Unless we are willing to share in Jesus’ humiliation, we will not experience His exaltation. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Luke, teaching that following Christ comes at a cost, but it involves unparalleled gain.
This morning, we will continue our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke, and we are still in the ninth chapter. I will be reading today from Luke 9:18–26:
And it happened, as He was alone praying, that His disciples joined Him, and He asked them, saying, “Who do the crowds say that I am?”
So they answered and said, “John the Baptist, but some say Elijah; and others say that one of the old prophets has risen again.”
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter answered and said, “The Christ of God.”
And He strictly warned and commanded them to tell this to no one, saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.”
Then He said to them all, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, of him the Son of Man will be ashamed when He comes in His own glory, and in His Father’s, and of the holy angels.”
This is Luke’s brief account of the disciples’ Caesarea Philippi confession of Jesus’ identity, of which Saint Matthew gives a much more comprehensive account. Nevertheless, it raises perhaps the most significant question that any of us can ever be asked coming from sacred Scripture, when our Lord asked His disciples, “But who do you say that I am?”
It is that question we are concerned with this morning. I ask you to acknowledge that what you have heard in the reading of this Word is nothing less than the truth of Almighty God, and I urge you to embrace it as such. Let us pray.
Our Father and our God, You have called us today in solemn assembly to attend the teaching of the Apostles, to be in prayer together, to offer You the sacrifice of praise and adoration, to sing Your glory, and now, O God, to hear Your Word. We are grateful that You have promised that You will not permit Your Word to return unto You void. So, I ask that in this hour You give everyone ears to hear. I pray especially that at least one person assembled with us today may understand these things in a way that he or she has never understood them before. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Who Do They Say I Am?
In this brief text is an echo of the question we looked at recently that haunted King Herod. He was troubled by the reports coming to him of a man going about the countryside healing people and performing amazing miracles. He was terrified when he considered the possibility of who this person might be. Was he a prophet? Was he Elijah coming? Or, the worst of his nightmares was it the reappearance of John the Baptist whom he had executed?
In this text, Jesus brought up a similar issue His disciples when they came to Him while He was alone praying. He said to them: “Who do the crowds say that I am? You have your ear to the ground. You’re aware of the gossip being discussed among people in the nearby villages. What are they saying about Me?”
The disciples answered, “John the Baptist, and others say Elijah, and still others say that one of the old prophets has arisen again.” Jesus received this information without any substantial comment. It is as if He said: “That’s interesting information, but My concern right now is not so much what people out there are saying about Me. Rather, I want to know what you think. Who do you say that I am?”
As I thought about this text this week, I was thinking about our nation and the people who live in it. I made this assumption: every sentient adult in this country has at least enough information about Jesus, if from no other source but those messages during the extended Christmas season each year, to have formed some opinion as to the identity of Jesus. I wondered: “What is the identity they’ve assumed? What do they think about Jesus? Do they think He is simply a mythological character from antiquity? Do they echo some of the liberalism of a century ago, that Jesus was a prophet or a great ethical teacher? What kind of an opinion do they have of Him?”
An Unexpected Answer: The Son of God
I did not have the opportunity to canvass everybody in America and get the results to my question, but I encountered a friend the other day whom I have known for many years. I would describe him in the following manner: he would not be caught dead in a church building except to pay his last respects to one of his friends who died. The only time I have ever seen him in church was for a funeral. He is one of the most profane men that I know, whose vocabulary is regularly laced with blasphemies. Though I know that he personally has a high regard for me, and I trust that he loves me, nevertheless, his favorite pastime in my presence is to mock me for my religious convictions.
Whenever my friend walks into a room I am in, he raises his hands and says, “Praise the Lord, R.C.” This is the way he likes to tease and mock me. So, I thought he would be a good candidate to ask about his opinion of Jesus. I said to him, candidly, “I have a sermon this Sunday, and I’d ask you to give me some help on it.” He was a little surprised that I was seeking information for my sermon from him.
I said: “I’m speaking on a passage where people were asked their opinion of Jesus. Everybody in this country has some opinion of Jesus, and I’m curious what your opinion is. Who do you really think that Jesus was?”
My friend did not respond in his normal, silly manner. Rather, he became somewhat sobered by the question. He said, “I’m going to have to think about it,” to which I responded, “Fair enough.”
About four hours later, I saw him and said, “Have you thought about the question I asked you?” He said, “Actually, I’ve thought about very little else in the last few hours, and I have come to a conclusion as to what I think about Jesus.” I asked, “What do you think of Him?” He looked at me, and he said, “I think He’s the Son of God that God sent into the world.”
You could have knocked me over with a feather, because that was the last answer I expected to come from my friend. If I have ever met a man who would presume not to think that Jesus was the Son of God, it would have been this man. Indeed, that gave me pause. I said, “How is it possible that somebody could come to the conclusion that Jesus is really the Son of God and behave like this man does?” How is that possible?
Knowing but Not Loving
As I contemplated my own question, I thought of two personages who manifested the possibility of knowing that Jesus is the Son of God but clearly not behaving like it. The first one, of course, is Satan himself.
There is nobody in the universe who knows Jesus’ identity more clearly than Satan. Satan knew, during Jesus’ entire earthly ministry, who he was dealing with. He knew that Jesus was the incarnate Son of God, and as much as he understood that intellectually, he hated it passionately. He knew who Jesus was, but he was not interested in following Him, only in destroying Him.
In the biblical record, the first personages who recognized the deity of Christ behind the hidden veil of His humanity were the very demons from hell. For them, it was not a problem of lacking knowledge of Jesus’ identity. It was a lack of affection for the Son of God. But that was Satan—we put him in a separate category. What we are talking about this morning are not angels or fallen angels and their perception of Jesus, but rather human beings.
As I continued contemplating, I thought of another person who was convinced that Jesus was the Son of God, yet, despite that knowledge, was altogether unconverted and unregenerate. I am speaking, of course, in the first person.
The day before my conversion to Christ, the day before I was regenerated by the Holy Spirit, if you would have asked me: “R.C. Sproul, what’s your opinion of Jesus? Who do you think that He was?” I would have been unhesitant in my response: “Clearly, He is the Son of God.” I believed that in my head, but there was no ounce of affection in my heart for the One whom I believed to be the veritable Son of God.
The State of Your Heart
Thinking through the question even more, I began to wonder, “How many people out there have that same contradictory understanding of Jesus intellectually, while their hearts are so far removed from Him?” I began to think of the precious people I love so dearly who make up this congregation, then I thought about Saint Augustine’s definition of the church as a corpus permixtum, a mixed body.
When Augustine said that the church was a corpus permixtum, he was simply reflecting on the teaching of Jesus Himself, who said, “Among the assembly, there will always be tares among the wheat.” There will be the unconverted among the converted. Who knows who they are? I have no ability to read anybody’s heart any more than any person has the power to read my heart. I do not know who is soundly and truly converted and who remains unconverted and is on their way to everlasting torment. I do not know which people in this group today truly love Christ and which ones merely offer the service of their lips.
I do not know your souls, but you should. You should know the state of your heart, and I should be able to know the state of my heart. Even if I am unsure about my state, I know the Scriptures tell me that I am to make my calling sure, that the assurance of salvation is a real possibility, and not only a possibility, but an obligation for every Christian.
Before I continue in this text, let me ask you: Who do you think He is? What difference does it make to you? If Jesus is the Son of God—and He is—then He is supremely worthy of our adoration, worship, and devotion to Him with our whole heart and soul. To understand that He is the Son of God is to enter into the supreme state of felicity and blessedness.
In Matthew’s account, Peter answered the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” to which Jesus replied: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah. Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” He went on to say, “And thou art Petros (‘the rock’), and on this rock I will build my church” (Matt 16:15–18).
If you really understand that Jesus is the Son of God, not simply in an intellectual manner, but an understanding that you grasp in its entirety, then Christ would say to you, “Blessed are you.” There is no greater blessing, dear friend, than to know the Son of God.
The Necessity of Suffering
After Peter’s confession, Jesus warned and commanded the disciples to tell no one. It was not yet the hour to make the truth of Peter’s affirmation public. Jesus went on to say, “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.”
At this point in Matthew’s account, Peter the Rock became Peter the Mush. After Jesus said: “That is a wonderful affirmation and confession of faith. Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah. But now it is time for us to leave this place and go to Jerusalem, where I’m going to suffer and die at the hands of the religious leaders there,” Peter said, “No, Lord, forbid it Lord.” Five minutes after he made his great confession, Peter made the worst confession. He presumed to tell Jesus that Jesus was not allowed to do what He must do.
I want us to understand how Jesus put this to the disciples immediately after Peter’s confession. Here is what Jesus did not say: “Fellas, it’s time for us to make a trip to Jerusalem. I know there are some folks who are unhappy with us there, and I’m not sure what we’re going to get ourselves into. Most likely nothing serious will happen, but maybe it will. We’ll just have to wait and see.” Beloved, that is what He did not say.
What Jesus said was this: “The Son of Man,” will suffer? May suffer? Might suffer? No: “The Son of Man must suffer. It’s necessary. There is no other possibility. I’m going by divine, sovereign constraint. It must happen. It’s My mission. The Son of Man must suffer many things, be rejected, be killed, and be raised.”
Then, Jesus continued: “This is not a solitary venture. I’m telling you these things not because I want your compassion, solace, comfort, or sympathy, but so that you understand what it will mean if you follow Me.” He said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny Himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” Maybe it is that part that people who conclude intellectually that Jesus is the Son of God do not want to hear. They do not want to embrace the consequences Jesus sets forth: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself.”
When it comes right down to it, you either deny Christ and follow yourself, or you deny yourself and follow Christ. You cannot follow Christ and yourself. Jesus did not say, “If you desire to come after Me, then deny yourself, and take up your cross every now and then as the situation requires it.” Rather, He said, “Let him take up his cross daily and follow Me.”
Take Up Your Cross
The first time I read this statement, I was puzzled by it. I thought, “Maybe the higher critics are right that the later editors wrote things into the text that happened later.” Jesus was asking people to pick up their crosses and follow Him every day when He had not yet been crucified.
Where does the cross come into this? It was too early for the cross. It had not happened yet. We know what the imagery suggests. In the manner of execution by crucifixion, the Romans required the soon-to-be-executed person to carry the heavy wooden crossbeam that would be affixed to the vertical beam upon which the person would be crucified. We know in the account of our Lord’s crucifixion that He had been so severely beaten that as He was carrying the crossbeam, He was not able to continue, and He stumbled. Simon of Cyrene was pressed into service to carry the crossbeam for Him.
Apart from Christ’s crucifixion, however, there is evidence to believe that the Jews who were under Roman rule were very familiar with this Roman form of execution. They had developed the idiom, “bearing one’s cross,” which meant to the Jew, “enduring the worst that the world can throw at you.” It was not out of place for Jesus to use this metaphor when He said: “If you want to follow Me, if you have any desire to do so, then you’re going to have to do two things. You’re going to have to deny yourself, and you’re going to have to take up your cross daily.”
To “take up the cross daily” is to identify with Jesus in His humiliation, even our baptism, which signifies, among other things, our being buried and raised together with Christ. As the Apostle Paul tells us, unless we are willing to involve ourselves with the humiliation of Jesus, we will not experience His exultation. To be a follower of Christ is not to be a follower of self or to be one who flees from the humiliation and the suffering involved with being a Christian.
What Profit Is It?
As the text continues, Jesus gives a grand paradox: “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it.” In one sense, beloved, to be a Christian is to have a throwaway life; at least, that is how it appears. If I am going to be a Christian, I must throw away my life, but to throw away my life for Christ is to find my life forever.
“For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost?” Elsewhere, Jesus says: “What profit? What gain is it? Look at the bottom line. Look at the debits and the credits, the assets and liabilities.” In this text, Jesus speaks in economic language, in terms of profit. What person goes into business not trying to achieve a profit? If he does not achieve a profit, he will not be in business very long. We are concerned about profit.
What if you gained a new car and you lost your wife? Some people may think that is a double profit, but for most it would be a negative balance. Or what if you gained a new house, or an inheritance? Or, let’s stop thinking about these paltry matters of cars and money: What if you gained the whole world but the price tag was your soul? Jesus said, “What will a man give in exchange for his soul?”
We have many wonderful, dramatic stories and literary tales about people selling their souls to the devil as if that were something extraordinary, when most human beings do it every day, trading their souls for what the world offers. “What profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world if it costs him his soul?”
Do Not Be Ashamed
“For whoever is ashamed of Me and of My words, of him the Son of Man will be ashamed when He comes in His own glory, and in His Father’s, and of the holy angels.” What a sober warning that is from Jesus. If I confess Him before men, He will confess me before His Father. If I say to my friends: “I love Jesus. I believe Jesus is the Son of God, and I’m prepared to follow Him at whatever cost it is,” and I mean that, and do that, then Jesus will say to the Father: “I love R.C. He’s mine.”
On the other hand, if I am ashamed of Jesus, if I try to harbor a secret faith but do not want anybody to know about it lest they think I am strange, weird, or foolish, if I am ashamed of Him, then when the Father brings up my name, “R.C. Sproul?” Jesus says, “Yes, I know who he is, and Father, I’m ashamed of that man.” Can you imagine anything worse than that?
So, I leave you this day with the same question with which we started: Who do you think He is? What does it mean to you who you think He is?
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.