A CHRIST WITHOUT A CROSS?
Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him (Mark 8:32).
Reading about the life of Jesus is fascinating–and puzzling. When I was a young Christian reading what the Bible says about Jesus, one thing that often puzzled me was the way Jesus avoided publicity. He did many amazing things, but even as he did these things, he tried to keep a low profile. Time after time he tried to keep news about himself from spreading. From the sound of it, Jesus didn’t want too many people to hear about his miracles or to find out that he was the Messiah, the Son of God.
Jesus “drove out many demons,” says the Bible, “but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was” (Mark 1:34; cf. 1:24, 3:12). He healed a man who had leprosy and then “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 person to hear and speak and then commanded those 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). Isn’t that puzzling? Doesn’t it seem odd that Jesus would use his divine power to help someone and then avoid publicity as much as possible?
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 don’t try to keep anything secret; they try to tell the largest possible audience. If, after a preacher’s prayer, someone says her arthritis feels a bit better, the preacher smiles at the TV 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?
You’d expect Jesus to get as much mileage as he could out of such astounding miracles–maybe hold a press conference or something. At the very least, you’d expect Jesus to encourage those he had healed to spread the word to everyone they met. But no. Instead of seeking publicity, Jesus often gave orders 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 telling people who he was, Jesus took steps to keep his miracles and his identity a secret. Why? Why not use every opportunity to let people know about his power?
A Revealing Conversation
Let’s look at a conversation between Jesus and his disciples recorded in the Bible book of Mark, chapter 8. This conversation occurs right at the center of Mark’s account of Jesus’ life, and it is of crucial importance.
Jesus and his disciples had just left a town where Jesus had healed a blind man, and they were heading somewhere else. “On the way Jesus 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) Many people who saw seen Jesus in action figured he was special and thought 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, after getting to know what he was like, after listening to him teach marvelous truths, after watching him do amazing miracles, finally could see who he really was. Unlike most of the people, they knew that Jesus was much more than a prophet or religious leader. They recognized him as the Messiah God promised would someday come–the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16), the Savior who would rescue God’s people. Wouldn’t it make sense for the disciples to spread the word as quickly as possible, so that people would recognize Jesus as Messiah and Savior, instead of seeing him as just another prophet? And yet Jesus warned the disciples not to tell anyone. Why not? Why didn’t he want people to know that he was the Messiah, when that’s who he really was? Well, let’s follow the conversation a bit 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 Messiah, the Christ, but he wanted a Christ without a cross. He believed Jesus could save people from problems, but he wanted a Savior without suffering. The mighty miracle worker was supposed to remove suffering, not endure it himself. He was supposed to lead the nation and drive out oppressors. Peter expected the Messiah to be a hero who would enjoy the support of Israel’s religious leaders. How could they reject him? And even if they rejected 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 suffering and death, we begin to see why Jesus tried to keep a low profile and why he wanted the disciples not to tell others that he was the Messiah. If Peter, who was with Jesus constantly and knew him as well as anyone, was wrong about the Messiah’s mission, the crowds would surely misunderstand what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah. If the people nearest and dearest to Jesus didn’t understand the main purpose of his coming until after his suffering and death, how could the average people on the street understand? They had too many of their own ideas about what a Savior should be like. 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 Savior’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 strongly. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” The idea of a Savior without suffering, a Christ without a cross, is a temptation from Satan himself, a temptation to follow our own thinking instead of God’s way.
Repeating Peter’s Error
About now, you may wonder what’s the point of saying all this. Sure, Peter made a big mistake in trying to correct Jesus, but what has that got to do with us? Why bother talking about Peter’s insistence on a Savior without suffering? We’re not in the same position Peter was; there’s no way we could make the same mistake. We have the advantage of hindsight. We know that Jesus did in fact suffer, that he was rejected by the religious leaders, that he was nailed to a cross and died. The crucifixion of Jesus is a historical fact that no sensible person disputes. With the help of hindsight, we’re in no danger of thinking Jesus couldn’t suffer or die. We can’t repeat Peter’s mistake.
Or can we? Many Muslims consider Jesus a prophet and are convinced he went to heaven without actually being crucified or killed. And even non-Muslims, people who know very well that Jesus died, have ways of focusing on a Christ without a cross. Surveys find that more than 80 percent of people in North America us say that Jesus is God or the Son of God. Most of us apparently agree with Peter’s statement 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, we know Jesus was crucified, but we don’t make his cross a major focus.
Why else do so many of us celebrate Christmas but ignore Good Friday? Why are the weeks leading up to Christmas a big deal, while the weeks leading up to Good Friday are ignored by most people, even by many churchgoers? The season of Lent, the forty-day period leading up to Easter, has just begun. Lent is a time to focus in a special way on Jesus’ suffering and death–but who pays attention to Lent? During the Christmas season you hear Christmas carols almost anywhere you go, but during the Lenten season you don’t hear radio stations playing song after song about Jesus death. Why is that? It’s because we are repeating Peter’s error: we prefer a Christ without a cross. We’re glad a Savior was born on Christmas, but we skip over his death as quickly as possible.
We want a Christ without a cross because, like Peter long ago, we have in mind the things of men and ignore the things of God, things revealed in the Bible. In Isaiah 53, written long before Jesus came, God’s prophet said the coming Messiah would be “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (53:3). Peter may have known those words, but he didn’t want to his idea of a glorious Messiah to be spoiled by grim suffering. We tend to be like Peter. We avoid the man of sorrows. We want to be upbeat and positive, and we’d rather not think about a suffering Savior. But Jesus shows us this tendency for what it is: a temptation from Satan himself. The cross of Christ is central to salvation, but it’s tempting to prefer a Christ without a cross, a Savior without suffering If we ignore Jesus’ suffering, it’s a sign that we don’t understand what we really need from him and that we don’t understand what it means to follow him.
A Suffering Substitute
Let’s think first about what we need most from a Savior. Some folks talk as though our greatest need is political; they make it sound as though Jesus’ main mission is to liberate people from oppressive political systems. Others preach self-esteem and give the impression that the Messiah’s main mission is to make people feel better about themselves. Still, others promote a health and wealth gospel, claiming that Jesus promises big bucks and freedom from illness. Whatever it is we want in life, Jesus is the one to give it to us. We want a Savior we can count on to improve our marriages, straighten out our financial problems, heal our illnesses, remove discrimination and trouble, and in general, make the world the kind of place we’d like it to be.
But the problems that worry us most are often not our biggest problems. Our biggest problem is not our circumstances but ourselves. Our greatest problem is sin, and our greatest need is to be rescued from God’s wrath against our sin. God is just, and sins committed against him must be punished. He can’t merely pretend those sins never happened. Somebody has to pay. That’s why we need a suffering Savior. That’s why Christ had to go to the cross. Only by choosing to become our substitute, by taking our place and suffering the punishment we deserve, could Jesus free us from our sins and make us right with God. 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, the only truth that can save us. Jesus said that he came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
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 prophecies in the Word of God which said he would suffer. 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 Christ 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. Only his death could pay the price for sin. There could be no Christ without a cross, no Savior without suffering.
That’s a major reason why Jesus kept his identity as the Messiah a secret as much as possible until after his death and resurrection. It might do more harm than good for people to know Jesus was the Savior unless they knew that what they most needed to be saved from was their sin and that the only way they could be saved from sin was for the Savior to suffer punishment as their substitute. There was really little use for people to know Jesus was the Messiah unless they knew the Messiah’s main purpose in coming. His miracles and his teaching were very important in showing him to be the Son of God and Savior, but only in his death did it become clear why the Christ had been sent. Only after Jesus suffered and died and rose again did his disciples understand that there could be no Savior without suffering, no Christ without the cross. Only then did Jesus command his disciples to proclaim far and wide to the whole that he was the Messiah, the Son of God who had been sent to save the world through his death.
The saving power of Jesus can be proclaimed only in light of the cross. The gospel must always have the cross at the center. Otherwise, Jesus is merely whatever you want him to be: a powerful person who helps you get whatever is on your wish list. There is no use knowing that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God until you know that he went through hell on the cross as a substitute for sinners. Only through faith in his blood can you be made right with God (Romans 3:25).
In His Steps
Once we see the suffering Savior as our substitute, we must also see him as our example. We too have a cross to carry. Jesus’ followers will never suffer as dreadfully as Jesus did. Jesus suffered the hell of God’s wrath and rejection, something his followers will never 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.
According to the Bible, right after Jesus rebuked Peter for suggesting a Savior without suffering, he
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).
There can be no Christ without a cross, and 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 comfort in order to follow where Christ leads. We will not have to endure God’s rejection as Jesus did but 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.
Have you ever denied yourself anything for the sake of Jesus? Have you ever suffered because you are a Christian? If your faith has never cost you anything, it’s questionable whether your faith is genuine.
A lot of people say they’ve been “born again.” Being “born again” is a biblical phrase and a spiritual necessity, but not everybody who uses the phrase has really been born again. It’s easy to have a stirring emotional experience and say you’ve been born again, but it’s not so easy to suffer for the sake of Christ. Maybe instead of all the easy talk about being born again through Christ, it is time to start asking whether you’ve died with Christ. Instead of merely claiming you’ve “received Christ as my Savior,” ask yourself whether you have denied yourself, taken up your cross, and followed him. You can’t receive Christ without receiving a cross at the same time. You can’t share in Jesus’ salvation without sharing in his suffering.
If you think Christ is the way to worldly success and approval from others, think again. One of the most foolish ideas around 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 sorrows 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. After Jesus was arrested, Peter even denied knowing him. If he couldn’t have Christ without a cross, Peter didn’t want Christ. But after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus gave Peter forgiveness and new life and transformed him into a mighty apostle. From that point on, Peter couldn’t stop preaching about the cross of Christ. He urged non-Christians to seek forgiveness through Christ crucified and risen. He constantly reminded Christians that they had been redeemed “with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:19). Peter knew 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. “To this you were called,” wrote Peter, “because Christ suffered for you, leaving you and example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). History tells us that Peter himself was eventually crucified upside down for being a Christian. He trusted Christ crucified to save him, and he followed in his Masters’ steps.
What about you? Do you trust Christ crucified, or do you prefer a Christ without a cross? Do you think your sin isn’t all that serious and that you don’t need anything as drastic as the death of God’s Son to pay the price? Or will you admit your desperate need for Jesus’ blood to wash you clean? Do you expect an easy life without struggle or sacrifice? Or will you deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus?
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 also 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.