On my first visit to Palestine, about 25 years ago, our tour guide was a Messianic Jew called Zvi. One day, someone in the group asked him a question about the Palestinians. He was prepared. He gave each of us a piece of paper with a quote by Golda Meir,
“It was not as if there was a Palestinian people in Palestine and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.”
We didn’t ask any more questions until we got to Nazareth and met one of the local pastors. He gave us a short talk about why he was an Arab, a Palestinian, an Israeli and a Christian. I learnt that day that it was wiser and safer to let people self-identify and not presume to tell them who they are or are not.
Who am I? The world out there has plenty of ideas. Some would say I am who I was – the quest to trace our family tree, to know who are ancestors were can define us. My ancestors were here before yours were. Others insist I am what I achieve. What university did you go to? For others, I am what I drive. For some it is all about where I live. In a Settlement or an unregistered village? For some I am what I eat. For many I am what I do. For some I am who I love. For some I am what I know. For others I am who I know. For lots of people I am what I possess. But many people just don’t know. They are searching for meaning and purpose. They are trapped not knowing who they really are. Who am I? The Bible says, we will never know who we are until we decide who Jesus is. Because Jesus says, “I am who I follow”.
Last month I was in Cairo and Beirut for the launch of the Arabic edition of the Christianity Explored course. I hope we will be able to launch the course in Palestine soon. Christianity Explored is simply a walk through Mark’s Gospel.
Mark’s Gospel is like a mountain with two sides. The first half of Mark’s Gospel from 1:1-8:26, answers just one question. It is the question Jesus asks in 8:27. “Who do people say I am?” The second half of Mark’s Gospel from 8:27-16:20, answers the second question – why did Jesus come? Only when we have answered the first “Who is Jesus?” can we begin to answer the second “Why did Jesus come?” And only then we are ready to answer the third question – What does Jesus expect of me? Mark answers these three ultimate questions that define us and determine our destiny.
At the half way point Jesus in His ministry, Jesus takes the disciples away to a high place for a retreat. Somewhere on the slopes of Mount Hermon near Caesarea Philippi. Mark 8:27-38 is therefore the highpoint – the watershed of the Gospel of Mark. Let us consider this passage, at the half way point in Mark’s gospel and observe how Jesus summarises these three questions. The three paragraphs succinctly answer three questions – Who? Why? What? Who is Jesus? (8:27-30). Why did Jesus Come? (8:31-33). What does Jesus expect of us? (8:34-38).
- Who is Jesus?
“Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ.” Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.” (Mark 8:27-30)
Now if you went around asking your friends, “What do people say about me?” Or “Who do you say I am?” they might think you were arrogant or had dementia. But what we believe and say about Jesus Christ will determine our destiny. Our answer is a matter of life or death. The citizens of Caesarea Philippi would affirm, “Caesar is Lord!” And such a confession would identify them as loyal Roman citizens. But it would never save them from their sins or deal with their eternal separation from God. Some thought Jesus was John the Baptist. Some said he was one of the prophets, like Jeremiah. That is how Muslims typically view Jesus today. But through His words and His actions in the first eight chapters of Mark, Jesus demonstrates that He is the Son of God. Mark reveals the identity of Jesus by giving five bodies of evidence:
- Power and Authority to Teach
“They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.” (Mark 1:21-22)
- Power and Authority over Sickness
“That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.” (Mark 1:32-34)
- Power and Authority over Nature
“A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. 38 Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (Mark 4:37-41)
- Power and Authority over Death
“When they came to the home of the synagogue leader, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. 39 He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.” But they laughed at him. After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat.” (Mark 5:38-43)
- Power and Authority to Forgive Sin
“When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, “Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2:5-12)
As God’s only Son and God’s chosen Messiah, prophet, priest and king, Jesus demonstrates God’s authority and displays God’s power. Earlier in chapter 8, Jesus had fed the 4000 miraculously, just as God had fed the Israelites in the wilderness. But like their ancestors they still insisted on asking for another sign from heaven. You can sense Jesus’ exasperation because he expected them to have got it by now.
‘He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, no sign will be given to it.”’ (Mark 8:12).
Then Jesus asks the disciples a series of questions about this and the earlier miracle of the feeding of the 5000. It seems in frustration, ‘He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”’ (Mark 8:21). To the question “who do you say I am?”
Peter’s confession appears bold and uncompromising. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” (Matt. 16:16) The word Messiah, or Christ as it is translated in Greek, means “the Anointed One, the promised one.” Prophets, priests, and kings were all anointed before they began to serve. Jesus fulfilled all three roles – prophet, priest and King. So why does Jesus warn them to keep quiet about this? As we see in the very next few verses the disciples did not yet understand why Jesus had come. They did not yet understand what it meant to follow Him. The disciples would only truly begin to understand what kind of Saviour Jesus is until after the cross and resurrection. The people who flocked to Jesus were looking for a political Messiah. The last thing Jesus wanted was to lead a revolution against the Roman authorities. The disciples needed to know who Jesus claimed to be but they could not proclaim it until they understood why Jesus had come. So, the most important question in life? Who is Jesus? “Who do you say I am”? Have you decided? The first question is? Who is Jesus? What is the second question?
- Why did Jesus Come?
“He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” (Mark 8:31-33)
Having confessed their faith in Him, Jesus began to explain why he had come. He was going to Jerusalem where He would die on a cross as the Passover lamb. The disciples are stunned. If Jesus is indeed the Christ of God, why would He be rejected by the religious leaders? Why would they crucify Him? Didn’t the Hebrew Scriptures promise that Messiah would defeat all their enemies and establish a glorious kingdom for Israel? The disciples were confused and disturbed. True to character, it was Peter who voiced their concern. One minute Peter was led by God to confess Jesus as Lord, and the next minute he was thinking like an unbeliever. This is a warning to us that when we argue with God’s Word, we open the door for Satan’s doubts and deceptions. Peter began rebuking his Master, and Mark uses the same word for how Jesus rebuked the demons. Peter’s protest was born out of his love for his Lord but also his ignorance of God’s word. One minute Peter was a “rock,” and the next minute he was a stumbling block. Peter did not yet understand the relationship between suffering and glory. Jesus rebuked Peter and turned away and looked at His disciples. “The Son of Man must suffer” said Jesus.
Have you seen Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ”? Gibson was criticized for appearing to blame the Jews for the death of Jesus and for inciting antisemitism. “Not so”, says James Caviezel, who plays Jesus. “We’re all culpable in the death of Christ”, he says, “My sins put him up there. Yours did. That is what this story is about.”
Mel Gibson was led to produce the film after a rough stretch in his life. The wounds of Christ healed his wounds. The first and most important question in life? Who is Jesus? (8:27-30). The second equally important question? Why did Jesus come? (8:31-38). And the third question?
- What Does Jesus Expect of Me?
‘Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”’ (Mark 8:34-38)
Jesus calls us to follow Him, to take up our cross and follow him. The world doesn’t understand the cost of being a Christ-follower. Because it doesn’t understand who Christ is it cannot understand what Christ has done for us.
Mark 8:34 indicates that, though Jesus and His disciples had met in private, the crowds were not far away. Jesus summons the people and teaches them what He has taught His own disciples: there is a price to pay for true discipleship.
3.1 We must follow Christ
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)
I am occasionally asked to speak at Muslim events about a Christian perspective on the Middle East. I begin by defining the word Christian because there is much ignorance and misunderstanding surrounding the word. The United States is a Christian country. Europe is made up of Christian countries. So when the West intervenes in the Middle East they assume this reflects Christianity in action. I explain that the word Christian is a verb not a noun. A Christian is a follower of Jesus, not just a believer in Jesus. I believe in the devil. That does not make me a follower. Unless someone is following the teaching of Jesus, they are not entitled to be called a Christian. We must follow Jesus.
3.2 We must sacrifice for Christ
“…he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)
Jesus asks two rhetorical questions.
“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36).
The first question asks us what we value most? Most people gain none of the world, a few gain some of the world, but no one has ever gained the whole world. The world is full of temptations towards profitable dishonesty. William Shakespeare portrays Cardinal Wolsey, who served Henry VIII, with all the ingenuity and wit he possessed, “Had I but served my God with half the zeal I served my king, he would not in mine age have left me naked to mine enemies.” The real question, the question that everyone in the end will have to answer is not, “What did people think of me?”, but “what does God think of me?”
“Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Mark 8:37)
Answer: Absolutely Nothing. One translation puts it “what can a perrson give to buy back their life”, the idea being that they have already lost it by making a fatal choice. For the soul, there is no equivalent. When it has been lost at death it cannot be relived or recovered. Time travels in one direction.
Profit or loss? Fair exchange? Two Questions we must each answer. We must walk with Christ. We must sacrifice for Christ
3.3 We must confess our Christ
“If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory” (Mark 8:38)
If we live for ourselves, we will lose ourselves, but if we lose ourselves for His sake and the Gospel’s, we will find ourselves. From an earthly perspective, we are losing ourselves, but from a heavenly perspective, we are finding ourselves. When we live for Christ, we become more like Jesus, and we become the person God designed us to be. To lose ourselves for Jesus and for the gospel is not an act of desperation; it is an act of devotion. Let me ask you. Are you ashamed of Jesus or honoured to be associated with Jesus? Who am I? It depends on what I make of Jesus. When we find him, we find ourselves. We are what God says about us. That is really all that matters. Who am I? If I have received Jesus as my Lord and Saviour, he is my brother. God becomes not just my creator but my heavenly Father.
Our Jewish friends call Almighty God, Jehovah. Our Muslim friends call Him Allah. If we believe and trust in Jesus as our Lord and saviour we can also cll God, Abba – Daddy, because of who Jesus is, why Jesus came and what he expects of us. Who then is Jesus? He is the Messiah, God’s Son. The Saviour of the world. Why did Jesus come? To die on the cross to take away our sin, so that we can know God as our loving, forgiving Father, and enjoy him forever. What does Jesus expect of us? To follow him, wherever God’s Spirit leads us, empowers us and chooses to expend us for his glory. Lets pray.
This sermon was preached at Baraka Church, Bethlehem in August 2017.