Religious Leaders

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This morning we are starting a new short series of studies entitled The Testing and Triumph of Christ as we approach Easter. We are going to look at the opposition Jesus faced from Religious Leaders, the Devil, the Crowds and from Judas. This morning we start off with the Religious Leaders and how they opposed Jesus and we will be looking at Mark 8.31-9.1.

What reasons do people give you for not believing in Jesus Christ? Some say they don't like the hypocrites they see in the Church. Others say they have intellectual problems. But probably the reason most often given for not believing is the problem of suffering. Well, in part, that is our subject for this morning.

By way of introduction let me explain how, by going back to some basics.

The gospel of Jesus is "good news" - that is what the word literally means. Look back, if you will, to the beginning of Mark's Gospel, chapter 1 verse 1 where you read:

"The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God."

That is how Mark begins. He begins with the "gospel" or good news about Jesus Christ. And people saw it was good news. As you trace the story through, you find Jesus driving out evil spirits, healing the sick, forgiving sins, teaching those wanting to learn, calming a storm, raising the dead, feeding the hungry and more. You read all about that in the first 8 chapters of Mark's Gospel. Jesus brought good news and he was good news and he still is good news. So let's not be frightened of saying that the gospel is about good things.

Yes, it is about success, doing well, being happy, overcoming illness and defeating death. It is about a perfect world where there is no more pain or suffering. But all that will only finally come about with Christ's Second Coming and Heaven. True, in the meantime there are foretastes of heaven. With Jesus' physical presence there was an amazing foretaste of heaven - and this was evidenced by the miracles he performed. After his death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit was given to the church, providing another foretaste of Heaven. Sometimes there are still miracles, but they have not been (nor are) in the profusion they were in the time of Jesus. However, there are greater things as the gospel takes root in cultures and societies, in addition to people finding eternal life - the greatest thing of all. Undoubtedly, for example, modern medicine - a direct fruit of the Christian gospel and Christian tradition - has saved (proportionately) more lives than were saved in the early church, and reduced mortality and resulted in healing beyond all imagination - this is God's indirect healing. And the gospel has resulted in economic and scientific successes. More importantly it has resulted in social successes through the establishment of the Christian family. But while there are these good things in this period between Christ's two comings - his first and second comings - we are not to expect that all will always be comfortable and there will be no suffering. So when the early apostles started to move out from the Jerusalem and Judea to evangelise the Mediterranean, this is what they taught their new converts:

"We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14.22).

The gospel is good news. There certainly is a glorious future. There are huge benefits even now. But there also will be suffering. Can you cope with suffering?

Before I was ordained I spent some time in the Sudan working with a missionary society. This was in the middle sixties when all the present troubles were beginning. While I was there, we were physically attacked. The school I was working in was destroyed by local Muslims, as was our main Mission Centre - a huge complex. And Southerners were being killed. It was a time of suffering and hardship that has gone on, almost continuously, ever since. Eventually, I came home and at a Christian boys camp on Lake Windermere I was asked to give a talk that summer on the Sudan showing slides of the aftermath of some of these events. I had as my text these verses from 1 Peter 4:

"Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed" (vv 12-13).

After the talk the leader of the camp, a head teacher, came up to me and said: "You know, I don't think I personally have ever really had to suffer."

The following day I was out on the lake sailing with some boys. I could see some activity on the shore and thought nothing of it. On returning I discovered that the leader's - this head teacher's - two little boys had been playing with a scout truck. It then rolled down the slope; it pinned the younger boy to the wall; and it crushed him to death. "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God," said the Apostles. And this was said of Jesus:

"In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering" (Heb 2.10).

But before Pentecost, Peter (the Apostle Peter, who later wrote those words I quoted just a moment ago) couldn't cope with the idea of suffering. You see that in Mark 8.31-9.1 which I now want us to look at. And I want to have as my headings: first, THE WORK OF CHRIST; secondly, PETER'S RESPONSE and, thirdly, THE CHRISTIAN WAY.


First, THE WORK OF CHRIST

Let's start by addressing the question: "why do people suffer?" Sometimes it is hard to see any reason. But the answer is often because of direct sin or wrong doing. Saddam Hussein is now (or will be) suffering because of his own wrong doing. Innocent Iraqis are also suffering because of Saddam's wrong doing. Suffering, indeed, comes to both the guilty and the innocent because of sin.

So now think about Jesus. He certainly suffered because of sin or wrong doing. And he particularly suffered at the hands of religious leaders who didn't like what he said and what he did. Look at verse 31:

"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."

His greatest opponents during his ministry were not the pagan Roman authorities but religious leaders. Here he is referring to the Sanhedrin that was made up of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law. This was the supreme Jewish Court that was responsible for Jesus' death. True, the Roman Pontius Pilate had to decree the death penalty itself - as the Jewish court did not have that power. But the Romans often just rubber-stamped what the Jewish religious leaders wanted. This happened in Jesus' case. And throughout history you have religious leaders who oppose Jesus Christ. But Jesus didn't only suffer because of opposition from Religious leaders. Look at that little word must in verse 31 -

"he then began to teach them that the Son of Man [that is a phrase he used for himself] must suffer many things ... he must be killed."

You say, "why must he?" Later on in life Peter summarized his answer like this in 1 Peter 2.24:

"he himself bore our sins in his body on the tree (i.e. the Cross) so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed."

You see, this was the fulfilment of a prophecy given centuries before - Isaiah 53.5-6:

"he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all."

The gist of that is crystal clear. You and I deserve to be punished for our sins. Christ, in his love, stands in for you and me. He takes the punishment for us. And we are saved. So this is the fulfilment of God's great plan of salvation. It is right at the heart of the Christian faith. That is why the "Cross" is a symbol for Christianity and we have services of Holy Communion. So Christ must suffer and be killed. But notice that it is not just the Cross that Jesus talks about. By itself that is not the gospel. It is the gospel when the Cross is linked to the Resurrection. For, says Jesus, "he must be killed and after three days rise again." Let's move on.


Secondly, PETER'S RESPONSE

So what was the response of another religious leader - this time not one of the opposing faction, but a disciple - the apostle Peter? And, remember, Peter had just made that great confession that Jesus was "the Christ". Peter said Jesus was not just another prophet, but God's anointed one - the one hoped for and expected throughout much of Jewish history. You read about that in the preceding verses.

Peter, however, was so confused. He was expecting an all conquering political Messiah or leader. He was expecting that Jesus would make life wonderful immediately. But what does he find? He finds Jesus talking about suffering and death. Peter couldn't cope with that. Look at verses 32-33:

"He spoke plainly about this [i.e. what was going to happen], 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.'

Nor is Peter the only religious leader who can't cope with the Cross. Take Mohammed and Islam. The Koran rejects the Cross. The Koran sees no need for the sin-bearing death of a Saviour. It says, I quote, "no soul shall bear another's burden".

It says, "if a laden soul cries out for help, not even a near relation shall share its burden".

Why? Because, says the Koran, "each man shall reap the fruits of his own deeds".

So Islam denies the need for the Cross. It then denies the fact of the Cross. But Christ's death on the Cross is a sure fact of ancient history. The Koran says: the Jews "uttered a monstrous falsehood" when they declared "we have put to death the Messiah Jesus the son of Mary, the apostle of Allah," for "they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but they thought they did." That is not true!

Then take Ghandi, a Hindu. He accepts the fact of the Cross but rejects its saving importance. Writing about Jesus he said: "His death on the Cross was a great example to the world, but that there was anything like a mysterious or miraculous virtue in it, my heart could not accept."

But if Christ death had not been a substitutionary atonement for you and me, it would have been an utter tragedy. It would be no example. It would be like a man jumping off the end of Tynemouth Pier shouting, "I love" you and drowning. What example is that? But thank God, the Bible makes it clear, as Peter later came to see (1 Pet 3.18):

"Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God."

So Religious leaders - even Christian religious leaders can reject the Cross. But why? Why did Peter reject Christ's message?

First, he may not have grasped all the message. He seems only to have taken in the first half about the death of Christ. He failed to hear the message about the Resurrection. Only hearing half what is said is always a good recipe for confusion. Nor does it only happen in doctrine. It also happens in ethics - especially sexual ethics. So people only hear the negatives. They do not hear the positives. They do not pick up that if you follow God's instructions, life will be better all round and there will be more pleasure all round.

Secondly, he seems to have been brainwashed - as people can be brainwashed in spiritual matters. He was so politically correct in this thinking about the Messiah - namely that the Messiah was someone to free the Jews from the hated Romans and bring in, immediately, a Utopia. Beware of being brainwashed into being politically correct today by the Media and the Press when what is at stake is the clear teaching of the Bible. Jesus put it like this in verse 33:

"You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men."

And, thirdly, at this time he had an inadequate doctrine of sin. Sin is the problem. It is the problem because it cuts you off from God. And if you are going to live sensibly and with the greatest chance of happiness, and if you want an eternity of life rather than of death and all that that means, you need to be right with God, with sin dealt with. And you can only be right through the Cross of Christ. Peter had yet to learn this lesson. The importance of that lesson is proved by Jesus reaction to Peter:

"he rebuked Peter. 'Get behind me, Satan!' he said" (v 33).

Jesus never spoke to the Pharisees like this. To deny the need for the Cross is to deny everything.


Thirdly, THE CHRISTIAN WAY.

So how do you ensure you hear all that Christ has to say; and avoid being brainwashed; and see the reality and seriousness of sin and so the need for a radical solution? Look at verses 34 of chapter 8 to verse 1 of chapter 9:

"Then 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.' And he said to them, 'I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.'"

There are five things to do.

First, you deny yourself and are willing to put Christ first, if necessary laying down your life for him. That is what it means to "take up your cross".

Secondly, you realize that putting Christ first means that getting the gospel out to the world is a number one priority in your life. Look at verse 35:

"whoever loses his life for me and the gospel will save it."

Thirdly, you need to be hard nosed. Look at verses 36 and 37:

"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?"

You need to see that your eternal destiny is far more important and valuable than what you do in this life.

Fourthly, be prepared to stand up for Christ and his teaching, in a minority of one if necessary - verse 38:

"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."

And fifthly, have a heavenly perspective - 9 verse 1:

"he said to them, 'I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.'"

That comment immediately leads on to the account of the Transfiguration, where there was an amazing foretaste of Christ's risen and heavenly body. This puts all the suffering and the Cross into context.

I must conclude and I do so with some questions? Have you ever gone to the Cross to receive forgiveness and cleansing and then new life by the Holy Spirit? If not, why not do so this morning as you sit and as you pray?

But if you have done that, are you ready, if necessary, to take up your cross; is spreading the gospel a number one priority in your life; are you hard-nosed enough to see that it is plain stupid not to be a follower of Christ; are you willing to be in a minority of one for Christ; and do you have a heavenly perspective?

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