The Golden Stitches of Sovereignty
What Holds Our Gospel Together
The Gospel Coalition 2019 National Conference | Indianapolis
The main point of Mark 8:31–33 is that God planned, prophesied, and performed the sufferings, rejection, killing, and raising of the Son of Man. And therefore, to resist this, the way Peter did in verse 32, is to have the mindset of Satan and fallen man — not God.
Or to put it another way, in verses 31–33, Jesus is revealing to us the relationship between God and the murder of the Son of Man, namely, God planned it, prophesied it, performed it, which is why Jesus’s death is not random, but is gospel.
The Son of Man must [dei in Greek — that’s the all-important word] suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. (Mark 8:31)
Four things must happen. Not might happen. Not could happen. Not even will happen. They must happen. This is some kind of necessity. These four things must happen to the Son of Man: He must suffer, be rejected, be killed (not just die, but be killed) and rise again.
And verse 32 says, “he [Jesus] said this plainly,” so that we would know that Peter’s rebuke is not because Jesus was unclear. He wasn’t unclear. With clear, plain words ringing in his ears, Peter “took him [Jesus] aside and began to rebuke him.” What had Jesus said so clearly that brings forth Peter’s rebuke? He had said that his own suffering, and rejection, and murder, and resurrection must take place. They must. And Peter considers this worthy of a rebuke.
Notice that it doesn’t say, “Peter was frightened and urged Jesus to hide.” It doesn’t say, “Peter was compassionate or empathetic with Jesus’s future suffering.” The text says just the opposite.
Peter wasn’t empathetic; he was disapproving. He disapproved what Jesus said. He rebuked him. He accused Jesus of saying something wrong. Something worthy of a rebuke. And he only said one thing. It has to happen. And Peter responds, “Jesus, with all due respect, your suffering and rejection and getting killed does not have to happen. You shouldn’t talk like that. I rebuke you.”
To which Jesus responds with his own “rebuke” (the same word, epitimaō, in Greek). And he does it to protect all the disciples, not just Peter.
Turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Mark 8:33)
“The Son of Man must suffer, must be rejected, must be killed, must be raised.”
“Peter, you are not seeing the necessity of my suffering the way God does. You don’t like the language of necessity when it comes to suffering and killing. You don’t like me saying, ‘My murder must take place.’ You would like to counsel me — even rebuke me — that this is not the way God thinks or acts. Well, Peter, my friend, you are wrong, and I rebuke you for this.”
“Satan doesn’t like this either. And without knowing it, you have become his mouthpiece. When I say that something must take place, Satan hears the implication: he is not in charge; God is. And he knows his days are numbered — necessarily! And, Peter, the whole human race is like him. That’s why I said, ‘You’re talking like Satan and you’re talking like a mere man.’ Fallen human beings do not like it when I use the word ‘must’ like this. The Son of Man must suffer, must be rejected, must be killed, must be raised.”
Four Reasons Jesus Must Suffer
So, what is it that Peter and Satan and human beings, in general, are so opposed to that they would even rebuke the Son of Man? What’s behind this must — this incontrovertible necessity — that brings down even a rebuke on the Son of Man? Why must he suffer, and be rejected, and be killed, and rise? There are numerous right answers to that question. Here are four of them.
1. Scripture cannot be broken.
The Son of Man must suffer and be rejected and be killed and rise again because it is written in the Scriptures, and the Scriptures cannot be broken.
The Son of Man must suffer many things. Because it is written in Isaiah 53 that he would know sorrows and grief and anguish of soul, and be despised and pierced and crushed and oppressed and afflicted. He had to suffer betrayal because it was prophesied in Psalm 41. He had to suffer mockery and insults, and the piercing of his hands and feet because it was prophesied in Psalm 22. He had to suffer being spit on and struck in the face because it was prophesied in Isaiah 50. The script for Jesus’s sufferings in the first century had been written down hundreds of years earlier. And the Scriptures cannot be broken (John 10:35).
And the Son of Man must be rejected. Because in Mark 12:10, Jesus said, “Have you not read this Scripture [quoting Psalm 118:22]: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’?” He must be rejected because it is written. And what is written must come to pass. The Scriptures cannot be broken.
And the Son of Man must be killed. Because Isaiah 53 didn’t just prophesy his sufferings, but his murder. He will be led like a lamb to the slaughter. He will be cut off out of the land of the living. He will be an offering for guilt. His soul will be poured out to death. His grave will be with the wicked. He must be killed. It is written.
And the Son of Man must, after three days, rise again. Because it is prophesied again in Isaiah 53:10–11:
When his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
He must rise. It is written. And the Scripture cannot be broken.
2. God performs what he prophesies.
The Son of Man must suffer and be rejected and be killed and rise again because God performs what he prophesies.
Why must the prophecies come to pass? Because when God foretells what will come to pass, he is not merely predicting what others will do, but announcing what he will do. Jeremiah 1:12: “I am watching over my word to perform it.” God is not a soothsayer looking into a crystal ball and infallibly foretelling the future. He is God. He performs the future.
I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, “My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose.” (Isaiah 46:9–10)
The Son of Man must suffer and be rejected and be killed and rise again because God doesn’t just predict it; he performs it.
3. God planned it before the creation of the world.
The Son of Man must suffer and be rejected and be killed and rise again because God planned it before the creation of the world.
“The script for Jesus’s sufferings in the first century had been written down hundreds of years earlier.”
It was not only written by God, and performed by God, but also planned by God. God is infinitely wise and does nothing whimsically or randomly. Everything happens according to his infinitely wise plans. He founded the earth in wisdom (Proverbs 3:19). All his works are done in wisdom (Psalm 104:24; see also Romans 11:33). So, the prophecy of Christ’s sufferings in the Prophets and the performance of them in God’s providence are the outworking of wisdom from before creation.
This was the testimony in the prayers of the early church in Acts 4:27–28:
Truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
These were the four perpetrators of the sufferings, the rejection, and the killing of Jesus: Herod, Pilate, the soldiers, and the mob. And all went down according to plan — God’s plan.
There is a book in heaven. And the name of the book, according to Revelation 13:8, is “The Book of Life of the Lamb Who Was Slain.” And names were written in this book, it says, “before the foundation of the world.” In other words, the slaying of the Son of Man was planned before the creation of the world. That’s why the sufferings, the rejection, the killing, and the resurrection of Jesus must take place. It was planned, prophesied, and performed by an all-wise God.
4. God’s ultimate goal will come to pass.
The Son of Man must suffer and be rejected and be killed and rise again because by this plan the ultimate purpose of God in the gospel comes to pass: the revelation of the glory of his grace in Christ for our everlasting enjoyment.
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:11–12)
He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace. (Ephesians 1:4–6)
Jesus doesn’t say it here in Mark 8, but he will make it plain two chapters later (Mark 10:45; 14:24) that the sufferings and rejection and killing of the Son of Man were designed by God as the “[giving of] his life as a ransom for many.” And by giving himself in suffering and rejection and death as a ransom, grace flows to all who believe. And people from every nation glorify God for his mercy (Romans 15:9).
The bride gets the joy of mercy; God gets the glory of praise. That is the final goal of the gospel — and of all things. It cannot fail. It will succeed. And so he must suffer and be rejected and be killed and rise again. These events are not random. They are God-planned, God-prophesied, and God-performed — and are therefore the gospel.
Sovereignty Sweetens the Good News
Something amazing has happened in the last fifty years directly related to this text. The Gospel Coalition, for example, has come into existence, along with hundreds and hundreds of other ministries and churches and schools and mission agencies and publishing houses and websites and spiritual movements in dozens of countries around the world, because millions of people have been waking up to the beautiful interweaving of the gospel of Christ with the sovereignty of God.
More and more people are coming to see and cherish the ultimate control of God over all things differently than they ever have. Millions of people are discovering that the sovereignty of God is not a peripheral, troublesome, academic doctrine to be argued about, but rather it is a glorious, divine reality, and is the very stitching that holds the fabric of the gospel together.
No Providence, No Redemption
When Jesus says that the Son of Man must suffer, must be rejected, must be killed, must rise again, because God spoke his word, performs his word, and planned his word, with an invincible purpose for his word, he is saying: There is no gospel without the all-controlling sovereignty of God.
Let’s be more specific: There is no gospel of salvation for us hopeless sinners if God did not have sovereign control over the innocent suffering of Christ, the sinful rejection of Christ, and the wicked murder of Christ. The suffering, rejection, and killing of the Son of Man without the plan and prophecy and performance and purpose of God in it is no gospel. Un-planned, un-prophesied, un-performed, and un-purposed suffering and rejection and murder saves nobody.
I’m not saying that there are no people who make the effort to disconnect the all-controlling sovereignty of God from the innocent suffering and sinful rejection and wicked killing of Jesus. There are many laypeople and pastors and scholars who make that effort.
“God is not a soothsayer looking into a crystal ball and infallibly foretelling the future.”
What I’m saying is that in the last fifty years millions of people around the world are sensing that such an effort is futile, unbiblical, and undesirable — it is a rending of the precious fabric of the gospel. Because they see, over and over again in Scripture, that the sovereignty of God is the stitching that holds the gospel together. They see a beautiful interweaving of the gospel of Christ with the sovereignty of God.
They read Mark 8:31 — “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected . . . and be killed, and after three days rise again” — and without any long exegesis, they see it! Must suffer. Must be rejected. Must be killed. And they find themselves worshiping: “This was your Son! This was your plan. This was your work. Your hand in innocent suffering. Your hand in sinful rejection. Your hand in wicked murder. For me! My forgiveness. My everlasting happiness with you. The greatest gift at the highest cost to the least deserving.” And millions of people find themselves bowing and saying, “I love you.”
So, the reality of the sovereignty of God has been sweetened in the minds of millions, as they have come to see it as the golden stitching that holds the fabric of the gospel together.
So, I am saying that the events of Mark 8:31, woven together by the sovereign “must” of God, are the gospel. The innocent suffering of the Son of Man, his being rejected and killed, and his resurrection to invincible life, are the plan, prophecy, performance, and purpose of the sovereign Creator of the universe. Why am I calling this the gospel? Three reasons:
1. Ransom Paid
Two chapters later in Mark 10:45, Jesus describes this self-giving suffering and rejection and death as a ransom. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The design of the divine “must” of the death of Jesus is: It will be a ransom for many. Many will be paid for. Many will be set free. This is what the suffering and rejection and death — the giving of his life — will accomplish. A ransom paid, finally, decisively, for many.
2. Blood of the Covenant
I call this suffering and death in verse 31 the gospel because this death — the blood-shedding — is called by Jesus the “blood of the covenant” (Mark 14:24): “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” And what are the covenant blessings that this blood secures for many?
This is the covenant . . . declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. . . . For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:33–34)
A new heart and the forgiveness of sins — that is what the blood of the covenant secures for many.
3. Lose Your Life
I call verse 31 the gospel not only because it is the payment of a ransom, and the purchase of forgiveness and a new heart, but also because Jesus uses the word “gospel” in Mark 8:35: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”
So I conclude that here in Mark 8 the gospel is the good news that the sovereign, all-controlling Creator and Judge of the universe orchestrated the payment of a ransom in the suffering and resurrection and death of the Son of Man to set many people free from the divine curse of unforgiven sin, and to bring them into resurrection life.
How Can I Be Saved?
That’s the heart of the gospel, to which our own hearts cry out: “What must I do to be included in this good news — to be ransomed, to have my sins forgiven, to have this eternal joy with the risen Christ?” Jesus turns to the crowd to give his answer to this question in verses 34–38.
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Turn and Trust
So, what’s the answer to the question, What must I do to be included in the gospel of verse 31? In Mark 1:15 Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” And surely, we should say this when we evangelize. Give the best news in the world, and then say, “Repent and believe this news.” “Turn from the old ways of unbelief and believe the news.” Or to use the words of Paul and Silas, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
“God is infinitely wise and does nothing whimsically or randomly.”
The challenge is that, then and now, people do not fill up the word believe with the meaning Jesus intends. Where in this world would people pour into the word believe all that Jesus requires us to experience when he says, “Believe”?
My understanding of Mark 8:34–38 is that Jesus is answering the question: What must I do to be included in the gospel of verse 31? And he is answering this not by replacing faith (belief), but by revealing its essence — which also shows why the mental change of repentance is the flip side of faith. Let’s watch him do this.
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me [literally: follow after me], let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
If you want to go with me through suffering and rejection and death and resurrection and — by implication — eternal glory, then here’s the way to follow me to glory: deny yourself and take up your cross.
In other words, a new self must come into being, so that there is a denying self and a denied self. And when Jesus says, “Take up [your] cross,” he means: the denied self is a crucified self. There is a self that must die and be reckoned dead by denial. That’s the first part of Jesus’s answer to how to be included in the gospel of verse 31. Experience the miracle of a new self coming into being, and an old self being crucified and denied any dominion. Elsewhere, Jesus called this the new birth (John 3).
For My Sake and the Gospel’s
So far (in verse 34) nothing has been said about what’s new or good about the denying self, or what’s bad about the denied and crucified self. That happens in verse 35, which goes to the heart of the matter.
For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s [or: “on account of me and the gospel”] will save it.
This is a description of the two selves in verse 34. One self aims to save its life in this world. It aims to maximize all that this world can give. It loves this world. That is the self that must be denied and crucified. The other self (verse 35) experiences Jesus and his gospel (“on account of me and the gospel”) as more precious — more valuable, more loved, more satisfying — than anything this world can give, including life itself in this world. The first self, Jesus says, will be lost forever — “whoever would save his life will lose it.” The second self will live forever — “whoever loses his life on account of me and the gospel will save it.”
“The sovereignty of God is the stitching that holds the gospel together.”
Don’t miss the beautiful implication of Jesus’s saying, “on account of me and the gospel.” Not just on account of the gospel. And not just on account of me understood apart from the gospel. But me, as you taste my goodness, especially in the gospel (1 Peter 1:25; 2:3) — as you see me in my sufferings, and being rejected, and being killed, and being raised.
The essence of the new self, and the essence of saving faith, is that Jesus is experienced, especially in the gospel, as so great and so beautiful and so valuable that we are willing to lose everything in the world, including life, to have him forever. The point of verse 35 is that Jesus and the gospel are a greater treasure than all the world, and the person who experiences him that way is his disciple and is included in the gospel ransom and resurrection of verse 31.
What Jesus does in the rest of this paragraph is draw out the meaning of treasuring Jesus above everything by contrasting the worth of Jesus with the worth of earthly possessions and the worth of earthly praise — two of the greatest competitors of Jesus for the affections of our heart. Pleasures from the possessions you own. And pleasures from the praise you hear. Let’s take them one at a time from Mark 8:36–37.
For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?
Suppose your heart considers the worth of Jesus and the worth of possessions — the gladness you could have from Jesus, and the gladness you could have from possessions — and suppose your heart is drawn to prefer the worth of possessions. And you turn away from Jesus as less precious than earthly possessions. And suppose you succeed, and by the end of your life, you now own everything in the world — you “gain the whole world” — that’s what Jesus envisages in verse 36. And then you die, and instantly you realize that was eternal suicide.
And suppose in facing Jesus you say, “I will give everything I have — the whole world — in return for my soul.” What do you think he will say? I think he will say, “You would try to buy your soul with the very possessions that destroyed your soul — that you prefer over me? Christ-replacing, Christ-belittling idols have no currency in heaven.” And he will send you to everlasting misery, because verse 37 says, in effect, “There is nothing a man can give in exchange for his soul.” That ransom has been paid for God’s elect. And you preferred to own the world rather than belong to Jesus.
Then, finally, in verse 38 comes the second clarification of what it means to treasure Jesus above everything in this world. The first clarification had to do with treasuring him above earthly possessions. This one has to do with treasuring him above earthly praise.
For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words [notice again me and my words, as in verse 35: me and the gospel] in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.
So, Jesus is making clear that there are two audiences for our lives. One is “this adulterous and sinful generation” — adulterous mainly in the sense of finding less satisfaction in their Maker than they do in the people and the things he made. That’s adultery and the essence of sinfulness. The other audience is the coming, triumphant Son of Man, his all-glorious Father, and millions of holy angels.
And the question for us is: Whose approval do we crave most? Whose praise are you most desperate not to lose? In whose presence do you fear most being shamed? Which relationship is most precious to you?
Which then brings us back to Mark 8:35: “Whoever would save his life will lose it.” That is, whoever lives to save his reputation — to avoid shame — to save his acceptance among an adulterous and sinful generation will lose his respectable and popular life forever. The Son of Man, the all-glorious Father, and millions of holy angels will, in one terrifying moment, turn their face away from him in shame forever.
But (second half of verse 35) “whoever loses his life on account of me and the gospel will save it.” In other words, whoever experiences me and my suffering, and rejection, and shameful crucifixion, and resurrection (the gospel I just spoke to you in verse 31) as more precious than respectability and popularity from an adulterous and sinful generation will live forever under the smile of my approval.
Greatest News in the World
Here’s the sum of the matter in Mark 8:31–38. First, there is news. The greatest news in the world.
The Son of Man must suffer many things, and must be rejected, and must be killed, and must rise again.
The merciful, sovereign, all-controlling God planned, prophesied, and performed the sufferings, rejection, killing, and raising of the Son of Man. Therefore, they are not random events. They are the ransom of sinners. They are the glorious, God-designed gospel of grace. That’s the news. And it happened before we ever existed or did anything.
“Christ-replacing, Christ-belittling idols have no currency in heaven.”
And the way into this ransom and resurrection is to experience the birth of a new self — a self that looks at this suffering, rejected, killed, and risen Jesus, and then looks at all the possessions and all the praise that the world can give, and says, “Possession-loving self, praise-loving self, I deny you! You are not me. And if denying you costs me my life in this world, then I will gladly lose that life, in order that I may live with this Jesus forever.”
Five Aids for Evangelism
So, here are five clear implications for our evangelism — our disciple-making.
1. Report the news.
Tell unbelievers the news! Make the news prominent. God planned, prophesied, performed a ransom for sinners. Jesus embraced the plan and became the performance. Suffered, rejected, murdered, raised. Knowingly, intentionally, obediently, triumphantly. Make the objective, all-glorious, Jesus-exalting news prominent.
2. Plead with them.
Urge them, call them, entreat them to look to Jesus. To look at him in this news, and to see him for who he really is. Urge them to see him and his words as more to be treasured — more to be desired — than all the possessions and all the praise of this world.
3. Warn them.
Warn them that to love what this world can give more than they love Jesus will cost them their lives forever. Warn them that Jesus is coming back, and no possessions will be able to buy back your life, and no praise you ever received will make up for his eternal disapproval.
4. Promise them joy.
Promise them, in the name of Jesus, that whatever must be denied in this life bears no comparison to the joy of walking with Christ on the Calvary road, in suffering now, or the glory that they will have with him in the new world.
Don’t let them fasten on the term “self-denial” as if it meant that there is no Christian self capable of unspeakable joy (1 Peter 1:8). Make it clear — make it crystal clear — from this text that self-denial is the denial of the self that is bent on suicide. The denial of the self that is bent on the insane thought that owning the world is better than belonging to the risen Son of Man. The denial of the self that is bent on the utter foolishness of craving the approval of an adulterous generation over the approval of the Son of Man, God the Father, and millions of holy angels. Circle back and remind them: This is news! This is unspeakably good news.
5. Speak honestly about suffering.
Be like Jesus (Mark 13:9–13) and Paul (Acts 14:21–22) and make sure they know from the start: Count the cost. “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom.” You will suffer in this life.
But listen: If the sovereign, all-governing God was weaving a fabric of beauty and hope out of the sufferings, rejection, murder, and resurrection of his Son, will he not weave out of the torn pieces and the tangled threads of your life a beautiful tapestry for his glory?
And then you pray.