes their hypocritical adherence to their own traditions at the expense of the clear commands of the Law (Mark 7:6-13), He then shockingly explains that ingesting the wrong food is not what makes you ceremonially unclean, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him…For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person,” (Mark 7:15, 20-23). Where does defilement come from? Certainly not from eating with unwashed hands—Jesus says that there is “nothing outside a person” that can make him unclean. Rather, impurity is buried in our hearts and is made manifest by our sin and sinful desires.
The problem is not “out there,” friends, but “in here.” The source of sin is not in ideologies, people groups, politicians, or Hollywood. We can certainly see its effects there. But the nuclear reactor of sin lies within the heart of every human being—we are the problem. When a fog or smoke lies thick, you notice that it always looks like it is forms a thick wall just a few hundred yards ahead of you, but right next to you it appears that there is no fog, no smoke, when really you are just as much in the smoke as those far away from you. That is what sin is like; it looks like it is always out there, far away from you, when in reality you are just as mired in it as everyone else.
Mark, as he is relaying this account, provides this concise editorial comment: “Thus he declared all foods clean,” Mark 7:19b. What does that mean? It means that Mark is understanding that Jesus has brought about a cataclysmic, watershed moment in the history of redemption. The old covenant prescribed a number of specific laws that marked God’s people off as distinct and unique from the surrounding nations, the non-Jews. God’s program with His people in the Old Testament was to create a gathered nation-state that was marked off by God’s laws of morality, purity, and civil codes. One of those distinct laws was the kosher laws surrounding food: certain foods were off-limits for Israel to eat. When Jesus pronounces that all foods are clean, He is signaling that there is now coming a change to God’s covenant with His people—and that is precisely what Jesus has come to do, to bring about a new covenant. This means that the civil laws of Israel and the purity of laws of Israel are now set aside. But this also means that God’s people are now no longer required to adopt many of the traditional Jewish customs in order to be included in God’s family—which means that a relationship with Yahweh, something that primarily has been with Jews, is now open and available to non-Jews, Gentiles.
Remember, Jesus says that “nothing outside a person defiles him”—not just food, but there is no-thing that can make someone unclean, and that includes other people too! This was Peter’s lesson he had to learn when he was told to go preach the gospel to the Gentile, Cornelius.
Now Mark is going to show us the same truths that Peter learned: that if foods can’t be unclean, then people can’t be unclean either. Mark sandwiches three stories of Jesus interacting with Gentiles immediately after this declaration of all foods being clean: the Syrophoencian woman, the healing of the mute man, and the feeding of the four thousand. All of these are showing what Mark has been laboring to show all along in his gospel with Jesus’ interactions with women, lepers, demon-possessed, sinners, and tax-collectors: Jesus has come to turn outsiders into insiders, and to reveal that those who thought they were insiders are really outside (See Mark 3:22-35). Let’s look at these three accounts in reverse order
The Four Thousand (Mark 8:1-10)
We are told that during Jesus’ time of being in a Gentile territory (“In those days” 8:1), He is teaching to a great crowd out in a desolate area for three days and they are left with nothing to eat. Jesus then performs play by play almost the exact same miracle we saw a few chapters earlier where he fed the five thousand (Mark 6:30-44). But the five thousand He fed then were five thousand Jews, and in John’s gospel Jesus explains the symbolic significance of this feeding by comparing Himself to Moses who gave the Israelites bread from heaven (manna) in the wilderness (John 6). However, here, Jesus is performing the same miracle, acting as a new Moses to Gentiles. A new Moses to Gentiles? How could that be? Well, Jesus has come, as Paul tells the Ephesians, to take Gentiles who were once estranged from Israel and to unite the two together into one new man (Eph 2:11-22).
The Deaf Man (Mark 7:31-37)
While Jesus is in the Gentile region of the Decapolis (7:31) a deaf man with a speech impediment is brought to Jesus and we are told that those who brought him “begged Jesus to lay his hand on him,” (7:32). While “laying your hand” on a Gentile was not as outrageous as laying a hand on a leper or a woman with a discharge of blood, it would was still culturally not proper to touch a Gentile (see John 18:28 where the Pharisees refuse to even enter Pilate’s headquarters lest they become defiled). Here, however, Jesus not only lays His hands on them but He thrusts his fingers into the man’s ears and places his spit on the man’s tongue!
Jesus’ use of spittle to perform a healing appears totally baffling to us—especially because thus far Jesus has healed people exclusively with His words or at times laying His hands on them. Why use spit here? Well, we aren’t sure. Apparently spittle was commonly used at that time for medicinal purposes, so perhaps Jesus was just accommodating to popular customs, perhaps He wanted others to know that He wasn’t casting a demon out of this man, but merely healing an infirmity. We aren’t sure exactly, but we know that Jesus’ physical interaction with a Gentile would have certainly raised some eyebrows.
Even more surprising, the word used to describe this man’s speech impediment is only used one other place in the entire Bible. It is the prophecy of Isaiah 35 where God promises that when Israel’s exile ends, He personally will come and deliver them and He will transform the world into the glorious New Creation: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy,” Isaiah 35:5-6a. What does this mean? It means that Jesus is bringing about the end of His people’s exile—but, wonder of wonders, He is including Gentiles in the promise of new creation!
The Syrophoenician Woman (Mark 7:24-30)
Certainly the most surprising of the three stories rests with the account of the Syrophoenician woman. This is surprising, first, because of the region that Jesus travels to: Tyre and Sidon. Tyre (formerly known as Phoenicia) had been the home of Jezebel, the wife of the pagan king Ahab. Together they were the most wicked power couple of the entire Old Testament; they represent Israel when it is at its worst. There is a reason that no one names their son Judas, and there is a reason that no one names their daughter Jezebel. Tyre is repeatedly decried for its wickedness by the prophets in the Old Testament (Ezek 26:17; Zech 9:3) and was also a bitter enemy of Israel, who sided with Seleucid armies against Israel during the Maccabean revolt. Furthermore, Tyre was infamous for their extreme and gross pagan worship.
Nevertheless, Jesus journeys to what would have been seen as a region that no faithful Jew should ever venture. And there He finds a woman who “falls down at his feet,” (Mark 7:25). The last person to fall down at Jesus’ feet was Jairus in Mark 5:22. Jairus could not be in a more different social class than this woman—he was a man, a Jew, and a ruler of a synagogue. In 7:26 we read what one commentator calls a “crescendo of demerit,” “Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth and she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.” She is (1) a woman, (2) a Gentile, (3) not just any Gentile, but a Syrophoenician, and (4) her daughter has a demon. Nevertheless, she literally throws herself onto Jesus and pleads for His help. Even Matthew the tax collector would have been scandalized by this woman.
Jesus response is surprising. He speaks to the woman in a parable: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” Mark 7:27. What does Jesus mean by that? He seems to be echoing a common Jewish sentiment—Gentiles were unclean, like dogs. They were not “God’s children,” that is, Israel. So why should Israel’s Messiah be consorting with or helping those outside of Israel? But look at the woman’s response: “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter,” Mark 7:28-29. In Matthew’s account of this, Jesus responds to the woman: “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done as you desire,” Matt 15:28. Jesus at first appears cold and disinterested, but then immediately flips and commends this woman’s faith and grants her request. What happened?
First, notice that this woman with such a shameful social standing is the first person in Mark’s gospel who understands one of Jesus’ parables. She answers back to Jesus from within the parable itself, knowing exactly what Jesus means by it—Jesus’ own disciples don’t even understand the parables without Jesus’ special help. Earlier, as Jesus is laboring to explain the true source of defilement, He cries out: “Hear me, all of you, and understand,” (Mark 7:14). In Mark’s gospel, a true disciple is marked by someone who hears Jesus’ words, understands them, and applies them (Mark 4:20). Here, we have the first example of someone hearing, understanding, and applying Jesus’ words—this woman is, at this time, somehow more of a disciple of Jesus than His disciples are.
But what is it that she understands? As the text says, she understands that Jesus’ evaluation of her is correct: she is a dog, she is unclean. She doesn’t deserve anything from Jesus. And yet she comes, asking for just the crumbs from His table, unclean though she be. And it is this acknowledgment, this confession of total spiritual bankruptcy which turns Jesus’ loving heart towards her. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:3). This is exactly what Jesus is wanting to teach His disciples, wanting to teach us all: what makes us unclean isn’t something out there but what is in here. It is not certain human beings who make us unclean, but rather our own human nature, our sin, which makes us unclean. As the prophet Isaiah tells us: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags,” Isa 64:6.
After Lady Macbeth goads her husband into killing Duncan, she eventually becomes haunted by her guilt, by her uncleanness. She sleepwalks to the sink and manically scrubs her hands: Out, damned spot! What is she doing? Lady Macbeth is desperately trying to wash her hands clean of symbolic blood that stains them, but nothing eases her agonized conscience. Not all the perfumes of Arabia could sweeten this little hand, she tells us. That’s what Isaiah is telling us. No righteous deeds, no good works, no amount of charity, no donations, or activism, or penance will make us clean. Not even coming from a religious background, being raised a Jew, will make you presentable before God. And it is only when we recognize that truth that we can have an authentic encounter with Jesus Christ.
Admit Your Need
Do you remember the story of Jesus healing the blind man in John 9? After Jesus heals the man he explains: “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard these things, and said to him, “Are we also blind?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains,” (John 9:39-41). The only people who are kept from seeing Jesus are those who see no problem with themselves. Non-Christian listening today: your doubts are not keeping you from Jesus, your past sins, your guilt, your burdens are not what are preventing you from coming to Jesus. In fact, they are the very things that qualify you to come. Jesus has come for the sinners, not the righteous. For the unclean, not the clean. And if you will merely admit your need, admit your sin, and like the woman fling yourself at Jesus’ feet for mercy, you will find it. He is gentle and lowly, a merciful high priest who will in no way shut you out. He is eager and able to save you to the uttermost. His death on the cross has secured every means necessary to provide cleansing, forgiveness, and restoration. Did you feel like an imposter wearing white on your wedding day? Do you feel like a phony leading your family in prayers? Do you feel like if any of your closest friends were to find out how deep your doubt, greed, and lust were they would be repulsed by you? Jesus is here, with open arms for you today.
Nothing in my hand I bring
Simply to the Cross I cling
Naked come to thee for dress
Helpless look to thee for grace
Foul I to the fountain fly
Wash me Savior, or I die
Dear Christian, recipient of grace, do you treat others the way Christ has treated you? Are there “outsiders” that, in your estimation, don’t deserve the time of day? In our day, the biggest divide might be across political barriers. Would you be able to sit down and share a meal with someone you strongly disagreed with politically? Would you be able to see how Christ may invite them in, or already has, to be a part of His family, to be your sibling in Christ?