Gaining True Life Through Losing False Life
A sermon on Mark 8:27-9:1 by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA, 12/12/99
The year is 1810. You are one of the parents of four daughters; your youngest, Ann, is 21. One day in July you receive a letter from a young man you met only one month previously, asking to begin a courtship of Ann. This is to be expected; she is attractive, vivacious, intelligent, and, after all, is 21; but no parent has ever received a request for courtship quite like this one. Let me quote:
"I have now to ask, whether you can consent to part with your daughter early next Spring, to see her no more in this world; whether you can consent to her departure for a heathen land, and her subjection to the hardships and sufferings of missionary life; whether you can consent to her exposure to the dangers of the ocean; to the fatal influence of the southern climate of India; to every kind of want and distress; to degradation, insult, persecution, and perhaps a violent death. Can you consent to all this, for the sake of Him who left His heavenly home and died for her and for you; for the sake of perishing, immortal souls; for the sake of Zion, and the glory of God? Can you consent to all this, in hope of soon meeting your daughter in the world of glory with a crown of righteousness, brightened by the acclamations of praise which shall redound to her Savior from the heathens saved, through her means, from eternal woe and despair?"
How would you respond?
The natural response would be to say, "No way! Not my youngest! She can serve God right here! She means too much to me to let her risk her life on the other side of the world! I need her!"
In todayís passage, Jesus confronts each of us with questions similar to those raised in this letter: "Where do you find life? What is the source of life? Do you find life in the accomplishments and pleasures and relationships of this world? Or are you willing to give up all of those in order to know me, and to follow me?"
Recall that last week's sermon was entitled, "Deaf Ears, Blind Eyes, and Thick Heads;" Jesus heals the physically deaf and blind, but is frustrated because the spiritually deaf and blind do not even acknowledge their need. Jesus is also frustrated at the thick heads of the Pharisees and even his disciples. He warns his followers about the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod. Recall that these are symbols for:
Jesus gives this warning -- and the disciples think heís upbraiding them because someone forgot to put the bag of bread in the boat! Prompted by this additional evidence of their need, Jesus gives a prescription for the cure of thick-headedness:
It is now only six months before Passover, when Jesus will die on the cross. He knows what is coming, he knows that this will be the end; there is not much time left to prepare the disciples for his departure. He has to start teaching about his death, but there is no indication that the disciples have even grasped what he has taught them so far.
The Messiah Must Die
This brings us to today's passage. Please turn in your Bibles with me to Mark 8:27.
27 ∂ And Jesus went out, along with His disciples, to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way He questioned His disciples, saying to them, "Who do people say that I am?" 28 And they told Him, saying, "John the Baptist; and others say Elijah; but others, one of the prophets." 29 And He continued by questioning them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter *answered and *said to Him, "Thou art the Christ." 30 And He warned them to tell no one about Him. 31 And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.
In order to get away from Herod Antipas, the Pharisees, and the largest crowds, Jesus takes his disciples north, where He can spend time more focused on them. Along the way he asks, "Who do people say that I am?" The disciplesí response reminds us of Mark 6:14-16: some believe Him to be a prophet or Elijah returned, Herod was convinced that Jesus was John the Baptist come back to life. Thickheaded though they may be, the disciples accurately reflect the thoughts of the people.
Why did Jesus ask this question? The most straightforward reason would be because he wanted to know what they thought of him. But there is solid evidence that Jesus already knew that they believed him to be the Messiah. Right at the beginning of His ministry, Andrew runs to his brother Simon Peter and tells him "We have found the Messiah!" (John 1:41). Later, after the day in which Jesus feeds thousands, walks on the water and calms the storm, Matthew records that:
those who were in the boat worshiped Him, saying, "You are certainly God's Son!" (Matthew 14:33 NASB)
The very next day, John records that the crowds find Him and ask him to produce more bread for them to eat. Jesus tells them that He is the bread of life; only He can satisfy their real hunger. Toward the close of a lengthy discussion Jesus says:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. (John 6:53 NASB)
This discussion prompts many followers to begin to leave Him. Jesus then asks the twelve, "Will you leave me too?" Peter responds:
"Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. And we have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God." (John 6:68,69 NASB)
So Jesus knows that these disciples believe him to be the Messiah. He already knows the answer to His question.
So why does Jesus ask the question? Primarily because He needs to establish His position as Messiah prior to getting to His main point: To tell them for the first time that He, their Messiah, came to die.
If Jesus had simply begun by saying, "I must suffer and die," the disciples might have thought: "Heís going to die? Well then maybe we were wrong; he canít be the Messiah if he is going to die!" So Jesus puts the fact of his being the Christ right up front in their minds, and only then tells them what they have such a hard time believing: the Messiah did not come to kick out the Romans and establish an earthly, Jewish kingdom. He is the Lion of Judah, yes: but He is also the Lamb of God. Indeed, He can't fulfill His role as the Lion of Judah until he first fulfills his role as the Lamb of God.
32 And He was stating the matter plainly. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. 33 But turning around and seeing His disciples, He rebuked Peter, and *said, "Get behind Me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God's interests, but man's." (Mark 8:32,33 NASB)
"Was stating" is in the imperfect tense, implying that Jesus did not just make the statement once and leave it, but kept talking about His death. He gave them this teaching again and again, trying to get the message through their thick heads. (Note that He informs them of His resurrection as well as His death -- but they don't seem to hear that part.)
Finally, Peter has had enough. Bolstered, perhaps, by Jesusí commendation after his confession of Jesus as Messiah, Peter takes Jesus away from the other disciples. It's almost as if Peter thinks it is time for a chat between the two leaders of this band. Note the irony here: Peter has just confessed Jesus as Messiah, but now he rebukes Him! Peter wants to straighten Him out!
Have you ever done the same? I have! "God, youíve got this wrong. You forgot to consider X Y and Z. Let me tell you how to arrange matters."
Jesus rebukes Peter harshly. Why so? Peter asks Jesus to take a path to becoming the king of the world that does not go through the cross. This is indeed the same temptation Satan offered to Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11), and which Jesus will face again six months later in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Think about what each is saying here: Peter says: "Jesus is the Messiah; He canít be killed by the Jewish leaders." But Jesus says: "Because I am the Messiah, I must be killed by the Jewish leaders. The role of the Messiah is not what you think. The Messiah comes into the world to die."
Jesus' Followers Must Die
34 And He summoned the multitude with His disciples, and said to them, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. 35 "For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's shall save it. 36 "For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? 37 "For what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (Mark 8:34-37 NASB)
Jesus here extends that principle to all of his disciples. What is true of the master is true of the disciples also. Jesus must die in order to become what God intended; his followers must die also, they too must take up a cross, they too must lose themselves in order to become what God intends them to be.
What does Jesus mean by these expressions: "deny himself. . . take up his cross . . . lose his life for My sake and the gospelís . . . forfeit his soul"?
Through the last two millennia these expressions have been misunderstood time and again. Some have interpreted them to mean we should inflict pain on ourselves, and thus become more righteous. Living in a culture that goes to great lengths to avoid all types of pain, our particular temptation is rather different. We are tempted to interpret this in such a way that it applies to other people, but not ourselves. We might say that this means, "You must be willing to die physically for me, rather than deny me, when your life is threatened." So theoretically weíre all willing to make the good confession like Cassie Bernall at Columbine High; but probably none of us here this morning will ever be in that particular position. So that's a nice, safe way to interpret the verse.
But Jesus here is saying something that affects all of us, not only those who face intense persecution. And he certainly is not telling us to inflict pain on ourselves purposefully. What is he saying?
One key to understanding this passage is to recognize (as noted in the NIV textual footnote) that the same Greek word is used for both "life" and "soul" in verses 35-37. This is the word which is more commonly translated "soul;" it is not the usual word for "life," for life in contrast to death. Instead, this word emphasizes your individual life, your particular needs and wants, what makes you you. The difference between these two words comes out in John 10:10-11, where Jesus says:
I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly. 11 I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. (NASB)
In verse 10, "life" is the usual word; Jesus came to make alive those who are spiritually dead. He contrasts life with death. But in verse 11, Jesus says the good shepherd lays down his life -- that is, his "soul," all that he is, his personal self, his wants and desires -- he lays down all this for his sheep. That is the idea in Mark 8.
So in Mark 8:34-37 Jesus says:
"If you want to follow Me, you must first deny yourself, and take up your cross -- you must die to yourself; only then can you truly follow Me. 35 "For if you want to hold on to what makes you you in this world, you shall never become what God intends you to be; but if you give up what you think makes you you for My sake and the gospel's, you shall become what God intends you to be. 36 "For what does it profit you to gain everything the world has to offer and to actualize what you think you should be, if you then forfeit what your Creator intends you to be? For what shall you give in exchange for the very thing that truly makes you you, the essence of who you are?
Jesus himself is headed toward a physical death -- and then a resurrection to a glorious new life in a new body. Just so, He tells us to die to self -- so that we can become what God intends us to be, perfect in Him.
This message -- die to self so that you might have true life -- is found throughout the New Testament:
In Matthew 5, Jesus tells us to love our enemies, not to resist evil, and concludes: "Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect:" We become complete, perfect, by yielding our rights, by resisting our natural vindictive responses, and thus becoming what God intends us to be.
In Matthew 6, Jesus says:
19 ∂ "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 "But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; 21 for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. . . . 24 You cannot serve God and money. For this reason I say to you, do not be anxious for your life(the same word as Mark 8, emphasizing your personal needs, aspirations, and desires) . . . 31 Do not be anxious then, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'With what shall we clothe ourselves?' 32 "For all these things the Gentiles eagerly seek; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 "But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you.
Jesus says, "If your number one desire is your hunger and thirst for righteousness, you will find all your other wants and desires fulfilled -- you will become what God intends you to be."
Paul sums this position up beautifully in Romans 12:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God-- this is your spiritual act of worship. 2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. (NASB)
Or, as J.B. Phillips translates the beginning of verse 2: "Do not let the world squeeze you into its mold." The world always has tried to squeeze people into its mold, but today, with the invasive presence of various media even in our homes, the squeezing never stops during our waking hours. We hear and see again and again and again: "Buy this! Become that! This is the way to be cool! This is the way to experience life!"
But Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, to say "No!" to these temptations, to take up our cross and thus to put to death the desires of this life, to be willing to give up all that the world has to offer for the sake of knowing Christ, to follow Him and thus walk in obedience to His word.
But the call to yield our desires comes with a promise: "What you receive will be much greater than what you give up. You give up things that don't satisfy; you receive the only things that do satisfy; you give up the chance to become someone in the eyes of the world; you become what you were created to be: a child of God, a joint-heir of creation."
Ray Stedman uses an apt phrase to describe a common ailment today: Destination Sickness. This is a disease that strikes those who get everything they think they want -- and then are absolutely miserable. They get the house, the money, the job, everything; but then they lack any sense of fulfillment or satisfaction.
Jesus tells us: "You were made to follow Me; you will never become what you made to be unless you turn your back on all these ways of pseudo-fulfillment." We are to die to self -- and then we can truly live with Him.
The Power of the Kingdom
38 "For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels." 1 And He was saying to them, "Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power." (Mark 8:38, 9:1 NASB)
Jesus closes with these words both of promise and of warning. "Are you conforming to the pattern of this unfaithful and sinful generation? Are you mouthing your allegiance to me but then acting ashamed of me, acting just like everyone else, really wanting to be part of the crowd? If you want to be part of that crowd, you will not be part of the crowd that joins the angels and myself when I come again in glory!"
"And get ready! Some will see the kingdom come with power!"
In context, the primary message of 9:1 is clear: we are to be ready, we are to cultivate a sense of expectancy regarding Christ's return. But what event is Jesus referring to?
Some use this verse as evidence that Jesus was not perfect; they claim that Jesus believed his return would take place prior to the death of all the disciples. But Jesus himself says in Mark 13:32 "But of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone." So Jesus cannot be talking about his second coming in 9:1, even though He clearly was talking about that coming in 8:38. So what does it mean? What did happen prior to the deaths of these disciples?
There are two possible events:
(1) The transfiguration, when three of the disciples see Jesus in His glorified state, getting a glimpse of His majesty, and hear God speak. This is the very next event recorded in the gospel of Mark, and clearly is a foretaste of the coming of the kingdom with power.
(2) Alternately, the event may be Pentecost, after Jesus' ascension, when the Holy Spirit comes down on the disciples as flames of fire, people hear the disciples speaking in their own native tongue, and thousands come to know the Lord. At Pentecost, for the first time the Holy Spirit comes to take permanent residence in the hearts of believers.
This second position receives strong support from language Jesus uses right before his ascension in Acts 1. First look again at 9:1:
Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.
Now consider Acts 1:6-8
And so when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, "Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?" 7 He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; 8 but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth."
The disciples ask about the restoration of the kingdom to Israel; Jesus responds by saying they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them, and that they will spread this kingdom throughout the earth. Jesus clearly links the answer to the question about the coming of the kingdom to Pentecost, and emphasizes the power available through the Spirit.
One possible objection to Pentecost as the fulfillment of this prophecy: Jesus says "some of you will not taste death," instead of "none of you will taste death." Weren't all the disciples alive at Pentecost? The answer is no, for Judas is present here; he dies before Pentecost.
So, like many prophecies, Mark 9:1 can have a double fulfillment: the transfiguration provides an immediate, partial fulfillment, and Pentecost completes the fulfillment.
In context, them, in these last two verses of Jesus' teaching, He says, "Do not become like those unfaithful and sinful people around you! Die to self! Do not be ashamed of me -- for you will receive power to become what God intends you to be!"
This is quite similar to Paul's message to Timothy:
7 God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline. 8 Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, or of me His prisoner; but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God (2 Timothy 1:7-8)
The letter I read at the beginning was from Adoniram Judson to John Hasseltine. Mr Hasseltine did give his consent to the courtship, and about 18 months later, Adoniram and Ann Hasseltine were married. Less than two weeks after the wedding, they boarded ship for the 4-month journey to India and, subsequently, Burma. That day she wrote in her journal:
My heart bleeds. O America, my native land, must I leave thee? Must I leave my parents, my sisters and brothers, my friends beloved, and all the scenes of my early youth? . . . [9 days later] My native land, my home, my friends, and all my forsaken enjoyments, rushed into my mind; my tears flowed profusely, and I could not be comforted. Soon however the consideration of having left all these for the dear cause of Christ, and the hope of being, one day, instrumental of leading some poor degraded female to embrace him as Savior, soothed my griefs, dried up my tears, and restored peace and tranquility to my mind. [ two weeks later]: Resolved to keep this in view, as one principal object in life: . . . to be instrumental in leading some poor, ignorant, heathen females to the knowledge of the Savior.
In the next 15 years, Ann and Adoniram suffered hardships that are almost unimaginable to us today. They were blessed with children, but all of them died in infancy. Ann and Adoniram were separated almost as much as they were together, frequently not knowing if the other was still alive. It was during one of these lengthy separations that she became ill and died. She had not seen her husband for 3 1/2 months. Four weeks passed before news of her death reached Adoniram.
Evaluated at the time of her death, many might have said she wasted her adult life. She was instrumental in the conversion of only a handful of Burmese, and most of those had been dispersed or lost their lives during the war between Burma and England. Was it worth it?
Ann wrote this in her diary prior to her marriage: "Might I but be the means of converting a single soul, it would be worth spending all my days to accomplish."
She had no regrets, even given what she could witness. But the impact of her willingness to die to self and live for Christ becomes much more apparent from our perspective. Without her devotion and care, Adoniram would have died during his lengthy imprisonment. Instead, he survived to translate the entire Bible into Burmese, and see thousands come to the Lord. His translation remains the Burmese Bible used today.
What about you? What is it that you need to die to? What treasures are you holding on to that hinder your becoming like Christ, your becoming what God intends you to be?
Are you willing to die to your sinful desires?
Are you willing to die to your desires for things which are good in and of themselves, but get in the way of your following Jesus?
Money? Career? Possessions? Pleasures?
John Hasseltine had to die to his desire to keep his youngest daughter near him. We need to be willing to give up even our families for the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ. Jesus says,
"If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple." (Luke 14:26 NASB)
How are you doing in this area? I want to emphasize that this is not a one-time decision. We must make the decision to die to self day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute. We must cultivate an attitude of not standing on our rights, of yielding self, of serving others, of serving the Lord, of seeking to know Him better.
Forget missionary life, and the kind of suffering Adoniram and Ann had to bear. Just consider:
What keeps you from turning your back on these? It's the fear of missing out on life!
Let me emphasize once again: In following Christ, we always get more than we give up. What we receive is in a different currency, but it is always more valuable than anything that we yield. We give up our pseudo-self; we find who we really are. We give up fleeting pleasures; we experience true joy, true fellowship, true love. We have that abundant life Jesus promises -- right now.
Die to self -- that you might have true life.
This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 12/12/99. The quotes from Ann Judson are taken from the excellent book My Heart in His Hands by Sharon James. This biography of Ann Hasseltine Judson quotes extensively from her journals and letters. You may order this book from Amazon via this link. For more on the web about Adoniram and Ann, see this link.
Copyright © 1999, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.
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