Updated: Oct 6
Jesus never sugar-coated what it means to follow Him.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Mark 8:31-9:1
Mark has established Jesus as a man of great miracles and teachings, and here he pushes to the next step: Jesus is the Messiah from God. But the Messiah did not come (the first time) to rule the world in wealth on a throne; He came to suffer and die on a cross for that world. Peter didn't like it, but Jesus says it is the way all of His followers must orient their lives.
Oh -- and it's worth it.
If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.
Getting Started: Things to Think About
This Is Awkward
We have all said or done things that result in an awkward/tense/embarrassing situation. I do not recommend looking for stories about this on the internet because people say awful and inexcusable things, and that's not what I'm after for an icebreaking, light-hearted discussion. I'm thinking more like the "Wanna Get Away?" commercials from Southwest.
For this to get your brains on the right track, it needs to be a situation in which you had good intentions, you didn't think that something bad was going to happen, what you said either came out wrong, or you hadn't thought it through as well as you thought.
Have you ever said something that made a situation unintentionally awkward?
Forgetting a birthday
Accidentally hitting "Reply All"
Saying something to someone that you weren't supposed to know about
Running into somebody you had cancelled plans with
Ending a work call with "I love you"
Replying with an inappropriate "You, too"
Saying goodbye at a funeral with "See you next time"
Or, you might have examples of bad advice you've given. Or maybe there have been times you were flat out wrong. (Just remember that you would be sharing these in mixed company; don't make things unintentionally awkward by sharing your awkward story.)
But has anyone ever responded to you with something like "Your advice is from the devil"? (Well, and be right about that?) That's what happened to Peter in this week's passage.
Life's Extreme Ups and Downs
We talked about "Life is like a roller coaster" when we studied Elijah the prophet. A variation of that would be what happened to Peter: he said the best thing possible followed almost immediately by the worst thing possible. To appreciate what's happening in this week's passage, try to remember a time when you've done something similar. What was that emotional impact like? In married life, I have said some really good things followed by some really stupid things, and that left me disoriented and vulnerable.
Has there ever been a time you said the right thing followed almost immediately by the wrong thing? How did that make you feel about yourself?
I don't think we could ever truly understand what Peter felt on that day, but maybe we can develop some empathy.
Looking for Easy Street -- the Rise of Life Hacks
Don't work harder, work smarter, right? With the rise of social media, now your uncle can tell everyone (not just you) about how you can use the bottom of your ceramic mug to sharpen your scissors. Some of the "life hacks" out there are what we would hope for --
And some just aren't. "Lazy" doesn't always = "life hack".
What's your favorite clever way to save time or energy?
But follow that question up with something like this: What are those things you shouldn't try to cut corners on? (And by this I mean something more substantial than spending the extra money on Kraft Mac n Cheese.) Everybody has those things they're willing to save time/money on, and everybody has those things those don't think it's worth saving that time/money. What are those things for you?
And then transition this to Christianity:
What are "life hacks" you have applied to your Christian life?
Some of them are going to be good and helpful!
Let's be honest -- reading this post is a kind of hack. You're hoping to make your Bible study preparation more efficient.
Writing a verse of the week on your bathroom mirror using a dry erase marker.
Listening to an audio Bible during your commute.
Attaching a 4-in-1 highlighter to your Bible
And some of them aren't -- and you may have trouble admitting these to the group. What are the things you do in your Christian life that are just lazy? For me (and I've shared this before) it's sending a text when I know it would be better to call. What about you?
In this week's passage, Jesus tells us that we must be willing to deny ourselves and follow Him. To me, that does not sound like "What can I do to make the Christian life easier on myself?" Would you agree?
Where We Are in Mark
Mark brings all of his narrative threads together in a pair of truly brilliant chapters.
Setup in Chapter 6
"Feeding the 5,000" -- there is abundance in the kingdom of God
Jesus walks on water and heals many in Galilee
Pharisees challenge Jesus on "clean / unclean" -- Jesus calls them hypocrites
Jesus travels to Gentile territory and helps a Gentile woman
Jesus helps a Gentile man hear and speak clearly
"Feeding the 4,000" -- even in Gentile territory, there is the abundance of God
Jesus warns the disciples of the "yeast" of the Pharisees
Jesus helps a Jewish man see clearly
Peter calls Jesus the Messiah
Peter immediately proves he doesn't know what that means
Jesus explains "the way of the cross"
In a nutshell, Mark uses these events to explain:
Jesus came to serve Jew and Gentile
The abundance of God is enough for the whole world
Jesus came to help people "see" and "hear" clearly
And only then did Jesus begin to explain the truth about the Messiah
And Peter still didn't get it
This Week's Big Idea: The Prosperity Gospel Is on the Rise
In this week's passage, Jesus says that anyone who wants to follow Him must "deny themselves and take up their cross". It's pretty much the opposite of this thing called "The Prosperity Gospel" (which we talked about when we studied Philippians 4, Matthew 19, and a few other times). The Prosperity Gospel (according to Britannica(!)) is "the teaching that faith—expressed through positive thoughts, positive declarations, and donations to the church—draws health, wealth, and happiness into believers’ lives".
And this belief is on the rise in America.
A few months ago, Lifeway released a survey that was rather discouraging.
Here are a few excerpts:
[About "God wants me to prosper financially":] As more churchgoers affirm prosperity gospel beliefs, younger churchgoers – those 18-34 (63 percent) and 35-49 (66 percent) – are more likely than older churchgoers – those 50-64 (53 percent) and over 65 (31 percent) – to affirm their church teaches that if they give more money to the church and charities, God will bless them.
[About "If I give more money...":] Churchgoers without evangelical beliefs are more likely than those with such beliefs to say their church teaches that if they give more money, God will bless them (55 percent v. 48 percent). Denominationally, Methodist (85 percent) and Restorationist movement (71 percent) churchgoers are among the most likely to agree their church teaches God will bless them if they give more money.
[About: "I have to do something for God":] Of the three beliefs surveyed, churchgoers are least likely to believe they have to do something for God in order to receive material blessings from Him. Still, like the others, this belief is most prevalent among younger churchgoers. Those 18-34 (65 percent) and 35-49 (58 percent) are more likely than those 50-64 (43 percent) and over 65 (22 percent) to hold this belief.
If you tend to tune out my survey statistics, then just note that more than half of churches in America apparently teach that God will bless people the more money they give to charity.
If anyone in your group believes any form of the Prosperity Gospel, they certainly won't understand what Jesus teaches in this week's passage, so that's why I've made it my "Big Idea". You may not have to spend any time on this at all with your group.
Anyway, if this topic comes up, cut to the chase with a question like this: Why would a Christian want to believe that God wants them to prosper financially?
In some ways, people can look at it as the ultimate "Christian life hack" (which is why I used that topic above) --
just give some money to charity and God will bless me? sounds good!
give money to charity and God will bless me with more money in return? I'm in!
Here are two passages that help us keep perspective on things like "material blessing":
Matt 5:19 “Don’t store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. ... 24 “No one can serve two masters, since either he will hate one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. 25 Therefore I tell you: Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothing?"
Matt 19:21 “If you want to be perfect,” Jesus said to him, “go, sell your belongings and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard that, he went away grieving, because he had many possessions. 23 Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven."
I say this every time -- there's nothing wrong with having material wealth. But the question God asks you is the same that Jesus asked the rich man -- would you be willing to walk away from your wealth in order to follow Jesus? When the time comes to choose, would you choose God or your wealth?
The book that every Christian should read on the subject is The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We have a copy in our library. It's not a long book. The original is out of copyright, so you can also read the text online:
(warning, it's a plain text file)
Bonhoeffer boils it down to "cheap grace" vs. "costly grace": "'Cheap Grace' is grace without discipleship. 'Costly Grace' is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. It's costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life."
The "He Gets Us" group recently released a commercial with the tagline "Jesus was rich", and I think they got this right:
What are the "riches" we should be prioritizing as Christians? What is true wealth? Having a reasonable grasp on that subject will help everyone understand this week's passage a lot better.
[You may have to walk everybody back through "what are riches in heaven?"]
Part 1a: Peter Gets It Right (Mark 8:27-30)
27 Jesus went out with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the road he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 They answered him, “John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, one of the prophets.” 29 “But you,” he asked them, “who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he strictly warned them to tell no one about him.
It's worth the 30 seconds to read the verses right before this week's passage. Mark the author has very clearly established Jesus as a worker of miracles and great teachings, and He stands opposed to many things the Jewish religious leaders have taught. Now, Mark is ready to push this to the next level -- Jesus is indeed "The Messiah".
This is the first time Mark has used this word. (Note: Mark used the Greek word "Christ"/christos which is for the Hebrew "Messiah"/mashiah.) Mark's Roman audience wouldn't have known the Jewish traditions of "The Messiah", but they would have understood "Anointed One" as someone of note, someone sent by a very powerful person to accomplish an important mission. It is no accident that Mark immediately follows this week's passage with the story of "The Transfiguration" -- the two passages together paint a picture of "The Messiah" that even the most ignorant Gentile could roughly follow.
Part 1b: Peter Gets It Wrong (Mark 8:31-33)
31 Then he began to teach them that it was necessary for the Son of Man to suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, be killed, and rise after three days. 32 He spoke openly about this. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning around and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are not thinking about God’s concerns but human concerns.”
Let's call verse 31 "Messiah 101". ("Son of Man" is a title Jesus preferred over "Messiah"; why do you think that would be?) What does Jesus say about the Messiah in verse 31?
"It was necessary" suggests that what Jesus was saying was a proper understanding of Old Testament prophecy. Go and take a look at these passages:
Note that "the builders" must refer to the leaders of God's people (and in verse 31, we finally realize why Mark the author has been spending so much time with the various Jewish leading factions).
The Jewish leaders oppose the idea of a "suffering Messiah" so much that they are willing to kill Jesus. Why? (To help you think this through, divide it into two areas: what it says about the Jews' relationship with the world, and what it says about the Jewish leaders specifically.) For more, take a look at our study of Isaiah 53:
But let's not bury the lead -- who else opposes this idea of the "suffering Messiah"? Peter! The very person who identified Jesus as the Messiah! Why would Peter oppose this idea?
This is why I called attention to the Prosperity Gospel above. Depending on the life stage of your group, you can illustrate this for them by offering them a choice like these:
You can have a job that pays you extremely well, gives you lots of time off, has very low expectations and stress, and lets you retire very early.
You can have a job that underpays, comes with long hours, lots of stress, difficult circumstances, and you will work in it till you die.
Of course, feel free to insert any joke about your current job. But I hope you can see where I'm going with this. After everybody clearly understands the illustration, swap it to Christianity.
Do you want an easy Christianity?
Do you want a hard Christianity?
Is it any wonder that the Prosperity Gospel appeals to so many? Don't worry! We're going to talk about the extreme flaw in that false dichotomy in just a few verses.
Anyway, let's circle back around: Peter wanted a crown, but he didn't want a cross.
Jesus calls this a teaching of "Satan". And yes, that calls to mind one of the temptations of Satan that Matthew reported but Mark didn't:
3:8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 And he said to him, “I will give you all these things if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus told him, “Go away, Satan! For it is written: Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
What exactly about what Peter said makes Jesus compare it to a temptation by Satan?
Perhaps we can think of this in the phrase of surprising truthsayer Albert King, "Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die." And then remember that Jesus was fully human in every way.
But Jesus never gave into temptation. The way of the cross is Jesus' way.
There's another first here -- this is the first time (in Mark's Gospel) that Jesus talks about rising from the dead. Remember that Jesus' audience (including the disciples) wouldn't have had a strong grasp about what happens after you die or the possibility of a future physical resurrection of the dead. This is all probably kind of spooky to them.
Part 2: Jesus' Way Must Be Our Way (Mark 8:34-38)
34 Calling the crowd along with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me and the gospel will save it. 36 For what does it benefit someone to gain the whole world and yet lose his life? 37 What can anyone give in exchange for his life? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
[I can't help but note the almost-humorous nature of verse 34. Jesus and His disciples basically had no privacy. If you have younger kids (or dogs, like we do) you have an idea what this is like.]
So Jesus immediately makes this a teaching moment. If Peter feels this way, you know that a lot of other people do too. It's time to call out this false belief for what it is: a lie of Satan.
It's no accident that the first time Mark the author mentions "Christ"/"Messiah", it's immediately followed by the first time he mentions the cross. As Christians, we know what it means, so we have step back narratively. Imagine you're reading a nice story about what seems to be a nice person, and then all of a sudden he says that people are coming to hang him. !!! It's jarring. It's disturbing. It's upsetting.
Every one of Mark's readers knew exactly what "the cross" meant.
"Taking up the cross" only leads to one destination.
We're going to call this a "hard teaching", and it roughly parallels what John the author reported in John 6 -- there, he follows "the feeding of the 5,000" with Jesus' teaching about "I am the bread of life" with "unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man..." There, John the author reports how the disciples responded:
6:66 From that moment many of his disciples turned back and no longer accompanied him. 67 So Jesus said to the Twelve, “You don’t want to go away too, do you?” 68 Simon Peter answered, “Lord, to whom will we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Again, Peter leads the way with the correct answer, but you can tell he is confused and conflicted. He doesn't understand what Jesus came to do.
If the people in your group have studied any of the Gospels before with you, then they know what these verses mean. They just may not like them.
The word for "life" is sometimes translated "soul" -- Jesus has two meanings in mind.
Our temporal, physical life -- who we are "now" and what we do "now".
Our eternal, spiritual life -- what our souls will be for eternity.
Remember -- Jesus has only just first introduced this idea of rising from the dead. Many of Mark's Roman audience would have been some kind of hedonist -- someone who believes that when you die, you die, that there's nothing else. Jesus has to correct those false beliefs before the weight of His words will really sink in.
I've seen people use a line to try to illustrate this:
If you believe that the arrows represent your birth and death, then the dot is "today", and whatever happens, you'll wake up tomorrow and the dot will shift a little. Might as well enjoy today as best you can, right?
But what if the line has no end? Then the dot represents your entire lifespan, and it's infinitesimally small. Would you rationally throw away your entire future for an infinitesimally small moment of "enjoyment"? Jesus is introducing the idea to His audience that death is not the end. And further, that what we do in our mortal life affects what happens in our life after death. And ultimately, we can choose to "live our best life now", or we can choose "the best eternal life" (but more on this below).
This would have been mind-blowing to His audience. Think about it -- they either believed:
When I die, as a child of Abraham, I'm automatically going to "heaven" -or-
When I die, there's nothing
Jesus is obliterating both beliefs. Again, that probably isn't news to you, but try to put yourself into the shoes of Mark's original audience.
[And no, I really don't understand where the Prosperity Gospel gets it. Jesus tells us that we can choose between the easy path and the hard path. In fact, we studied that...
According to verse 38, our choice is whether or not we are "ashamed" of Jesus and His teachings. What does it mean to be ashamed of Jesus? On the one hand, this is a reference to His crucifixion -- people didn't like to be associated with some who suffered such a shameful death. But I certainly think there's more to it than that -- how can we act ashamed of Jesus and His teachings today?
[Big aside: does this mean that if we reject some of Jesus' teachings, like on marriage for example, that He will condemn us to hell? The direct answer is, of course, "no". "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved." And that's that. But Jesus is talking about something deeper -- why might you have rejected Jesus' teachings on marriage, and might that point to a much more fundamental question about what you believe about Jesus in the first place? It is difficult for me to understand how someone can truly say "I believe Jesus is the Son of God" and also "I disagree with something Jesus taught". The best I can do is assume that the person has misunderstood something Jesus taught, or is coming to understand and believe it.]
Finally, let's camp out on the rest of verse 38. What does the second half of the verse establish? There's a lot of big, big, mind-blowing truths in there.
Aside -- our best life *is* living for Jesus, right?
I hope that someone in your group will say something like, "But wait -- I feel like living for Jesus is the very best life I could be living!"
Gold star to that person!
So, go to the white board and call out for answers: what makes the Christian life the very best life we could be ever live?
Just remember -- you've already experienced the abundant life of salvation. The people Jesus was talking to in our passage didn't know anything about it, so He started with what they would have assumed. And let's be honest, it's probably easier to process "eternity in hell is bad" than "a life of sacrificial love is rewarding".
Finally, remember this helpful video:
Aside to the Aside: how do you "deny yourself"?
There's a necessary question you need to ask yourself -- in what ways are you "denying yourself" and "taking up your cross" as a Christian?
Then take that mental list and ask how "impressed" you are by your own list.
Accepting that God will never be "impressed" by anyone's list (and that's not the point anyway), ask yourself what are ways you could/should be denying yourself. Being a disciple of Jesus means we should be striving to live more and more like Jesus -- and this week's passage is the starkest, bluntest description of what that means.
Part 3: Think Beyond the Grave (Mark 9:1)
1 Then he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God come in power.”
You'll notice that most Bibles group 9:1 with chapter 8. This is one of those times when the chapter divisions (added centuries after the Bible was written) aren't helpful. Jesus said this verse to encourage the people who were probably still reeling from what He had just said. "Don't worry -- when the kingdom of God comes, it will come in power!"
The reason the "Bible scribes" started a new chapter here is they believed Jesus was referring to the Transfiguration (9:2-8), and so do I. And I think Peter did, too, which is why he probably encouraged Mark to report the Transfiguration right where he did.
But we have to acknowledge that it's a bit ambiguous, and thus there have been plenty of arguments about what Jesus is talking about in verse 1. What exactly is "the kingdom of God" or "power"? The skeptics say that Jesus mistakenly thought He would be returning in the lifetime of the disciples. And as we studied in 2 Thessalonians, there was a movement among Christians that Jesus was coming back "any day now", so why work? (That belief is a non-starter, so throw that out. Jesus was never mistaken about anything.) Others say Jesus was talking about His resurrection. Others say Pentecost.
I believe that Peter (and thus Mark) thought this was a reference to the Transfiguration. Think about what we just said, and then read it:
2 After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain by themselves to be alone. He was transfigured in front of them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling—extremely white as no launderer on earth could whiten them. 4 Elijah appeared to them with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. 5 Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it’s good for us to be here. Let’s set up three shelters: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”— 6 because he did not know what to say, since they were terrified. 7 A cloud appeared, overshadowing them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him!”
That was power. I believe Jesus invited Peter to be a part of that experience precisely so Peter would not mistake "the Messiah suffering" for "the Messiah being weak".
Do you want to be for or against that Jesus?
Go back to the list you wrote down about "life with Jesus" as a group. Next to it, I want you to call out for "ways the Christian life can be hard". Then, write down "the kingdom of God" and "the power of God" and ask "How do these two things affect the list we wrote about the Christian life?" Or maybe How do these two things help us deal with the hard parts of the Christian life?
Jesus never sugar-coated what it means to follow Him. It is hard. If it's not hard, then we have to ask if we're doing it right.
But it's worth it -- now and for eternity.