The Purpose of the Cross – Mark 8:31-38
Good morning! If you have a Bible, I invite you to turn to the Gospel according to Mark. If you can grab a Bible, we’re going to be in Mark 8:31-38, this morning.
Last week, I said that we had come to a crucial turning point in Mark’s Gospel, where the first half of Mark can be summarized as who Jesus is, and where the second half of Mark can be summarized as what Jesus came to do.
In the first half of Mark, we saw that Jesus is the Conquering King, who is bringing the kingdom of God to earth. And our response, according to Mark 1:15, if we are to belong to this King and His Kingdom, is to “repent and believe in the gospel”—that we must turn away from our sin and believe in the good news that God has visited mankind. And last week, in Mark 8:29, we saw that the first confession of Jesus as “the Christ” was from Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples.
And in the second half of Mark, we will see that Jesus is the Suffering Saviour, who, according to Mark 10:45, “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” And our response, to be a disciple of this Jesus, is that we must “deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him.” And in Mark 15:39, we’re going to see a second confession of Jesus from a Roman centurion, a Gentile, who says, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
And in our passage this morning, Jesus is going to show us that what He came to do is radically different than what was expected of Him, and that following Him looks radically different than what comes naturally to us.
Mark 8, beginning in verse 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.’ 34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’”
Last week, we looked at how Peter had just made this confession about Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And it seems like the narrative in Mark is coming to this high point, where the disciples finally get who Jesus is. It’s taken a long time to get to this point, but they’re finally understanding that Jesus is God in the flesh, the promised Messiah, who came to save God’s people.
But then, the narrative begins to change a little bit. Immediately after this confession about Jesus’ true identity, in verse 31, it says that Jesus “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.”
Now, if we’re the disciples, having just declared Jesus’ divinity and now hearing Jesus predict His death and resurrection, we would rightly be thinking, “Whoa, that’s not what’s supposed to happen. The Messiah isn’t supposed to suffer and die. The Messiah is supposed to liberate God’s people from their enemies. The Messiah is supposed to conquer, not be conquered.”
Isaiah 61:2 says that the Messiah was “to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.” The disciples would have been confused as to why Jesus was now talking about suffering and dying.
And what's incredibly striking about what Jesus says is His use of the word, must. Jesus said that “the Son of Man must suffer many things.” This wasn’t something that Jesus could avoid; this was something that Jesus had to do. It was necessary. It was essential. These things had to happen. And the reason why is because they were prophesised about in the Old Testament.
In 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, the apostle Paul gives this excellent argument for the historical reliability of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Paul says, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”
What phrase sticks out in that passage? “In accordance with the Scriptures.” You see, what Jesus is doing is showing His disciples and us that His suffering and death and resurrection must happen, in accordance with the Scriptures. They had to happen, because they were prophesied about Jesus in the Old Testament. And when we begin to think in these terms, all of a sudden, significant passages of Scripture begin to pop out at us.
Turn over in your Bibles to Isaiah 53. This is an excellent passage that describes the suffering of the Servant of the Lord, the Messiah, and when you read it, it looks a lot like Jesus. And so, I’m just going to read a portion of Isaiah 53 for us. Isaiah 53, beginning in verse 4:
“4 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
“7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. 8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? 9 And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.”
We read a passage like that, and there’s plenty of them in the Old Testament, and we can see that it obviously points to the suffering and death that Jesus would eventually experience. But the only reason why we know that, and why the disciples don’t, is because we are able to interpret the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament.
If we only had the Old Testament, we wouldn’t necessarily be making these connections to Jesus’ death and resurrection, but since we have the full picture, we are able to make these connections.
We see this, in Luke 24. After Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus meets these two men on the road to Emmaus, and the men are distraught because this Jesus, whom they were expecting would be the one to redeem Israel, had been crucified and buried but whose body was no longer in the tomb.
And Jesus says to them, “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And Jesus begins to unpack the Scriptures, the Old Testament, and interprets to them the things concerning Himself. He shows them that all of Scripture points to Jesus.
And so, when Jesus says that “the Son of Man must suffer many things,” He’s saying that God appointed beforehand that this would happen and spoke through the prophets that this would happen, so this is what must happen.
There is push within Christianity today to do away with the substitutionary atonement—the doctrine that Jesus became our substitute on the cross, satisfying in Himself the wrath of God as an atoning sacrifice for sin.
The argument against this doctrine is that it sounds like cosmic child abuse. God the Father would not send God the Son to the cross. It could not possibly be the will of God to crush Jesus. But that’s literally what we read in Scripture.
Isaiah 53:10 says, “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him.” The Romans didn’t put Jesus on the cross. The Jews didn’t put Jesus on the cross. God put Jesus on the cross. The way to Jerusalem, and the suffering and rejection and death that awaited Jesus, there, are affirmed as God’s ordained way for Him.
Jesus must suffer. When we take out the word, must, then we rob the gospel and the cross of its glory. It’s not what the disciples expected of Jesus, but it’s what Jesus must do. And unfortunately, when we come across something that God says or does, that’s hard to accept, what we try to do is we try to edit God.
Sure enough, Peter doesn’t like what Jesus is saying. And in verse 32, it says that “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” Isn’t that remarkable? I just think it’s fascinating that, in one moment, Peter is proclaiming that Jesus is God in the flesh, and then, in the next moment, he’s trying to correct Him.
But isn’t this what we do with God? God doesn’t meet our expectations, so we need to redefine Him. We try to justify our sin, by saying that God would certainly get with the times. We get rid of orthodox Christian teaching, because it makes us uncomfortable. “God couldn’t possibly mean that, so let’s just edit that out.”
Take a minute to think about that. Think about how that tries to bring God down to our level. Psalm 50:1 says that we make the mistake of thinking that God was like us. God is not like us. Thank God, He is not like us.
Isaiah 55:8-9 says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Who are we to edit God? But we try to do it, don’t we? We try to make God fit into our little box. We try to control God—make Him do what we want Him to do, like a genie. But we lose sight of who Jesus is when we fail to see what He came to do. It’s what we’re seeing from Peter here.
And in verse 33, Jesus turns to Peter and rebukes him more harshly than Peter did to Him, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
This must have really cut Peter deep, because just moments earlier, Peter had affirmed Jesus’ true identity, and in Matthew 16, Jesus said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Things were looking good, but then, this rebuke from Jesus brings everything into perspective.
In reality, Peter’s rebuke of Jesus is the same temptation that Satan tempted Jesus with in the wilderness. In Matthew 4:8, the devil takes Jesus up to a high mountain, and he shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, and he says, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Now, Peter isn’t necessarily offering Jesus the kingdoms of the world, but Peter is distracting Jesus from the cross. Peter is tempting Jesus away from the cross, just like Satan did. Peter is saying to Jesus that He doesn’t need to suffer and be rejected and be killed and rise again. He doesn’t need to go to the cross.
Peter thinks he has a better plan than God, but what Peter doesn’t realize is that opposition to God is aligning yourself with Satan, because Satan is always trying to distract from the cross. No, Jesus must go to the cross. And so, Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” It’s the same temptation that He faced in the wilderness, and He will not be deterred, even if it comes from the mouth of His own disciple.
Jesus is bringing Peter back to the promise of Genesis 3:15, where God said to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
Jesus is revealing to Peter that the means that this promise will be fulfilled is through the cross. This was why He came, this was what He must do, regardless of what kind of expectations Peter or the disciples or the Jews or we might have.
And after rebuking Peter, Jesus calls everyone together, and He tells them what following Him looks like. In verse 34, Jesus says to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
We touched on this a little bit, last week. This kind of teaching from Jesus is unpopular in the eyes of the world. Jesus calls His followers to take up their cross and follow Him. What do we know about the cross?
What we know is that it was a horrific torture device. The Romans, the Empire that was in power during the time of Jesus, had perfected the way of killing a person. But what they would do is they would nail you to a cross and let you hang there until you suffocated, and if you didn’t suffocate quickly enough, they would break your legs, so that you would die quicker.
That’s the cross. And Jesus is saying, “If you want to come after Me, if you want to follow Me, then you need to pick up your cross, because that’s what I’m going to do.”
Now, this isn’t necessarily a literal cross, although this was the case for some of Jesus’ disciples who were also crucified, but what Jesus is getting at is that following Jesus will include suffering. It’s not a comfortable life that Jesus is calling us to. It’s not a life of ease. It’s not a safe life. It’s not a life where you will come away unscathed. It’s a life marked by suffering.
And suffering in the Christian life can take many forms. In Matthew 5:11-12, Jesus says, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Suffering can be physical; it can be emotional; it can be mental; it can be spiritual. But one thing we can know for sure is that if we want to follow Jesus, we will suffer. If not now, then we will in the future.
If you're not suffering now, it doesn’t mean you’re not a follower of Jesus. We don’t pursue suffering. We don’t go looking for opposition. No, we pursue Jesus. But the point is that when we pursue Jesus, we will encounter suffering. Satan will do everything in his power to try and distract us away from the cross and onto comfort and ease and safety. It’s the same temptation that Jesus faced. And if Satan is able to distract us from the cross, then he has won.
It’s why Jesus says to “deny yourself.” What do we know about self-denial? We know that it means giving up our right to ourselves. It means treasuring and desiring Jesus more than ourselves, more than our plans, more than our goals, more than our comforts. To put it simply: It means putting to death the idol of self, where we say yes to Jesus and no to ourselves.
Do you know what the biggest hindrance is to taking up our cross? It’s us. There is no part of us that looks at the cross, and goes, “That looks like a good idea.” No, 1 Corinthians 1:18 says, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
It’s radical to put our self-centered lives to death. And Jesus is going, “If you want to follow Me, it’s not going to be comfortable, it’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to be safe, it’s going to involve death to self, but are you willing to suffer and die for My sake and the gospel’s?” That’s the question.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor, who was hanged by Nazi Germany, just prior to the end of World War II. But in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer unpacks what it means to follow Jesus.
He writes, “The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
When criminals were going to be crucified, they would be required to carry their cross to the place where they would die. This is what Jesus did, and this is what Jesus is saying we will do. Taking up our cross means following Jesus, knowing that where we are going is to our death.
In Luke 9:23, Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Luke points out that this dying to self is a daily process, where every day we need to consciously give our desires and our comforts and our right to ourselves over to Jesus, saying no to the old nature that doesn’t want to give all of that up, and saying yes to Jesus. If we want to follow Jesus, this must be our response.
But the problem that we face, daily, is that our cultural is self-centered. It is not normal or natural to lose your life, so that others might live. It’s why the cross looks like foolishness. It’s foolishness to think that Jesus would go to the cross and suffer excruciating pain and shame and the wrath of God towards our sin, all on our behalf.
This kind of selflessness is unheard of, in the world, but it’s also the same kind of selflessness that Jesus expects of His followers. Following Jesus looks radically different than what comes naturally to us. But the foundation for this challenge is found in verse 35: “For whoever would save his life will lose it.”
Jesus is saying that anyone who wishes to save their life, who fully embraces comfort and ease and safety, who has no desire to die to themselves and risk their lives for the sake of Christ and the gospel, will lose both Jesus and eternal life. The result of saving your life is that you will actually lose your life, forever.
Jesus is revealing to us our tendency to want to protect our lives rather than give our lives for the sake of Jesus and the gospel. That’s heavy. But then, on the other hand, Jesus gives us this promise that “whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.”
This is the exact opposite of what we would expect. It doesn’t make sense that saving your life would equal losing your life, and that losing your life would equal saving your life.
But it’s because saving your life is the exact opposite of denying self. It’s the exact opposite of taking up your cross. It’s the exact opposite of following Jesus. Saving your life means that you treasure your life above everything else and consider your life more important than Jesus.
But whoever treasures Jesus and the gospel above their very lives, who are willing to risk comfort and ease and safety, Jesus says, will gain something much better than anything they can gain in this world, and that is, eternal life.
In Romans 8:18, the apostle Paul writes, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” And in Philippians 1:21, he writes, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” The reason Paul can say this is because the reward was worth the loss. The reward of gaining Christ far outweighed losing everything he had gained in this life.
Jesus asks, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” Answer: Nothing. Jesus asks, “For what can a man give in return for his soul?” Answer: Nothing.
There is no amount of money, no amount of fame, no amount of friends, no amount of good deeds, that is worth it. None of that can save you. None of that compares to the loss of your life, forever.
Jesus says that a day is coming when He will return “in the glory of his Father with the holy angels,” and on that day, He will judge the world in righteousness. Not your righteousness or my righteousness, but His righteousness. And if we are ashamed of Jesus, if we are ashamed to deny ourselves and take up our cross and align ourselves with Jesus, Jesus says, He will be ashamed of us.
If Jesus is not our ultimate treasure, if we still give ourselves over to our plans and our goals and our comforts and our lives, then we cannot expect that we will be Jesus’ treasured possession.
And so, my hope for us today is that we would take a serious look at our lives and assess whether or not we are denying ourselves, whether or not we are taking up our cross, whether or not we are following Jesus.
I’m not saying that we look perfect. Yesterday, at our Men’s Breakfast, we looked at Philippians 3. And in verse 12, the apostle Paul writes, “Not that I… am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
Not that we are perfect, but are we embracing what it means to follow Jesus? Are we embracing the cost of discipleship? Are we embracing suffering for the sake of Christ and the gospel? Are we embracing self-denial, where we are willing to lose our lives so that others may have life? Are we embracing the radical Christian life that doesn’t come naturally to us?
The mark of a Christian is not that we prayed a prayer once when we were a kid, but that God has done a supernatural work in our life, and where we are continually denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Jesus.
If you have never made this decision to follow Jesus, I encourage you to do so, today. The stakes are too high. The judgment to come is too great. And the reward is too wonderful. Come to Jesus, and receive peace and life. Let’s pray…