27 And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” 29 And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” 30 And he strictly charged 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. 32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” – Mark 8:27-33
What would you say your biggest problem is? As you think about your life, your current situation, how this morning went for you: what is your biggest problem you are dealing with? It has been one heck of a year. Our normal routines have been tossed into a woodchipper and we are all left sorting out the pieces. Maybe you are adjusting to a new school rhythm and became, suddenly, a homeschooling parent when you did not intend to. Maybe you are find yourself repeatedly frustrated by your parents. Maybe you are frustrated by your kids! Maybe your spouse has been pressing your buttons and feels like they are going out of their way to aggravate you. Maybe 2020 has been a year that has led you to experience more depression, anxiety, frustration, and angst than you had ever experienced before. Maybe, as you look at our nation and our political climate, you are left feeling deflated, despairing, and despondent.
Wherever we are today, today I want you to know that Jesus Christ has come to deal with your biggest problem. But, we may be left surprised by His diagnosis of just what that problem precisely is. Like a person who goes into a doctor for stomach pain, thinking he has just eaten something bad, only to find that he actually has stomach cancer, so too may we be alarmed to find that what appears to be our biggest problem in life is nothing but a mere tooth ache, masking the far deeper and more sinister problem that we are facing.
In our text today, Jesus is going to encounter the disciples’ assumptions about what their biggest problems are, but is going to confront them with a confusing diagnosis that will leave them totally shell-shocked.
While Jesus and His disciples are on the day-long journey to Caesarea Philippi, He asks them this question: “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples respond, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” But Jesus is not content in only knowing what other people think of him in general—He wants to know what the disciples think of Him. “But who do you say that I am?” Peter, representing the rest of the disciples correctly responds: “You are the Christ.”
The English word “Christ” is just a transliteration of the Greek word christos, which simply means, “anointed one.” In Hebrew the word is meshiach, which is where we get our English word “Messiah.” There were three types of people in the Old Testament who were anointed: prophets, priests, and kings. These people would have oil poured over their heads as a way of identifying and consecrating them to a special role for God’s people. But as the Old Testament progressed, there was an expectation that there would come the anointed one, the Messiah, who would be a prophet (speaking God’s truth to them), a priest (mediating God’s presence to them), and a king (ruling on behalf of God). So, when Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, he is saying that He is the Messiah, the anointed one that God’s people have been long waiting for. The one who would restore Israel, bring an end to their exile, and usher in the new creation.
And we may simple pause for a moment here to consider what Jesus does. Jesus is not content with a generalized opinion of who He is. He wants to know what the disciples themselves think of Him, so He asks them directly—He confronts them. Maybe you are not a Christian here today and you have been exploring who Jesus is and what Christianity is. I would encourage you to take your time to diligently examine this faith and evaluate its claims. But you should know that there will come a moment where your diligent examination must reach a conclusion; you must make a decision about who Jesus is. Jesus did not rush His disciples into this—He spent months with them, teaching them, revealing Himself to them before He asked them this question—but He did not wait forever. And there will be a moment where you must decide: who do you say I am?
Maybe you are a child here today who has grown up with Christian parents. You should know that this is a tremendous blessing, but dear children, it comes with this danger: you may think that you don’t have to reach a conclusion for yourself on who Jesus is. You may think my parents believe in Jesus, my pastor believes in Jesus, my friends believe in Jesus, and then not give it much thought for yourself. You are surrounded by people who believe in Jesus, but children, Jesus wants to know: who do YOU say that I am? There is a danger that comes with being so familiar with Jesus that we do not take Him seriously, do not consider what His claims are.
Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College, wrote an imaginative book called Socrates Meets Jesus, where Socrates is transported from ancient Greece to Harvard’s divinity school in modern times. And there he reads the Bible and is converted and believes in Jesus. But he is surrounded by people who have a shallow, skeptical faith in Jesus—they are familiar with Jesus, but do not actually trust in Him and worship Him. Socrates is outraged at this.
Socrates: “You think you are studying a dead man, don’t you?…rather than someone alive, and present, and active, as I am now.”
Bertha: “But Socrates, Jesus isn’t here as you are here.”
Socrates: “Your book says that he is. His disciples believed and acted as if he was. He himself promised to be. If its not a myth, if he really rose from the dead, then he’s not dead, but alive, like an animal—at least as alive as an animal. But you seem to be studying him as if he were a picture or a bump on a log. Have you ever sat down on a bump on a log and found it to be a frog? Or perhaps the whole log turned out to be an alligator? “Look out! It’s alive!” you say. I have not heard anyone say anything like that here.” – Socrates Meet’s Jesus, pg. 157
But it doesn’t take long for us to realize that Peter only is partially correct. “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. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”” Mark 8:31-33. Last week we looked at how this showed us that though Peter accurately confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, he is still somehow filled with unbelief. But let’s now drill down into what it is that leads Peter to such confusion. Why does Jesus’ rejection, death, and resurrection seem so bizarre to Peter?
One of the primary sources of what the Messiah would be like that Peter is likely drawing from is the Bible itself. Psalm 2 is one of the most prominent of sources, so let’s take a closer look at it:
1 Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,
3 “Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
4 He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
6 “As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”
7 I will tell of the decree:
The LORD said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
9 You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the LORD with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
12 Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him. – Psalm 2
What is psalm 2 telling us? That the kings of all the earth, despite superficial differences, are all united in rejecting God and His Anointed (Messiah). But at this united front, God merely laughs. And then He speaks in fury and wrath, letting the kings of the earth know that His Messiah, His Son, has been appointed as the King in Jerusalem, and to them the nations have been given as His possession, and His Messiah will judge the nations with a rod of iron, shattering the nations the way a bar of metal shatters a clay pot. Unless the kings of the earth come trembling in obeisance to the Son, they will be utterly annihilated by His wrath. Now, how do you work Jesus’ teaching that He will be killed into that psalm? This is why Peter is baffled. Even more baffling, Jesus refers to Himself here with the title of the “Son of Man” (and in every other prediction of His death, this title will be used). This comes from Daniel 7, an apocalyptic section of Scripture that shows via dramatic imagery God’s rule over the pagan nations of the earth. These nations are depicted as savage beasts who are ultimately destroyed, and then Daniel sees this:
And behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed. – Dan 7:13-14
Jesus takes the title “Son of Man” twice earlier in the gospel of Mark to demonstrate His heavenly authority (Mark 2:10; 2:28), but from this point on He, strangely, only uses it in reference to His death. But Daniel seems to see the “Son of Man” figure to be doing anything but dying—He is ruling and reigning! Thus, we could see why Peter (and the disciples) would be shocked by Jesus’ prediction of His death. But this isn’t the only reason.
The cultural landscape of Jesus’ day was rife with would-be-Messianic upstarts. The nation of Israel had been under the thumb of foreign rulers since 587 BC—that is nearly six hundred years of being dominated by (often) brutal masters. And, of course, as shameful and painful as that would be for any country, this wound is particularly grievous for the Israelites because God had promised them that land and had promised that they would be ruled by a king from the line of David. So, their problem with Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome ruling over them isn’t merely political—its theological. They have a God-given claim to the land and to their sovereignty. Now, it is important to also remember that when God had promised them all these things He also warned them that if they violated the covenant they would forfeit these promises (which they did). But God still promised that one day He would send a Messiah, a son of David, who would come and again restore Israel.
But it is hard to overstate just how severely the Jewish people suffered under the hand of foreign rulers. In the 2nd century BC the Greek general Antiochus Epiphanes ransacks Jerusalem, plunders the temple of every piece of gold and silver in it, slaughters thousands and enslaves even more. Then he erects a statue of Zeus in the temple and commands that pigs and other unclean animals be sacrificed in the temple, and forbids adherence to Jewish law—so much so that if a mother was found to have circumcised her child, her and her child were immediately killed, or if one was caught observing the Sabbath, they were immediately put to death. If you failed to offer sacrifices to the Greek gods, you were put to death. This led to what is now known as the Maccabean revolt, where a Jewish family starts a violent revolution to resist these blasphemous and oppressive laws. While it is surprisingly successful for some time, the movement itself eventually devolves into infighting and political power plays, showing themselves to be little better than the Greek overlords they were originally fighting. Eventually Rome besieges Jerusalem in 63 BC and brings an end to the Maccabean period.
But, if you can, enter into the collective psyche of the Jewish people at this point, try to picture how they felt: they, God’s chosen people, have been brutally dominated for hundreds of years; they have seen their temple desecrated, their city burned, their laws flaunted and ignored, and their divinely given sovereignty trampled over by pagan nation after pagan nation. They have tried to forcibly rest power out of the hands of these Gentile oppressors, only to see it devolve to the same kind of immorality and wickedness, and now another pagan nation has dominated them. What are they left to do? Find the Messiah. The Messiah, the promised coming Davidic King would come, and He would dole out justice against all these foreign oppressors, He would set Israel back on their position of privilege, He would make Jerusalem radiant once again, and He would expel all of the Gentiles from their land. Thus, there is a flurry of revolutionary quasi-messianic movements in the first century BC and the first century AD (some of them even mentioned in the book of Acts, 5:36-37; 21:38), but they all fit the same bill—they all withdraw out into the wilderness, collect a following of a some notable size (from a few hundred to a few thousand), and then seek to use violent revolt to overthrow Rome (all of them fail). This is what leads to the eventual destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD. And what was the most common form of execution used for brigands and revolutionaries like this? Crucifixion.
And then along comes this Jesus of Nazareth who is announced as being the Messiah, to much fanfare of the disciples and the masses, even if he is rejected by the intelligentsia of the day. And at the pinnacle of Mark’s gospel, when the disciples finally come to realize and to truly believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah, what does Jesus do? He explains that He is going to be crucified.
That would be like me explaining that I was going to get a promotion at work, but I planned on getting the promotion by being fired. That just doesn’t make any sense. Crucifixion was the ultimate sign of a failed Messiah. This is why the Pharisees are so eager to have Jesus be crucified—they were already convinced that Jesus must be a false Messiah because He seems to welcome and invite Gentiles and disregards the Sabbath—so He must be an imposter—and they know how heavy Rome’s boot can fall on the community from another revolutionary upstart. The Roman General Varus crucified 2,000 Jews after a messianic revolutionary upstart in 4 BC. This is no laughing matter. If he can be crucified, they think, that will prove without a shadow of a doubt that he is just another pretender trying to grab power.
So, do you see how baffling this is for the disciples: as the words of Peter’s confession are leaving his mouth, proclaiming that Jesus is not another pretender, but the real-certified-deal Messiah, Jesus says: Yes! You’re right Peter. And I am going to be nailed to a cross and die. Those are mutually exclusive realities in Peter’s mind, so he pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him.
How are we supposed to reconcile the seeming incongruity of Daniel 7’s understanding of the victorious Son of Man with Jesus’ understanding of the suffering and dying Son of Man? The key is in Jesus’ rebuke of Peter: “You are setting your mind on the things of man, not on the things of God.” In other words, you are just thinking about things from a worldly, human perspective; you need to start setting your mind on God’s priorities and purposes. You can see the disciples’ tunnel vision on “the things of man” in the fact they completely ignore what Jesus says about resurrection. Three times in the gospels Jesus explains that he will be put to death, and then three days later rise again. However, none of the disciples remember this after Jesus is put to death—even when the women come to tell the disciples that Jesus’ tomb is empty on the third day, they initially don’t believe them. How could they be so forgetful, so dense? Well, their minds were locked in on their preconceived idea of what the Messiah would be like, and dying was not part of it. As soon as they heard Jesus say he was going to die they, “did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him,” Mark 9:32.
So what are the “things of God” that the disciples are not setting their minds on? What happens in Jesus’ death and resurrection that does not contradict what we read in Psalm 2 and Daniel 7? How can you be a king but be killed? Be crowned, but crucified?
First, Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. Under the Old Testament, God’s Kingdom was fought for with the sword. It was a geopolitical landmass with borders that had to be defended. But Jesus has brought new wine that cannot be put into old wineskins, He has come to do something new. The kingdom that Jesus has come to inaugurate is a spiritual kingdom on earth that will one day be manifested fully on earth when Christ returns a second time. And because it is a spiritual kingdom, Jesus will not rely on the usual earthly means by which one typically uses when trying to expand their kingdom. Directly before Jesus is to be crucified, Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?”… Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” John 18:33, 36. Jesus willingly goes to his own death—no king who was seeking to establish their earthly empire would do so. But that is precisely the point—Jesus isn’t creating a worldly kingdom, but a spiritual one.
Now, when I say that Jesus’ kingdom is a spiritual kingdom, that doesn’t mean a not real kingdom. Jesus is the king, the Messiah. Pilate responds to Jesus “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world,” John 18:37. When Jesus is being investigated before the Sanhedrin in the gospel of Matthew, right before he is delivered over to be crucified, the council asks Jesus: “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Matthew 26:63-64. That is Daniel 7! Jesus is saying that “from now on” they are going to see the fulfillment of Daniel 7 happen. It is through Jesus’ death on the cross that he will ascend to the Ancient of Days and on the clouds of heaven and be seated at His right hand of power. So though Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, it exercises its dominion over this world—we do not see it the way we see the kingdom of America, because it is an internationally dispersed kingdom that exists de facto wherever Christians are, but exists de jure over the whole of creation. All of the kings of earth must come and kiss the Son, lest they perish in the way. They, and every human being, must submit to Jesus the Messiah.
But why did Jesus have to die to bring about this kingdom? Why did he immediately start teaching about his death after Peter confessed that He was the Messiah?
Here is what the Pharisees and chief priests and scribes and even the disciples were blind to: Rome was not their biggest problem. There was something far more oppressive, far more deadly that Jesus came to deal with.
The disciples assumption was that the Messiah would come and destroy all of the sinners from the land. But, what happens when the disciples, God’s people, realize that they too are sinners? Were Jesus to come and establish a kingdom that simply destroyed all of the sinners on the face planet, Jesus would be the only person left. He has come to make a way for wretched sinners like you and me and the disciples to be forgiven of their sin and then made into citizens of His kingdom.
How did He do that? Look at Col 2:13-15, “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” So you who were dead in your sins were made alive. How? Through your sins being forgiven. How were you sins forgiven? Your record of debt that stood against you with its legal demands was cancelled. How was it cancelled? It was nailed to a cross. So your sins against God were being recorded in a heavenly record, and this record had legal demands against you: you deserved to be legally condemned before God and put to death. But, God took that record of sins and nailed it to a cross. Now, you know that your record wasn’t nailed to a cross—Jesus was nailed to a cross! But, don’t you see, Jesus has so identified with your sin, your guilt, that Paul can say it was “your record” that was nailed to the cross! Jesus was nailed to the cross as your stand-in, taking the guilt and condemnation that your heavenly record had demanded, and left in its place “forgiveness.” But not only that, through His death Jesus also “disarmed the rulers and authorities” through His death on the cross. “Rulers and authorities” refers to political rulers and authorities, but it also refers to spiritual rulers and authorities that are at work behind the scenes of this world. So, for Paul, behind earthly rulers and kingdoms, there are supernatural, demonic entities at work behind them (see Eph 6:10-20). And Jesus, through His death on the cross and the forgiveness of His people’s sins, has triumphed over these demonic enemies by robbing them of their condemning power. So, ironically, Peter wanted Jesus to destroy Rome—and, He did, in a way. Jesus severed the supply line to Rome’s power at work behind the scenes by severing the demonic power that animated the wicked government, through forgiving Christians’ sins.
Beware of Cultural Blinders
Like Peter, we too can be prone to letting the cultural pressures of our day blind us from how read our Bibles. Depending on our cultural location and point of view, there are likely parts of the Bible that we really like, that really support our perspective…and likely parts that make us feel uncomfortable and we really don’t understand. We are living in a tumultuous time and we must be careful of not letting that pressure drive us to become lopsided as we apply God’s Word to our lives.
How do we guard against that? There are many things we can do, but one thing we can do is to pursue meaningful community within our church. We want to read and study our Bible together so that we aren’t boxed in by our own perspective. So we want to read our Bibles with people who look different than us, are older or younger than us, who come from a different cultural location than we do so that we aren’t left with a myopic, one-sided perspective and left blind to truths we desperately need.
Remember which kingdom you belong to
We are citizens of a heavenly kingdom. And we must never confuse that heavenly kingdom with an earthly one. We do not pursue the expansion of Jesus’ kingdom the way earthly kings view the expansion of their kingdoms. This means that we must avoid utopianism. We do not try to create heaven on earth, because we know that we will never make heaven on earth. If you are striving to create a utopia, you will resort to any means necessary to make it happen (you must crack a few eggs to make an omelet). Christians will not resort to lying, cheating, stealing, killing to expand their kingdom—we follow our crucified Messiah as sojourners and strangers on this world who are simply passing through as we await the heavenly kingdom to come in its fullness here on earth.
However, this also means that we do not fall into quietism. Jesus’ kingdom is a heavenly kingdom, but it is a real kingdom. We are not of the world, but we are in it, and we must live into submission to our heavenly kingdom here and now, as we do our work, raise our families, participate in the public square, etc. We cannot recede into the hills and stockpile cans of lima beans as we await the second coming. We must go forth and make disciples of all nations and live as ambassadors of reconciliation in this lost and dying world, demonstrating what this Heavenly King is like through our submission to Him.
Lastly, we should always remember what our biggest problem is
Peter thought his biggest problem was Rome. And Rome was a serious, major problem. However, it was nothing but a flea bite compared to what his far more serious problem was: his sin before a holy God. This was why he was so baffled by Jesus’ mission to die—he had forgotten that unless God provided a means to forgive his sins, it didn’t matter whether Rome was toppled or lasted another millennia—if his sins weren’t forgiven Peter would spend countless millenniums in hell. And dear friends, we must not forget what our biggest problem is. Your biggest problem is not Donald Trump winning the election. It is not Joe Biden winning the election. Do not be seduced by the panic of our world that wants us to believe that something as temporary as politics is your biggest concern. Your biggest problem is how your sin will not lead you to being incinerated by the wrath of the Lamb at the final day, where all of the kings and presidents and governors of the earth will be crying out to the mountains to fall on top of them so that they may hide from the wrathful eyes of God.
When you see that as your biggest problem, and how Jesus has provided the solution to that problem through His death and resurrection, then all of the other problems will be set in proper perspective. You will not be gripped by such intense fear, anxiety, or depression about the problems of this world. They are real, serious problems, and we must engage them. But we can always, always, always breathe a sigh of relief that our biggest problem has been, mercifully, graciously, gloriously, solved.