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Point of No Return

February 18 2024

Book: Luke

In 1519, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés landed in Mexico with a small army to conquer the Aztec Empire. To prevent his men from retreating and ensure their commitment to the fight, he ordered his ships burned, leaving his men with no choice but to conquer or die. It was a point of no return.

We are in the middle of Luke chapter 9, which is the turning point of the Gospel. Jesus is about to have a conversation with his disciples. This conversation is the turning point also in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. This is the moment when Jesus begins His journey towards the cross. This was His point of no return.

18 Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him. And he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?”

I don’t want to brush past the fact that Jesus was praying when He decided to ask this question. So much of the ministry of Jesus was bathed in prayer, which is an example to us.

Now, consider the question. Who do the crowds say that I am? Jesus knows the answer already, so this is a teaching moment for the disciples. We might ask ourselves the same question. What do the people outside the church say about Jesus?

The question assumes we are listening… that we care… what do our neighbors think about Jesus? Our coworkers? Our classmates? We should want to know the answer to that question.

Local demographics tell us how our neighbors see Jesus: only 29% of our neighbors strongly agree with this statement: “Jesus actually rose from the dead as the Bible taches.” Only 23% of our neighbors strongly agree with this statement: “Jesus is the only way for human salvation from sin.” Did you know that? Does it surprise you?

19 And they answered, “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.”

In other words, the crowds had no idea who Jesus really is. They were confused. They thought Jesus was some sort of reincarnation of another important man.

20 Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.”

Bingo. Peter gets it right. Jesus is the Christ. He is the Promised Messiah. And I would expect Jesus to congratulate Peter. Good job! Great answer! But Peter didn’t win any prizes. Instead, Jesus rebukes them!

21 And he strictly charged and commanded them to tell this to no one,

In English is says “strictly charged” but everywhere else in Luke the word is “rebuked”! They give the right answer, but Jesus rebukes them. Why? Jesus commanded them to tell no one,

22 saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

You have to understand how shocked and confused the disciples must have been when Jesus said these words. It’s a prophecy about Himself. And it’s a prophecy that seems to contradict everything they expected from the Messiah.

This is why Jesus rebuked them and commanded them not to tell anyone He is the Christ. It’s because they get the right answer, but they don’t know what it means.

Jesus says to them – “I’m who you think I am, but I’m not who you think I am.” You understand the job title, but not the job description. I’m the Christ, but you don’t know what that means for me. You also don’t know what that means for you! This is a point of no return!

23 And he said to all, (not just the twelve) “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.

This is another one of those slam on the brakes, wheel screeching moments. This is the first time the word “cross” is used in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus will say the same thing again in chapter 14. And the last time the word “cross” is used will be at the crucifixion of Jesus in chapter 23.

Crucifixion was the most brutal form of public execution in use at the time. To put this in perspective, consider the excitement among the disciples when Peter suggests that Jesus is the Christ. Could it be?! Is Jesus really the Christ of God?! Our Savior has come at last?!

And then Jesus immediately bursts that bubble! I’m going to suffer and die and if you follow me, you will need to suffer and die every day. There is no other way to understand these words. Shocking. Pain in your belly shocking.

And then Jesus offers three justifications for this shocking revelation and one promise.

24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.

This first statement is a mind-numbing paradox. If you want to live, you’ll have to die… it’s an argument that doesn’t make much sense at this point. But the key words are “for my sake”. A life lost for the sake of Jesus is not lost.

25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?

Jesus presents us with a dilemma here – a choice. If I choose the world, I lose myself. And so, I must give up or let go of the world to keep myself.

This question reminds me of the creature Gollum in Lord of the Rings. In his final moments, he wins the fight with Frodo, biting the One Ring off his finger, but plunges to his death at the bottom of the volcano. While falling, he cradles the ring and then dies trying to hold it out of the lava while he sank.

That’s the grim picture that Jesus begs his disciples to consider. What’s the point? Why try to keep this world and lose yourself in the process?

26 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

In this final plea, Jesus cuts straight to their deepest thoughts and feelings. He knows that his people are judging him for these words. They don’t understand.

In fact, it’s Peter who made the profession of faith. But it was also Peter who seemed most ashamed of Jesus’ response! In Matthew’s account of this conversation, Peter takes Jesus aside to privately rebuke him! And it’s the exact same word in Greek we talked about earlier!

“Stop all this talk about crosses and dying, Jesus! You’re going to scare everyone away!” And Jesus responded to Peter by saying, “Get behind me, Satan!”

The command, “Get Behind Me!” is a military command, it means fall in line. Know your place. Stay in your lane.

And that fits with what Jesus says here in Luke – remember who I am. I’m coming back in glory! And I’m coming with the kingdom of God:

27 But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.”

He finishes at least with a positive, encouraging promise. In the end, there’s good news. But let’s back up and consider this more closely. What is Jesus asking us to do?

Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow me.

Deny yourself. What does that mean?

Is it like being on a diet and choosing not to eat a bowl of ice cream? Is that what Jesus wants us to do? Have better willpower against sin? Deny your desires?

It’s actually deeper than that. He doesn’t just say deny sin. He says deny yourself.

Jesus is going to use the exact same word when he later tells Peter that he will DENY Jesus three times. Peter is going to turn from Jesus and run. This is the same man that claimed Jesus was the Messiah.

The good news is Jesus forgave Peter. And Peter was restored. But that event tells us something about the word deny. Jesus wants us to turn and run from ourselves.

Why? Because sin is not “out there”. Sin is “in here”. It lives in our hearts. The Devil doesn’t make us do it. We don’t get to blame our circumstances. We don’t get to blame our friends. We don’t get to blame our childhood.

Sin isn’t just the bad stuff we do. Sin is a condition. Sometimes is looks like self-gratification. Sometimes it looks like self-sufficiency. But the key word is SELF.

Being humbled is being brought to the end of yourself and the beginning of Jesus. Deny yourself.

What about “Take up your cross?”

A cross to us is an important symbol of our faith, but a cross to a 1st century Jew was pain and death. Everyone had seen people carrying a cross.

It wasn’t a noble thing. It was a shameful thing. It meant you were a criminal… or an enemy of the state.

This was a great way to test the resolve of the disciples. Even if Jesus meant this as a metaphor, it was shocking. But many of these men would literally die on a cross for their faith.

What was Jesus saying? What does He mean by taking up our cross?

I believe that taking up our cross is turning from the world to follow Jesus and that very often it is going to feel like a painful, shameful walk.

The world has no love for the kingdom of God. It will not honor those who reject selfish ambition for the cross. The world will reject us. It will try to destroy us. But according to Jesus, only in this kind of death will we find life.

Jesus wants us to experience life in the kingdom of God. But there’s only one way. Take up your cross.

Finally, what exactly does Jesus mean when He says, “Follow me.”

In part, it means this: “Don’t get ahead of Jesus.” Behind Jesus is the only safe place to be.

Jesus, as our leader, had to go before us. He must always go first.

Harriet Tubman, the conductor of the underground railroad, led hundreds of slaves to freedom. But they had to follow her. She knew the landscape, the waterways, and the escape routes. They did not. They were at the mercy of her leadership. Trusting her led to freedom.

And that’s what it means to follow Jesus. We trust Him to lead the way to salvation. We don’t make our own way. He doesn’t point us in the right direction and say “good luck”. We follow Him from beginning to end.

Luke is setting the stage for the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus will be the first to deny Himself. He will be the first to carry his cross. And then, He would be the first to rise from the dead.

Following Jesus is simply falling in line behind Him. Trusting Him. Trusting His provision. His plans. His providence.

We begin to trust our Savior with everything. We surrender our lives to Him. And this is the key point. It often feels like death… before it feels like life.