Looking Forward to Jesus’ Great Passion
During the holy Epiphany season, which ended this year on January 17th with the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, we specially marked the “manifestation” of the Lord Jesus as the “Light of the world,” the long-promised Savior. We beheld in spirit, through eyes of faith riveted upon the witness of His Word, “His glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). We recognized Him in the testimony of “Moses and the prophets” (Luke 16:29), all of whom wrote of this Messiah by inspiration of the Holy Ghost (Acts 10:43). We heard with our own ears, in the reading and proclamation of His Gospel, the voice of God the Father Himself declaring: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased! Hear ye him!” (Matthew 17:5; cf. II Peter 1:17-18).
Yes, we have been “trailing along behind” Jesus and His disciples during His ministry of manifestation, following Him in the Gospel lessons read each Sunday morning, becoming with those disciples “eyewitnesses of His majesty” (II Peter 1:16) as He demonstrated by means of His preaching and His miracles —“by many infallible proofs” (Acts 1:3) — that He “IS the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31), the long-promised Messiah, “God manifest in the flesh” (I Timothy 3:16). The claims of scoffers notwithstanding, we know what we have seen and heard! And we can confidently declare with Peter on the basis of all this ironclad evidence, as we cling to Jesus as our Refuge, our Fortress, and our Rock: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God!” (Matthew 16:16).
But the glory of Jesus’ Epiphany is dimmed, yea, over-shadowed, by a pall of anguish and abuse, of spiritual torment and physical torture, of bitter suffering and cruel death, as we follow Jesus “afar off” (Matthew 26:58) into the holy season of Lent. For suddenly we are plunged with Jesus’ disciples from the lofty “highs” of joy and exultation into a valley of disappointment, disbelief, and sadness, as this bright Morning Star enters upon His Great Passion, as He willingly lays down His life for the sins of the world! In our title-text, Jesus invites us, as it were, to accompany Him and His disciples on His last journey to Jerusalem to witness the sacrifice by which He accomplished our redemption and to appreciate the price whereby He purchased reconciliation with God for every soul of man.
We read two chapters earlier in Mark’s Gospel account (Mark 8:31ff.) that the year before He began His great passion, indeed just before His glorious transfiguration but immediately after Peter’s bold confession of Him, Jesus “began to teach [His disciples]” about His impending suffering and death. Up to that time, Jesus had been concentrating His efforts, as we just briefly reviewed above, upon proving Himself to be the Son of God manifest in the flesh. The emphasis of His message in both word and deed, in His preaching and in His miracles, was on His person, that is, on who He IS. And it had taken His disciples over a year of constant exposure to Jesus’ teaching to become convinced of that all-important fact, without which the sacrifice to come would have been meaningless, useless, and a symbol of failure: The suffering and death of a martyr to a lost cause! At least now, by God’s grace, “by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” (Romans 10:17), they were convinced that Jesus was indeed “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” as Peter testified of him; and they had “high hopes” for Him as the Messiah, who they thought (as did most of the Jews in their perverted notion of His mission) would drive out the Romans, restore the kingdom to Israel, and re-establish the throne of David in Jerusalem (Cf. Acts 1:6)!
But, as Jesus “began to teach them” (Mark 8:31), His message didn’t seem to fit their preconceived agenda. For “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 scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (v. 31). What a bombshell this was for them! It didn’t sound at all like the victorious reign they had imagined! Surely Jesus had some choice about going through all that —didn’t He?? Was there no alternative??
No, Jesus said: “The Son of Man MUST suffer.” He had willingly taken this obligation upon Himself before the foundation of the world already. For it was essential to God’s eternal decree of redemption, His “decision,” as it were, to save fallen mankind by the vicarious suffering and death of His only-begotten Son, a “plan” in which Jesus, as true God with the Father and the Holy Ghost, fully concurred! In order to satisfy God’s perfect justice, Jesus not only had to humble Himself to be “made under the Law” (Galatians 4:4) to fulfill its demands of righteousness and holiness with which sinners could never comply, but He also had to take upon Himself the guilt of every sinner and bear in His own innocent soul and body the punishment of the pains of hell which every sinner rightly deserved as “the wages of sin” (Romans 6:23). —Not only had this been prophesied of Him down through the whole Old Testament by “all the prophets” of God (Acts 10:43); but the sacrifice He was to render as the Substitute of sinners was necessary if man’s sins were to be paid for in full (Isaiah 53; cf. I John 2:2)!
The leaders of the people, who should have known better from the Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament, (and many of them did), would “reject” Jesus, deny Him as the Messiah, the Redeemer of Israel; and they would “kill” Him! This prospect was completely unthinkable to the disciples at this point in time and for many months to come, as they nurtured in their weak and trembling hearts a “denial syndrome” so overpowering that they forgot all about the last item on Jesus’ “checklist,” as it were, namely, that “after three days” He would “rise again,” “…delivered for [Gk. because of] our offenses and raised again for [Gk. because of] our justification” (Romans 4:25).
“And He spake that saying openly” (Mark 8:32), no longer in parables, in symbols, in veiled pictures, but clearly and plainly with no “sugar-coating” on it. “And Peter took Him and began to rebuke Him.” —Like many Christians, whom Peter would later on, in his second epistle, call “unlearned and unstable” because of their lack of understanding and their stubborn resistance to any growth in grace and knowledge, Peter had the “nerve” to argue with Jesus, to contradict Him, yea, even to “rebuke” Him! — Peter “meant well,” we might initially assume, because he didn’t want his dear Jesus to be humiliated and tortured and slain. But Peter was far off the track! In fact, his quick mouth was a potential source of offense to the others! And so, “when [Jesus] had turned about and looked on His disciples, He rebuked Peter, saying, ‘Get thee behind Me, Satan! For thou savorest not the things that be of God, but the things that be of men!’” (v. 33). In other words, Jesus told Peter that the devil was using him as his mouthpiece, taking advantage of Peter’s weakness and worldly-mindedness to lay a stumbling block in the path of his own Savior, to dissuade Him from the task that lay before Him (Matthew 16:22), to try to make Jesus give up the whole idea of laying down His life for the sins of the world! That was the devil’s agenda!!
But Jesus would not be sidetracked from the work that lay before Him, as gruesome and as horrible and as awesome-a-sacrifice as His “great passion” was to be! And thank God that he didn’t “throw in the towel” and take Peter’s suggestion of surrender! For you and I and all mankind would still be in our sins, under the curse of the Law, unreconciled enemies of God, and destined for hell!
Now, about a year later, as Jesus and His disciples were heading to Jerusalem for the last time and the hour of Jesus ultimate sacrifice was approaching, the Savior reminded them in the words of our title-text (Mark 10:33-34) of His previous instruction, saying: “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man shall be delivered unto the chief priests and unto the scribes; and they shall condemn Him and deliver Him to the Gentiles. And they shall mock Him, and shall scourge Him, and shall spit upon Him, and shall kill Him; and the third day He shall rise again.” This time there was no argument from Peter. However, Luke records a strange phenomenon that we do well yet to consider as we this Lenten season look forward to Jesus’ passion and follow along with Him and the disciples to Jerusalem.
Luke writes: “And they understood none of these things; and this saying was hid from them; neither knew they the things which were spoken” (Luke 18:34). Although they had learned most of the wonderful Messianic prophecies from their youth up (as have most of US — Cf. II Timothy 3:15), and had heard them clearly applied to JESUS in His very own words; and, although they had confessed Him to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16; John 6:69), it was as if they suddenly went blind to the real significance of all the prophecies; and they failed to see Jesus, their Redeemer, revealed in the words of Holy Scripture, as well as in His previous words to them in Mark 8!
Although the disciples’ blindness and dullness had not yet destroyed their faith, it had weakened them severely, so that “they understood none of these things.” They were literally teetering on the very brink of disaster, so that, even as Jesus was being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, “all the disciples,” the Bible tells us, “forsook Him and fled” (Matthew 26:56; Mark 14:50). In their weakness they could not bear to see their beloved Master so mistreated, abused, and tortured, even though Jesus had tried to prepare them and to strengthen them well ahead of time. In their blindness, they blocked out from their understanding, so that they could not see it in their mind’s eye, what Jesus was so clearly describing here in our title-text, speaking about Himself. Not only had the disciples failed to see Jesus as their suffering Redeemer and Savior in the prophecies of the Old Testament; they even looked away with revulsion from Jesus’ own prophecy of the very same things! For a scourged, mocked, crucified Substitute-for-sinners (as Isaiah had so clearly described Him in his 53rd chapter, and as David had written of Him in Psalm 22) was inconsistent in their blind thinking with the glorious earthly Messiah they had envisioned, their Savior from the Romans, their Meal-ticket through life, and the ready Healer of their bodies —even more valuable than a Physician of their souls!
And that blindness stuck with them even after Jesus’ mighty resurrection from the dead, when He called them “fools and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:25) —yea, to the very day of His ascension into heaven forty days later when they supposed He would at that time “restore again the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6) as some kind of temporal Messiah! Not until the Holy Spirit powerfully removed the stubborn spiritual cataracts from their eyes on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), did they truly understand the “plan of salvation” and its necessary cost to their Redeemer as “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2)! For it was “in Christ,” that is, for the sake of His vicarious satisfaction of divine justice, that “God reconcil[ed] the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them” (II Corinthians 5:19), the trespasses that He imputed to His sinless only-begotten Son in the place of sinful men (v. 21)!
We too, in all honesty and humility, must confess ourselves as well to be “fools” and often so “slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken.” For, due to the weakness of our old sinful flesh, we frequently find ourselves groping about in spiritual nearsightedness to understand things concerning our salvation, looking often in all the wrong places to find the sayings that seem to be hidden from our eyes, and, at the same time, reluctant to study, to search, to grow, and to abound in the priceless wisdom of God’s Word! Like so many who are spiritually blind to divine truths, we often imagine ourselves in our foolishness to be fully sighted in spiritual matters, adequately knowledgeable concerning the doctrines of Holy Scripture, and keen in our spiritual insight —so much so that we don’t need to grow! We often delude ourselves into thinking that we can be our own authority, our own guide, our own teacher. Yes, sinful pride is Satan’s tool, whereby he creates and nurtures just such attitudes in the heart of many a Christian! And the really sad thing about the blindness he creates is that it is so deceptive! “Wherefore,” writes Paul to the Corinthians (and also to us), “let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed, lest he fall!” (I Corinthians 10:12). The nearsighted person who rejects diagnosis and refuses to wear glasses thinks that he can see just fine! Not until he falls on his face does he recognize just how blind he has been! And for some, that knowledge comes too late or not at all; for Satan has already devoured them, and they are lost eternally!
Mark well how even the slightest degree of spiritual blindness can endanger our faith if left to grow like spreading cataracts to close out the precious light of God’s pure Word!! Let us, therefore, enabled by God’s Holy Spirit through His powerful Word, vigorously fight against any inclination on our own part to be complacent and indifferent about our growth in grace and Christian knowledge, lest by such despisal of the Means of Grace we, too, fall prey to even greater blindness, lose sight of our Redeemer altogether in the glorious prophecies of His Word, and have it one day written of us, as Luke wrote of the apostles: “They understood none of these things, …neither knew they the things which were spoken.”
And so, as the Savior comes to us this Lenten season and invites us: “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem” —to witness once again in the pages of His Holy Word what great things He has done for us and for our salvation— instead of despising the age-old Passion History, the summary of the Gospel accounts of His great sufferings, as something “we know already” (having heard it from our youth); instead of passing off special Lenten meditations, sermons, and services as so much “rehash” of “old material;” let us learn from our title-text to relish the Savior’s instruction and to pray as we hear and study and learn and grow in His grace: “Open Thou [our] eyes!” (Psalm 119:18); “Lord, increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5).
Lord, in loving contemplation
fix our hearts and eyes on Thee
till we taste Thy full salvation
and Thine unveiled glory see!
(TLH 155, 5)
— D. T. M.