“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?’” Mark 8:27 (ESV)
There exists no more important question than the one Jesus asked His disciples: “But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15; Mark 8:27). No question has been more hotly debated, completely or partially misunderstood, ignored to one’s peril, and answered correctly to one’s gain. If eternal life means knowing Jesus Christ (John 17:3), then we cannot afford to be ignorant about the one who is “chiefest among ten thousand” (Song of Solomon 5:10).
Peter’s Staggering Statement
I bring this up because, as we approach Christmas, an incredible opportunity exists for all believers to use the birth of Christ as an evangelistic opportunity. But in order to share Christ, we must know Him personally as Savior and Lord. And we must know how to present the Christ of Scripture. I want to take a brief look at a passage in Mark’s gospel. Before the prediction of the passion of Jesus in Mark 8:31-32, Jesus asks His disciples if they actually see what is going on (8:17, 18). Then He heals a blind man who can’t see anything physically. After which, Peter makes a staggering statement regarding the identity of Jesus which reveals the fact that God in heaven has opened his eyes to see something that he never noticed before.
Jesus is working with His disciples. As He has led this man by the hand giving him physical sight, so He is leading His disciples by the hand bringing them gradually to an understanding of who Jesus is and what He has done. When we think in these terms we realize that Peter’s confession is a breakthrough moment in the gospels. When Peter makes his statement, “You are the Christ”, he was saying something revolutionary not only about Jesus, but about the nature of God Himself. You are the Christ; you are the Messiah; you are in fact God. This is as dramatic a moment as the blind beggar gaining sight. Peter, raised in the Jewish tradition of monotheism, is shattered by the confession of his own lips. Why doesn’t Jesus say, “Excellent, Peter! We are off to the races. Go and tell everyone about this”? After the confession that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus puts the brakes on and charged them to keep silent.
Why? Because Peter’s great confession is about to be followed by his ill-conceived rebuke in verse 32 when Jesus reveals that He must suffer and die. And Jesus knows that while Peter and the rest of them were in a new place regarding the identity of Jesus, He was going to have to teach them about the nature of the ministry of Jesus. Mark very carefully points out that Jesus began to teach them in verses 31-32. Jesus is now going to teach them what it means to be the Messiah of God. From Peter’s standpoint, Jesus is the Messiah, and Messiahs don’t die. The idea of a rejected Messiah did not fit the picture. Peter, like the rest of the disciples, was struggling with this concept.
Jesus’ Surprising Rebuke
Like Peter, we are totally unprepared for the radical nature of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus’ sharp rebuke of Peter—“Get behind Me, Satan!!—is Jesus’ way of telling Peter that he was not thinking God’s thoughts, but that he was thinking man’s thoughts. If Peter were thinking properly he would realize that Jesus’ passion, suffering, death, and resurrection were in the very will of God. Then Jesus says something while the crowd and the disciples are within an earshot.
And it is a shocking statement: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Jesus is saying that if the way of the cross, the way of suffering, the way of rejection, is My way, then that is the way of My followers too. If you are going to come and march with Me, then it is a march unto death. I am not inviting you to take a pleasant afternoon stroll; I am asking you to walk into death’s door with Me. This imagery would have been unmistakable to Mark’s readers. The person with the crossbeam on their shoulders was walking to the place of their execution and saying, “I am not coming back”. And those who saw this person would know that he was walking away from himself; away from life. And this is the picture which Jesus employs for His followers. How very different from our attempts to offer people the gospel.
The series of contrasts says it all: saving a life, losing it; gaining the world, losing one’s soul. This is the prospect of shame now and honor later; or honor now and shame later. The disciples, not unlike many of us today, had their minds full of power and glory and triumph. Let’s get together with Jesus. After all, the blind see, the lame walk. Jesus constantly in the course of His ministry, arrests the crowd to tell them that He is not about what they think He is about.
When God calls a man He bids him to come and die. Dietrich Bonhoeffer
We have domesticated the story of Jesus in our western culture. We don’t have to go back too far to see the stories of people who were burned and killed for their faith. Certainly we don’t want to despise the benefits we enjoy of freedom and opportunity as believers. But we must never omit the cost of following Jesus. If we do, we will be unable to speak to those who know the reality of suffering, rejection, death, disfigurement, and the marring of their very souls.
Our invitation is often benign and innocuous. But Jesus says this: You need to have a radical shift in your life. The move is from self to God; a sustained “no” to self, and a “yes” to God. Many reject Jesus because the invitation is so lame—just come along and enter God’s kingdom; all you have to do is make a few minor adjustments to your everyday life. We invite you to meet a God who will indulge you and see that you are entitled to all kinds of things. This is wrong.
The God of the Bible is not a God who comes to indulge us. He is the God who makes demands upon us. He is the God who, in Jesus, turns to the disciples and says if you want to be serious about Christian living take up your cross, die to yourself, lose the world, gain your soul, shame now and honor later.
This is a radical message. Here is something worth living for; here is something worth dying for. We are as justly condemned by Jesus’ rebuke to Peter as Peter himself was. What did Jesus say to him? You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men. Man centered preaching; man centered Christianity; man centered singing. Man centered appeals—appealing to people’s affections, their felt needs, their sentimentality. This will not work if we keep reading our Bibles and keep living our lives.
Sooner or later everyone of us will run up against at least one of those experiences which says unless I have a Christ who knows what it is to suffer and to die and to be rejected, I do not have Christ who knows what it is for me to experience that which I am experiencing right now.
We have in Jesus a great high Priest who is touched with the feelings of our infirmities. Someone to whom we are able to go who has walked the path of suffering, rejection, and death, and who has come out victoriously on the other side. He invites those who will follow Him to take the same journey which leads eventually and ultimately to victory. But it might be really painful in route.
I pray that as we avail ourselves of gospel opportunities this Christmas season, we will present the Christ of Scripture who bids men and women to die to self and live for Him.
Blessings in the Lord Jesus,