Let’s look at this non-Mother’s Day passage. It is a tough passage, one of the most challenging passages of scripture in the Bible. And it forms what we could call a hinge in the book of Mark. Chapters 1-8. If you’re just visiting with us, we’re in the middle of a study of the Gospel of Mark. And we’ve been looking at chapters 1-8, which basically answer the question, who is Jesus? But chapters 9-16 answer the question, what did he come to do? What did Jesus come to do? And this little section we’re going to look at this morning, we’re not going to probably get quite to 9:1. We’ll have to come back and grab that next week. But that section forms the hinge of the book of Mark, because it moves us from Jesus’ identity to Jesus’ mission — who he is to what he came to do. And we want to be able to embrace fully who Jesus really is and then grasp what he came to do. So, let’s ask for his help.
Father, this week we, on the National Day of Prayer this Thursday, we cried out for your mercy to fall on our nation. We don’t deserve your mercy, but we pray for it. We beg you to provide wisdom for our leaders. Our greatest need is revival in our churches. And we pray that this message would be a part of your answer to our prayer, that you would begin with us, that you would open our eyes. We would be like that blind beggar we met last week in Mark 8, who knew he needed you, who knew he couldn’t see on his own, who knew if he didn’t get a miracle from you, he had no hope. And Lord, we pray that you would open our eyes like you opened his eyes. And even if it takes two touches so that we, like him, are not seeing people walking as trees; we would see clearly, that we would not be like the disciples who were with you but did not fully grasp who you were, what you came to do. So, we need your help. We pray that in the end, we would deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow you. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.
So, who is Jesus? What is his identity? In verses 27-30 of Mark 8, Jesus is walking with his disciples to Caesarea Philippi. It’s about a one-day walk. It’s a long walk, 25 miles north of Bethsaida. The city was known for its worship of Pan, this half goat, half human idol. The people built shrines in the cliff at the base of Mount Hermon. The caves were believed at that time to be the winter homes of the gods. They would go into the caves in the winter and then come out for spring. And there’s some evidence they practiced not just animal sacrifice there, but also human sacrifice.
So, Jesus is walking with his disciples to Caesarea Philippi and in verse 27 he asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They say, “Word on the streets, John the Baptist reincarnated. Other people say Elijah. Other people say one of the prophets.” And then Jesus moves closer. “Well, who do you say that I am?” Verse 29, “Who do you say that I am?” And notice, Jesus refuses to allow his disciples to merely put a finger in the wind as pollsters or spectators, but he’s pressing into their hearts. Who do you believe I am?
And Peter, as the spokesman answers, “You are the Christ.” Christ is not Jesus’ last name; it is his title, Messiah. It literally means, “you are the anointed one.” In the Old Testament, prophets, priests, kings were anointed. The Messiah is the culmination of all these anointed roles. He is the ultimate, the above-and-beyond the prophet Moses or Elijah. He is the above-and-beyond the priest Aaron or the King David. He is the destiny of all those anointed ones. He is the anointed One. Peter proclaims this.
Edwards points out that the geography is significant. Remember, Jesus is walking with his disciples in between the religious conservatism of Jerusalem, the idolatrous paganism of Caesarea Philippi, and he travels by (that’s this picture here) Gamala, which is where Judas the Galilean in A.D. 6 started a revolt against Rome when Rome required them to participate in the census. He refused to participate, revolted. His sons in A.D. 66… He formed the Zealots and his sons rose up in revolt against Rome, which prompted Rome to send the armies of Vespasian and Titus that decimated Israel. So, picture this. He’s traveling between the religious conservatism of Jerusalem, the idolatrous paganism of Caesarea Philippi, by the national extremism of Gamala, and it’s as if he’s saying, “I will not be your culturally manufactured Messiah. I’m not your spiritual avatar. You don’t make me into what you think a Messiah should be. I am who I am.” Peter rightly described Jesus’ identity but had no clue about what Jesus had really come to do.
And that is why in verse 30, you wonder why did Jesus strictly charge them to tell no one? It is because they didn’t understand his mission. He’s not going to just jump on whatever they want to support. He is on a very specific mission. He will one day call them to make disciples of all nations. But for now, don’t tell anyone. And then look what he does. And this is the hinge that moves us from who Jesus is to what he came to do, his mission in verse 31. And we could break this into two parts, Christ’s call and our call. In verse 31, Christ’s call.
“And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must [that’s language of call] 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.”
There is no way for us to understand the shock that these disciples experienced when Jesus spoke these words. They did not have a category for this. If you read the Jewish writings about the coming Messiah, they skipped passages like Isaiah 53. You won’t read of them describing a Messiah who would suffer. You would you read about them describing a Messiah who will conquer.
And so the disciples have no category, they don’t even know what to do with this. It’s like us talking about an Army Ranger who’s a passivist, a comedian who’s never been funny, a cliff climber who is paralyzed by heights. You’re like, “What are you talking about?” It’s like a mailman who shows up, he knocks at your door, and he just looks at you. “You got any mail?” “No.” What are you doing here? Why did you come? That’s the feeling. You’re a Messiah and you’re going to be rejected, and you’re going to die. Why did you come? What are you doing here? What good are you?
And it’s even worse than that. It’s not just that he’s not going to conquer the enemy, he’s predicting his own demise. And it’s worse than that. His death is executed by the best of the day. It’s not like he’s going to be mugged by a gang of thugs on a mountain pass. He’s going to be executed (verse 31) by the Sanhedrin. The elders, chief priests and scribes were known as the Sanhedrin. They were viewed in that day — I know we don’t think of them this way now — but in that day they would have been viewed as the epitome of purity, the best of the best. You’re telling me the best of the best is going to execute the one who was sent by God to rescue us? This makes no sense at all.
And that’s why Peter, in verse 32, is so upset and he took Jesus aside. You could just imagine this. “Come on, Jesus, let me clarify something. You can’t talk like this. You can’t.” It’s like a coach right before a big game telling the team, “You’re going to lose.” This is not going to fly. And this is very strong language in verse 32. He rebukes him. This is a reference to a couple of weeks ago. Peter is climbing to the very tip top of Mount Stupid to rebuke Jesus. And so, Jesus responds in verse 33 saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” Woah! Peter, you know, enough to be satanic. He knows who Jesus is, but he rejects why Jesus came. Satan knows who Jesus is and rejects why Jesus came. In Matthew 4, remember the temptation of Jesus by Satan. Satan promised Jesus food, security, kingdoms — you can have it all without a cross — and Jesus rejected that. Peter is preaching Satan’s sermon. You can have it all without a cross. And Jesus will have none of it and rebukes him sharply and explains in verse 33b,
“For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
You’re thinking like a human, Peter. It’s possible to be logical and diabolical. You can be reasonable and reason yourself to hell. Jesus is saying, there is a divine logic that I’m revealing to you that includes a cross, and if you remove the cross, you’ve totally perverted the mission.
And then he goes even further. And this is the part that is breathtaking for all of us, because it’s one thing to hear Jesus say, “Okay, you’re going to do that? That sounds horrible. But then he turns to us, and he describes the fact that his call is our call. Verse 34.
“If anyone would come after me.” [In other words, there’s no other way to come after me.] “If anyone would come after me [you’re going to do three things], let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.”
What does that mean, “deny himself”? What am I denying? You’re denying your old, natural identity of individual expression and cultural confirmation — who I think I am, who I long to be, what my culture says about who I think I am. You’re denying that. You’re taking up a cross. What does a cross represent? Not a beautiful little gold piece around your neck, but it represents opposition, rejection, humiliation, shame, pain, death. Oh. And then follow me. Follow me. This takes us way back to the beginning of Mark, when we started, the very second message. Jesus spoke to a group of fishermen. “Follow me, and I will make you [what?] fishers of men.” The “I will make you part” Jesus floats out there, but now speaks plainly. Let me tell you how I’m going to make you from being fishers of fish to fishers of men. And it includes a cross.
Now, Jesus is stating so plainly what is so unattractive to any sane human that you have to ask the question, who would want to do this? Who would want to follow him? Why are we even talking about him 2000 years later? This message should have died fast. Deny yourself, take up your cross, follow me. Any fans?
And so this is what’s so remarkable about this section. Jesus anticipates this and recognized no sane human is going to want to do this. So, he gives us reasons, incentives. He gives four. Notice the four “fors.” Four FORs, reasons to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me. I’ll combine the two middle ones, and we’ll mention three because the middle two sound similar. I know this is crazy, but I want to give you reasons to do this.
Number 1, the way to life. I’m telling you the way to life. Verse 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.”
The disciples, just like us, we imagine a Messiah who will come and save our way of life. And that way typically is a direct line. I need money. I need happiness. I need victory over my foes. I need health. I need protection. So, straight line, save life. But Jesus is warning us that this is a failed strategy. If you try to save your life, you will actually what? You will lose it. If you try to avoid risk, rejection, hardship at all costs, you will guarantee you will lose it. Jesus is offering a better way and this way of life is not just the inevitable result of living in a fallen world. It’s actually a path, the way of the cross, and the way to experiencing real life. You can’t save your life by trying to save your life. It’s counterintuitive.
I told this story years ago, but I continually think about this horrible example. Our family was up in Virginia visiting friends. They were running a bed and breakfast at the time. So, we’re sitting around eating breakfast, reading newspapers. Do you remember newspapers? And there was a horrible story about a boy who drowned. And as I’m reading this, I started to read it to the friend I’m staying with. And this boy was only a little shorter than the depth of the water he drowned in. And worse than that, there were people nearby who could have rescued him.
And so, as I’m reading this, the pragmatism is just kicking in and I said to my friend, “If he had just let himself go down a little bit and pushed off the bottom of the pond, he could have pushed his head above water easily and breathed and called for help and then go back down. And do it a couple of times until someone could get there.” And as I’m describing this to my friend who almost drowned before he learned to swim, he said, “A drowning person will never go down to come up, ever.” You will thrash, you will flail, you will fight until you drown.
What a picture of us, right? We’re not going to go down to come up. We’re going to spend our whole lives flailing to try to keep ourselves above water. And in the end, we can’t. If you try to save your life, you will lose it. But if you lose your life (and this isn’t just fatalism). Notice, he says, “For [me and the gospel’s sake].” This is intensely personal. Jesus is more interested in saving your life than you are interested in saving your life. That’s why he says, “Come to me. If anyone would come [to] me … Deny self … Take up cross … Follow me.” End of verse 35, “For… whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”
No one who goes down to the cross will not be raised up to resurrection. If you go down with Christ, you will come up with Christ. So, the first reason Jesus … Remember Jesus is arguing with us to convince us to save our lives. Talk about compassion. And he’s saying the first reason is, this is the way to life.
The second reason he gives us is the value of a soul (verse 36). These are the next two FORs, FORs.
“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?”
Here Jesus moves into the business world. Hypothetically, if you could turn your soul into Bitcoin or cash and buy anything and everything you could ever want — material or immaterial — buy it all, but in the end, you spent your soul. Would it be worth it? And the obvious answer is, no. A soulless person is a non-person. You got shafted. You believed the lie. What can a man give in return for his soul? The value of a soul.
Third reason he gives is the role of shame. The role of shame. Verse 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.”
Recently my wife and I watched a miniseries based on a novel, “Dr. Thorne,” by Anthony Trollope. It is so painfully predictable that I feel like I have to use it as a sermon illustration to redeem the time. So, you’re really helping me here. A little background. The Gresham family vehemently opposes the marriage of their son to Mary Thorne. And the reason, predictably, Mary has no cash, and she has no status. So, therefore, she is useless. Shockingly, Mary inherits vast sums of money. And then there is this remarkable metamorphosis as the family suddenly lavishes love on her and longs for her to marry their son now.
Now, all of us know that kind of change is sickening. If you don’t love someone when they can’t do anything for you, what kind of love is it when they suddenly can do something for you? It’s fake; it’s inauthentic. And that’s all Jesus is saying. If you are ashamed of me in the middle of an adulterous and sinful generation, a generation that has clearly lost its way, and then you think when I return in all my glory, and everyone can see I am the way, that suddenly you’re not going to experience shame? The role of shame. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me. This is the way to life. This is because your soul is so valuable. And this is because of the role that shame plays.
Now, what do we do with this? What does this mean for us? Let me give you a couple of things to chew on. First of all, we die and live in Jesus. Romans 6:4 summarizes this so powerfully.
“We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.”
Jesus is calling us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him not as a threat. “You do enough for me and you’re going to get into heaven.” No, that’s not it at all. He is saying, my death is your death, my burial, your burial, my resurrection, your resurrection. When you are in Christ, yes, you go with Christ in suffering, but you also go with him in glory. You’re united with him. It’s not a threat, it’s a promise. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.
Rachel Gilson was a student at Yale, had not grown up in a Christian home, really didn’t know anything about Christianity other than she hated it. Lived as a lesbian, heard the gospel from some fellow students, and believed on Jesus. And then she was confronted with this huge call of Christ. What does this mean? Deny who I am? Take up a cross, follow him at Yale? Are you crazy? She writes this.
“Jesus Christ, the Holy One of Israel, was strung up naked with criminals, covered in Gentile spit. He came of his own will to stand in for the deaths of his people and pay it all. God showed that he accepted that payment by raising Jesus triumphantly from the dead. All are invited to exchange their sin for his righteousness and live forever with him. This was my anchor when seas got stormy … Anything he said to me was for my good, even if I couldn’t make out how.”
Now stop and think about that. There are times when Christ calls you to do something or forsake something, and his words seem crazy. They are crazy from a cultural perspective. But she is saying, even if I couldn’t make out how, how this is for my good, I’m going to follow him down.
“I could build my life on his goodness and love … And that was enough, even with my remaining questions. Jesus was trustworthy; nothing he said would be arbitrary, or a lie, but true and for the sake of blessing… What an opportunity to call into question the narrative of salvation-by-romance [this is the narrative that is in our culture] and to point to what all love dimly reflects. And not just with your words, but, like an Old Testament prophet, with your life… And in today’s world, that witness of radical self-denial is almost impossible to hide.”
She lived that and lives that. We die and live in Jesus.
Second, we practice true self-care. Now today everybody’s talking about self-care, and a lot of what they say is good. But what Jesus is talking about is true self-care. In Colossians 3 we are told to put off our earthly self and put on our new self, our hidden-with-Christ self. What is that? C.S. Lewis ends his masterful work, Mere Christianity, with an explanation as to what this is. Look at what he says.
“The more we get what we now call ‘ourselves’ out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become … our real selves are all waiting for us in Him …. The more I resist Him and try to live on my own, the more I become dominated by my own heredity and upbringing and surrounding and natural desires …. It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to His personality, that I finally begin to have a real personality all of my own.”
“Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life, and you will save it. Submit to death, the death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and the death of your whole body in the end; submit with every fiber of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ, and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”
Isn’t that beautiful? That is so counterintuitive. Americans drowning in self are not going to go down to come up. That’s what Jesus is calling us to. That is true self care.
Third, we trust Jesus in the “contrarieties.” We trust Jesus in the “contrarieties.” And if you know how to spell that word without looking, you read too much. I had no idea what that was. So, I want to explain where it comes from. A little background. Last year, one of my goals was to be more familiar with George Herbert’s poems. I’m not a poet guy, I’m trying to stretch myself. But absolutely remarkable.
George Herbert was born in 1593 in a castle. Isn’t that cool? He earned two degrees from Cambridge, became a public order and then served in Parliament, lived in wealth, got the attention of many, including King James I, but left it all. Felt called to be a parish minister in a farming district. The town was called Fugglestone. Love that. Fugglestone. Where you from? Fugglestone. The condition of the parsonage was so bad, the previous minister wouldn’t even live in it. Herbert moves in and begins to love his people well. But not long after, he becomes ill and enters into a season of weakness and sickness that leads to his early death at 39. So, he didn’t even live to 40. Never published any of his poems, English poems. In his poem entitled, “The Cross,” he describes his intense frustration with God’s ways. He had given up his comfortable, prestigious life. He set aside money and everything that came with it to serve Jesus, and just at the moment when he was most excited to be used by the Lord, he becomes sick and feels useless. In his poem, “The Cross,” he says this, God has (these are his words) feels like he’s “taking me up to throw me down.” He writes,
“To have my aim, and yet to be farther from it than when I bet my bow.”
And what he’s doing here through the whole poem, he’s playing on an archery theme. And that, to us, is confusing. What does that have to do with the cross? But back then they used a crossbow, and they had a crank with a string that wound back this crossbow. You’ll see in the end of his poem, all of this coming together.
“Ah, my dear Father, ease my smart! [Smart back then meant pain. Ease my pain.] These contrarieties” [What are those? These opposites: life-death, down-up, lose-save.] “These contrarieties crush me: these cross actions do wind a rope about, and cut my heart: and yet since these thy contradictions [to save my life, I must lose my life] are properly a cross felt by thy Son, with but four words, my words, Thy will be done.”
What is he doing there? I thought those were Jesus’ words that he spoke going to the cross. What he’s saying there is, Jesus’ words are now my words. He’s denying himself, taking up a cross, and following. And what was most fascinating to me is, reading this poem and thinking how it feels to feel useless. Like at the moment you think, “Oh, God, you’re going to use me in this way,” and it all falls apart. And you feel like, “What in the world?” And I’m thinking, wait a second, Herbert, you had no idea that this weakness/sickness that shut down all your ministry dreams are leading you to speak to me hundreds of years later.
God is using Herbert in ways that he could never imagine. On his deathbed he handed a pile of poems to his friend and said, “If these could benefit anyone, do something with them.” Now he’s one of the most famous English devotional poets in history. This is the way God works. It’s so frustrating, isn’t it? So confusing. It is not the way we think. That’s why Jesus said to Peter, “You’re not thinking like God; you’re thinking like man.” Deny yourself, take up your cross, follow me. Let’s pray.
Oh, Lord, this is a hard word. This is a message that shuts some of us down. We just don’t even know where to begin. We don’t know what you’re calling us to do. And so, we ask for your Spirit’s help again. Please, open our eyes. First of all, to the fact that you are not threatening us here. You are pleading with us. You want to save our lives more than we want to save our lives. You want our lives to matter more than we want our lives to matter. And you’re telling us how, you’re telling us the way to life. Thank you, Lord. Thank you. We want to thank you. We don’t want to get lost in the parts we don’t understand. First, you are moving toward us. You have paid for all our sin. Jesus, your death was on our behalf. You rose for our victory and the glory of your Father. So please, Lord, fill our hearts with an openness to see you as you really are. We reject the fake Messiah views that we, from our culture and our cravings, create. Lord, show us what it means to deny the self that we think we have to manufacture, to take up the cross in faith with our eyes on you, Jesus, and follow you. I pray, Lord, that today would be a day of turning for many. Many of us are heading in ways that will end with us losing our lives, our souls. May this be the day we believe on Jesus; we look to you — with Rachel, with C.S. Lewis, with George Herbert. Thy will be done. In Jesus’ name, amen.