What do you consider the watershed moments in world history? The battle of Britain, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the first moon landing perhaps? Or maybe the invention of the wheel, the printing press or the internal combustion engine? Closer to home, 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 are firmly etched in our memory.
Today’s passage from Mark’s Gospel records a very pivotal point in the life of Jesus. It marks the climax of the story so far - a watershed moment that divides Mark’s Gospel in two and commences the countdown to Easter. I want to look at our passage today under four simple headings: Jesus’ Identity, Jesus’ Mission, Jesus’ Call and Jesus’ Power. Before we look at each in turn, let me pray: Lord Jesus, this passage, and all of Scripture, is ultimately all about you. Help us to see your glory in Mark chapter 8 today, and may we hear your call on our lives. In your name we pray, Amen.
- Jesus’ Identity (v.27-30)
As we resume our journey through Mark’s Gospel this morning we join Jesus and his disciples in the area around Caesarea Philippi, a town in the very north of Palestine – in fact the furthest north they ever went.
Caesarea Philippi was an area with a mixed population of Jews and Gentiles, and an area of a mixed religious beliefs. Because as well as Bible-believing Jews, there was an ancient shrine to the Greek god Pan, and a Temple dedicated to the Roman Emperor Augustus.
The region around Caesarea Philippi was consequently a religiously diverse and spiritually confused place. Very much like twenty-first century London in that respect. So its appropriate that this was the location chosen by Jesus to first reveal his true identity to his disciples. It was a fitting place to for him to put Pan, Augustus and every other would-be god in their place. It was the ideal area to tell his closest friends where the evidence about his identity led to.
We’ve seen this evidence for ourselves haven’t we? As we’ve journeyed through the opening chapters of Mark over recent weeks, we’ve seen Jesus display amazing power and authority, haven’t we? We’ve seen Jesus’ power to heal the sick, calm a storm, call disciples, expel evil spirits and even raise the dead.
Unsurprisingly, this evidence had prompted 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, the Messiah” he says. You see, Peter had correctly identified Jesus as God’s promised King - as the Heaven-sent Saviour long-prophesied in the Old Testament. A Messiah who would defeat evil and bring blessing to God’s people.
Unsurprisingly, this promised Messiah was a man the first century people of Israel longed for. They eagerly awaited a Messiah they thought would come to do battle with the Romans and liberate their nation from foreign occupation. A revolutionary who would claim the crown and sit on a throne in Jerusalem. 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 and death and judgement.
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 Messiah, the disciples needed to correctly understand his mission. A mission that would involve self-sacrifice and death, not national liberation.
- Jesus’ Mission (v.31-33)
So in verse 31 of our passage today, Jesus sets out his Messianic mission. It is an unexpected and shocking mission statement. He says: “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”.
That’s certainly not the kind of manifesto what Peter and other Jews were expecting from their Messiah. It’s no surprise that “Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him” (v.32). Surely Jesus had got it all wrong? Surely he should he heading to Jerusalem to ascend the throne, not to ascend a Cross?
Yet Jesus knew that hadn’t come to be a national conqueror but to suffer and die. His death on the cross wasn’t going to be a miscalculation, a heroic failure, or a tragic end. 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.
- You see, the Cross was where God’s justice and mercy met.
- The Cross was where God’s love for fallen humanity was shown most fully.
- The Cross is what Christians remember whenever we share the Lord’s Supper together, as we shall do shortly today.
- Jesus’ Call (v.34-38)
Because Jesus knew his journey to the Cross was so important, so central to his mission, he couldn’t let Peter talk him out of it. So he said to him: “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” Those words may sound harsh, but Peter could not be allowed to get in the way of God’s work. The salvation of the world was literally at stake!
So Peter (like all of us) had to learn to be a faithful follower of Jesus. He had to learn what it means to be a disciple, not someone inadvertently doing the devil’s work. That’s why in verses 34 to 38 we’re told that Jesus gathered Peter and others around him and gave them a crash course in Christian discipleship! Listen again to 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.’
With those words, Jesus is challenging us all to make a choice - to follow him or not. To obey his call or not. He’s saying there are only two ways to live:
On the one hand, will we ignore Jesus and live our lives our own way? Will we selfishly order our lives to maximise our personal comfort and safety? 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 in this world, but lose their souls for eternity.
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 so, 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 true contentment, purpose and meaning in this world (what Jesus called ‘life to the full’) and everlasting life in Christ’s coming kingdom. If we give up a comfortable, self-centred life on earth, God will freely give us eternal life beyond the grave. If we are willing to surrender our status in this world, we will be bathed in God’s glory when Christ returns.
- Jesus’ Power (9:1)
As I finish, listen to the tantalising promise Jesus gives his hearers in chapter 9 verse 1. “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.”
Scholars debate exactly what Jesus was referring to here. He was clearly saying something spectacular was going to happen. Something that would confirm his identity and mission. Something that would show his disciples that the cost of following him would be worthwhile. Some suggest Jesus was referring to his mountain-top transfiguration (when his face and clothes momentarily turned dazzling white). Others suggest it may have been Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit fell on his followers for the first time.
But for my money, the great event Jesus is alluding to here is his resurrection. Around 500 people, including his closest disciples, were fortunate to see Jesus after he had risen from the dead. For me, the Resurrection is the definitive event that confirms Jesus identity and mission. It is the historical event that should convince us the cost of discipleship is worthwhile.
- Because when Jesus rose from the dead it showed the world that he wasn’t merely some kind of magician, mystic or guru. He was God’s Messiah, God’s incarnate Son - someone who simply couldn’t stay dead!
- When Jesus rose again it was also confirmation that the Cross was a mission accomplished. It was confirmation that sins had been forgiven, that atonement was achieved, that our ransom had been paid in full.
- And thirdly, when Jesus rose from the dead, it was proof that eternal life is a real possibility. It was proof that Christ has the power to give his followers life beyond the grave - life in the kingdom of God, forever!
Let’s pray: Lord Jesus, thank you for revealing your identity as our Messiah. Thank you for the mission that took you to the cross for our salvation. And help us to respond to your call with obedience, trust and hope. In your name we pray, Amen.