I wonder what you consider the most important and pivotal moments in human history? The invention of the wheel, or the motor engine or penicillin perhaps? Or maybe you can vividly remember the first moon landing, the fall of the Berlin wall or the end of apartheid? And I’m sure we can all remember the pivotal events in our own lives. Those key moments when perhaps we started school or university, or when we first drove a car, or got married, had a child or began our first job. We all have events in our life that were very formative, events that are firmly etched into our memory.
Today’s passage from Mark’s Gospel records a pivotal moment in the life of Jesus. Not only does it come in the middle of Mark’s account of his life (chapter 8 of 16), but it is the first occasion where Jesus explicitly and clearly shares his identity and mission with his disciples. It was also the first occasion when Jesus spelt out the full costs and benefits of following him. So I want to look at our passage today under three headings: A Promised Messiah, An Unexpected Mission, and An Uncompromising Call.
- A Promised Messiah (v.27-30)
Today’s passage takes place when Jesus and his disciples are on the move. Verse 27 tells us that they were on the way to Caesarea Philippi, a town in the very north of Palestine. Over the past couple of years Jesus had been travelling across the country, performing remarkable miracles and saying remarkable things. As we have seen over recent weeks, Jesus was going about the land showing astonishing authority. An authority to teach, an authority over sickness, and authority over evil spirits. He was even calming storms and claiming the right to forgive sins.
As a consequence there was mounting speculation about Jesus’ identity. The ‘chattering classes’ of Israel were debating who this remarkable man really was. It seems that many saw him as a prophet, perhaps even a great prophet who had come back from the dead, like Elijah or John the Baptist.
But Jesus wanted to know what his disciples thought of him. He wanted to elicit an answer from his closest followers and friends. And so in verse 29 he asks them: “Who do you say I am?”. Characteristically, Peter is the first to speak. Peter assumes the role as spokesperson for the Twelve disciples. And his answer is spot on. “You are the Christ” he says. Peter had correctly identified Jesus as God’s promised King. As the anointed one, the Messiah whom God had long promised to send. A Messiah who would be a descendent of king David, who would establish God’s justice, defeat evil and bring blessing to God’s people.
Unsurprisingly, this promised Messiah was a man the first century people of Israel longed for. A national hero they eagerly awaited, a man whom they hoped would do battle with the Romans and liberate the land from foreign occupation. A kind of William Wallace, Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill all rolled into one.
But Jesus knew that God had called him to be a different type of Messiah. A messiah with a different mission to the one that nationalistic Israelites expected him to have. A mission to save people of every nation from sin, not simply to save the Jewish nation from Roman occupation. That’s why Jesus makes the surprising statement he does in verse 30: “He warned them not to tell anyone about him”.
Jesus didn’t want the disciples immediately telling everyone he was the Messiah. It would only lead to misunderstanding and confusion. Before they could tell the world about Jesus, the disciples needed to correctly understand his mission. An unexpected mission that would involve self-sacrifice and death, not national liberation.
- An Unexpected Mission (v.31-33)
We are in party conference season, with the Labour Party meeting last week in Manchester, and the Tories meet this week in Birmingham. With less than a year to go until the General Election, politicians on both sides are setting out their policy priorities to the public. They are using their conference platforms to publicise the legislative programme – the manifesto for action – that they hope to pursue once in power.
In verse 31 of our passage today, Jesus sets out his own manifesto. He describes the mission he will pursue as God’s promised Messiah. It is an unexpected and shocking mission. Look with me at Jesus’ words in verse 31: “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and…he must be killed and after three days rise again”.
Not the kind of manifesto we would expect to hear from a powerful person today, and certainly not what Peter and other Jews were expecting from their Messiah. No surprise then that “Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him” (v.32). Yet Jesus knew that he had come not primarily to teach, to heal or to be a moral example to the world, though he did all those things. He certainly hadn’t come to be a national conqueror. He had come to suffer and die. His death on the cross wasn’t a miscalculation, a heroic failure, or a tragic end. It wasn’t a wasted life or a humiliating defeat or a thwarted ambition. On the contrary, Jesus saw the Cross as the hour for which he had come, the goal of his life, the climax and culmination of his ministry. It was to be his defining moment. Something that must happen for his God-given mission to be a success.
Elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus describes his coming death as “a ransom for many” (10:45) – a voluntary self-sacrifice that pays the penalty for our sin and that frees guilty people from God’s rightful anger. An act that simultaneously satisfies God’s justice and makes forgiveness available for sinners like you and me. The Cross was where God’s justice and mercy met. The Cross was where God’s love for fallen humanity was shown most fully.
Jesus knew that his journey to the Cross was so important, he could not let Peter persuade him not to. So in verse Jesus turns to Peter and said firmly “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Peter was left in no doubt how important Jesus’ journey to the Cross was to Messianic mission.
- An Uncompromising Call (v.34-38)
As well as being the way our salvation was secured, Jesus’ journey to the Cross also provides a model for Christian discipleship. Because just as Jesus was willing to endure suffering and hardship in doing God’s will, so should we be. Because in verses 34 to 38 we are told that Jesus drew a crowd to him and issued an uncompromising call. Look at what he said: “‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.’
Jesus is challenging us all to make a choice, to decide where we stand:
- On the one hand, will we ignore Jesus and live our lives our own way. Will we live order our lives in such a way as to maximise our personal comfort and minimise conflict. In an affluent society like ours we have many neighbours who are living for this life only, people who are ignoring God, overlooking Christ and giving no thought to their eternal destiny. Tragically, Jesus is saying that such people may save their lives, but lose their souls.
- On the other hand, will we follow Jesus, believe the Gospel and obey his words, even when it might lead to personal hardship or provoke opposition from unbelievers. Will we do and say what Jesus tells us is right, even when it is personally inconvenient or politically incorrect? If we do, Jesus says that we may lose our lives in this world, but save our souls for eternity. If we aren’t embarrassed of Christ now, he won’t be ashamed of us when he comes again in glory.
I hope the right option is clear. One road leads to death and destruction. The other promises everlasting life in Christ’s coming kingdom. If you are here this morning and not sure where you stand, can I invite you along to our Christianity Explored course next month? With so much at stake, why not spend a few evenings exploring the claims of Christ for yourself? You’d be very welcome.
Ten days ago the people of Scotland had to decide whether they wanted to remain as members of Her Majesty the Queen’s United Kingdom. Today, we all face an even bigger decision – will we follow Jesus, as our risen Messiah and King? We may lose our life and liberty in this world, but we will enter into glory on the day he comes again.