Who Do You Say That I Am?

Sermon preached on Mark 8:11-38 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 7/14/2019 in Novato, CA.

Sermon manuscript

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Mark 8:11-38

“Who Do You Say That I Am?”

“Who do men say that I am?”  That’s the crucial question placed in the center of the book of Mark.  It’s the crucial question in the center of today’s passage.  It’s the central question for all humanity.  It’s the central question for each of us today.  Who do you say that Jesus is? Jesus’ identity is critical for each of us to answer.  Who is Jesus? That’s the question we see Jesus’ disciples learning about in this chapter.  It will be our question to consider again today as well.

Let’s begin in our first point by considering the account of Jesus healing a blind man in verses 22-26.  That might seem like a strange place to start when talking about the disciples understanding of Jesus, but hopefully my reason for starting here will become clear in a moment.  You see, this is a rather strange miracle, at least compared to how Jesus normally healed people.  Not only is it a bit strange that he chooses to use spit in the healing, but what is far more strange is that it takes two attempts by Jesus to heal the man.  After Jesus’ first application of spit on the man’s eyes, he only experiences a partial healing.  It’s not until a second application of spit that he begins to see clearly.  Why did it take Jesus two times to restore this man’s sight? Surely it was not from a lack of power or ability by Jesus.  We are also not told that the blind man was lacking in faith.  So then, why did Jesus heal him with two takes?  I think the safe answer is that Jesus must have meant to do it in two takes.  It was God’s plan to have this particular miracle take the two applications of Jesus’ spit and hands.

That might seem to just further push back the question, because then we’d ask why would he want it to take two takes?  But that’s where the context sheds a lot of light.  If this strange healing was recorded in isolation apart from this context in Mark, I would remain baffled by it.  But where it’s placed in Mark is so fitting.  Essentially, this miracle serves to illustrate what’s going on with the disciples.  Up until this miracle, Jesus disciples suffered from spiritual dullness.  They were spiritually blind and deaf.  We see Jesus point this out to them in verse 18.  The Old Testament prophets such as Jeremiah (5:21), Ezekiel (12:2), and Isaiah (6:9) spoke of such spiritual dullness as being a common problem among man.  But when Jesus confronts them on their lack of spiritual understanding, he’s rebuking them because they should have understood by then.  Notice in verse 19 that Jesus refers back to two separate miracles that they witnessed. Jesus refers to the miraculous feeding of the five thousand and then of the four thousand.  After seeing these miracles, the disciples should have had a better understanding of who Jesus is.

Actually, those two miraculous feedings that Jesus mentions are just part of a longer string of parallel events that Jesus did with his disciples.  One set of events is found in chapters 6-7.  The other set is found in this chapter, chapter 8.  Both parallel set of events start with a miraculous feeding.  Both sets end in the same way, with a healing of someone’s physical senses followed by a confession of Jesus.  In the first set of events, it’s Jesus healing a deaf man and then the people proclaim, “He has done all things well. He makes both the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”  And at the end of the second set of events, there’s this blind man healed and then that’s when the disciples will finally confess, “You are the Christ”.  Both parallel set of events also include the disciples traveling on a boat with Jesus where we find them misunderstanding Jesus.  Both sets of events also include a confrontation with the Pharisees.  The similarities of these two parallel sets of events go on and on.  

What’s the point?  The point is that how Jesus took two takes to heal this blind man is a picture of what the disciples had to do before they could begin to see clearly, spiritually speaking.  Jesus had to take them down twice through a series of events that was supposed to teach them about his true identity as the Christ.  After the first set of events in chapters 6-7 they had begun to understand, but not yet clearly.  That’s what we saw in verses 13-21 of this chapter – that Jesus had to rebuke them for how they had not yet come into the understanding that they should have had.  So, Jesus had to finish his teaching with them before they finally “got it”.

Notice how Jesus homes in on their problem in verses 18-21.  When he rebukes them for missing the point about the miraculous feedings, he asks them if they saw, heard, and remembered about those feedings.  He asked them questions about those two events and showed that they did remember.  They remembered how many baskets of leftovers were there after each miracle.  They remembered just fine. Their memory wasn’t the problem.  It was their “understanding” that was the problem – verse 21.  Spiritually they needed Jesus to open their spiritual eyes and ears.  Yet, as the two parallel set of events shows, that is exactly what Jesus came to do for his disciples.  What the disciples needed, is also what all of us needs today. We need Jesus to give us spiritual eyes and ears.  Remember, what Jesus would often say after teaching in a parable, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”  We need Jesus to give us such ears, because the natural man in his fallen state is spiritually deaf.

Yet, in this chapter we learn an important truth about how Jesus opens us eyes, ears, and minds.  Often, it happens gradually over time and through repeated lessons.  Yes, like Jesus shows with most of his miracles, God can instantly bring spiritual clarity to someone.  Yet, what goes on here with the disciples reflects what seems to be far more common.  That our discipleship might begin with an initial calling to follow Jesus, but real growth and spiritual understanding takes time.  This blind man’s healing is an illustration of what was going on with the disciples.  And the disciples are an illustration of what is so typical for us today as disciples of Christ.

So then, let’s turn now to our second point and briefly consider this grand confession that the disciples finally get to it verses 27-30.  When Jesus asks them who they say that he is, they correctly and wonderfully answer that he is the Christ.  In other words, he’s the long-awaited Messiah that God promised to send his people.  God had repeatedly promised to send a Messiah who would bring salvation and deliverance to his people.  At this point, the disciples finally knew the right answer.  Hopefully prophecy was their guide, as we can think about a passage such as Isaiah 35 that prophesied the coming day of salvation when the eyes of the blind would be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.  Jesus literally accomplished that before the disciples’ very eyes.  Now they had begun to connect the dots.  Now they could say clearly and definitively the Jesus was the Christ.

Notice some of the wrong answers held by others that the disciples also report.  In verses 27-28, Jesus first gets them to report on what others think of him.  It’s not a bad list, even if wrong. Jesus wasn’t just another prophet.  Nor was he even John the Baptist or Elijah back from the dead.  Those are wonderful thoughts, but they don’t go far enough in identifying who Jesus really is.  So too, today, we are reminded of why this is such an important question.  Today, there are people who will say lots of favorable things about Jesus.  They’ll say things like he was a great teacher.  They might quote some of his parables or the golden rule.  But if that’s all they’ll say about him, that’s not enough.  Jesus was and is more than just a prophet or teacher.  He is the Messiah King, the Son of the Living God, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, Savior of the World, with all that entails.

We might also note here that Jesus’ disciples didn’t tell Jesus all the answers about who people say that he is.  Surely this was out of respect for Jesus. We can remember that many of the religious leaders thought of Jesus far worse.  Jesus was called a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Luke 7:34).  Such people wouldn’t even recognize Jesus as a prophet but openly called him a sinner (John 9:24).  So too, today, there are so many that openly disdain Jesus.  I fear that our culture is moving more and more into this position, as those who openly criticize Jesus and call his teachings evil.  So, this call again comes today with renewed importance. Who do you say that Jesus is?

Well, even if we get the answer right with the disciples, we see that we can’t stop there.  If we declare that Jesus is the Christ, we must not stop at that mere identification of Jesus.  This leads us to our third and final point for today, to see how the disciples still had a lack of understanding about Jesus, even after they had come to such a wonderful conclusion that he was the Christ.  I direct you then to verses 31-38.

Here we find that the very same disciple, Peter, who had spoken up that Jesus was the Christ, is the very same one who turns right around and tries to rebuke Jesus.  Notice why Peter does this.  It’s because that after the disciples understand that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus goes on to teach them what all this would entail.  In other words, Jesus clarifies that for him to be the Christ means that first he will have to be rejected, suffer, and die.  But he also teaches them about the resurrection.  Notice that verse 32 says that Jesus said this plainly; in other words, he wasn’t teaching them in a parable.  He told it to them with clear and literal language.  This obviously was not what the disciples were expecting from the Messiah.  That’s why Peter rebuked Jesus for this.  It seems most people just assumed the Messiah would come in grand and glorious victory over all the enemies of God’s people.  That’s the kind of savior and deliverer they were expecting when the Messiah came.  Jesus is describing a different plan here when he speaks of a messiah that would first suffer.

Of course, we know even more clearly now why Jesus had to suffer like this.  It’s because as Messiah he knew that the biggest enemy to God’s people wasn’t the Romans or any other political foe.  It was and is our own sin.  Jesus allowed himself to be rejected by the religious leaders and killed on the cross in order to pour out his life as an offering for our sin.  In the atonement of the cross, Jesus made the way for forgiveness and grace for all who receive it in faith.  This is at the heart of Christianity.  We are saved not by works but by grace.  We receive this salvation through faith – that we trust in Christ to save us and not in our own efforts to save us.  And it’s the cross of Jesus Christ where he secured this ability to forgive sins. The disciples had not yet understood this aspect of the Messiah.  Yes, they had come to know that Jesus was the Messiah. But they hadn’t fully understood yet all the work of the Messiah. True, one day the Messiah would come in outward glory and victory and put a final end to all his and our enemies.  In fact, Jesus says this in verse 38. But first the Messiah would have to undergo a ministry of suffering.

This explains then Jesus’ call to discipleship in verses 34-37.  There Jesus calls his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him.  In other words, Jesus tells his disciples that to follow him will involve, for now, identifying with those very messianic sufferings that they just heard about it.  Jesus literally says that discipleship will be a death march.  But then he immediately explains why that is preferable.  Verse 35, “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”  Discipleship, for now, will mean sharing in the sufferings of Christ. But even if we should physically die for following Christ, that would be okay.  Because to follow Christ, to be his disciple, means we will have an eternal and blessed life in the resurrection.  The alternative would be to suffer the eternal punishment of hell.  Try to save your life here and now by avoiding the reproach-bringing-name of Christ, and you will ultimately lose your life in eternity.

This was obviously hard for the disciples to understand and accept at first.  They had finally come the conclusion that Jesus was the Christ, and here he is destroying all their preconceived notions about what that meant.  They thought the Messiah’s coming meant immediate glory.  They thought being a disciple of the Christ would mean great privilege and blessing.  True, in the long term that is certainly the case.  But Jesus says first his mission of Messiah has a phase of suffering.  He says that first phase of suffering is something his disciples will share in.  This was something his disciples weren’t expecting to hear.  They at this point had a lack of understanding about this aspect of the Messiah.  

But I am pleased to report that they eventually came to not only understand but embrace this truth.  All these disciples, save the betrayer Judas Iscariot, would come to know the sufferings of Christ.  And I love how specifically we find Peter teaching on this in 1 Peter 4.  Peter, who here at first so opposed the way of the cross, would later commend it to the church.  1 Peter 4:12-13, the Apostle Peter writes, “Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.”  Here, the illustration of the blind man again applies.  When Peter first confessed Jesus was the Christ, he had only begun to see partially about who Jesus is.  He immediately turned around to show that he didn’t yet see fully when he initially rejected the way of the cross for Christ.  But by Jesus’ continued ministry in Peter’s life, his spiritual eyes were completely opened.  Peter and the disciples came to fully embrace the complete identity of the Messiah, and to commend this to all who would follow Christ.

My friends, I wanted to bring today’s passage on this church open house Sunday because I think it is so programmatic for what we do as a church.  In our church here in Novato, we are serious about discipleship.  We believe Jesus says that being a follower of him especially involves being a student of him.  It involves learning more and more about who Jesus is and what he came to do for us.  It involves learning about what that will mean for our own lives here and now, and into eternity.  Our church here, Trinity Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is a venue for such discipleship as we look to teach and preach Jesus Christ and everything that is in the Bible.

But what we see here about discipleship is that it is progressive.  Learning about who Jesus is involves growing in increasing degrees of understanding.  While we see today the necessity for God to open our spiritual senses, we realize how often that happens gradually over time.  While we see the need for Jesus to give us spiritual eyes to see and ears to hear and minds to understand, we recognize that he works over time in our lives.  Typically, there is not a way to rush this.  It’s like with a tree.  Yes, you can put on fertilizer, you can even grow it in a greenhouse to maximize growing conditions, but even then, it will still take time.

That means for all of us, whether someone is still figuring out the basics of who Christ is, or someone has been a Christian for years, we all still need to be growing.  We are never to stop being disciples.  And the place Jesus has given for that discipleship to happen is the church.  Church is where God ordained for this discipleship to happen.  Not out on Mt. Tam or at Point Reyes.  Not on your own in some personal quest for spiritual enlightenment.  But church is the venue that God commands for us for our discipleship.  Let us all be renewed again today in the importance of church as a place for growing in our knowing of Jesus.  That is what we are about here at Trinity: serious discipleship in Christ.  If you are here today as a regular church attender, praise the Lord and keep it up!  If you are here today and aren’t a regular church attender, I urge you to change that practice.  If not here, then find a solid church somewhere whose teaching is founded on the Word of God.  

I leave us then with the last verse in our passage – verse 38.  Jesus is coming again.  May we all be prepared for that glorious return of Christ so that it would be for each of us a day of great joy and blessing.  Amen.

Copyright © 2019 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.