Cling to the Future, Endure the Present

transfiguration-raphael.jpg

Soldiers, Students, and Sportsmen

As people, we are able to endure a great deal of discomfort, inconvenience, and even pain, if we’re properly incentivized. The more desirable the carrot at the end of the stick, the more we’ll suffer and tolerate in order to sink our teeth into it.

It’s the vision of the podium that pushes an athlete through rigorous training. It’s the framed degree hanging on the wall that propels a student back to his study. It’s the dream of peace that moves a soldier to leave her family and friends in deployment. While physical training, academic study, and military service are all difficult in the present, those involved in each activity are able to endure those hardships because of the hope of what lays in the future if they remain faithful.

And what’s true of soldiers, students, and sportsmen is also true of saints; of Christians. Some people we know and love have, in that past, thrown their hands up in the air and walked away, essentially claiming it’s not worth it. Some of you reading this may be on the brink of that same decision.

If that’s the case, I’m glad you’re reading because Mark is going to remind us that, while following Jesus is difficult in the present, disciples are encouraged by the hope of glory in the future. It’s the glory that awaits us that enables us to endure the sacrifices associated with faithfulness to Christ today.

Present hardships

Mark 8:27–38 highlights the present hardships; The difficult mission of Jesus and his disciples. This theme has run throughout Mark’s gospel but in this last section of chapter 8 Jesus becomes more explicit with this reality and more forceful with its assertion.

While travelling, Jesus asks the twelve what people are saying about him (v. 27). “What’s the gossip? What’s the word on the street? Are people getting it?” The disciples reveal that Jesus is getting mixed reviews (v. 28). Jesus then asks them the same question and Peter, speaking for the crew, answers: “You are the Christ” (vv. 29–30).

Now, we may read Peter’s confession and be tempted to pump our fists in celebration. “Nailed it, Peter!” But that would be because we, two thousand years after the resurrection and with the whole of Scripture in our laps, understand what the title “Christ” meant and means. Peter didn’t.

To Peter and the rest of the Twelve, Christ was the Greek word for the Hebrew, messiah, and meant simply, "anointed one." And, while in the OT, messiah was used to to broadly describe anyone anointed by God—priests, kings, and prophets—there was a growing anticipation for a great Anointed One. Fuelled by passages like Psalm 110 and Daniel 9, the anticipation grew for this Messiah, Anointed One, Christ who would come as a conquering King, a liberating figure, and a powerful revolutionary.

And that’s the picture Peter had in mind when he made his confession. But, we know, and as the Jesus is about to try and teach the twelve, that’s only part of the picture. Yes, he is coming as a conquering King and a powerful liberator, but that glorious end must come after a trek through humble sufferings and death.

Starting in verse 31, Jesus corrects and clarifies Peter’s confession.

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.

Let’s appreciate the contrast the Twelve were being presented with. To them, ‘Christ’ meant power, authority, and deliverance; to Jesus: suffering, rejection, and death.

In fact, the contrast was offensive enough that Peter was ashamed and takes Jesus aside and began to rebuke him (v. 32). “Don’t say things like that, Rabbi! Surely, what you’re saying isn’t true. That’s not the Christ, we’re expecting!”

I can almost picture the muscles in Jesus’ face tighten when, in verse 33, he turns from Peter, and looks back to the other eleven, wanting them to also hear this rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan!” Satan is the father of lies (John 8:44), and Jesus is suggesting that this deception to which the twelve have fallen prey finds its origin in the devil.

Jesus doubles-down: The Christ, will suffer, be rejected, and killed. He wants Peter to know it, he wants the eleven to know it, and, in verse 34, he wants the crowds to know it too. And, Jesus reveals that, not only is he going to suffer, but so will anyone who follows him:

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Is this the worlds worst recruitment pitch? If anyone is going to come after Jesus, following him, taking up his mission, there are two requirements. First, they must deny themselves, replacing one's own preferences and plans with God's priorities and program. Second, they must take up their cross, a public spectacle of humiliation, shame, and pain.

There is no subtlety in Jesus’ explanation of what following him entails. It requires everything. As the Son gave up his will for the Father’s, so the disciple will give up their will. Just as the Christ is going to be mistreated, rejected, and killed, so too will his followers must be prepared for the same.

Following Jesus isn’t like following someone on social media, where we’re free to take or leave their thoughts at our leisure. No, the call to follow Jesus faithfully is exhaustively demanding.

To follow Jesus faithfully is to give up our most cherished sins in favour of God’s call to holiness. It’s to be scolded by the world. It’s to be seen when necessary as a bigot, close-minded, anti-intellectual, old fashioned enemy of progress. It’s to offer up our reputations, our comfort, and our security remembering that, while on earth, Jesus had none of those things by worldly standards.

As 20th-century martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote: “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” And that’s exactly what Jesus is calling for here in this passage: The mission of Jesus and his disciples is that of hardship.

How on earth can we endure something like that? What could possibly motivate any of us to that level of sacrifice?

Future glory

Starting in verse 1 of chapter 9, the narrative shifts from the present to the future; from the sufferings of Jesus’ followers to the glorious consummation of the kingdom. The idea being that what is coming in the future for the faithful is more than enough to encourage us to endure the hardships of discipleship.

Chapter 9 opens with these prophetic words of Jesus:

“Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” (v. 1).

Jesus is pointing forward six days to the Transfiguration, where three of the disciples are given a sneak peak of the glory to come, the glory that can encourage cross-carrying, suffering disciples to keep going because of the hope it instills.

The disciples are no doubt discouraged and confused. The Christ they pictured has been blown up and now they’re being told to expect great hardship. Jesus then takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain. The text says that, once alone, Jesus was transfigured before their eyes; he was changed, transformed.

Paul uses this same word in a couple places:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will (Rom. 12:2).

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate a the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18).

In both instances, the Apostle is talking about sanctification—our progressive transformation into the likeness of God which, praise God, is our destiny!

Well, on that mountain, Jesus is instantly transformed into the image of God. It’s not progressive. He’s showing the disciples his true nature.

We just came through the Christmas season when we celebrate, as John puts it, the Word (Jesus) taking on flesh. And here, it’s as though Jesus pulls back that flesh for a moment and shows the three disciples his glory, his divinity, his perfection—what was before creation, what is, and what will one day be.

His cloths are whiter than anything Mark can describe and Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus. To Jewish eyes like those of the three dumb-struck disciples, this scene would have screamed prophecy fulfillment. Moses himself had said:

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him (Deut. 18:15).

And in Mark 9 we have Moses showing up and God, speaking from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him” (v. 7).

Elijah’s presence would have triggered hope as well as the Jews expected him as a forerunner of Christ.

See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes (Mal. 4:5).

This is why the people were quick to identify Jesus as Elijah (e.g., 8:28). It’s also why the three ask about him again coming down the hill (9:11–13).

I love Peter’s reaction in verses 5 and 6.

Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)

It shows his ignorance, but also his thoughtfulness. He does get the end-time message embedded in the appearance of Moses and Elijah because of his offer to build a few shelters or tabernacles. If the end was now here, he wanted to build some tabernacles for the ultimate Feast of Tabernacles celebration that was anticipated by Ezekiel and Zechariah.

And so, this scene has effectively united two expectations of Judaism: the coming of the end-time prophet who is like Moses and the appearing of Elijah at the dawning of the eschaton. Both expectations are being met by Jesus. In other words, the kingdom of God is near! Glory is at hand!

Future clinging, present endurance

Jesus had said to the crowds, if anyone comes after me, that is, identifies with me, follows me, they get it all. They get the suffering, the rejection, the ostracization, the loneliness, the hardship, but they also get the glorification, the rewards, the resurrection, the life eternal. The former gives birth to the latter.

People can endure great discomfort if properly incentivized. And here, God is reminding us disciples an amazing carrot at the end of the stick. Glory. Eternal life. Life without sin. And, as the people of God, if we develop and hold on to the eternal perspective that Scripture provides us with, with God’s help we can endure the difficult demands of discipleship.

May God help us be a people who Cling to the future to endure the present! We know, to varying degrees of the hardships associated with being disciples of Jesus Christ. And we know the potential hardships. The only way we faithfully endure, denying ourselves consistently, and taking up that shame-soaked cross in order to follow him with fidelity, is if we have our eyes locked on what lays ahead. Cling to the future to endure the present!