Text: Mark 8:27-38
Mark’s Gospel simply bursts with energy. Compared with the other three Gospels, this one focuses less on what Jesus taught, more on what he did. Mark rushes breathlessly from one event to another, brandishing his favourite word, ‘immediately’.
It would be a mistake, however, to regard Mark’s Gospel as a mishmash of frantic activity. The whole of the first half of the Gospel is dominated by a huge question mark. It’s a question mark about Jesus himself. Who is this man?
1:27 – Jesus commands an evil spirit to come out of a man, and the people wonder, “What is this? A new teaching – and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him!”
2:7 – Jesus heals a paralysed man, and pronounces his sins forgiven, and the teachers of the law fume, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
4:41 – In the famous stilling of the storm episode, he rebukes the howling wind and calms the crashing waves, and his disciples ask one another, “Who is this?”
6:2 – He teaches in the synagogue, and many who hear him are amazed. “Where did this man get these things?” they ask. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles!”
By the time we reach chapter 8, Jesus himself seems to be waiting for the penny to drop. Indeed, in 8:21 he expresses his amazement to his disciples, “Do you still not understand?”
It is against this background of questioning who Jesus is, that he takes his disciples to one side and quizzes them, 8:27. “Who do people say I am?” You see their answer in v28 – “Some say you’re John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
Well, these answers are very complimentary towards Jesus, aren’t they? John, Elijah and the prophets were all highly thought of, and to count Jesus as a member of that elite company seems very respectful. There are many opinions about Jesus on offer today, and some of these are also quite complimentary. Sir Elton John, who has said that he would like to ban all organised religion, nevertheless adds that he loves the idea of the teachings of Jesus Christ and all the beautiful stories he learned in Sunday School. Even that arch-atheist Prof Richard Dawkins, who would like to ban God, has something nice to say about Jesus. ‘Jesus (he writes) was surely one of the great ethical innovators of history…His “turn the other cheek” anticipated Gandhi and Martin Luther King by two thousand years.’
No, it’s not difficult to find people who are prepared to say something complimentary about Jesus. But Jesus is not fishing for compliments. He’s looking for commitment, as we shall see presently. So in v29 he puts the disciples themselves on the spot. “But what about you? Who do you say I am?”
It is Peter, as usual, who steps up to the plate. Blustering, impulsive, speak now/think later Peter. But this time when he opens his mouth, out comes a stunning truth. “You are the Christ.”
There is an unfortunate tendency to think of ‘Christ’ as merely a surname for Jesus. But ‘Christ’ is not a name, it’s a title. Giving someone the name, ‘George King’ is not the same as conferring on him the title, ‘George the King’. According to Peter, Jesus is, ‘the Christ’, meaning, ‘God’s anointed one; the Messiah.’ Repeatedly, those very OT prophets had spoken of One who would come and save God’s people. Now, from the lips of Peter comes the great confession, “You are that Promised One. You are the Christ.” The prophets were the forerunners of the One who was to come. Jesus is that One.
It is a truly amazing confession. We have had 2,000 years to get used to the idea. Our problem is familiarity. But Peter was having to work it out for the first time. The challenge for him was the novelty of the idea. But he got it right. Don’t let either the familiarity or the novelty of this truth prevent you from facing up to it and to its implications.
And it does have implications. Flowing from Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ, come two imperatives. Two great ‘musts’. One of these applies to Jesus himself; the other applies to everyone else.
(a) What Jesus must do. V31 – He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and be killed and after three days rise again.
Have you ever wondered why Jesus accepted Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ,” but then told the disciples to keep it to themselves, v30? I think the answer must be that they had yet to learn what it meant for him to be the Christ, the Messiah. They were expecting the Messiah to be a mighty ruler, one who would overthrow those nasty Romans and free the nation from tyranny. So Peter took Jesus to one side and began to tell him off him about all this talk about suffering and death, v32.
Interestingly, there are 1.5 million people in the UK today who would tend to side with Peter on this one. These are the followers of the Islamic faith. Moslems hold Jesus in high esteem. They honour him as a prophet. They believe that he was a miracle-worker. They even refer to him as the Messiah. But not this kind of Messiah. Not a crucified Messiah.
Just look at the strength of Jesus’ reaction to Peter, v33. “Get behind me, Satan!” No Pharisee was ever rebuked more sternly than Peter was that day. Well might Peter have complained, “Lord, if this is how you talk to your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few!” Peter didn’t mean any harm, of course; he thought he had his Master’s best interests at heart. But Jesus recognised in Peter’s words a devilish temptation – yes, the very kind of temptation he had already withstood in the wilderness.
‘The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected and killed and after three days rise again.’
What a world of meaning there is in that little word, ‘must’! Throughout his ministry, Jesus was acutely aware that God had spoken in the Scriptures, and that his life and work were the fulfilment of those Scriptures. As he kept saying, (eg 14:49), “the Scriptures must be fulfilled”. Yes: this ‘must’ is a scriptural imperative, and behind that scriptural imperative is a divine imperative. He must suffer and be killed and rise again because this was the will of his heavenly Father. “It was the will of the Lord to bruise him.” Out of love the Father freely sent. Out of love the Son freely came. Broken for me. Broken for you. Pierced for our transgressions.
A messiah – a Christ – who was not a king, then, but a servant. Not a victor, but a victim. Not all-conquering, but all-suffering. And you can’t be all of those things at the same time, can you? (Well yes, resurrection says that you can, but that possibility seems to have completely passed Peter by until the day it actually happened, the day when Jesus did rise triumphantly from his grave).
This then is the first imperative that flows from Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ, and it’s one that applies to Jesus himself. “The Son of Man must suffer and be rejected and be killed and after three days rise again.”
But there is a second imperative, a second ‘must’, and this one applies to everybody.
(b) What we must do. v34 Then Jesus called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Folks, self-denial isn’t really about giving up chocolate for Lent, and that kind of thing. It isn’t just about saying “No” to things. It’s about saying “No” to self in order to say “Yes” to God. It’s about total commitment. It’s about ridding ourselves of all malice and deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind, in order that we may declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light (1 Pet 2).
Similarly with cross-bearing. We tend to think of carrying a cross as reluctantly shouldering some kind of burden, as in, “She has a very bad-tempered husband. It’s a cross she has to bear.” But, again, that isn’t what Jesus is talking about here. The Romans compelled a condemned man to carry his cross, or at least the cross-bar, to the place of execution. For the Christian to take up his cross means, accordingly, to count himself as good as dead. ‘When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.’ (Bonhoeffer) Again, it’s about total commitment.
It’s not immediately appealing, is it, this call to total commitment? As someone has remarked, ‘when Jesus said, “Let’s eat” he got 5,000. When he said, “Let’s witness” he got 70. When he said, “Let’s go to the cross” they all disappeared.
But the great paradox is, that in committing everything, we gain everything. In dying, we live. In losing ourselves, we find ourselves. As Jesus puts it in v35, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
So, in committing ourselves to Jesus the Christ, we can be as fully satisfied with our side of the bargain, as he is with his, ‘who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.’ ‘He shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul, and be satisfied.’
Let’s marvel anew at the sacrifice of Jesus, and the love that made it possible. And let’s commit ourselves afresh to Jesus the Christ, the one who suffered and died and rose again for us, in order that we might die and rise again with him.
‘Love so amazing, so divine’ demands no less.