The Second Sunday in Lent March 16, 2003
363, 369, 175, 388
And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He spoke this word openly. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. But when He had turned around and looked at His disciples, He rebuked Peter, saying, “Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”
When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”
In Christ Jesus, who became Man that He might die for all mankind, dear fellow Christians:
As I was looking through our refrigerator recently, it struck me how much food has changed. Instead of plain cheese, there was a package of “lite” cheese with half the calories and 30% less fat. The jar of mayonnaise was labeled as “100% fat-free,” and the soda cans boasted that there were only a few calories per serving. The big selling point of many packaged foods is that cholesterol, calories, and fat have been taken out, while supposedly retaining all the flavor and satisfaction.
Tastes for religion have undergone similar changes. Many people are looking for a kind of “lite” Christianity—one which retains the outward forms and some of the flavor, but which is not as heavy on Bible teachings. One of the first things taken out is the teaching of the cross. It is considered “too deep a subject for little ones,” “too depressing for adults,” and “too familiar to senior citizens.” Surveys show that people want something different, perhaps more upbeat and entertaining.
If you go into a Christian bookstore, you will likely see row after row of books aimed at every possible aspect of the Christian life. They range from how to manage your finances to prayer to fighting the battle against temptation. But there are very few which focus on Jesus’ cross and what it means to us.
Every spring I preview VBS programs from a half-dozen different publishers. It has always amazed me that very few consistently emphasize Jesus’ suffering and death. There are many lessons on being loving, kind, and forgiving toward others, but the cross is largely ignored. So, how necessary is the cross? Obviously, many feel that it is not that important, but this morning we want to see what the Lord Himself says about it.
The disciples, too, were unsure about where and if the cross fit into God’s plan for saving the world. On earlier occasions Jesus had alluded to His death. When the Jews demanded a sign of His authority, Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19 NIV). Jesus told Nicodemus: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up” (John 3:14 NIV). Jesus called Himself the Good Shepherd who would lay down His life for the sheep. But these words really had not sunk into the disciples’ hearts. So, now, as the time for crucifixion drew near, Jesus explained to them very explicitly what was going to take place. He would go to Jerusalem, be captured by the religious leaders, suffer many things, and finally be put to death, and rise again on the third day.
Peter reacted with stunned disbelief. “Never, Lord! This shall never happen you,” he said. It wasn’t that Peter was denying that Jesus was the Messiah. He had just confessed: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” (cf. Mark 8:29). But he did not understand why the cross was necessary. The popular Jewish idea was that the Messiah would burst onto the scene with such glory and power that everyone would immediately recognize Him. He would then re-establish the earthly glory of Israel, and usher in a wonderful new era of peace and prosperity. It seemed incomprehensible that the Messiah would gain His greatest glory by suffering and dying.
Peter’s problem, Jesus said, was that he was looking at things from a human standpoint. He was thinking of the things of men, rather than the things of God. To human reason the cross seems totally unnecessary. By nature we would like to believe that we are basically pretty good people deep down, and that God is a loving Father who will surely overlook the few faults we may have. Who needs the cross?
Jesus’ reply was swift and strong: “Out of my sight, Satan!” The Devil used Peter’s words to confront Jesus with the very same temptation he had faced in the wilderness. There the devil had swept Him up to the top of a very high mountain, and had showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. He had said, “All this I will give you if you will bow down and worship me” (Matthew 4:9). It was a temptation to avoid the agony of the cross and take the easy way out.
But there was no way the cross could be avoided if we were to be saved. When the Devil led Adam and Eve into sin, it did not just affect them. It set all of mankind on a death march to hell. “As by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Romans 5:12). God’s justice had to be satisfied. Sin deserves eternal death; and a judge who wants to be fair and right cannot let a crime go unpunished. There is no judge more righteous than God!
There is nothing we can do to erase our guilt or make up for it. Some believe that if you are sincere about trying to lead a decent life, God will credit that to your account and you can be saved. That’s the hope so often heard at funerals: “He was such a good, kind, and loving person! Even though he seldom went to church or expressed faith in Christ, he must be with the Lord in heaven now!” But sincerity does not save. Peter was very sincere about his opposition to the cross, but he was wrong. A person might believe with all his heart that a power line lying on the ground has been disconnected. But if he is wrong and he picks it up, his sincerity could kill him.
Only the cross can save. It may not seem glorious and powerful, but there is more to it than meets the eye.
If a newspaper or TV correspondent had been present at Golgotha during the crucifixion, he would have reported that the popular, but controversial rabbi named Jesus had finally been condemned by the Roman governor and had suffered a horrible execution by crucifixion. But the reporter would have missed the most important part. Jesus was not just punished by the soldiers who nailed Him to the cross. He was punished in a far worse way by His Father. God put all the blame for our sins on Christ, and punished Him in our place. That is why the cross is so absolutely essential for our salvation. It was on the cross that our sin was paid for once and for all. It was as though we were on death row awaiting execution, but then at the last moment, Jesus came in, took our place, and we were suddenly free to go! God’s justice was satisfied. Sin was paid for. We can be sure of it because on the third day Jesus rose from the dead in victory!
Is the cross necessary? “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24 NIV). Christ without the cross is no Christ at all!
Just as Jesus had to carry His cross, so all those who follow Him will have a cross as well. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” [v.34] The disciples did not understand this at first. As they thought of the wonderful earthly kingdom they believed Jesus would establish, they began imagining the special perks they would enjoy. They assumed they would have positions of great power and honor since they were Jesus’ closest companions. They were picturing discipleship without the cross.
We see the same self-centered thinking all around us. People are so wrapped up in their own lives and problems, that they don’t have time to help someone with a flat tire or get to know the neighbors or become involved in community projects. We see the same trait in ourselves. How often do we look at our family, work, and friends with the attitude: “What’s in it for me?” And just like the disciples, many people expect the Lord to guarantee earthly blessings such as good health and financial success without realizing that Jesus’ kingdom is a spiritual one.
The real Christian life does not automatically mean earthly glory. In fact, it is just the opposite. Following Christ means denying self. It means saying no to our natural desires and self-centered wants. It means that we have no identity apart from Christ. As Paul says: “Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ…I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:7-8 NIV). “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20 NIV). Our whole outlook changes. Instead of saying, “What’s in it for me?” we ask, “How can I glorify God with my life? How can I show Christ-like love to my husband or wife? How can I be a friend to others as Jesus is to me?”
Are we willing to deny ourselves for Christ’s sake, or do we put conditions on our discipleship and say: “I’ll follow Christ as long as it doesn’t interfere with anything else I want to do, as long as it doesn’t take more than an hour a week….I’ll follow as long as it doesn’t hurt my relationship with people, or as long as it doesn’t cost me any money.” That’s not denying oneself. That is our old self trying to take control again.
Denying self means being willing to sacrifice anything and everything for Jesus. It means being honest at work and business while others around you are cheating. It means filling out your 1040 Form as accurately as possible, even though you know that by altering a few numbers you could save hundreds of dollars, and no one would ever know. It means confining sexual activity to marriage, while the rest of the world indulges in promiscuity. Self-denial is not at all easy. We have all fallen short, and deserve God’s punishment. But it was for that very reason that Jesus went to the cross. These sins, too, have been washed away by His blood.
The cross calls to mind one of the most cruel and painful forms of execution ever devised. Only the worst criminals were crucified. Jesus suffered that death for us. He now asks us in thankfulness to Him to bear our cross, the cross of suffering which comes from being faithful to Him. You will be made fun of for holding to your Christian beliefs and living by them. You may lose many earthly advantages by following Jesus. It may cause ill will and divisions within your family.
Is the cross worth all the trouble? It doesn’t seem like it at times, but Jesus leads us to look at the big picture and says, “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?” [vv.36-37] If you could have the whole world: more money than all the lotteries in the country combined, all the cars and homes you could want. If you could go anywhere and do anything you wished, would it be worth losing your soul? Or is there anything in the world valuable enough to buy your soul back from hell? The answer, of course, is NO!
Therefore, “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Me and for the Gospel will save it.” [v.35] Jesus does not force anyone to take up his cross and follow Him. A person can refuse to carry the cross, and instead live totally for himself and all the pleasures and advantages he can possibly gain here on earth. But what a poor exchange it is! In the end, he will lose far more than he ever gained. He will forfeit never-ending happiness and glory in heaven for 70 or 80 years of self-indulgence now. On the other hand, a believer may appear to be one of the most downtrodden people on the face of the earth. He may have to endure an endless stream of hardships now, but he still has the treasure of peace with God and the certain hope of better things to come. He knows that in the end he will be welcomed by the Lord when He comes with all His holy angels. Which is the better choice?
While “lite” foods may have some advantages, what often happens is that when the fat and calories are removed, any nutritional value is lost too. The food then is really worthless. The same thing happens when the cross is taken out of Christianity. All that’s left is an empty shell.
It is at the cross that God proves His great love for you. It is at the cross that Jesus paid for your sins and suffered hell so you would never have to endure it. And it is the cross which makes things right with God, and gives you the life that never ends. Is the cross really necessary? Nothing is more important to your salvation! Amen.
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a tribute far too small
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all!
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.