Theme: Who is Jesus? People have always been divided on the issue of who Jesus really is. Despite the fact that he was crucified, the Gospel writers call him Savior and Lord. Why?
This starts the sermon series “The Passion,” leading us through Lent and preparing our hearts and minds for the Easter celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord. The scripture texts match those of this year’s Lenten study groups, and is based upon “Journey to the Cross” written by Debbie Schmidt.
This series also helps us explore some of the issues brought up by the recent movie, “The Passion of the Christ.”
Well, I would imagine that many of you in the last week have seen the movie, “The Passion (of the Christ).” And even if you haven’t seen the movie, you’ve probably seen some of the things that have been written in the paper or on television that gives us an idea of just how widely different people’s responses are to this movie. I would like to read to you just three that I have come across.
“What Gibson has provided for me for the first time in my life is a visceral idea of what The Passion consisted of.”
Someone else writes,
“The Passion is simply fabulous. It’s emotionally wrenching because it is brutally honest about the violence of Jesus’ death.”
And here’s a third one, a little different.
“Holier than thou passion pummels its audience with action film cuts, slasher film makeup and two bit theology.”
Pretty different in responses to the same movie, and that’s a natural thing with anything this controversial, there is bound to be a wide variety of responses. The movie was controversial and Jesus is controversial. And so that means that there is a wide response to who He is. There is a wide variety of opinions about Jesus.
There are some people who believe that Jesus is just a great teacher. They recognize that He stands among the greatest teachers in history at presenting a morality for human life. He said to people, “Do to others as you would have them do back to you.” “Love the Lord God with all your soul, might, body and strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He’s the one that said you know “if you love the people who love you, what credit is that to you? Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” And so seeing that this kind of teaching came from his lips they call him a great teacher.
Now, there are other people who believe that Jesus believed some pretty strange things about himself and taught some strange things about who he was, and so because of that they believed that He was diluted and that He was a deceiver of other people. Now this is a fairly small group of people because it’s hard to hold together this idea that Jesus is deceiving people together with this idea that He is one of the world’s greatest moral teachers. And so this group of people is more likely to believe that its his followers that were deceived, that Jesus was just a great teacher, but his followers then across a long period of time started to become diluted about his real identity made up legends about him, taught these legends and led other people astray and so they are mistaken about who Jesus is and so when we read something like the Bible you have to dig through it all to find the kernel of what the real Jesus was like because so much of what’s in the Bible then is just the invention across centuries of mistaken people.
There is a third group of people who say, no that what we see here in the scriptures is a reliable account of who Jesus is, however hard it is to believe that here is a person that really should be called Lord, Master, someone who has the right to determine what human life should be all about, to tell us what it means to be in a right relationship with God, and that in addition here is the person who has come to be Savior of the world, that He has done something decisive to reunite humanity with God, and that He did that by suffering and dying in our place and so we call him Savior and Lord.
Now this kind of conversation is widespread about who Jesus is and there is all kinds of variations on these positions. All major religions have some kind of opinion about Jesus. To the Hindu’s, Jesus is a holy man among many holy men. To the Moslem’s, Jesus is a prophet, a great prophet of God. To the Jew’s, Jesus is a misunderstood Jewish activist who brought all kinds of problems upon himself and upon Israel. And for Atheists, we go back to the idea that since there is no God, here is a profound teacher, but a great teacher who has been misunderstood. Political rebel, pacifists, gentle Jesus, meek and mild, a wild-eyed prophet of doom, which is the real Jesus? Would the real Jesus please stand up? This kind of discussion has been going on since the very start of Jesus’ ministry. And in fact, in today’s message, in today’s passage, Jesus brings up this conversation himself. So I would like to turn now to the Book of Mark, the 8th chapter. I am going to begin at the 27th verse.
“Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi and on the way he asked them, “Who do people say that 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 that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ.” Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. 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.” Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, 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 the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and 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.” And he said to them, “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.”
Jesus brings this issue up with his own disciples. “Who do people say that I am?” And so they give him some options. Some of the discussion that’s been going on in Israel about Jesus. Some people say he is John the Baptist. Since John the Baptist was a great prophet calling people back to God and John had been killed. Some people might have been thinking that maybe John has been resurrected or maybe John didn’t really die. And this is John the Baptist continuing to preach. Other people felt that he was Eliajah. One of the Old Testament prophets who didn’t die, but actually went directly into God’s presence, and so God has now sent this guy back to help this generation return to God. Other people don’t feel like it is quite as big a deal as that, but that Jesus is one of God’s prophets and he is ministering in the name of God in the life of Israel. And you can tell that Jesus after hearing this out is still not quite satisfied with what they are saying, because he says to them, “But you, who do you say that I am?” Here are the people who have been with Jesus for three years who have been watching him heal, who have heard him teach, who’ve seen how he treats people and so Peter comes forward and answers for the group. You are the Christ. You are the Christ. This is the Greek word that stands for the word Messiah, which talks about the anointed one, which is primarily a political picture. Here is the person who has been anointed to be the King of Israel and at this particular time in Israel’s history they are not taught just looking for a king, they are looking for the king, promised by God that was going to crush Israel’s enemies and establish an eternal kingdom of peace and prosperity. The Messiah was God’s person to get that to happen. You are the Christ. It wasn’t just a political picture though because since Israel was a religious nation they understood that their prosperity couldn’t be divorced from having a right relationship with God so the Messiah was a figure that was going to call people back to know what it really meant to walk with God. And so Peter is saying, you are that leader, that one we have been expecting, that’s going to change everything, not only for Israel, but for the whole world and forever. It’s quite a mouthful.
Now, Jesus accepts what they say, but then he does something unusual because he then says, don’t tell anybody else about me. And I think the reason he did that was because in the next few verses Jesus begins to describe what kind of Messiah he is. And this is vastly different than what Peter meant when he said you are the Christ. Jesus begins to describe a Messiah who is going to suffer, who is going to be rejected by all the religious leaders, is ultimately going to die and then come back to life. Now you can see what Peter thought of this by Peter’s response. As soon as Peter hears Jesus describe this kind of suffering, Peter pulls Jesus over and says, you know you are Gods person that’s going to change the whole world. You are the special one of God. You are the King of Israel. You are the one who has all the wisdom that God has given. You are going to lead this nation. You are wrong about this plan. Don’t you see it Jesus? It’s an incredible moment. One minute he’s got great insight. The next minute he is head to head against Jesus. And Jesus’ response is notable here because he says some the harshest things he ever says to his disciples. “Get behind me Satan, because you don’t have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” Peter has this image of the Messiah that’s built upon centuries of longing within the life of Israel and in his own life of longing and as he has seen Jesus minister, he builds this idea of the kind of person that Jesus is going to be. And then Jesus starts tearing that down and Peter doesn’t like it. And on top of it, Jesus starts talking then about the fact that people who follow him are going to have to pick up a cross. This doesn’t have any religious meaning for Peter. It’s that brutal instrument of torture and Jesus is saying that even his followers are going to face this sort of terrible judgment on their lives. Now, I don’t know about you, but if I were Peter at that point, I would start thinking I need to get off this train at the next stop. It’s not going where I want it to go. Now what Peter and the other disciples actually do we will see in the upcoming weeks as we look at the gospel of Mark, but today I would like to focus just particularly on this issue of who is Jesus really?
Should we take this account in the scripture seriously? This picture of Jesus, the suffering king and Messiah, isn’t this just a collection of things that have been put together by deceived people across a period of years and an unreliable place to put your faith? I would like to look at a few reasons why I think maybe it is reliable.
The first has to do with the amount of time it took to write this account. We are not dealing with a period of centuries to build up a legend about Jesus. The gospel of Mark was probably written about 30 years after Jesus was crucified. That’s like people in this congregation who are about 45 to 50 years old talking about their high school days, back when disco was king. Now that seems like a long time ago, but its only about 30 years. 30 years later, this account is written and there is a number of things that make us think that it was written around 64 to 78 AD because there are things here that seem to indicate that Mark has written for a Roman audience. He describes Jewish customs and translates Jewish words so that the audience will understand. He uses a Roman time scheme instead of a Jewish one. Jewish had three watches. The Romans had four watches across the night. But more than that, there are two interesting things that happen in the Gospel of Mark. One happens in the first chapter where is says that Jesus was among the wild beasts when he was tempted in the wilderness. And maybe that’s there because at this particular time in history, Christians were now under the leadership of Nero, being put into the amphitheaters and being persecuted, and are dying at this point in the ring with wild animals. Again in the 9th chapter it talks about everyone will be salted with fire. It’s at this period in history that Christians are being used as torches in Nero’s gardens. And so there is internal evidence to indicate that this is written at that specific time for these people that were in need facing persecution. In addition, we know that it was written fairly early because other gospels, the gospel of Luke and the gospel of Matthew take portions of Mark and use it, and so we know that its written not in a period of centuries later, but a period of decades. And its built upon a strong oral tradition that’s even earlier. So is it only 20 years or is it only 10 years when these traditions are being preached in this fashion. So that’s the first thing, the time element.
The second is, is that it seems to be also the testimony of eyewitnesses. There are all kinds of little details in Mark. For example in chapter 10 when Jesus heals a blind man, we get the name of the blind man, Bartimaeus. When Jesus is sitting in the boat and ignoring the storm in Mark it tells us that Jesus is on a cushion asleep. Little details like that that indicate that somebody was there watching. In fact, this gospel is ascribed to Mark and Mark also is a person who shows up in the New Testament, in the gospels and in Acts, but he is not somebody we would ever notice if it wasn’t said that he was the person who wrote this. So, if you are making up a gospel or making up a story you are going to pick somebody famous to attribute it to. This is going to be the Gospel of Peter, not the Gospel of Mark, a teenager who was involved in all of this.
There is a strong tradition too that we see in the New Testament that Mark did follow along with the apostles, was with Paul in Rome and was in the right place to be together with Peter in Rome right before Peter died. Now, that’s church tradition. We don’t have that in the Bible, but it’s a very strong tradition that shows early on. So, here we have an early document that has every sign of being eyewitness testimony, written at a time that there was other eyewitnesses alive that could have disagreed. But that’s not the main reason why I view this as trustworthy. There is a third thing that strikes me.
Let’s look at this conversation that’s happening between Jesus and the disciples. In that group of disciples you have Peter, you have James and you have John. Let’s think about them for a moment. Jesus has just said that he was going suffer and Peter strongly disagrees. Just a few weeks after this event, Peter is denying that he even knows Jesus. That’s how strongly Peter is distancing himself from what’s happening. He can’t understand it. He can’t accept it. Yet only a few months later, you find Peter standing up in front of thousands saying, this man who was crucified is God’s Lord and Christ. What happened? Just a few years later James is willing to die for the proclamation of this message. What happened? Later on in Peter’s life he is willing to face crucifixion. He has had years to be able to forget this idea and get along with life as usual, but years and years later he still is willing to die for this message. What happened? John is willing to go into exile because he preaches this message. What happened? We believe it was the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. That’s what the church believes. That’s what I believe. So the question goes out to you, what do you believe? Who is Jesus really?
Let’s pray. Gracious God, we thank You. We thank you for the things that are written here, and we thank You that despite the involvement of people just like us, that there are things here that we can trust, that teach us about You, and teach us about ourselves, and teach us of how You have rebuilt the relationship between us and You, in Jesus Christ. And it’s in his name that we give You thanks. Amen.