"The unfolding of your words gives light ..." (Psalm 119:130a)

Category: Gospel of Mark

Obstacles to Understanding the Cross (Part 3)

Assumptions and arrogance, as we have seen, are two of the reasons people miss the meaning of the cross.

We come now to Jesus’ third predication of His death.

“They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him.” (Mark 10:32)

Take note: Jesus was ahead of them.  Wasn’t He always?  He was way ahead of them, in more ways than one.  He was headed for the cross.  They thought they are headed to Jerusalem for a royal coronation party.  Jesus, in fact, was leading them on a death march!

They were amazed.  They were fearful.  There was just so much they did not understand.

“‘We are going up to Jerusalem,’ he said, ‘and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.'” (vv.33-34)

This is Jesus’ third prediction of His death.  How will the disciples respond this time?  Will they finally comprehend?

“Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’  ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he asked.  They replied, ‘Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.'” (vv.35-37)

This time it was ambition that blinded their eyes to the meaning of the cross.

The Bible speaks quite clearly of “sloth” as sin and it soundly condemns the sluggard.  Yet it also announces the danger of unbridled ambition.  When is ambition a godly initiative and when is it self-advancing pride?  The cross is what makes the difference, for the cross separates “self” from ambition.  The cross spawns initiative for Christ and other’s sake, but holds back when it comes to selfish ambition.

Notice Jesus’ prescription for sinful ambition …

“‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ Jesus said. ‘Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?’  ‘We can,’ they answered. Jesus said to them, ‘You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.’  When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John.  Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.'” (vv.38-45)

What does the divine prescription for ambition require?  Suffering and service — the daily, practical outworking of taking up our cross and following Jesus.

Samuel Logan Brengle was a young man of extreme ambition.  He came from a family line filled with preachers.  At college he took up oratory and began to win prizes in the field, and relished being before people and moving them with nothing but his words.  He began to be consumed with overwhelming ambition to be a preacher.  Through his years of preparatory studies, however, God began to break his ambition as he contemplated the cross of Christ.  On one occasion he heard William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, speak and was deeply moved.  Soon he was faced with a very difficult decision: accept the call to pastor a large, prestigious church or travel to London where he would enter the ranks of the Salvation Army and begin training as a cadet.  He chose the Salvation Army and was soon off.  When he arrived, Booth told him, “You’ve been your own captain too long.”  In order to instill a servant’s heart into this young man his first assignment was to clean and polish the boots of the other trainees.  He later confessed he grumbled: “Have I followed my own fancy across the Atlantic in order to black boots?”  But then he pictured Jesus bending over dirty feet of unlearned fisherman.  He whispered a prayer, “Lord, you washed their feet; I will black their boots.”

What do you see when you look at the cross?

A religious symbol?  A piece of jewelry?  The means of your complete salvation?  A call to discipleship?

Again I ask: what do you see when you look at the cross?

What does the cross threaten in your life?

Are you willing to trust the Christ who died there as your only means of salvation?

Are you willing to trust the Christ who died there?  Are you willing to take up your cross, put to death your assumptions, arrogance, and ambition and follow Him no matter what?

Obstacles to Understanding the Cross (Part 2)

Yesterday we began to look at the reasons we may miss the meaning of Jesus’ cross.  We are doing so by examining the three episodes in the Gospel of Mark in which Jesus clearly predicted His sufferings and death. The first account (Mark 8:31-38) showed us that our assumptions may stand in the way.  Today we look at His second prediction and notice a second reason for our possible misunderstanding of the cross.

“They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.’ But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.” (Mark 9:30-32)

Jesus withdrew from the crowds.  He took His disciples along with Him for He needed to make them understand what was ahead.  Yet, even after His frank explanation, they still don’t get it.  This time, however, they were afraid to speak.  Was this because of the response Peter drew in the face of his reaction to Jesus’ first prediction of His death (8:33)?

Why don’t the disciples understand this second time?  What stands in their way of comprehension?  The account continues …

“They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the road?’ But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.” (Mark 9:33-34)

The obstacle that stood in the way of their understanding Jesus’ prediction of His suffering was their arrogance.

The cross not only crucifies our assumptions, it puts to death our pride.  There is no room at the cross for arrogance.  Only the humble of heart see and understand what this place of ultimate humility is all about.

Think of it!  He who has existed for all eternity in open, conscious, constant fellowship with God the Father and God the Spirit, He who is Himself co-equal and co-eternal with the first and third Persons of the Trinity, He who spoke the worlds into being, He who hung planets and stars upon nothing, He who thought of, willed and spoke into being the intricacies of the human body and the mysteries of creation . . . this very One, who is infinite God, has humbled Himself and taken to Himself a human nature and a human body, has subjected Himself to the process of human gestation, has graduated stage by stage from that embryo in Mary’s womb, was squeezed through her birth canal, cried, messed, and threw up!  This One learned to walk.  He who is the living Word of God learned to speak.  He said “no” to every temptation that confronted Him.  He has patiently given Himself to these twelve men for three years time.  He who is Life itself will soon die upon a Roman cross, planted on the town garbage heap, stripped naked, and beaten to a bloody pulp.  All He wants to do is share this with the men who are closer to Him than anyone else on this earth, the very ones who more than anyone else should by now understand. Yet what is the obstacle to their understanding?  They are too busy having territorial squabbles over who gets the bigger office and the more prominent position at the conference table!

Paul said that “Christ crucified [is] to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness.” (1 Cor. 1:23).  These twelve Jews stubbed their toes on Jesus’ cross early on.  It was pride that blinded their eyes.

But pride is also our problem with regard to the cross.  The cross is not simply the instrument used to secure our forgiveness of sin.  It is that, but it is more than that.  There is no other offering for sin, no other sacrifice.  Nothing can be added to what Jesus Christ did at the cross.  You either rest in His completed work there, adding nothing else, and thus experience reconciliation with God the Father or you spend eternity separated from God in eternal conscious torment in hell.

Yet the cross did more than secure the forgiveness of our sins, it broke the power of sin in our lives.  Jesus not only died for us at the cross, we died with Him (Rom. 6:6)  There are many who want the forgiveness offered on the basis of the cross, but few want the humbling death to self that the cross requires. If I come to the cross thinking “I can get forgiveness without the slaying of my self- will, arrogance and pride,” then I am as deceived about the plan of God as the disciples were that day.

What is the answer to this arrogance that blinds me to the cross?

“Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, ‘If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.’  He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.'” (Mark 9:35-37)

The answer is humility — becoming like a child!

But still the disciples don’t get understand.  “‘Teacher,’ said John, ‘we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.'” (v.38)


The call is to humble yourself . . . just as Christ did!  Paul put it this way: “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond- servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name” (Phil. 2:5-9).

Both our assumptions and our arrogance can blind us to the true meaning of the cross.  May God deliver us from both and grant us rest in the finished work of Christ.

Obstacles to Understanding the Cross (Part 1)

The little baseball game was in full swing when a certain young boy came to the plate. The coach gave him the signal to sacrifice bunt — a player needed to be moved along the base lines for the sake of the team. The pitcher bore down and rifled a pitch toward the plate. With a mighty swing that took everything he had the boy missed and the umpire cried, “Strike one!” The pitcher repeated his motion, as did the boy at the plate, two more times.  Finally the umpire yelled, “Strike three! Yer, out!” The coach ran up to the boy on the way back to the dugout and none too pleased asked, “Didn’t you see me give you the signal to sacrifice?” The boy responded, “Yes, but I didn’t really think you meant it!”

The Gospel accounts reveal that Jesus three times plainly predicted He would die and rise again. The disciple’s simply did not get it (Lk. 9:45).  They didn’t think He really meant what He was talking about.  What made them miss the significance of the cross?  What makes us miss it?  Probably the same things.

The Cross of Jesus Christ is perhaps the most misunderstood event in history.  So over the next few days lets examine the three accounts in Mark’s Gospel and discover why it is we fail to understand the cross of Jesus Christ.  The first (Mark 8:31-9:1) tells us that erroneous assumptions are often what make us miss the meaning of Jesus’ cross.  Look at Jesus’ first prediction of His sufferings.

“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 was stating the matter plainly. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him.  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.’  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.  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.  For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?  For what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?  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.'” (Mark 8:31)

Jesus was stating the matter “plainly” (v.32). Previously He had taught in parables (4:33-34) and had to explain things later to His disciples. He uses no such enigmatic language here. There are no cryptic codes, no subtle shades of meaning. He says plainly, “I am going to die!”

What’s not to understand?

Yet we read that “Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him” (v.32b).  “Rebuke” is the same word used earlier to Jesus’ rebuke of a demon (1:24-25; 3:11-12). But note that Peter’s rebuke brought Jesus’ rebuke of Peter: “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.'” (v.33)!

What’s going on?

Peter got it right a minute earlier, when he confessed that Jesus was the Christ. What happened in the span of those few breaths? Nothing, that’s the point. Peter said the right words, used the right title, but His assumptions about what those words meant, and what that title signified were all wrong.

Philip Yancey, in his book The Jesus I Never Knew, tells of a story from before the years of WWII that illustrates the problem.  He says: “Nazi storm troopers . . . seized an elders Jewish rabbi and dragged him to headquarters. In the far end of the same room, two colleagues were beating another Jew to death, but the captors of the rabbi decided to have some fun with him. They stripped him naked and commanded that he preach the sermon he had prepared for the coming Sabbath in the synagogue. The rabbi asked if he could wear his yarmulke, and the Nazis, grinning, agreed. It added to the joke. The trembling rabbi proceeded to deliver in a raspy voice his sermon on what it means to walk humbly before God, all the while being poked and prodded by the hooting Nazi, and all the while hearing the last cries of his neighbor at the end the room. When I read the gospel accounts of the imprisonment, torture, and execution of Jesus, I think of that naked rabbi standing humiliated in a police station. Even after watching scores of movies on the subject, and reading the Gospels over and over, I still cannot fathom the indignity, the SHAME endured by God’s Son on earth, stripped naked, beaten, flogged, spat on, struck in the face, garland with thorns.” (p.199)

Peter could not understand this either.  That is why he protested so. That the Messiah, whom he has now recognized, should suffer at the hands of the Roman enemies on a cruel and shameful cross was unthinkable.

Here’s the point: Our assumptions about Jesus can make us completely misunderstand the cross.

By now you may have formulated a pretty good idea of what you think God, Jesus, sin, church, and Christianity mean. You have gathered bits and pieces of those assumptions from various places like Sunday School, the church you grew up in, the things your parents said, and other things you have read. You are just like Peter. He had a whole set of assumptions about what “Christ” or “Messiah” meant. None of them had any room for this talk of a dead Messiah! Peter thought “Messiah” or “Christ” meant triumph over oppression, the overthrow of Rome, glory, power, the rise of the state of Israel, and fall of all her enemies. There was no room for a grizzly death on a splittered cross in that picture. His assumptions about Jesus were causing Him to entirely miss the whole point of His arrival among humanity!

Do you see the point?

A disciple of Jesus Christ is more than someone who has gotten the titles right.  A disciple is more than someone who can reply with the correct theological words when asked about Christ. A disciple of Jesus Christ is one who understands and embraces what Jesus means by the title’s He takes to Himself and the words He uses to describe Himself.

Don’t play down the difference. It is not a slight difference in nuances of meaning.  It is, according to Jesus, the difference between being in His camp or Satan’s!

What is the answer to such misguided assumptions?

“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. 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. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? For what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? 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.'” (Mark 8:34-38)

That answer is found in denying the self-interest that is inherent in the way you may have defined Jesus. It is found in taking up your cross (which is not some temporal burden you might need to endure, but an instrument of death). The answer is found in follwoing Jesus in death to self-interest, no matter what assumptions get stepped on.

What assumptions have you held concerning “believing in Jesus”?  Maybe something along the lines of: He’ll make me happy?  “He’ll make my marriage work? He’ll make me rich? He’ll make me successful?

Remember, our assumptions are the first thing that can cause us to miss the meaning of the cross.

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