The Things of God
The "things of God" is an important concept in this text. Jesus calls Peter "Satan" because he did not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men. So it's a big deal to know what the things of God are.
Many people latch on to the plain as day instructions at the end of this text believing them to be the things of God. Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus. These are the things of God. These are what Peter failed to embrace. These are the things that Peter said "never" to.
Sounds quite reasonable, doesn't it? The 3 commands deny, take up, and follow, are godly. They sound like a good plan for running one's life. There are dozens of books, and hundreds of devotions that use our text under themes like, "God's Plan for Your Life," "How to be a Christian," "Christian Living," or "How to Mind the Things of God." You go away from hearing or reading such devotions with the words, "Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me," ringing in your ears feeling these are the things God wants you focused on, and that you're more godly the more you do.
Well, they are godly, but are they the things of God that Jesus says Peter is not minding? They can't be. The threefold plan for Christian living, deny, take up, and follow are mentioned after Jesus says Peter is minding the things of men rather than the things of God. No, to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus can't be the things of God that Jesus says Peter isn't minding.
The fact is Peter always showed himself very mindful of Third Article Christianity, that is, of sanctification or holy living. Peter is one of the first to follow the not very popular Jesus. He is one of the first to give up his fishing trade, leave home and endure life with Jesus which was one with less than birds and foxes have. When the prospect of denying Jesus was first raised Peter boldly asserted he would never do that, and he went on to promise that he'd even die with Him. Peter loved Third Article Christianity. He wanted to do for Jesus; he believed he could do much for Jesus.
Of course, you know what happened to Peter, don't you? His dedication to sanctified living blew up repeatedly. He failed to deny himself and denied Jesus instead, not once but 3 times. When the prospect of the cross rose before him he fled from it even though it was only in the mouth of a young girl. And Peter was only able to follow Jesus so far. When Jesus took the path that led to salvation for the Gentiles, Peter at first said, "Never." Poor Peter he was never any good at holy living. He was never any good at Third Article Christianity because he failed to mind Second Article Christianity.
The things of God that Jesus said Peter was not minding all had to do with the Second Article of the Apostles Creed: Jesus suffering many things, being rejected by the Church, being killed, and being raised after 3 days. These are the things of God Peter didn't want to mind, didn't want to learn, didn't want to study, didn't want to know. Do you suppose you're any different? You're not. The reason you're drawn to "how to" Christianity is because you think you know the things of God already. "Yeah, yeah, Jesus suffered, was rejected, killed, and raised. Can we get on with what I'm suppose to do." People feel good about what they're suppose to do. That's why when the Pentecost crowd and the Philippian jailer first see their imminent damnation they cry out, "What shall we do?"
"What shall we do," is the cry of every human heart stricken by the Law. But "What shall we do?" is a cry focused on the things of men, so the commands, "Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me," are music to fallen human ears. That's why it's easy for pastors, devotion leaders, and devotionals to leave these 3 commands ringing in your ears. But dear friend these 3 things are really the things of men not God for they are what men do not what God does. When you focus on them you're focusing on men, not God, and you're no less Satanic then Peter was.
By not minding the things of God, that is, the suffering, rejection, killing and raising of Jesus, Peter was missing the second half of the Second Article of the Creed. Oh Peter had down the part about who Jesus was. He was the only Son of God the Father, the Lord, conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary. He was the Christ, the Messiah, promised from Eden on. Peter was great with who Jesus was, but he rejected what Jesus did. He rejected the second half of the Second Article; the part about Jesus suffering under Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead, and buried.
Peter acted like Jesus could be his Christ, his Messiah, his Savior just by telling him what to do. Don't believe me? Why else would Peter rebuke Jesus for saying He must suffer, be rejected, be killed, and be raised? You see? Peter didn't need Jesus to do that for him. How about you? Do you think you can get by with the 3 commands: deny, take up, and follow? Are those 3 commands the things of God for you? Is that enough of the things of God for you? "Just give me the Third Article of the Creed; that'll be enough."
Can you deny yourself enough to go to heaven? Can you say of yourself what Peter said of Jesus, "I know not the man!"? I'm not asking if you can deny something about yourself, your pride, your greed, your lust. I'm asking can you deny that which is you, the I that's so prominent in your thinking and speaking? Can that I be slapped, spit on, and mocked? Can that I not only not be thanked, appreciated, or recognized for what it does for others, but can that I be blamed and punished for what others do wrong? I can't. I complain when people slight me in the smallest ways. I don't deny myself. I take care of it, nurture it, feed it. But this self is dragging me all the way to hell for eternity, and I am helpless to stop it.
I need a Savior, a Messiah, a Christ who though He was equal to God did not claim that. Instead He denied not a sinful self, but a holy, pure divine self. He denied Himself, and claimed me and my sins instead. There Jesus stood surrounded by heaven's crown, God's holiness, God's power on one side and my sins, my shame, my guilt on the other. He pointed to the divine things and said, "Those aren't Mine," and He pointed to my failures, my guilts, my sins and said, "Those are Mine."
A thing of God that's important for me to mind is the fact that I've never denied myself enough to stand before God, but Jesus did. Moreover, He took upon Himself my failure to deny myself. And while I've never taken up a cross without groaning, complaining and setting it back down, Jesus took up His cross and carried it all the way to hell and death. But here's the rub; my sinful flesh will grab on to the cross of health problems, job problems, family problems sooner than it will the cross of Jesus. Don't believe me? Consider Peter. Peter rebuked Jesus for saying there would be a cross for Himself, but not when Jesus mentioned one for Peter. Jesus tells Peter in John 21 how Peter would die, and Peter didn't protest a bit.
We can feel noble, honorable, and downright Christian when we hear talk of the cross in our life. We don't mind minding it, but the cross of Jesus that's another story. That God the Son should suffer so helplessly, so bitterly, so gruesomely is horrid, wicked, and repulsive to sinful flesh, and so sinners turn away from it. But for sinners who've been shown that their own cross bearing is not enough to get them into heaven, not good enough to stand before God, and is one more source of sinful behavior in their lives, the cross of Jesus is a divine, holy, beautiful thing. Here's the answer to my incessant sinfulness. Here's the answer to the groan, "But I can't do anything right." The answer is the God-Man Jesus who denied Himself, took up His cross, and followed God perfectly.
When we talk about where we go, that is a thing of men. We don't mind thinking about, talking about, focusing on where we're going. We'll sit contemplating our savings, the prospect of sickness or health, our future, where God will take us, what paths He'll take us down. And this all feels very pious, very much of God, but it's not. It's really all of men, all of me, me, me. What is important to have in mind is not where or where not God may or may not be having you follow, but where Jesus went. Where Jesus went - through suffering, rejecting, killing and rising - these are the important things, these are the things of God. This is what is to be on our minds.
Friends, there is nothing wrong with sanctified, holy, Third Article Christian living, but it must come after the Second Article suffering, dying, and rising of Jesus. The things of men must follow after the things of God. But this is not natural for fallen men. We do what Peter did, mind the things of men rather than the things of God. We do that until we're convicted of the fact that all we can do is get ourselves damned. No matter how hard we try our denying, taking up and following is never good enough. The things of men can only damn us. We need the things of God - His suffering, being rejected, dying, and rising - to save us.
If we could leave here focused on the denying of self that Jesus did, the taking up of the cross that Jesus did, and the following of God's will that Jesus did, our life would be lost in His and therefore really found. But so many people latch on to their denying, their taking up the cross, and their following of Jesus as being the Gospel because these look so noble and shiny. The Gospel on the other hands is bloody and repulsive. It involves the necessity of Jesus suffering and dying because we're so disgusting and helpless. It's only when the Law leaves us convicted of the powerlessness of men and our things that the Gospel of what Jesus does shines salvation and certainty into our heart. Hear the echo of what Jesus did for you; become lost in His life, suffering and death and really live. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XVII (10-5-03); Mark 8:27-35