Jesus: born to die (Mark 8:27-9:1)
This article is based on a talk first given by David Couchman at Above Bar Church on Sunday 3rd September 2006. It may be reproduced in print or on other web sites, subject to the copyright notice below.
Who is Jesus? (8:27-30)
Mark is concerned with one main question: who is Jesus? He nails his colours to the mast very clearly right from the beginning when he says:
'Here begins the good news about Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.' (Mark 1:1)
Almost at the end of the Gospel, the Roman soldier who is overseeing Jesus' execution says:
'Truly, this was the Son of God!' (Mark 15:39)
In the first half of Mark's Gospel, he shows us:
- Jesus demonstrating his power through a series of dramatic miracles - healing people, casting out demons, calming a storm, feeding five thousand, and walking on water.
- Jesus teaching (although he does not include much of what Jesus said).
- Jesus calling his twelve closest disciples to follow him.
The turning point of the whole Gospel is here in chapter 8, when Jesus asks his followers who they think he is, and Peter replies:
'You are the Messiah.' (Verse 29)
In Matthew's version, it's even clearer. Peter says:
'You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.' (Matthew 16:16).
Why did Jesus come? (8:31-33)
The Jews were looking for God's Messiah. They expected him to be a military deliverer. They expected him to kick out the Romans, who they hated, and to establish Israel as a free, independent nation.
But as soon as Jesus' followers have 'got it' about who he is, he moves on to teach them about why he's come - and it isn't what they expect. This is the major emphasis of the second half of the Gospel. So chapter 8 verse 31 says that:
'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 that he must be killed and after three days rise again.'
This is the first of three places in Mark where Jesus foretells his rejection and death and resurrection. The others are in chapter 9 verses 30-31, and in chapter 10 verses 32-45. And straight after that, you get into the events of the last week of Jesus' life.
Here in chapter 8 verse 31, Jesus says that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected. Why did Jesus have to die? What made it so necessary?
One popular writer recently, describing Jesus' death on the cross, said this:
'He absorbed all the pain, all the suffering caused by the breakdown in our relationship with God and in doing so demonstrated the lengths to which a God who is love will go to restore it.'
He went on to say:
'The cross is a symbol of love. It is a demonstration of just how far God as Father and Jesus as his son are prepared to go to prove that love. The cross is a vivid statement of the powerlessness of love.'
So is this what Jesus' death was all about? Showing us how far God will go to restore his relationship with us? Is the cross just a symbol?
I think not. If the death of Christ did not actually do something for us, how does it show us God's love?
Here's what I mean: suppose I see a child playing in the street, in front of an oncoming juggernaut. I hurl myself into the street and fling the child out of the way, but in doing so, I'm killed. I've shown my love for the child, at the cost of my life.
But if I just go down to the bypass and throw myself under some passing juggernaut, how does that show my love for the child? It doesn't achieve anything for them.
When Jesus died on the cross, there was something more real, something more significant and more profound, going on than just a symbolic action that shows us how loving God is. At the end of his third prediction of his sufferings, Jesus says this:
'The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.' (Mark 10:45)
A man called Ernest Gordon wrote a book titled 'Miracle on the River Kwai.' It was about Allied soldiers during the Second World War who were captured by the Japanese. They were forced to work as slave labourers on a railway through the jungle.
One afternoon, a shovel was missing. The officer in charge lost his temper. He demanded that the missing shovel be produced, or else.
No-one moved. No-one said anything.
The officer got out his gun and threatened to kill them all on the spot. It was obvious that he meant what he said.
One man stepped forward. The officer put away his gun, picked up a shovel, and beat the man to death.
The soldiers picked up his body, and carried it with them to the second tool check.
At the recount, no shovel was missing. There has been a mis-count at the first check-point. This innocent man had sacrificed his life to save the others.
And that's what Jesus is talking about when he says that he came to give his life as a ransom for many - sacrificing his life in exchange for the lives of others: in fact, for our lives.
In this event from the Second World War, the man gave his life for those who were really innocent. But Christ gave his life for those who were truly guilty. He paid the price that we deserve to pay.
So in terms of our 'road map' of Mark, we've seen that the hinge issue is 'who is Jesus?' This is the focus of the first half of the Gospel. Then in the second half, the emphasis switches to focus on why Jesus came - to be rejected, to suffer, to die as a ransom, and to rise again.
But as Jesus starts to teach his followers that he must be rejected and suffer and die, Peter takes him on one side to put him right about his mission:
'He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.' (Verse 32)
Clearly, Peter was thinking of Jesus as Messiah in terms of military conquest. But Jesus isn't having any of it:
But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. 'Get behind me, Satan!' he said. 'You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.' (Verse 33)
In other words, he tells Peter, you are looking at things from a human point of view, not from how God sees them.
Poor Peter! One moment, he's on the heights, because he's realised who Jesus is. But the next moment, in verse 32, he gets it all wrong, and gets a right telling-off from Jesus.
Peter gets hold of who Jesus is, but misunderstands why Jesus has come. What about us? How might we misunderstand what Jesus is about? How might we misunderstand what attaching ourselves to his cause will mean for us?
What does Jesus want? (8:34-38)
Peter expected Jesus to put everything right there and then. Do we expect the same kind of thing?
- 'Jesus will solve all my problems.'
- 'Jesus will heal me.'
- 'Jesus will give me a successful marriage.'
- 'Jesus will make me wealthy.'
- 'Jesus will bless my career choices.'
- 'If I serve Jesus faithfully, he is sure to bless me.'
It's very easy for us to think like this. But Jesus doesn't promise to do any of these things for us. For him, being the Messiah did not mean political and military success. It meant rejection and suffering and death. And he offers the same things to those who follow him.
'Dead man walking' (verse 34)
In the USA, when a prisoner on death row is taken out for execution, the other convicts talk about him as a 'dead man walking.' (There's even been a well-known film of that title.)
This is the picture Jesus uses here in verse 34, as he calls the crowds to him, along with his followers. He says:
'If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.' The picture is of a prisoner on his way out to be crucified, carrying the cross-bar that he was about to be nailed to.
We saw earlier that for Jesus himself, although he was the Messiah, the Son of God, he faced rejection and suffering and death. And he calls us to follow him on the road to execution. To become dead men walking.
The question is: where are we looking for life?
What is it that, deep down, we believe we must have if our lives are to be fulfilled and meaningful?
- some special relationship: if that person rejects you, life won't be worth anything.
- success in your career
- success in a sporting activity
- what people think of you
That thing which, if you lose it, you will really feel that your life can't be complete.
This is the thing that Jesus is touching here.
Someone who's being taken out to be executed doesn't have any vital relationships. He isn't bothered what people think of him. He doesn't have any plans. Doesn't have any ambitions. The New Living Bible helpfully translates this verse:
'If any of you want to be my follower, you must put aside your selfish ambition, shoulder your cross, and follow me.'
We can make being a Christian far too 'nice' and polite and respectable. A bolt-on lifestyle accessory. But Jesus says that it's an all-or-nothing business. We're meant to become dead men walking.
How do you react to this? My instinctive reaction is to think, why would anyone respond to an invitation like this?
Gaining more than you lose (verse 35-37)
The only reason anyone would respond is because by doing so, you stand to gain more than you lose.
Look at what Jesus says in the next couple of verses:
'Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the Gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?' (Verses 35-37)
The word translated 'soul' in verses 36 and 37 is exactly the same word which is translated 'life' in verse 35. I have no idea why the translators changed word halfway through what Jesus is saying. The English Standard Version is clearer:
'Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life?'
It's all about how you find real life.
Literally, it says, 'whoever wants to save his life will destroy it.' If you set out to get all you can here and now, you will destroy yourself. If you focus on getting what you want - whatever it is that you need to have life - even if you gain everything you hope for, you will still end up with nothing.
Here's something Eminem said:
'First I thought I wanted the fame, I wanted to live a better life. But then all the kids screaming. All the girls falling at my feet. It came so fast I didn't know what hit me. And it turned out it wasn't even what I was looking for.'
He is someone who seems to be hitting the self-destruct button fairly hard.
But, paradoxically, if you throw everything away for Christ, you will save the one thing that really matters.
Fifty years ago this year, a group of five American missionaries set out to make contact with a group of primitive tribal people in South America. Before they could even talk to the people, they were murdered.
Looked at from a human point of view, it was a complete waste of five lives. But was it? One of those men was a guy called Jim Elliot. Not long before he was killed, he wrote this in his diary:
'He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.'
This is the alternative that Jesus offers us in these verses: give up what you can't keep. Gain what you can't lose.
Notice that he talks about losing your life for his sake and the for the sake of the Gospel - the good news (verse 35). What does he mean?
For Jesus, his rejection and suffering and death weren't an end in themselves. They were so that people like you and me could be ransomed and rescued. He calls us to give up our lives so that others will have the opportunity to hear this good news and come to know him.
- This might mean giving up a promising and well-paid career because God calls you to go and work for him in some distant country.
- It might mean giving up a gap year to serve him overseas, or taking early retirement so you can give time to his work.
- It might mean joining a short term missions programme.
- It might just mean sacrificing significant chunks of money to support a missionary.
- Or it might mean getting up earlier to spend time praying. (For some of us, this would be a real sacrifice!)
Does it all sound a bit tough, a bit too demanding? In John chapter 20 verse 21 Jesus told his followers:
'As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.'
For Jesus, being sent by the Father meant rejection and suffering. And he sends us in the same way as the Father sent him. So we should not expect to be comfortable.
But here's the paradox: the 'dead man walking' is actually on the road to the only kind of life that really matters. He's gaining far more than he's losing.
Not being ashamed of Christ (verse 38)
Jesus brings it down to one very specific question: are we ashamed of him?
'If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels.' (Verse 38)
Jesus calls our present world a 'sinful generation.' It isn't neutral. It's opposed to him and his mission.
He says that he is going to return in the glory of his Father. And he draws a contrast between now and than. The kind of life we choose will depend on whether we're just looking at here and now, or whether we're taking that long term view, and looking to Jesus' return.
Jesus says that we can't live for now and for then. We can't have the best of both worlds. We have to choose which world's best we want.
He talks about being ashamed of him and his message. Are we? Do we keep quiet about the fact that we're Christians? There have been plenty of times when I've done that.
In China during a rebellion in 1900, the rebels captured a mission station. They blocked all the entrances except one. In front of that one gate they placed a cross flat on the ground. Then they told those inside that any who trampled the cross underfoot would be allowed to go free, but that any who refused would be shot.
Terribly frightened, the first seven students trampled the cross under their feet, and they were allowed to leave. But the eighth student, a young girl, didn't. She knelt beside the cross and prayed for courage. Then she got up, moved carefully round the cross, and went out to face the firing squad. All the remaining ninety-two students followed her example.
I am not likely to be shot because of my faith. Am I ashamed to stand up and be counted for Christ when people make fun of me?
'If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels.'
We saw earlier that although Peter got hold of who Jesus is, he misunderstood why Jesus came. We asked how might we misunderstand him today? How might we misunderstand what it means to be identified with him?
We saw that for Jesus, his mission meant rejection and suffering. In these verses that we've just been looking at, he calls us to follow him on the same path:
- He calls us to become dead men walking - to let go of our own hopes and ambitions, to take up the cross and follow him.
- Why would we do that? Because, paradoxically, by doing so, we gain more than we lose. To die to ourselves is the way to find the only kind of life that really matters.
- The specific challenge is not to deny Christ. Are we ready to be identified with him, before our friends and neighbours and colleagues?
'He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.'
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