A CHRIST WITHOUT A CROSS?
Jesus spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him (Mark 8:32).
One of the most puzzling things, when you read about the life of Jesus, is that he tried to keep his miracles a secret. He used his divine power to do some amazing things, but even as he did these things, he tried to keep as low a profile as possible. Time after time Jesus tried to keep news about himself from spreading.
Here are some examples from the first half of the gospel of Mark. Jesus “drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was” (Mark 1:34; cf. 1:24, 3:12). When he healed a man with leprosy, “Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: “See to it that you don’t tell this to anyone” (Mark 1:44). Jesus raised a little girl from the dead, and then gave strict orders not to let anyone know about it (Mark 5:43). He enabled a deaf-mute to hear and speak, and then commanded those who were nearby not to tell anyone (Mark 7:36). He gave sight to a blind man, but discouraged him from spreading the news in the village and instead sent him straight home (Mark 8:26).
Doesn’t it seem odd that Jesus would use his divine power to help someone and would then avoid publicity as much as possible? You’d expect him to get as much mileage as he could out of each miracle–maybe hold a press conference or something, or at the very least, encourage those he had healed to spread the word to everyone they met.
After all, when you want to attract a following, you try to encourage publicity. You don’t avoid the spotlight; you bask in it. Just look at those who claim to do miracles today. They usually like to tell the largest possible audience. If, after a preacher’s prayer, someone says her arthritis feels a bit better, the preacher beams at the television camera and declares it a miracle, and the more people who are watching, the better. Now, if a little relief from arthritis pain is a miracle worth bragging about, what about giving sight to a blind person or raising someone from the dead?
But instead of seeking publicity, Jesus often told the people not to tell anyone else, and when the news spread anyway and the crowds became too large, he would slip off to another town with a few of his closest followers. Instead of taking advantage of all the curiosity and clearly telling people who he was, Jesus often tried to keep his miracles and his identity a secret. Why? Why didn’t he use every opportunity to let people know about his power?
Let’s look at a conversation between Jesus and his disciples recorded in the Bible book of Mark, near the end of chapter 8. This story is placed right at the center of Mark’s account of Jesus’ life, and it is of crucial importance. According to Mark, Jesus and his disciples had just left a town where Jesus had healed a blind man and were heading somewhere else.
“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'” (Mark 8:27-28) Most people who had seen Jesus or heard rumors about him knew that he had to be special, and they wondered whether he might be one of the great prophets come back from the dead.
Jesus looked at his disciples. “‘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 8:29-30).
Not tell anyone? Why not? Peter and the other disciples, after spending a lot of time with Jesus, have finally come to the right conclusion about who he is. Unlike most of the people, they know that Jesus is much more than a prophet or religious leader. They recognize him as the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16). They believe he is the one God has promised–he’s the one who will bring deliverance and salvation to his people. Wouldn’t it make sense for the disciples to spread the word as quickly as possible, so that people will recognize Jesus as their Messiah, instead of seeing him as just another prophet? And yet Jesus warns the disciples not to tell anyone. Why not? Why doesn’t he want people to know that he is the Messiah, when that in fact is who he is? Well, let’s read a little further.
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” (Mark 8:31-33).
Peter believed that Jesus was the Christ, but he wanted a Christ without a cross. In Peter’s mind, it was utterly inconceivable that Jesus “must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed.” How could the mighty miracle worker suffer? The Messiah was supposed to remove suffering, not endure it himself. He was supposed to lead the nation and drive out the oppressors. Peter expected that the Messiah would be a hero who would enjoy the support of all the religious leaders. How could they possibly reject him? And even if some did reject him, the Messiah was supposed to kill the enemies of God, not be killed by them.
When we see how Peter reacted to Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering, we can see why Jesus tried to keep a low profile and why he wanted the disciples to keep it a secret that he was the Christ. If Peter, who was constantly with him, was completely mistaken about the Messiah’s main mission, the crowds would surely misunderstand. Even Jesus’ closest followers could not understand the real purpose of his coming until after all these events had taken place, so how could the average people on the street possibly understand? They had too many of their own ideas about what the Messiah would be like. Like Peter, they thought that the Messiah’s primary mission was to get rid of their enemies and heal their diseases, to move from one triumph to the next. And so Jesus tried to downplay as much as possible the idea that he was the Christ, the Messiah. He did not want anyone to think of him as Messiah unless they realized that the Messiah’s main purpose in coming to earth was to suffer and die.
So when Peter rebuked Jesus for talking about his suffering, Jesus turned and rebuked Peter. He showed that the idea of Christ without a cross is really a temptation from Satan himself.
About now, you may wonder why I’m even talking about this. Granted, Peter made a big mistake in trying to correct Jesus, but what has that got to do with us? We’re in a very different position than Peter was, and there’s no way we could make the same mistake. We have the advantage of hindsight. We all know that Jesus did in fact suffer, that he was rejected by the leaders of the people, and that he died. The crucifixion of Jesus is a historical fact that no sensible person would dispute. With the benefit of hindsight, we can’t make the same mistake as Peter, believing in a Christ without a cross.
Unfortunately, though, many of us are more like Peter than we might think. We have our own ways of believing in a Christ without a cross.
Most people in North America claim to believe in the divinity of Christ. A recent Gallup poll found that 84% of the people surveyed agree that Jesus Christ is God or the Son of God. 9% think that he was a religious leader like Mohammed or Buddha, and there was a smattering of other opinions as well. But 84%–more than five out of six–say that Jesus is divine. It seems that most of us agree with Peter that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
But how many of us, for all practical purposes, want a Christ without a cross? Oh, all of us know that Jesus was crucified, but do we make his crucifixion the focus of our faith? There are many preachers who talk a lot about Jesus but don’t have much to say about his suffering and death on the cross. Some preachers of liberation theology think that the main relevance of Jesus for today is to liberate people from oppressive political systems. Others preach self-esteem, saying that the Messiah’s main mission is to make people feel better about themselves. Still, others promote a health and wealth gospel, in which people who have enough faith in Jesus will be financially successful and free of illness. Whatever it is we want in life, Jesus is the one to give it to us. He’s got the power to take care of whatever happens to be on our agenda.
We want a Christ without a cross. Most of us celebrate Christmas enthusiastically, but Good Friday is another story. We’re glad the Messiah was born, but we often skip over his death as quickly as possible. Of course, we know that Jesus was crucified once upon a time, but that fact doesn’t seem very relevant. We’d rather not think about it too much. We may think of the cross as just an unfortunate incident, much like the assassination of other great leaders, except that this one had a happy ending when Jesus rose from the dead. But we’re not about to place Jesus’ suffering and death at the center of our faith.
We’re more interested in whether Jesus can meet the felt needs that we have right now. We want a Messiah we can turn to improve our marriages, straighten out our financial difficulties, heal our illnesses when we pray to him, remove discrimination and trouble, and in general, make the world the kind of place we’d like it to be. We know what we want, and we’re hopeful that Christ will come through when we need him.
Like Peter, many of us want a Christ without a cross. We have in mind the things of men, and ignore the things of God, the things revealed in his Word. In Isaiah 53, written hundreds of years before Jesus came, the prophet told about the coming Servant of the Lord. “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (v. 3). Isn’t that depressing? It’s no wonder Peter didn’t think those words could refer to the glorious Messiah, and it’s no wonder that we’d prefer to think about Christ without thinking about the cross. We want a Messiah who is upbeat and positive, not a man of sorrows.
Not only that, we also want a Messiah who will make us feel good about ourselves. But according to the Bible, Jesus didn’t die for us because we are so good, but because we are so bad. Isaiah 53 says:
Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds, we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:4-6).
These words say that Christ had to suffer as a substitute for sinful human beings, enduring a death that we ourselves deserved. We are so sinful and corrupt in God’s eyes that only the death of the Son of God himself could make us acceptable to God. That doesn’t appeal much to our desire for self-esteem, but it’s the truth, and it’s the only truth that can save us. Jesus said that he came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45), to get us out of the trouble we got ourselves into.
Jesus didn’t merely say that he would suffer and that he would die. He said that he must suffer; he said that he must die. He knew that he must fulfill the Word of God which said he would suffer. It was absolutely necessary for Jesus to do this. And why? Because our biggest need is not liberation from a bad political system, or a greater sense of self-esteem, or health and wealth. Our greatest need is to be set free from sin. Jesus went to the cross because we are sinners under the wrath of God, and only his death could pay the penalty of sin and turn aside God’s wrath.
The crucifixion of Jesus was not an unfortunate lynching that caught the Lord by surprise. Jesus deliberately walked the road to Jerusalem, knowing that he would be tortured and killed. He offered himself as our substitute and sacrifice, taking the punishment we sinners deserve, so that all who believe in him could be saved. This is why Jesus recognized Peter’s protest as an idea from Satan. Jesus knew that the plan of salvation rested on his willingness to give his life for the world, and so he rejected the notion that nothing painful should ever happen to him. The Messiah had come, not first of all to conquer, but to die, and only through his death would he conquer the power of sin. There could be no Christ without a cross.
And that’s why Jesus kept his identity as the Messiah a secret as much as possible until after his death and resurrection. There was really no use for people to know who Jesus was unless they knew why he had come. His miracles and his teaching proved him be the Christ, but only in his death did it become clear why the Christ had been sent. Only after Jesus had suffered and died and rose again did his disciples begin to understand that there could be no Christ without the cross, and only then did Jesus command his disciples to proclaim far and wide that he was the Messiah, the Son of God who had been sent to save the world through his death.
The real meaning of the Christ is found only at the cross. Otherwise, Jesus is merely whatever you imagine him to be: a powerful person who helps you get whatever is on your wish list. And the Lord would rather not have you know him as the Christ at all if you don’t accept that he had to die to pay for your sins. There is no use knowing that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God until you know that he hung on the cross as your substitute.
Jesus also makes it clear that we must see him on the cross not only as our substitute but also as our example. We too have a cross to carry. Of course, Jesus’ followers will never suffer in the same sense that Jesus did. Jesus suffered the hell of God’s wrath and rejection, and that is something that his followers will never have to experience. Christians are forever accepted by God because Jesus has served as our substitute in bearing the penalty of sin.
However, though Christians will never have to endure God’s wrath and rejection, there is still an important sense in which we must each carry our own cross. Jesus is an example for all his followers. Immediately after rebuking Peter for suggesting a Christ without a cross [says Mark 8], Jesus 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).
Just as there could be no Christ without a cross, there can be no Christian without a cross. Jesus had to deny himself in order to accomplish his Father’s plan, and we too must deny ourselves in order to follow the Father’s will. We must be willing to reject our own plans and our own welfare in order to follow where Christ leads. And, though we will not have to endure God’s rejection as Jesus did, we will have to endure the rejection of other people just as Jesus did. We must crucify our desire for the approval of others, and instead endure their sneers.
Maybe instead of all the easy talk about being born again through Christ, it time for us to start asking whether we have died with Christ. Instead of simply saying I have “received Christ,” I need to ask myself whether I have taken up my cross and followed him. It is impossible to receive Christ without receiving a cross at the same time.
So if you think that Christ is the way to self-fulfillment and approval from others, think again. One of the most foolish ideas around today is that Christians are protected from suffering, that people who have strong enough faith will enjoy health and wealth and popularity. The example of Jesus shows us the exact opposite. He was a man of sorrow and familiar with suffering. Should his followers expect to be exempt from suffering?
When Peter first started to follow Jesus, he expected a Christ without a cross, and he thought he could be a Christian without carrying his own cross. But once he discovered new life through Jesus’ death and had been transformed into a mighty apostle by the Spirit of Jesus, he couldn’t stop preaching about the cross of Christ. He reminded Christians that they had been redeemed “with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:19). Peter knew that no one could be saved by a Christ without a cross.
Peter also demolished any illusions anyone might have about being a Christian without carrying a cross. In 1 Peter 4, he writes,
Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin. As a result, he does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God. . . .
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:1-2, 12-13)
The truth that Jesus concealed during much of his ministry is now proclaimed openly. Jesus is indeed the marvelous, miracle-working Christ, but he is above all the Christ of the cross, our substitute and our example.
Lord Jesus, we can never fully comprehend the love and the determination that moved you to the cross. But we thank you for taking our place, for bearing the punishment that we deserve. Give us the faith the trust you and the courage to follow where you lead. As you have suffered and sacrificed for us, help us to suffer and sacrifice for you. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.