For many involved with homiletic, that’s preacher teachers “you got to read the context” may well be an epitaph they would choose. I don’t place myself in that illustrious company but I know I have said it before, on many occasions, and will invariably say it again.
It is true that we must do that, read the context. It can get us into all kinds of trouble if we don’t. I remember many years ago being asked to attend a meeting of ministers of the local area. It was a meeting of ministers from different denominations and experience. We were pleasantly asked and encouraged, to hear about a word someone had felt was a call from God, for all the ministers of the area.
I am happy to hear from God as were all of those who took up this exciting invitation. Slowly and sporadically we all began to gather. The prequestite of hot beverages and, this time not biscuits but, there were an assortment of fresh pastries. Yeah, I know nothing promotes the enthusiasm of any minister the way pastries do. Anyway, they were good, the coffee was good and we chatted away until the murmur began to die down as we were called to our chairs to hear what God had laid on this person’s heart for the assembled.
A very quiet man, who was obviously not used to public speaking began by talking about an experience he had had and that he felt a particular verse was on his heart to share with us all. I will paraphrase “All the leaders were told to come before the lord and hear His word to them” exciting or what. The story was expanded on and also the belief that God was going to speak to us all about some thrilling news and that He was going to do amazing things. The excitement levels grew and grew.
Then one of the more experienced (by that I mean OLDER) ministers raised his hand. He was acknowledged and he began to speak. He thanked the organisers for the invitation and the eagerness of the church in question to bring us all together in the fervent hope that God would surely speak to us all. However (you knew that was coming) he felt that it was his duty to point out that the preceding and following verses to the one mentioned were in fact an admonishment of the behaviour of the leaders and the detailing of the impending correction that God was about to bring to them. He then sat down.
You can imagine that the atmosphere changed rather a lot after his comments and nothing more was said. Context is always very important.
So the context of these verses.
Before this discussion between Jesus, his disciples and others, they have all experienced some pretty amazing things. Jesus has fed A LOT of people with very little. The image of the disciples trying to figure out, first , what did he say? Then oh get all these fed. With what? Very little bread and even fewer fishes? But it happened and they must have thought WOW. Their faith would have been through the roof don’t you think? It must have been and even those who were a little sceptical would have seen this and start to believe that Jesus was something special.
Then it gets even better. Jesus hits out at the people most despised and revered by all of them. The pharisees and Herod. It is a brave thing to do. To make a mockery of those in power. Those who have religious and secular power and use it to their advantage at the expense of others. So this time their chests may well have been puffed a little bigger and their courage would be, well, encouraged, as they marvelled at Jesus’ forthright views, charisma and his substantial hootspa.
Next Jesus brings healing to a blind man. He restores sight to someone and the disciples really know that before them is someone very special. Jesus has authority over their material needs. He speaks as one who has command over their social and religious contexts and also can heal their physical ailments, all in truly amazing ways.
It’s no wonder that Peter, when asked, “Who do you say I am?” replies “You are the Messiah.” What they have just seen all ties into their understanding of the messiah. So why would Peter not reply as he did? It’s like the old expression, and I know it’s a little glib. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. If He sounds like the messiah, does the things the messiah should do, then He probably is the messiah…
We will get to the “during” this conversation in a moment but it is important to place this discourse in context of what comes next. These few verses are placed between what we have just heard about and…. Well we heard about it a few weeks ago.. The transfiguration. The demonstration of something so far removed from the normal. Far more removed than simply feeding and healing people and having a dig at the authorities, no matter how big that is. I would imagine that the disciples have no real idea about what is going on. They may know it’s something special and they may well think “I’m going on this ride” but it still may well be a crazy thing to do.
So to the verses at hand. We must first distinguish between v31 – 33 and 34-38 They are two separate conversations. The first is intimate, the second very much less so. The first is with the disciples, the second is with the crowd.
Our first question then is which group are you in? Are you in a close intimate relationship with Jesus or are you a hanger on? Does that sound harsh? Maybe it does but as I said earlier context is important.
The crowd are not really followers, but fans. I imagine they liked what Jesus had just said and done. They liked what He had done for them. They liked that He fed them. How many had actually been fed may not have been known to them, but did they even care? They were fed. And secondly they would have probably cheered Him on as He berated and criticized the authorities. It’s a bit like a crowd at a football match. We can often be accused of “only singing if we are winning” when it gets difficult though, it’s amazing how such a large crowd can disappear leaving absolutely no trace that they were even there in the first place.
Fans can fall away easily when it gets hard. Their faith is not built on who Jesus actually is, but who they think He is. They are encouraged by what they have been given by Him, or excited by when He says things they agree with, that fit their preconceptions. However the complete trust and faith in Him, is just not there. So the second conversation, well let’s read it again… Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
That is difficult to hear. Take everything you hold dear and forget it. Deny yourself. Give up who you think you are. You know this thing you call life, well it is no life at all. The life you wish for, don’t bother, it’s not what’s important, because if you hold on to it and believe that this is all there is then it will be a waste.
Now I don’t know about you but that has never ever been taught to me as a way to share the Gospel. Anyone else? Thought not. So what is that, exactly? I think it is the Gospel.
It is counter cultural. It goes against everything society tells us is vital, important and against everything the world says will bring meaning to our lives. It is about loss, denial, humility and a hope in something more than what’s around us. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? The fan won’t respond well to these words but a follower will.
Many years ago I had a difficult situation happen in the church where I was a member. I was naive and a fairly new, excited, christian. Now let’s make this absolutely clear I was in the wrong. The problem was that others decided that the best course of action was not to speak directly to me but to start the church grapevine up and mumble and grumble.
The inevitable happened and I found out. I felt awful. Not just because I now knew I had done something wrong but that people, despite all the nice words and encouragement, had been gossiping about me behind my back. Instead of taking me to one side and talking kindly but firmly about what was going on and restoring me to a better place had in fact decided to defame and stick the knife in.
Not a nice story but it does happen and there was a point at which I was asked the question “Are you going to leave” Now I took this as a question about my faith not my attendance at this church… whichever it was my reply was this “I have nowhere else to go” I believe that at that point the Holy Spirit made me a follower not a fan. He revealed to me that there was nothing and no one else that was worth giving my life to. No one else worth following.
The Holy Spirit must have been guiding my thoughts and moulding something in me because I think I was identifying with someone in the first part of our verses. Peter answered a direct question from Jesus “what about you, do you want to leave?” and Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
The preceding verses to Jesus speaking to the crowd was a conversation and revelation to the disciples and particularly to Peter. Earlier Jesus says “Who do you say I am?”. “The messiah” comes the reply. That in itself is an astounding admission. And I imagine Peter was well chuffed as my Mum would say. But we know that it didn’t take long for Peter to come down with an almighty bump.
Now “Get behind me Satan” is not the greatest motivational phrase I have ever heard but for Peter WOW. I cannot believe that I could ever come back after a put down like that. I’m not sure there is a put down that harsh. But we know Peter did. We know that the disciples all had points in their time with Jesus where they did drop the ball and were less than they could be but they came back.
Maybe we are feeling a little bit more in the crowd? Maybe we feel we have dropped the ball? We might feel that we have veered more to being a fan and not given our whole life to follow Jesus? Well none of us have been called Satan by Jesus so I guess we can be encouraged by that at least and go once more and follow a bit more closely than before?
So let’s be followers not just fans. Those who have come to know truly that this Gospel is worth giving everything for. To know that by dying now, we can rise again and live forever. That by losing our lives we will find one that is truly worthwhile living and that by denying ourselves we will in fact gain so much more, even in this life as we follow and not just wear the shirt and wave the scarves.
Psalm 22 begins with those fateful words of desperation and feelings of being abandoned. Go back and read the whole Psalm. But for any true follower it ends beyond what we experience in restoration, deliverance and an external hope in a God who is worth following. I believe that is a Gospel hope we can live with.
The Gospel is not one of prosperity, strength and worldly success. It is not found in cathedrals and the power of influence but in the truth that to follow is to give ourselves completely. And that’s something we do not talk to others about much when we describe being a follower of Jesus. Jesus didn’t have a problem with doing it so maybe we should follow His lead?