And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must 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. 32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But 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.” 34 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. 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. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 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.”
This is an unusual sermon because its two halves are going to be very different, though not unrelated. In the first half, I will try to open this text from Mark 8 in such a way that the greatness of our self-sacrificing king, Jesus, will be clear for the sake of your admiration and worship, and so that his call on your life to follow him will be, Lord willing, compelling. That’s the first half. In the second half, I am going to explain to you why I have asked the elders for an eight-month leave of absence starting May 1. So you can see how seemingly disconnected they are. But perhaps they will prove to be more connected than you think. Now that I have pricked your curiosity, may the Lord give you grace to listen to this first part for your own soul, and not just for mine.
3 Times in Mark’s Gospel
Three times in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells his disciples in detail that he is going to Jerusalem to be killed and to rise from the dead. I want you to feel the force of this. So let’s read all three.
First, Mark 8:31: “And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must 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.”
Second, Mark 9:31: “He was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.’”
Third, Mark 10:33–34: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”
The Great Central Fact of History
One thing is clear. This is important to Mark and to Jesus. At least four things stand out in each foretelling of Jesus’ suffering. One is that he is going to die. Second, this death is intentional. He intends it. He means for it to happen. He is not running from it, but walking into it. Third, it will not be suicide; it will be murder. And the murderers are mentioned in each text. Fourth, he will rise from the dead. Not at some uncertain time in the future like us, but precisely in three days. His death is appointed and his resurrection is appointed. They will happen on schedule.
What is not mentioned in each of those texts is why. Mark gives us the clearest statement of that after the three predictions. In Mark 10:45, Jesus says, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” This is the great central fact of history and of our lives. Jesus, the Son of Man, the exalted human, divine God-man, came—was sent by God the Father—to give his life as a ransom for many.
God Can Ransom What Man Can’t
Our sin had, as it were, kidnapped us and put us in a prison of our own making, far from God, in the chains of iniquity, under God’s holy wrath, and powerless to free ourselves. One of the images the Bible uses for our liberation is ransom. A ransom had to be paid.
But listen to Psalm 49:7–8, “Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice.” In other words, no mere man can ransom another man’s soul. And you can’t ransom your own. Then listen to verse 15 of that psalm: “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol.” Man can’t. God will.
God’s Loving Plan
That’s what is happening as Jesus plots his death on the way to Jerusalem. The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many. And this is all God’s idea. It’s not Jesus against God. It’s God through Jesus. What God wants us to see in this plan is his love for us. Watch how Mark brings that out in Mark 8:32–33.
And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But 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.”
“Peter, if you resist my plan to die, you resist God. You side with Satan against God. Satan doesn’t want me dead, because he wants you in hell. Satan wants me to bow down and worship him and jump off temples for fame and turn stones into bread for self-preservation. The last thing he wants is for a ransom to be paid for his captives. But that’s what God wants, Peter, because, he loves you. My coming to die as your ransom is the love of God.”
Are You Among the “Many”?
Now here is the key question of application to you: Are you among the “many”? Mark 10:45, “The Son of Man came . . . to give his life as a ransom for many.” Are you ransomed? Have you been set free from the bondage of sin and guilt and condemnation and wrath? That’s what the rest of verses 34–38 are about. Who are the ransomed? Are you one of them? You can be.
Verse 34: “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.’” The ransomed follow Jesus, even though it means self-denial and cross-bearing. If you trust and treasure Jesus enough to follow him even when it is costly, you are ransomed.
Now notice something striking. The next four verses (verse 35–38) all begin with the word “for”—at least in the ESV, and that is accurate. And “for” usually means “because.” So in each of these four statements, Jesus is giving reason or a basis or a foundation for what goes before. Verses 35–38:
For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 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.
Reading in Reverse
One way shed light on a sequence of logical steps like this is to read it in reverse order and change the “fors” to “therefores.” For example, if I say,
I am eating my lunch voraciously.
For I was really hungry.
For I skipped breakfast this morning.
For I got up late and had to hurry to work.
You can say this same sequence in reverse order by using “therefores,” and it has the same meaning.
I got up late this morning and had to hurry to work.
Therefore, I skipped breakfast.
Therefore, I was really hungry by lunch time.
Therefore I am eating my lunch voraciously.
So let’s read the sequence in Mark 8:34–38 in reverse order this way.
Verse 38: “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.” Let’s get the meaning clear before we make the connection. What’s the opposite of being ashamed of somebody? Being proud of them. Admiring them. Not being embarrassed to be seen with them. Loving to be identified with them.
So Jesus is saying, “If you are embarrassed by me and the price I paid for you (and he’s not referring to lapses of courage when you don’t share your faith, but a settled state of your heart toward him)—if you’re not proud of me and you don’t cherish me and what I did for you—if you want to put yourself with the goats that value their reputation in the goat herd more than they value me, then that’s the way I will view you when I come. I will be ashamed of you, and you will perish with the people who consider me an embarrassment.”
Therefore, verse 37, “What can a man give in return for his soul?” That’s a statement concealed in a question. What’s the statement? Therefore, there’s no nothing you can give in return for your soul. If you’re not proud of the ransom I paid for your soul, then there is no ransom for your soul.
Therefore, verse 36, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” That’s another question that’s making a statement, namely, If you gain the whole world by valuing it above me—by being more proud of it than me—it won’t be able to save you in the end. There is nothing you can pay for your soul when you have scorned my ransom (verse 37). Therefore (verse 36), gaining the whole world will be of no use to you. None.
Therefore, verse 35, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” In other words, since being ashamed of the ransom I paid for you cuts you off from me (verse 38), so that there is no ransom that can be paid for your soul (verse 37), not even if you gained the whole world (verse 36), therefore, you will have your life forever if you treasure me enough to lose it for my sake.
One last step. Therefore, verse 34, “If you would come after me, deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me.” In other words, treasure me more than your own comfort and your own safety. The opposite of self-denial is the idol of self-gratification, and the opposite of cross-bearing is the idol of self-preservation. Rather, be like Paul in Philippians 3:8: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”
* * * * *
Now how does all this relate an eight-month leave of absence starting in May?
As I have stood back in recent months and looked at my own soul—my own sanctification, my own measures self-denial or self-serving—and my marriage and family and ministry patterns, I have felt an increasing need for a serious assessment—a kind of reality check in the light of God’s word. Am I living in the mindset and the pattern of life that Jesus calls for here in Mark 8:31–38, especially in relation to those I love most?
On the one hand, I love my Lord, Jesus; I love my wife and my five children and their families. These are the supreme treasures of my life—my Lord, my wife, my children. And I love my work of preaching and writing and leading Bethlehem. Indeed, I hope that the Lord gives me at least five more years as the pastor for preaching and vision at Bethlehem. That’s my dream. And that’s my plan, if God wills.
But on the other hand, I see several species of pride in my soul that, even though they may not rise to the level of disqualifying me for ministry, grieve me, and have taken a toll on my relationship with Noël and others who are dear to me. Noël and I are rock solid in our commitment to each other, and there is no whiff of unfaithfulness on either side. But, as I told the elders, “rock solid” is not always an emotionally satisfying metaphor, especially to a woman. A rock is not the best image of a woman’s tender companion.
In other words, the precious garden of my home needs tending. I want to say to Noël that she is precious to me. And I believe that at this point in our 41-year pilgrimage together the best way to say it is by stepping back for a season from virtually all public commitments.
What I have asked for is something very different from a sabbatical or a writing leave. In 30 years, I have never let go—not on writing leaves or on sabbatical or on vacations—of the passion for public productivity—writing and preaching. In this leave, I intend to let go of all of it. No book-writing. No sermon preparation. No preaching. No blogging. No Twitter. No articles. No reports. No papers. And no speaking engagements—with a very few exceptions that you can read about online on Sunday afternoon.
You could view this as a kind of fasting from public ministry. One of the goals in this kind of fasting is to discern levels of addiction. Or, as Paul Tripp or Tim Keller might say, levels of idolatry. The reality check is: What will happen in my soul and in my marriage when, to use the phrase of one precious brother on staff, there will be no “prideful sipping from the poisonous cup of international fame and notoriety”?
You may think: My, a leave of absence is a pretty drastic step in the war against pride and idolatry. That’s true. It is. But I’m not the only one affected. And I hope that you will trust me and the elders that it will be good for my soul, good for my marriage and family, and good for you and for the next five or six years of ministry together, if the Lord wills.
For your encouragement about the spirit of our church, Noël and I are known inside-out by a few friends at Bethlehem—most closely by our long-time colleagues and friends David and Karin Livingston, and then by a cluster of trusted women with Noël and men with me. We are accountable, known, counseled, and prayed for. Oh how deeply thankful I am for the grace-filled culture of transparency and trust among the leadership at Bethlehem.