Taking Up the Cross
Sermon Text: Mark 8:31-38
Once again, we turn our attention to the Gospel According to Saint Mark, as we have spent the past several months looking at this record of the life and ministry of Jesus. This morning, we’ll be considering the cost of discipleship as Jesus explains it to His disciples immediately following Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi. I’ll be reading today from Mark 8:31–38, and I would ask the congregation please to stand for the reading of the Word of God.
And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He spoke this word openly. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. But when He had turned around and looked at His disciples, He rebuked Peter, saying, “Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”
When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”
If you have ears to hear the Word of God, then hear it carefully. Please be seated. Let us pray.
Father, as we consider the weighty matters that our Lord revealed on this occasion to His disciples, we pray that we may see ourselves in their stead, hearing the full import of this charge for our own lives. And by Thy Spirit, give us not only understanding, but willingness of soul to abide by these things, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
What Must Happen to the Messiah
Last week we saw that Peter’s Caesarea Philippi confession was the great watershed moment thus far in the earthly ministry of Jesus. It gives definition to everything that came before it and everything that followed from it. On that occasion in Caesarea Philippi, it was clear once and for all that the identity of Jesus was that of the long-awaited and promised Messiah from Peter’s confession, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” followed by Jesus’ benediction upon Peter for saying, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 16:16–17).
Last week, I mentioned by way of foreshadowing and foreboding that even in this majestic and glorious confession of faith from the lips of Peter, the disciples still did not have a full understanding of the identity of Jesus. They understood that He was Messiah, but they still brought to that a serious and deficient understanding of what that title, Messiah, meant and what the Messianic vocation of Jesus would entail. After Jesus pronounces His blessing, He takes His disciples apart and begins to explain to them what it meant for Him to be Messiah.
Let’s look at the text as Mark gives it to us: “And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things.” Let’s just look at a brief summary of this teaching that Jesus began to give to His disciples; first that He must suffer, second that He must be rejected, third that He must be killed, and then later that He would be raised from the dead. These first three elements came as a total shock to the ears of the disciples: that the Messiah would suffer, that the Messiah would be rejected, and that the Messiah would be killed.
Jesus Must Suffer and Die
Notice the way in which Jesus sets forth this astonishing content to His unsuspecting disciples. When He says that He must suffer, that He must be rejected, and that He must die, He sees this not simply as a future possibility, but rather He prefaces this teaching with the word must. He began to teach them that the Son of Man was not simply going to suffer, but that He must suffer; that the Son of Man is not simply going to die, but that he must die; that the Son of Man is not only going to be rejected, but that He must be rejected.
Why does Jesus frame this announcement in the language of necessity? Because from the foundation of the world, the Father’s plan of salvation determined that the Son of Man would stand in the place of His people, that He would live His life vicariously, and that He would suffer, not for His own wickedness, but for His people. He would be rejected, not because He was worthy of rejection, but He would be rejected for His people. The punishment for sin before Almighty God was death, and if Jesus is going to save His people, it was necessary that the full payment for their sin be paid by Him.
Suffering Left Out of the Messianic Tapestry
I find it interesting that in Jewish history, in the translations that found their way into the targums of the rabbis, the rabbis of Israel understood that the concept of Messiah was central to the Old Testament message. They were delighted to examine in close detail every dimension and aspect of the promised Messiah who was to come. Beloved, if you look at all of the prophecies in the Old Testament of the coming Messiah, you will see a tapestry that is woven by a multitude of different strands.
The concept or the picture of Messiah in the Old Testament is not monochromatic. Rather, it is a vast complexity of ideas that come together and merge in this promised Messiah. He would be a king. He would be a shepherd. He would be a liberator. He would be a redeemer. All of these elements are intricately woven together, but the one element that the rabbis completely left out of the tapestry was the element of suffering and of shame.
We look at the office of Messiah from the advantage point of the New Testament. We are looking at it from the other side of the cross and the resurrection. We read the New Testament authors who point out to their contemporaries all of the prophecies of Isaiah, particularly Isaiah 53, which shows that the Eved Yahweh, the Servant of the Lord, would bear the sins of the people. He would be despised, He would be rejected by men, and He would be smitten by God Himself, afflicted and killed.
When the New Testament readers looked at the life of Jesus, and looked backwards to the Psalms of Israel, and went to Psalm 22, and saw that it looked like an eyewitness account of the cross, they said, “Look at this text; this was a clear prediction of the coming Messiah,” but that point was missed completely by the rabbis. They did not conceive of applying Psalm 22 or Isaiah 53 or any of the servant prophecies of Isaiah to the Messiah. They thought they applied to the nation of Israel that went through all kinds of affliction and suffering, but never that those would converge in one person who would be the royal Messiah at the same time. So, when Jesus took these Old Testament prophecies and began to teach His disciples what it meant to be Messiah, it was shocking to them: “You mean the Messiah has to suffer, the Messiah has to be rejected, the Messiah has to die?”
These men weren’t stupid. If the Messiah had to suffer, and if the Messiah had to be rejected, and if the Messiah had to die, they understood what that would involve for the Messiah’s disciples. They heard these words of Jesus not only as a death sentence upon Jesus, but as a death sentence upon themselves, and that was the last thing in the world that they wanted to hear. Listen to their response.
Peter’s Hostile Rebuke
First of all, we read, “Jesus spoke this word openly.” The force of that sentence is that this is the word not just of a little bit of information, but word as used in the full measure of it. When we speak of preaching the Word of God, we’re not talking about some casual comment that is communicated, but we’re talking about the depth of the content that comes from God Himself. Jesus is now preaching the Word of God, and He’s preaching it plainly and clearly, so that the disciples can’t possibly miss it. Notice that verse 31 said that Jesus began to teach them. Now, the emphasis and the focus move away from Jesus to Peter. It says, “Peter took Him aside and began—” Earlier, Jesus began to teach; now, Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke Him.
It’s one thing to disagree with your teacher. It’s one thing to raise your hand and say, “I’m not sure I agree with that, professor.” It’s another thing for the student to rebuke the teacher for the teaching that the teacher is giving. Keep in mind, dear friends, that this is not any teacher. This is not your eighth-grade geography teacher. This is not your seminary professor. This is the incarnate Word of God, the One who embodies all truth, who speaks nothing except by divine authority, and Peter now is rebuking Him. That word rebuke is the word that is used biblically to denounce and condemn the demons from hell. When Jesus would silence the devils, He did it by rebuking them, judging them to be worthy of condemnation.
The force of all this is that Peter’s protest is by no means mild. Rather, he is standing up to Jesus, and he brings the full measure of a hostile rebuke against Jesus. This same Peter who, just moments earlier, had said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and received from Jesus the benediction, “Blessed art thou Simon Bar-Jonah,” now presumes to rebuke Jesus. If the Roman Church wants to call Peter the foundation upon which the church is built and the first pope, then I’d look at this as the first papal encyclical of all time, where now Peter speaks ex cathedra and gives new revelation. He rebuked Him.
What was the nature of the rebuke? It’s clear if we read between the lines both here and elsewhere. Elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel, the rebuke goes, “This will never be, Jesus, never.” Never say never, particularly to Jesus. Peter’s response to this future prediction that Jesus would suffer, be rejected, and die, was, “No way, that will never, ever happen.”
Satanic Temptation Returns
Jesus responds once more to Peter. When He had turned around and looked at His disciples, He rebuked Peter, saying, “Get behind Me, Satan!” Just moments earlier, our Lord had looked at Simon and given him a new name. He said: “And you are now Petros. You’re the rock. And on this rock I will build my church.” Now, He looks at that same disciple and says, “Get behind Me, Satan!” Why does He call Peter “Satan”? Because, beloved, the same temptation, the same enticement that the devil had brought to Jesus in the wilderness at the beginning of His public ministry shows up again.
Do you remember when Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness? He said to Him: “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread. If you are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple.” Then he asked Jesus to bow down to him: “Just genuflect for a minute. Nobody will ever see it, and I will give you all of the kingdoms of this world.” All of those temptations had at their heart and core the promise of a kingdom to Jesus without pain and without suffering.
“Follow me,” Satan said, “and I’ll give you all of the kingdoms of this world. Whatever you ask for is yours, and you won’t have to go through the Via Dolorosa to get it. Jesus, just bow down to me, and there will be no cross, there will be no cup of wrath, there will be no suffering, there will be no rejection, there will be no death.” Our Lord withstood that temptation.
Do you remember when Satan was banished from the wilderness? The record of the New Testament authors was this: Satan departed from Jesus for a season. There was an element of foreboding. It gave the suggestion that Satan wasn’t finished with this temptation, and that there would come a day when he would return and try to seduce Jesus with the same cheap way to glory.
Now, in the moment of the highest confession of faith among the disciples, Satan shows up, and he speaks through his spokesman. He does not speak through a serpent on the ground, but through the spokesperson of the disciples themselves. The same man who said, “You’re the Christ,” now says that the Christ can’t suffer. Jesus recognizes it right away, and He says to Peter, “Satan—get behind Me, Satan!” He says, “You are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”
The Cost of Discipleship
You are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men. This, friends, means that the godly person is deeply concerned about the things of God, but the godless person has no concern for the things of God. He’s preoccupied with this world, and we have to look at that as a mirror. We have to look into that mirror and ask: “Okay, R.C., where is your heart? Where is your chief concern? Are you fixed and preoccupied with the things of this world, or does your heart beat for the things of God? Are you seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and letting everything else come as it will? Or is there some other priority that drives you, some ambition that compels you, some goal to which all of your energy is devoted in this world?”
During World War II, a German pastor and intellectual in Germany wrote a book called The Cost of Discipleship. I’m not enamored by all of the theology set forth by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but here was a man who participated in the plot to kill Adolf Hitler, and who was martyred by the Third Reich for the stand that he took against Hitler and his policies. He warned of the church being captured by a spirit of cheap grace, of discipleship without cost, of a Christian life without danger.
Jesus addresses the disciples and those who gather round about what discipleship involves. He is not simply addressing what Sonship involves for Himself or what it means for Him to be the Messiah, but what it means for you and for me to follow the Messiah. He says, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” It sounds like an anachronism, doesn’t it? Why would Jesus say something about a cross in the middle of this lesson, when the cross is yet in front of Him? He hasn’t experienced this yet. Isn’t this an example of editorial redaction, where the gospel writer is reading back into the historical context an allusion to the cross when the cross hasn’t even occurred yet?
Not at all, dear friends; every Jew in Israel under the bondage of Roman authority was completely aware and conscious of the symbolic significance of the word cross because crucifixion was the chief means of execution by the Roman government at this time. As a matter of procedure that took place in every capital work of execution in Rome and in Roman provinces, the convicted person was required to carry the crossbeam of the cross from his place of judgment to the his place of execution, which Jesus Himself would be required to do at the time of His death.
They all knew this idea of the cross, and Jesus says: “You want to follow Me? Then you might as well right now go pick up that crossbeam, and you might as well carry it with you everyday, because that symbol of ignominy, that symbol of death, that symbol of shame will be like a sign on your chest if you call yourself by My name. If you’re going to be a Christian, then you have to be willing to pick up that crossbeam and follow Me.”
“Whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it.” There is the grand paradox. If your preoccupation is not to deny yourself but to save yourself, your very attempt to save yourself will cause your own self to be destroyed. The Christian life, dear friends—don’t forget this—is a throwaway life. You have to know that. Every moment that you live without rejection, affliction, and death is grace, but our destiny as the people of God is to be thrown into the garbage by the powers of this world and of this age, and there is no way to glamorize that. Jesus said: “Count that cost. If you want to follow Me, it will cost you your life.” How much of a cost is that, really?
The Cost of Your Soul
He goes on to describe it in economic terms. “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” I wish I had time to talk the whole hour just on that question. What profit? He’s using economic terms, business terms, commercial terms—a profit and loss statement. You look on the one side and you see assets. On the other side, you see liabilities. You see profit, you see loss, accounts receivable, accounts payable, and all those different entries. Jesus says: “Let’s look at this for a minute. On the profit side, there’s cash, there’s cattle, there are chariots, there’s land. How much land? The whole world and everything in it that you own. On the debit side of the ledger, under the loss side in red ink, is the expense: your soul.”
From our Lord’s perspective, dear friends, if everything on the profit side of the ledger contains the whole world and the only item on the loss side of the ledger is your soul, you are bankrupt. You’ve lost everything. Jesus phrases it another way: “What will you give in exchange for your soul?”
Literature is filled with fictional tales of the man who sells his soul to the devil, the worst transaction in which a human being can ever engage. Let me ask you this: how much is your soul worth? How much would you pay for it if somebody were to take it away from you? If you’re a Christian, how much did Jesus pay for your soul to secure the safety and the redemption of it, not for a day, not for a week, but forever?
Every day we are bombarded with ads on the radio and the newspaper and television: “You have to have this, you have to have that. This is what will really make your life meaningful.” No, what you really have to have is a soul that has been bought and purchased by Christ. If you have that, you have the pearl of great price—you have the whole world.
The Cost of Being Ashamed
Finally, Jesus says, “Whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” What we are talking about in this economic transaction is shame. Do you know anybody at all who doesn’t know that you are a Christian? Do your friends and co-workers and co-laborers all know that you are a Christian? If not, why not? I’ll tell you why not: the world hates us, and nobody wants to be hated.
The cross is a shameful thing, and nobody likes to be embarrassed. We have a deeply rooted personal desire not to be embarrassed or ashamed, so we will hide our true feelings and true devotion from the world. Jesus said: “If you do that because you’re ashamed of Me, then I’m going to be ashamed of you in front of My Father. If you’re going to follow Me, you have to embrace My suffering, My rejection, My death, and My cross, because that’s what it costs to stand with Me. Let’s pray.
Father, even this morning, help us to remember the cost of our redemption. Prepare our hearts to be dedicated anew to the Messiah who died for us. For we ask it in His name. Amen.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.