What it means to follow Jesus: Sermon on Mark 8:31-38

This is the text of a sermon I preached yesterday morning at at the 9:00 communion service at St Thomas’ Kidsgrove. It was the last day of their ‘week of events’ or mission which I mentioned in my post last week. (The week went well, by the way, thanks for asking.)

The passage is Mark 8:31-38, which it would be helpful to read before reading the sermon! And so, without further ado…

In the news, we’re often hearing of the results of this survey or that survey that’s been conducted, particularly with regards to the issue of faith. A few weeks ago, the well-known atheist Richard Dawkins announced the results of a survey he had commissioned on attitudes to Christianity in the UK. When he announced the results, he said – and I quote: “it is clear that faith is a spent force in the UK.”

That was his interpretation of the data. But not everyone sees it like that. One thing, for example, which he seems to miss, was that it seems to indicate at least a quarter of the population agree with the statement, “Jesus is the Son of God, the Saviour of mankind.”

I wonder what kind of answers I would get if I went round Kidsgrove today and asked people who they think Jesus was. I wonder what they would say to the question, what does that mean? What does it mean for Jesus to be the Son of God? Well, the passage we’re looking at today deals with the issue of what it means. Just before our section, in verse 30, Peter says to Jesus “You are the Christ.” Peter recognised that Jesus was the King the Israelites had been expecting, whose coming had been prophesied in the Old Testament. From this point onwards in Mark’s gospel, the question becomes: “What does it mean for Jesus to be King?”

Why did Jesus need to die?

Notice that the very first thing Jesus teaches them, in verse 31, is that “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected … and that he must be killed.” This is Jesus teaching them about what it means for him to be King: Not that he will suffer, but that he must. It’s part of his mission.

People sometimes have this view of Jesus of a weak character, someone who is blown around by the winds of chance, and someone who ends up being killed because he manages to annoy the wrong people. But that’s not at all how the Bible sees it. Jesus says that his death is part and parcel of his mission.

In fact, when Peter takes Jesus aside to take him to task, in verse 33 Jesus rebukes him because he does not “have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” Jesus says that it is the plan of God himself that Peter is opposing.

But all this raises a question: why was it so necessary for Jesus to die? One of the clearest answers to that question comes in the Old Testament, from Isaiah 53. This is a prophecy, written 500 years before Jesus came, about what he would come to do. Verses 5-6 say,

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

The Bible says we have all gone astray like sheep. We have all rejected the God who made us, and done wrong against him. But, in His mercy, God provided a sacrifice of himself: Jesus, the Son of God, took all the punishment and the penalty of our sin for us on the cross, so that through his death all who believe in Him may obtain forgiveness and salvation.

1 Corinthians 5:21 says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The problem is that none of us are righteous in God’s eyes. But, because of Jesus becoming sin for us, anyone who repents and believes in him can be considered righteous in God’s eyes.

Peter

So this necessity for Jesus’ death puts Peter’s rebuke into sharp relief. And this provokes a question in my mind: Why does Peter, who knew Jesus well, who only a few verses before had declared him to be the Christ, reject what Jesus says about having to die?

I think the answer is, at the time the Jewish people were living under Roman authority. They had been conquered by the Roman Empire, and they absolutely hated it. They had read the prophecies of the Old Testament, and they were expecting a Messiah figure like David to arise, a warrior king who would lead them in fighting against the Romans and throw off the shackles of oppression.

When Peter declared that Jesus was the Christ, what he had in mind was someone who was going to fulfil this image he had of the warrior king. But Jesus says, no – that’s not right. As we’ve already seen, his mission was to die. Peter’s expectation of what it meant to be the Messiah was wrong, it needed to be fixed.

Peter is an example for us: he is someone who spent a lot of time with Jesus. He was one of the disciples; he knew Jesus personally. And yet, he still got it wrong when it came to Jesus telling them that he needed to die. He didn’t realise what Jesus’ mission was all about. He didn’t realise what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. This is our challenge: Peter called himself a follower of Jesus, and yet he still managed to get things wrong. It’s like that with us.

Although we no longer have an expectation of Jesus as a warrior king, a lot of people today seem to think of Jesus as a great moral teacher – which he certainly was! But if that’s where our understanding of Jesus begins and ends, following him will basically mean trying to be a good person and do good things. But that’s not what Jesus says it means to be his follower.

Following Jesus

After Jesus rebukes Peter, he calls everybody around him and teaches them what it actually means to follow him. Jesus says, v34, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Now at this point I think our culture gets in the way of understanding this fully. I’m sure most if not all of us are familiar with the expression “having a cross to bear”, or something similar, meaning “a heavy burden of responsibility or a problem that they alone must cope with.”

That’s not the cross that Jesus was talking about here. If you saw someone carrying a cross in first-century Jerusalem, you knew that they were heading out to die. Jesus already knew what kind of a death He was going to face. What Jesus is saying is that to be a follower of Him means taking up your cross and following him out to die.

But what does that mean? Jesus didn’t intend for all his disciples to go out and be crucified with Him! What does it mean to follow Him to His death?

The apostle Paul says in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Notice that expression ‘crucified with Christ’. Paul knew what it meant to take up his cross and follow Jesus. It didn’t mean a physical death, it meant a spiritual death: it meant dying to the part of him which was in opposition to Christ, and instead living “by faith in the Son of God”. Did you notice Jesus says in our passage, “deny yourself, take up your cross…” We need to deny ourselves because our nature is to go against what God wants!

But if we are crucified with Christ, it’s a complete change of direction: we acknowledge that Jesus is Lord of our lives, and by faith we live a new life to please Him in the knowledge that we have been forgiven.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen anyone baptised as an adult, but baptism itself presents a graphical picture of this. When the person is baptised, they go down under the water. This symbolises death to the old life, the life lived against Christ. When they come back up out of the water, this symbolises the birth of the new life, the life which is lived with Christ as Lord in order to please Him.

Now, you might be sitting there thinking, “that’s all very well, but how can a follower of Jesus completely share in Christ’s death? Surely no-one can be totally transformed like that?”

This is true. That is exactly the point: no-one can live a life which is completely transformed. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Just because we aren’t yet totally transformed, just because we don’t 100% love God and don’t love our neighbour as ourselves, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do those things with God’s help.

And Jesus acknowledges this. If you look at the parallel passage in Luke’s gospel, Luke 9:23, Jesus actually says that taking up our cross is something that his followers need to do daily. It’s not something which we do once and then never have to do again. He is saying, if you are his follower you will make mistakes, you will fall down. But keep persevering and He will help you. This is why Christians take communion together regularly: it’s to remind each other that we need to keep coming back to the cross, keep reminding each other of the forgiveness that we find there, and keep promising to deny ourselves and take up our cross. This is the way of salvation.

The Way of Life

So we have heard something of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. But the key question now becomes: why should we be followers of Jesus? Why is it so necessary, given that following Him seems to be so hard?

Well, in Mark 8:35-39 Jesus gives the reason why it’s so important for us to follow him. In verse 35 he says, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” It is true that sharing in Christ’s death is like losing your life: we have to deny ourselves, deny (some of) the things that we want to do, and live life to please God, not ourselves.

I don’t know whether this is still the case, but a few years ago in school, if someone was working very hard and being a bit of a swot, we might say to them “get a life!” The implication being that they weren’t really living life if they were reading books and doing homework all the time. And I think sometimes that is how we perceive the Christian life to be: not sleeping with lots of people? Get a life! Not going out getting drunk at the weekends? Get a life! Life is out there to be lived – get out there and please yourself!

But what Jesus says here is that people who lose life for him and for the gospel will actually find it. Living a life with Jesus as Lord is the most amount of life that it is possible to have. Jesus says in John 10:10, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

But there’s more! Notice back in verse 31 how Jesus says that after three days he will rise again. Those who would follow Jesus, who deny themselves, who take up their cross, will ultimately join in his resurrection. The apostle Paul says, in Romans 6:5, “If we have been united with [Jesus] like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.” A life lived for Jesus and the gospel is the most amount of life you can have, not only in this life, but in the life to come.

In the long run, anything we have needed to give up in this life to follow Jesus will be nothing compared to the gain we will receive by being with him forever.

But there is another side to this. Notice what Jesus says in verse 36: “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” If you decide not to follow Jesus, then nothing will be able to save you. Jesus says it doesn’t matter if you gain everything in the whole world! If you have ten private helicopters, if you have more money than Bill Gates, if you give millions to charity, if you have a perfect family – all of this you could have, but lose the most important thing: your soul.

In verse 38, Jesus says: “All who are ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation the Son of Man will be ashamed of when he comes in His Father’s glory with the holy angels.” If Jesus is ashamed of us on that day, he will say: “away from me, I never knew you”. That leads to everlasting death and judgement. But if we have taken up our cross and followed him to the end, he will say “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Following Jesus means denying ourselves and acknowledging Christ as Lord over our lives. But it means being on the way of life. No other way that we can take will lead us to life, either in this life or in the one to come.

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