No Christ Without the Cross
by Robby Higginbottom
And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.
And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.”
Peter and his friends longed for the kingdom of God. The Jewish people had been sitting in silence for hundreds of years, waiting for the Lord to speak a decisive word and fulfill His promises. They had endured centuries of being on the wrong side of foreign occupations. They were eagerly awaiting a kingdom of love, joy, peace, and righteousness. They were ready for vengeance and victory, for the year of the Lord’s favor and all that it would mean. The only problem? They wanted the kingdom so badly that their vision of what it was and how it would come had been distorted. This becomes clear in Mark 8 as Jesus talks with His disciples in Caesarea Philippi.
Jesus knows the lofty expectations; He hears the buzzing crowds. So walking through a regional hub of idolatry, Jesus asks His closest friends, “Who do people that I am?” The disciples quickly parrot the popular answers. But what other people say about Jesus is never enough, so He digs deeper. “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answers, “You are the Christ.” The Christ…the Messiah…the KING. Peter expects a coronation, but he gets a gag order. The disciples expect a great fight, but Jesus taps into their great fear. Jesus is the Christ, and He is ushering in the kingdom, but it’s nothing like they expected. They don’t have a category for a king who would “suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). [NOTE: The end of that verse has a very happy ending, but the beginning was so jarring that the disciples apparently missed it.] Peter then takes the Christ aside and rebukes Him, because apparently Peter’s vision of the kingdom is more important than the King’s.
We long for the kingdom of God. I don’t just mean people in churches. Everybody longs for the kingdom of God. When relationships are fractured, we long for the love and restoration of the kingdom. When violence destroys a community, we long for the peace of the kingdom. When another election cycle comes around, we long for the righteous rule of the kingdom. When a pandemic races around the world, we long for the healing of the kingdom. When we’re crushed beneath the weight of life, we long for the joy of the kingdom. When anything is not the way it’s supposed to be, we long for the shalom of the kingdom. The only problem? We want the kingdom so badly that our vision has been distorted. As sparks fly upward, we want the kingdom without the King. But there is no kingdom without the Christ, and there is no Christ without the cross. This theological statement is intensely practical. We can ask ourselves, “What aspects of the kingdom are we pursuing without the King?” “Why do we want the perks of the kingdom more than the Person of the King?”
For centuries, Christian churches have been built in the shape of a cross. Cruciform sanctuaries are a visible reminder that at the center of our worship is a King who was crucified. I imagine church leaders and architects never wanted us to forget the message of the cross, the wisdom of God which is always foolishness to the world (1 Corinthians 1:18). The cross is the ultimate symbol of an upside-down kingdom where death is the way to life and losing our lives is the way to gaining them. Even though Jesus has set the pattern of death and resurrection for all of His followers, we still dream of wearing the crown without bearing the cross. Many of our problems flow from this cross-less distortion of Christianity. We simply don’t want our lives to be cruciform.
This is not an easy message to hear. It wasn’t easy for Peter nearly two thousand years ago. It’s not easy for us in 2021. But how did God show His love for us? While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). The way of the kingdom is the way of the cross, and Jesus invites anyone who would come after Him to follow Him on the road to Calvary. As strange as it sounds, this is the Life that ushered in the kingdom, and this is the life that unites us with Christ in His death and resurrection. We can’t preach to ourselves enough: it’s in losing that we win; it’s in humbling ourselves that we are exalted; it’s in dying that we rise. If we want to extend the transforming presence of the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, we don’t need a lot of the stuff we often prioritize. We need the Spirit to strengthen us to deny ourselves, to take up our cross, and to follow Jesus in His life of costly love. Then people might see that the King and His kingdom are more beautiful than they ever imagined.