In Mark 8:27-38 Jesus asked his students, “Who do you-all say I am?” Peter correctly answered: Christ or Messiah (the anointed one) but what does that mean? For Jesus, it meant suffering and death on the cross. Peter did not want to hear it and rebuked Jesus for predicting it. But that is what being the anointed one meant. It also means that anyone who follows Christ must likewise be willing to give of themselves in order to serve human kind. There is a form of Christianity which claims to be spirit-filled, but is in reality self-centered and materialistic. It focuses on personal spiritual experiences instead of serving others and accumulating wealth for self instead of giving it away for others. The example of Christ is centered upon totally giving up the self in order that others may live.
A popular message is that Jesus can help you get your life back, but that’s not exactly how Jesus said it. In Mark 8:27-38 Jesus said, “whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it.” We don’t want to lose our lives. Our natural desire is to preserve our way of life. Yet such a selfish life is a dead life. The only work worth doing is that of giving to others. When we we give, we gain the whole world. It is a message that is so contrary to our natural thinking that we believe it is a lie. Certainly, giving up our lives is not a popular message, but according to Jesus, it is the way to save our lives.
Some Bible passages which are hard to understand are called difficult scriptures. In Mark 8:27-38 Jesus said, “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” What cross? For a thousand years overlapping the life of Christ, crucifixion was a method of capital punishment among several ancient peoples including the Romans. Convicted criminals were sometimes required to carry either the cross beam or the entire cross to the place of execution. For Christians to take up their crosses it means that we must deny our selfish, natural desires and devote ourselves to the service of Jesus and others. This is one of the most uncomfortable sayings of Jesus. It is not hard to understand. It is difficult to do. Often it is the easiest to understand which are the hardest passages.
Christians are not called to do the easy thing. We are called to do the difficult thing that seems to be against all hope (Mark 8:27-38). Following Jesus is to lay aside the easy way and choose what appears to be the more difficult path. Just as Jesus gave up his life on the cross, so too do we carry our cross and take the difficult path to self-sacrifice. Few of us are called to do like Abraham and make a supreme personal sacrifice by leaving our country to follow God, yet we are called to selflessness. Against all hope, Abraham hoped in God’s promises (Romans 4:13-25) and became the father of many nations (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16). Like his promise to Abraham, God’s promise to us is a better life beyond the temporary sacrifices of the present.
How does taking up our cross (Mark 8:27-38) look in practice? I once knew a young mechanic who took every factory training course offered by his company. The other mechanics could not be bothered. They wanted the easy path. In his mid 20's he became the boss over his much older co-workers, because he took the hard road. In all of life's endeavors, there are those who choose short-term pain for long-term gain. Athletes cannot go home and relax between games, they must train hard. At college there are the party people who lose and the hard workers who succeed. Anything worthwhile involves short-term pain for long-term gain. There are two paths to take in life. The easy path starts out smooth, but ends up rough. The hard road often starts out difficult, but end up smoother.
We live in a world obsessed with wealth and success. Yet true wealth is not found in gaining the whole world. Even Christians are deluded by monetary wealth and material success, even believing that God promises money. Yet a man with millions and billions who lives a selfish life does not have wealth but abject poverty of spirit. Someone who achieves worldly status by destroying the lives of others is an abysmal failure not a success. In Mark 8:27-38 Jesus defined true wealth and success as the way of the cross. True riches are the wealth of people that we have sacrificed to serve. True success is also found in rejecting selfish living in this world for a better life in eternity. True celebrity is not in this life, but in joining Jesus in his glory at his coming.
Real heroes would have to include any who make a great sacrifice for others. That would include soldiers, firefighters, those police officers who truly do protect and serve, missionaries and volunteers who serve the needy. A one-time sacrifice is to be praised, but also a lifetime of sacrifice. In Mark 8:27-38 Jesus defined some ingredients of what it takes to be a true hero. Denying self, taking up our cross and losing our life for the gospel. On one university campus a theology professor asked his students to look out the window at the school of medicine and the school of law. He then said that those graduating from those schools would make many times more than a pastor, but serving Christ is where the true riches are. We are all called to be part of that heroic mission.
Narcissism is extreme selfishness. Narcissistic Christianity is therefore not true Christianity, but it is a very popular counterfeit. Rather than sacrificing for others and enduring injustice, it falsely advertises “your best life now,” but teaches a selfish life of setting our minds on the materialistic things of earth not the things of heaven. It lies by saying that our best days are ahead of us, while Christians in some countries await persecution. Narcissistic Christianity substitutes cheap materialism for spiritual wealth, selfishness instead of love of neighbor and promotes unrealistic expectations from this life. Narcissism is being ashamed of Jesus (Mark 8:27-38). Jesus defined true Christianity as the exact opposite of materialistic narcissism. It involves turning from our selfish ways, taking up our cross and following him. Following Jesus’ example of self-sacrifice is the only way to finding true life.
The devil deceives us by offering a wide variety of lifestyles with one ingredient in common, self. They all build altars of self-worship filled with idols of self-gratification. We may not all be able to build our own Trump Towers, or have a hundred million dollar trust fund for our children, but the idolatry of self expresses itself in thousands of other ways. It is a delusion that guarantees misery and loneliness. There is a lifestyle which guarantees happiness forever. Jesus described it in words which are the opposite of our culture of self (Mark 8:27-38). He defined a better way of life. It includes words like deny self, take up our cross and lose our self-indulgent lifestyle for the Gospel. This is shocking to a narcissistic, self-centered culture, but it is the way to our best life ever.
Some churches are growing while mainstream churches are dying. Yet, where are we more likely to hear the Gospel? The simple fact is that mainstream churches are far more likely to read a Gospel text each week. In large popular churches we are more likely to hear a materialistic motivational speech about health and wealth that actually contradicts the Gospel. The good news is that living a selfless life is a life of abundant blessings, but it is not popular. People do not want to hear about emulating someone who lived a life of poverty and sacrificed himself for others. They want to hear about making money and having things. Mainstream churches are tempted to change from the Gospel to empty-headed fluffy topical sermons that deny denying self (Mark 8:27-38). That is church growth at the expense of truth.
“My job, my flag, my team, my lifestyle, my inheritance, my church, my salvation, my world not yours.” Does any of this sound familiar? It ought to. We all tend to be selfish and our way of life is more about getting than giving. Jesus challenges us to think about another way of life (Mark 8:27-38). To our habitual way of thinking it seems to be the most miserable and unhappy way of life. That is because we have spent a lifetime steeped in the propaganda of the devil. His propaganda even enters the church as a counterfeit gospel of self-interest rather than self-sacrifice and of gaining our lives only to lose them. This counterfeit Christianity is ashamed of Jesus and his words because it seeks to have us run away from our cross rather than take it up.
The selfish life is appealing. Walking a red carpet to the cheers of worshiping fans drives some of us. Living away from the troubles of the world in a monastery penthouse atop a beautiful mountain appeals to others. Living in the lap of luxury with gold accouterments, marble floors and servants to prepare gourmet meals every day also sounds appealing. Let’s face it. We don’t really believe in denying ourselves anything. We don’t really believe in burdening ourselves with a personal cross. We really believe in gaining the whole world for our country and ourselves. We give lip service to Jesus while in reality we are ashamed of emulating his life of self-sacrifice. We live selfish lives. Why did Jesus have to go and say that our way of life would lead to us losing our lives (Mark 8:27-38)?
Many Christians copy Jesus’ example of fasting (Mark 1:13) taking time during Lent. A day to fast is good any time of year, but before Resurrection Sunday especially. Jesus’ wilderness experience set us an example of spiritual survival, encouraging us to also take times apart to meditate. A simple rule for wilderness survival is STOP (sit, think, observe, and plan). Fasting is a time to sit and think a long time, to observe and plan ways to change our lives. Canon law focuses on modes of fasting. Isaiah 58 teaches us to focus on the result. Do we fast humbly only to end up more selfish and oppress others more than before? Ought not the result of a fast be to pursue justice, set people free, to share food with the hungry, house the homeless, and cover the naked?
In Mark 1:15 Jesus announced: The kingdom of God is near; repent and believe the good news! What does that mean? The kingdom of God is both future and now, both here and almost here. We change our hearts and trust God's sovereignty. In order to become a citizen of a foreign country in this world, we may be required to actually live their for a number of years. We become part of God's kingdom and citizens of heaven before we get there. We come under his reign as we learn to trust that loving, saving authority. How then do we complete the journey and actually get to that country of our new citizenship? When traveling to a country of this world, we need a way. Jesus is the way to heaven. When entering a new country of this world, we go through an official gate. Jesus is our gateway.
Small columbidae are generally called doves and larger ones are usually called pigeons. Why is the Holy Spirit pictured as descending like a dove in Mark 1:9-15? In the Old Testament Noah sent a dove to test if it was time to exit the ark (Genesis 8:8-12). In the same manner, the Holy Spirit lets us know when things are right. David sang of flying away on the wings of a dove to find rest (Psalm 55:6). In the same manner the Holy Spirit takes us to a place of rest. Solomon sang of his love being undefiled like a dove (Song 5:2; 6:9). In the same manner he is called the Holy Spirit. A dove was considered to be harmless (Matthew 10:16). In the same way the Holy Spirit wishes us no harm.
Lent remembers Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness (Mark 1:9-15). It is also reminiscent of the forty days of rain in Noah’s day, the forty years of humbling and testing in the wilderness where God was with ancient Israel and they lacked nothing, Moses’ forty days on the mountain, forty days of scouting the promised land, forty years of peace under good judges like Othniel, Deborah and Gideon, forty days of mocking by Goliath, Elijah’s forty day journey into the wilderness where he heard the gentle, quiet voice of God and learned that seven thousand others had not bowed to false religion, and forty days after Jesus’ death when he was seen by countless witnesses. Wilderness experiences are like days of rain, with humbling and testing, yet they can also be great days of revelation, peace and God’s provision.
As Jesus’ was driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:9-15), life delivers us into lonely places. Losing a job and getting behind on the bills and being without health insurance can be a security wilderness. Losing a loved one to death or divorce can be a family wilderness. Moving to another part of the world for work or family can be a relationship wilderness. Going bankrupt or losing a house can be a financial wilderness. Straying from the straight and narrow can be a spiritual wilderness. A sudden illness or injury can be a health wilderness. What do we do in wilderness experiences? They are times to slow down and wait for the mighty hand of God. As God was with Noah, Israel, David, Elijah and Jesus let’s relax and await his revelation, peace and provision.
We all experience those times in the wilderness where we appear to be surrounded by demons and wild beasts (Mark 1:9-15). Jesus’ outback experience included temptation by the devil and danger from wild animals. Why? What are these times about? They are to test us and make us stronger. They are to build in us something that good times cannot, character. Suffering is good. Those who have suffered are deep and real. Those who have not yet suffered are shallow, spoiled brats. Just as the angels came to serve Jesus in his time of trial, we too must remember that in the midst of our bad times, where it seems like we are surrounded by predators and wickedness incarnate, remember that evil can only fail, because there too are the angels, ready and willing to take care of us.
Adrenaline junkies love the high of a stressful experience but must deal with the resultant lows. It is like a bipolar experience. Abnormally elevated adrenaline levels are followed by a period of depression. It’s a fight or flight response. Managing the body’s manic-depressive response is an essential skill for singers, public speakers, sports stars, soldiers, police officers and fire fighters. They each experience different kinds of extreme stress, but have a similar experience of adrenal fatigue. The adrenaline rush of good and bad times is followed by long or short periods of depression or adrenaline letdown. In extreme situations, post traumatic-stress disorder can result. Jesus had a wonderful baptism experience followed by forty days of loneliness in the Judean outback (Mark 1:9-15). Does Jesus’ wilderness experience teach us something about how to handle our own down times?
In a recent year the United States government added 80,000 pages of regulations. Some estimate that this burden now makes every American a criminal, because it is impossible to keep every law. In the same way that national law makes us all criminals, so has Moses' law made us all sinners (Romans 5:20-21). Excessive legislation not only increases the number of criminals but it also makes all of us into slaves (Galatians 4:21-31). Law has its place in controlling those who don’t have a desire to do the right thing (1 Timothy 1:8-11) but the letter of the law fails. Not enough laws can ever be written to cover every loophole. Where law fails, a change of heart and a belief in the Gospel of Jesus Christ lead us towards a real answer (Mark 1:15).
What happens when we die? Does our body await a resurrection? Are we given a resurrected body immediately? If our spirit goes to God, is it conscious or is it also asleep until a future resurrection? All the possible permutations and combinations exist as theories and somewhere there is a denomination that dogmatically defends its particular take on what happens when we die and when the resurrection is. As an introduction to the whole topic, let’s look at Mark 9:2-10 and see some possible things that it tells us. It seems to indicate that Elijah and Moses are very much alive today. Is that true, or is this just a vision of something that is yet in the future? What does a careful reading reveal? Even the disciples discussed among themselves, puzzling what rising from the dead could mean.
Was salvation available under the Old Covenant, even though nobody could keep the law perfectly? What happened to Moses, the hero of the Exodus, after he died? He was a man of God, but in the end, due to a mistake he made, he was not allowed to enter the promised land. What about other Old Testament believers? In Mark 9:2-10 is a vision seen on a mountain top. Peter, James and John the inner three disciples witnessed it. The high mountain was probably Mt Tabor according to the most ancient witnesses. Jesus was transfigured in a metamorphosis. It was similar to what will happen after we die. We receive what is in other places called a glorified body. These disciples saw two Old Testament figures after their deaths. It is an encouraging vision of life after death.
What kind of Jesus do Christians worship? Is he merely a do-gooder? Was he a combination of the Beatles and the hippie movement, preaching “love is all you need?” Was his life grossly exaggerated by overenthusiastic followers? Whatever he was, he has more followers today than any other spiritual man in human history. In places like Mark 9:2-10 skeptics are challenged by the blatant metaphysical aspects of Jesus’ ministry. This passage is a simple report of an extraordinary experience. Jesus was transformed, metamorphosed in clothes that shone brightly. Two men appeared and were identified as supposedly deceased prophets Elijah and Moses. A cloud covered them and a voice spoke, "This is my beloved son, listen to him!" As the cloud faded the two men had disappeared. Is there life after death? Is Jesus God’s son? You decide!
What purpose could the transfiguration have served? Mark 9:2-10 is one of three accounts. There are clues surrounding the passage and perhaps even in other places. In verse 1 Jesus declared that some would see that the kingdom of God has come with power. This passage seems to fulfill that prediction at least in part. Brian Stoffregen# suggests some other possible reasons for the transfiguration. It connects Jesus and the prophets under the law, but Jesus as the one to listen to, a fact that those overly reliant upon tradition, reason and experience often ignore. It was a mountain-top experience in the middle of their training. It exhibits Jesus’ divinity. His white robes could also symbolize his martyrdom. We learn that religious experiences do not necessarily remove blindness, because the disciples still discussed what it could mean.
To whom should we listen, the bishop, the preacher, the televangelist, Saint Paul or the prophets of old? Should we listen to the founders of Christian movements like Wesley, Calvin, Luther and Zwingli? All of those people may have been faithful servants of God, but none of them is the final authority. The question is answered in Mark 9:2-10. It does not mean that we should demean others. In other places Jesus told us to love our neighbors and that would include those who preach and teach the gospel. However, in the absolute sense, we ought to listen to Jesus first and others after that. That means that if any preacher of the gospel teaches something that Jesus did not, it is really secondary and not an essential of the faith. We obey God and listen to Jesus.
Jesus performed numerous healings in Mark 1:29-39. So what kind of healings does God offer? Throughout the Bible we see that the healing offered by God is not limited to sicknesses, but encompasses all of our lives. The Bible includes examples of healing broken hearts, mental problems, national healing, healing agricultural land and healing a family breach. Every aspect of our lives is reachable with God’s healing. Today, we need to be healed nationally and individually. Our communities need healing, especially in our dishonest business practices and crime. Our churches need to be healed, especially the division caused by power politics and non-essentials of doctrine. Our politics needs to be healed, especially the bitter rancor and mud-slinging. Our families and marriages need to be healed, especially for our children’s sakes. Where is that healing available? Find out in church.
When Jesus healed people we are not always told what if any physical rituals or ceremonies he performed. Often he seems to have just helped someone to their feet and they were healed (Mark 1:29-39). The disciples anointed the sick with oil (Mark 6:13). Jesus, however, did one time anoint a man with mud made from his own spit for his healing and then asked him to wash himself in water (John 9:6-11). We could do that if people prefer, but somehow I think that most will opt for the example of the disciples and the instruction in James 5:14-16 to use oil. Who were the elders that James mentioned? The word elder means many different things to different denominations today. But, in the historical context of the day the word referred to local church leaders.