The Most Important Question In Life
“He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Peter answereth and saith unto Him, Thou art the Christ.”—Mark 8:29
I would like you to observe first in the latter part of Mark 8 that here at the conclusion of the chapter we have a most unfortunate King James’ version chapter division. The Revised Version helps a bit by putting these divisions in paragraphs. The first verse of chapter 9 is really part of chapter 8, and indeed is the climax to it all: “He said unto them, Verily, I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.”
The Lord Jesus came that He might set up a kingdom, not in finality (He is coming again to do that), but in power, and this He did less than twelve months after the words were spoken, when at Pentecost He gathered together a little group of men and women and the Spirit of God came upon them. There was set up then a kingdom on Earth of redeemed humanity, men and women, redeemed by the blood of Christ and who now had incarnate within them the new nature, and who were to challenge the world and to face humanity with the Gospel until Jesus comes again.
For two thousand years, with greater or lesser activity and effect, this message has swept across the inhabited Earth. The effect has always been greater when the principles of power so clearly revealed in this passage have been observed. The times when the power of the Gospel has been so ineffective have been very largely because the church has failed to appreciate and understand the principles and channels along only which power can flow.
In this passage, the time had come for the Lord Jesus to call for a verdict. The crowds were thronging around Him and would gladly have crowned Him King of a material kingdom. The rulers were becoming increasingly hostile and angry, and were bent on His murder. The disciples caught between these two lines of opinion, were confused and uncertain. We see, then, the Lord Jesus in the last six months of His earthly ministry moving to a climax where He must receive from the people and, above all, from His disciples a verdict concerning Himself. We have what I have called in Mark 8:27–29, the challenge to decision.
“Jesus asked His disciples, saying unto them, Whom do men say that I am? And they answered, John the Baptist: but some say Elias; and others, One of the prophets. And He saith unto them, Whom say ye that I am?”
You notice He moves from the circumference to the center: “Whom do mensay that I am?” And then, “Whom do yesay that I am?” The answer concerning the viewpoint of men differed: John the Baptist, Elias, one of the prophets. I see a very clear picture here of the confusion that exists in theological thinking today. In some areas we have forgotten that the person of Jesus Christ is not merely at the heart of the Christian faith, but He isthe Christian faith. Christianity is Christ, and the most important question with which everybody has to be faced through life is, What think ye of Christ?
Notice that the Lord Jesus did not say: “What did you think about what I said?” or, “what do you think about what I’ve done?” or, “what do you think about what I have taught?” His question is, “Who do you think I am?” On the lips of anybody else, save Christ, this would be a question utterly inappropriate; but on the lips of the Lord it seems perfectly natural as He constantly draws the attention of people away from everything, even His preaching, even His works, to Himself.
“Whom do men say that I am?” In theological circles today there is confusion because we have departed from this, and have considered “What about His teaching? What about His works? What did He say, and what was the effect of it all?” Today we have in this country, and in other lands, a position of absolute confusion, of shifting sand, with no solid bedrock concerning the Christian faith. This is a very real danger. Many names perhaps unfamiliar to you, such as Brunner and Barth, two great theologians of this century, are beginning to pass into the background with their neo-orthodoxy, and are being replaced by such as Baltman, who has moved further away to the liberal position—a much older man, incidentally, than either Barth or Brunner. But the world is going after these, and one by one they move to this or to that or to the other, and they bring themselves to sinking sand because today men need to be brought back, not to what they think about doctrine, but what they think of the Lord Jesus Christ, the very heart of the message. He isthe message. We live in a day of shifting, sinking sand, a day of uncertainty, a day of lack of real conviction in many areas of the Christian church.
The most important question of the Lord Jesus was not, “What do men say?” but turning to the little group of disciples, “Whom do ye say that I am?” This was the great moment of their testing. They had walked and talked with Him for two years and more. They had watched Him at work. They had heard His messages. They had seen Him confront all His enemies, and they had seen His miracles. Now as the outcome of all that the Lord Jesus focuses the attention of these men and says: “Whom do ye say that I am?” This was the challenge to a verdict! This was the thing that mattered most. This was the thing upon which He was going to stake everything of their ministry throughout all the future.
This is the relevant issue today in life, not what I think about His teaching, or His doctrine, or men’s interpretation of it, but what do I make of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself? “Whom do yesay that I am?” Ask yourself, have you settled that question personally? Have you understood the implications of what is involved in the settlement of such a question in relation to your own life?
This question is immediately followed by the confession of the disciples: “And Peter answereth and saith unto Him, Thou art the Christ.” I imagine Peter, (of course he was always the spokesman!) was probably speaking for the other eleven. The Christ is not a name for Jesus; it is a title, and means Messiah, King, the anointed One of God. It is significant of absolute authority. Peter had looked into the face of our Lord; he had followed Him so long that he had never-forgotten, memorable days in his own experience, none more memorable than when he had almost drowned in a lake, and the Lord rescued him and brought him back again to the ship. Many such instances had convinced Peter without any shadow of doubt that this One with Whom he walked and talked was none other than the Messiah, the King, the Lord.
That is a wonderful confession of Simon Peter. It is not recorded by Mark, but in Matthew 16:17, Jesus immediately replied to him, “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but My Father which is in heaven.” In other words, this man had come to a particular conviction concerning Jesus, not by his own probing or understanding, not by his own investigation, but by a revelation from heaven.
Nobody, says Scripture, can call Christ Lord except by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3). Therefore, when a man suddenly gets right concerning his convictions regarding Jesus Christ, it is because heaven has opened upon him, and into that man’s heart and life has come a strange but real conviction which nothing can ever shatter, which the years can never change, as he has looked up into the face of the Lord Jesus and said, “Thou art the Christ!” It has come not by his understanding, his education, or his personal probings, but by a shaft of light that the Spirit of God has shone into his heart, and without any question of doubt he has confessed the absolute lordship of Jesus.
Jesus went on to say, “And upon this rock, (that is, upon your confession of My sovereignty, upon your acknowledgment that I am the Messiah, upon your submission to My Lordship) I will build My church.”
Lest we think the Lord Jesus is diverting from the kingdom to the church which He had come to build, I remind you that the word for church is the word “ecclesia” used in every Greek city to denote civil authority: it was represented by the ecclesia. So the Lord is saying to Simon Peter, “I have heard your confession and your convictions concerning Myself. Whenever I find a man making that confession, and absolutely assured in his heart that I am the Lord, upon that rock will I build My kingdom.” For two thousand years the Lord Jesus has been doing this in the lives of the people who have made that confession, who have settled the issue concerning the personality of Jesus Christ, and who have done something more: they have understood the implications of it.
To sum up, we are at this point: the Lord is asking for a verdict, and He is facing you now saying, “Whom do yousay that I am?” Have you settled this without any shadow of a doubt—that He is the Christ, the Son of the living God? Then He would say, as He said to Simon: “Blessed art thou!” This is not something that you have understood by intellectual attainment. You have come to see it because God has shone into your heart the reality of the Person and supremacy of Jesus Christ.
I imagine that thus far I have carried you all with me. But before I go further, I might lose some friends, and I may leave some behind. I trust not, for the fire burns in my soul, and I must deliver myself of what I believe has come from heaven.
Notice that immediately the Lord Jesus received this confession from Simon Peter, He began to do something He had never done before. Verse 31: “He began to teach them, that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And He spake that saying openly,” plainly—so that all could understand. For the first time in His ministry, having received the confession and conviction from His disciples as to Who He is, He then said some words concerning Himself which shook them to the core: He must suffer, He must be rejected, He must be killed, He must rise again, and (in the last verse of this same chapter), He must come again.
For the first time our Lord revealed to them not only His Person but His program for all His followers and His plan of salvation for the world. The Son of Man must—not because He is the victim of circumstances or because the powers of the enemy are too strong for Him—but mustsuffer and be rejected and be killed and rise again. He never speaks of the cross without the resurrection. He did not hope that one day He would get through, that one day there would be another life beyond the grave. He said the Son of Man must do these things and that He must rise again. This was a word of absolute authority, which Simon Peter, who didn’t understand it then, understood months later, for in preaching on the day of Pentecost said: “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken; and by wicked hands have crucified and slain” (Acts 2:23). It was all in the plan, thought out from before the foundation of the world. This was no emergency nor crisis in which God had to think up something new. It had been the plan in the heart of God from the very beginning.
Jesus used some words in these verses to which I ask you to look. He must “be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes:” the elders,that is the civic authority; the chief priests,the religious authority; the scribes,the moral authority. In every area, all of this great power is arrayed against our Saviour. This was a new idea to these men: they had never thought of it. From their knowledge of the Old Testament, they would know about a Messiah Who would come to set up a kingdom. They would also know about One Who would come and would suffer, but they had never connected the two as one person. The Lord had now convinced them that He is the Messiah, and now He must convince them that He is the One Who must suffer and be killed and must rise again.
Then dear old Peter, just look at him in Mark 8:32! I suppose to save the Lord from the humiliation of a public rebuke from His disciples, Peter out of charity called Jesus aside and spoke to Him, recorded in Matthew 16:22. Matthew tells us what Peter said to Jesus and Mark tells us what Jesus said to Peter. (Mark got his information from Peter, who was not ashamed to let Mark have the story of how the Lord rebuked him. But Matthew tells what Peter had to say to Jesus.) Peter heard Christ unveil the program and said to Him, “Be it far from Thee. Not that way! Not the way of the cross!” You notice that Jesus turned His back on Peter who had drawn Him aside, and faced all the other disciples, and rebuked him: “Get thee behind me, Satan: for thou savorest not the things that be of God, but the things that be of men.”
There is nothing the devil enjoys more than doing his work through Christian people. Here is Peter in a blaze of light concerning who Jesus is, but in absolute darkness concerning what Jesus is going to get done.In other words, concerning the Person, “Thou art the Christ!”; concerning the plan, “I don’t know a thing about it and I don’t want it that way. I would rather have it another way. I want to be prime minister in the kingdom, I don’t want the cross, the suffering and rejection. Lord, not that way; be it far from Thee.”
“Get thee behind Me, Satan.” Yes, Satan had said it personally to Him in the wilderness: “Take all these kingdoms without the cross! Just bow before me in a moment’s worship, and you can have them all!” And Jesus had said to him, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord they God.”
Now the same voice speaks, through one of His disciples and says, “Lord, take the kingdom but not that way!” And Jesus turned His back upon His disciple, faced the others, and said: “Get thee behind Me; thou savorest not the things that be of God but the things that be of men.”
Oh, that the Spirit of God might write this upon our hearts! I have spoken to you about the shifting sands of our theology today, of neo-orthodoxy and liberalism. But something that grieves my heart still more is, I think, a far greater menace to the cause of Christ today than anything on Earth. It is the tragedy of evangelicalism where so often we have the same clichés, the same formulas, the same methods as we had fifty years ago. I am well aware, of course, that the Word of God is absolute in its authority. But I want to say with deep conviction that one of the great problems is that there are so many of us who are right in regard to His Person, but we are wrong in regard to His program.I scarcely think there would be many but would look up into His face with me and say, “Lord Jesus, Thou are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” With all your heart you are sure Who Jesus is; but when it comes to the plan of action, we are living in a different world from the one of fifty years ago. We live in a world which has the most serious threat in all its history, and I believe the threat of Communism can only be met by men and women who are not only convinced of His Person, but who are submitted to His program.
Yet we say that the methods of fifty years ago will do. What is the matter with that formula of salvation? Teach some texts, get some truth into minds and heads, and then they’ll profess conversion. Give people the formula and they’ll be born again; use the same methods as we had in the beginning, now and ever! The next step to a rut is a grave! Unless fundamentalism has a revival it will be buried before we have a chance to recover, and there is no place we can have revival except where people are right in their appreciation of Who Jesus is. The only area in which God can work is where people are convinced that Jesus is the Christ, without any question.
But if we are wrong in relation to His plan, we savor not the things that be of God, but the things that be of men. What about our pious testimony, alongside our general behavior? What about the anonymous letters we write? They are full of the sting of the serpent. What about our lack of any sense of being in a spiritual warfare day and night, seven days a week? What about our comfort, our luxury, our indulgence? What about the way we can turn off the spiritual tap at the end of a meeting, and five minutes later play the fool? What about our behavior when we are off duty, on vacation, and not actually in the meeting or service? What about our carelessness? What about our lack of real travail in prayer? What about our lack of discipline?
I heard a remarkable reading given in our Senior High Department of what has happened in centuries gone by to saints who have stood for these very things, and what is happening today in Communism because of its discipline and authority. There are two alternatives now: either human nature will be submitted to the authority of Kruschchev or it will be submitted to the authority of God. There is no halfway ground. Man must live under authority, that is our very nature. One of the gravest perils to world history is on our very doorstep: one who knows perfectly well that he hasn’t got what the Christian church has, and who knows that the greatest menace to the spread of Communism is the Christian church when it lives in revival,—and that is the one thing he is afraid of. The one thing that can hold back the scourge of Communism is men and women who have submitted not only to the Person but to the plan of Jesus Christ, and have gone the way of the cross. I believe that God looks down upon much of evangelical life, and says: “Thou savorest not the things that be of God but the things that be of men,” with our light-hearted, superficial, casual, playing church instead of being in a desperate crusade for death or life.
Well, so what? You say. The Lord Jesus unveils to those men the program with which His followers have to be identified and then He calls them to discipleship (Mark 8:34–38). I read “whosoever” four times. It has struck deeply into my heart by the Spirit that I cannot shelter under the “whosoever” of John 3:16 but get out from the implications of Mark 8. I cannot say, “Whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life” unless I am prepared to get into this “whosoever” and be unashamed of Him in this day and generation.
What does Jesus say as He announces His program and calls to discipleship? “Whosoever—not a few but whosoever will come after Me (that is, be My followers), let him deny himself (that is, leave himself behind altogether, no consideration of self any more), and take up his cross, and follow Me.” What a procession of crosses! We cannot take up Jesus’ cross. He took it alone for my sin. He will not take up my cross. I have to take it, but He will give me strength to bear it. There is a cross in every one of our lives which involves the crucifixion of the flesh and the death of it all that we might follow after the Lord. In my mind, I see a great procession which has gone on for two thousand years, headed by the Lord Jesus carrying the cross of Calvary. Each one has left self behind, and on each one’s shoulder there is a cross which he is carrying, and the Lord is giving strength to bear it. What a procession!
You notice the two contrasting philosophies in Mark 8:35: “For whosoever shall save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.” Peter’s philosophy (and that so often of ourselves) was, save your life! But you’ll lose it, says Jesus. Jesus’ philosophy is, lose your life and then you’ll gain it. And you can’t have two. Cherish the material and the present and you’ll lose the future. Cherish the things that are eternal and you’ll forget about the present. “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” I can’t gain the whole world, nobody ever could; that is hypothesis. Even if I could gain a little or much of it and put it on the scale, the whole world is just like a little feather beside the weight of my soul which I have lost because I’ve lived for time instead of eternity. “What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” Of course, he can’t buy it back again. He has given it to time, to material things, to the present, and has lost out for all eternity.
Then He closes His word to the disciples, saying, “Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed when He cometh in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” Our present attitude to the Saviour decides His future attitude to us. Time simply runs into eternity. Now and then are both linked together. The one railroad track leads to a terminus. It will get there: it is a terminal; it is inevitable. No coward here will be crowned in heaven. No one who has not accepted the principle of His program will ever stand accepted before the Lord Jesus. It is so amazing that He isn’t ashamed of us, but it is even more amazing that I could ever be ashamed of Him.
May I ask you which of these ways of life is yours? Get this into your soul and let it burn in deeply: to be able to say, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” and to say it without any reservation at all; to be right about His Person is absolutely worthless for salvation if you are wrong about His plan. Then “thou savorest not the things that be of God, but the things that be of men.” I hope you see on the one hand the shifting sand of theology, and on the other hand the decadence around us which is right about Jesus but wrong about the program. O God, give us revival! Have you submitted to Christ, but rejected the plan of the cross? Have you turned your back upon self and left it behind, and are you dedicated, abandoned completely to His plan in your life? That is not popular. It takes a lot of people off the fence theologically (alas that some of them get off on the wrong side), but I’m happy that people cannot be left on the fence in face of what Jesus says today, “Whom say ye that I am?” God grant that you may be right about the Saviour. Yes, He is the Christ. And God grant that you may be right too about the plan, “Whosoever will come after Me, let him leave himself behind and take up his cross and follow Me.”