Unicorn Revelations


I know what a unicorn is. A one-horned, horse-like creature. Some think it’s legendary; others think it’s extinct. I know in theology it’s a symbol for the incarnation of God the Son and is depicted with the Virgin Mary in art. But only recently have I noticed it in sports. This was said of the Angel’s player who can hit and pitch: “’he's like baseball's version of a unicorn—a true two-way player’” (Tony Paul, Detroit News, 11-5-2017). What’s a unicorn in any sense have to do with our text? Three Gospels record the events of our text. They differ from each other. The Holy Spirit has preserved 3 unique revelations, unicorn revelations for our instruction, and comfort.

The first Unicorn Revelation is Matthew saying “Jesus began to show His disciples.” If you like sport’s movies, 1996’s Jerry Maguire about a sport’s agent is considered a standard. That movie popularized the phrase, “Show me the money!” And Matthew alone depicts Jesus as ‘showing” the disciples His upcoming suffering, dying, and rising. Mark says Jesus was “teaching” them.

It was not till I came here that I had people, especially college-aged, asking, “What does that look like?” They would ask this about theological points, Christian living, discipleship, marriage, etc. Matthew uses deikny? 3 times. The first is when the Devil took Jesus to a high mountain and ‘showed’ Him all the kingdoms of the world. You can picture that, right? In kaleidoscope fashion the rise and fall of nations passes before Jesus’ eyes. In our text, Jesus shows them, exposes to their eyes, paints them a picture of what it looks like for the Son of the Living God to suffer many things, be killed, and be raised. You should see the things of Lent: the trials, the beatings, the whippings, the spitting. Then finally see the nailing, crying, the teasing, and the flames of hell roasting Jesus. Then see Him die. And you should see Him rise, but that seems eclipsed in the disciples eyes. They looked at this showing of Jesus’ suffering and dying in 3-D till you can’t take it anymore. Least that’s what happened to Peter. He cries out to Jesus.

Not “mercy me” but “mercy to you”. Matthew, our unicorn, is the only one who records this strange outcry for “mercy”, but you can’t tell that from the insert’s “Never!.” What Peter really says to Jesus is “God be merciful to You.” The margin of the NASB, and the text of the Beck Bible and EHV have this. Translating, “Never” is taking the Greek word for mercy, ile?s, as a strong oath. But the Greek adjective ile?s comes from the root hilasmos. This family of words can be translated propitiation, to be propitiated, to be a propitiation. The insert agrees with other translations that Peter says the horrible things Jesus shows them won’t happen to Him. But there’s more in that little word ile?s that they’re missing.

Even when translating it ‘mercy’ a fine point is missing. A person has mercy for another because of their desperate, bad, or painful circumstances. A person who is propitiated has stopped being angry because his anger is satisfied. God doesn’t need to be propitiated in regard to His only beloved Son. He had no reason to be angry with Him. Jesus never sinned in thinking, doing, or speaking. There is no wrath revealed from heaven against Jesus. It was not like the 50s movies depicted. Every time Jesus took a step angels didn’t sing, harps didn’t play, but they could have. For us, however, it’s another story. Go back and read of the Flood or of the 2 falls of Jerusalem. That’s what it looks like for the wrath of God to be revealed from heaven against sinners such as us.

People say this or that will be the death of me. They can mean it literally: drugs, partying, will be the death of him. Or in frustration: This disobedient child, overbearing husband, nagging wife will be the death of me. This metaphorical meaning has been around since Shakespeare “Poor fellow, never joyed since the price of oats rose; it was the death of him” (Henry IV, Part 1, 2:1). Who says that in our text? Jesus. Only our unicorn Mathew records Jesus calling Peter “a skandalon of Me!” But this is more than “a stumbling block” as the insert translates. Though our English word ‘scandal” comes from this Greek word, it’s a watering down of the original. Skandalon is “the movable stick or trigger of a trap” (wwwblueletterbible.org/lexicon). EHV ‘snare’ is better, but misses the point that this is the Greek word for the spring that triggers the trap to kill the animal. Jesus says to Peter: “You’ll be the death of Me!”

No surprise then that Jesus calls Peter “Satan” not “satanic” not “like Satan” but “Satan”. And no wonder Jesus says, “Get behind Me, Satan!” You can’t trigger a death trap that’s behind you only the one in front of you. Still what strong words. The danger must be extreme, and Jesus explains how so: Peter is not minding the things of God but the things of mankind. Peter doesn’t know that Jesus doesn’t need God’s mercy, does not need to be propitiated in regard to Jesus, but He does in regard to Peter and all humanity. Propitiated means to appease someone’s wrath so they are no longer angry. So what humans need is a wrath-removing sacrifice. Look around you. Anybody here keeping the Law of God perfectly, even for a minute? No, we’re conceived in sin, so every move we make, every breath we take is awash in the stench of our sinfulness.

It’s cute when a child gets himself muddy or dirty to get his mom some flowers and stands before her getting her floor dirty with those miserable little flowers in hand. It’s not cute when adults stand before the holy God with their miserable little offerings of time, talent, and treasure besmeared with sin, lust, greed, unbelief, and pride. These wont remove God’s wrath. They enflame it. They stoke it. Even if any of us could die a thousand deaths it would not satisfy God’s wrath against human sinners. Not even His wrath against our own sins. Our death would be a guilty one and so we’d go to hell to keep on dying for our sins and sinfulness for eternity.

It’s the Devil; it’s Satan who doesn’t want the death of Jesus. Jesus death is the propitiation, the wrath removing sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. Satan would happily give you the whole world or any piece you want of it. You want popularity? It’s yours. You want to be a star or better still your kid one? That’s cake to him who is the Prince of this world. You want success, fortune, power? How easy that is for the one the Bible calls “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4). All Satan has to do is keep Jesus off that cross for sinners. Failing that, which Satan did, now it’s just keep the “for you” out of what Jesus did. Go ahead and think Jesus needs you to protect Him, suffer for Him, sacrifice for Him, not Him for you. Do all you want and can for Jesus, says Satan, just don’t let Him be your wrath removing sacrifice.

I found it! That was a 70s Campus Crusade for Christ thing. Some mainline churches responded with, “I never lost it.” The Lutheran emphasis was Jesus is the One who found us. We were in accord with “Chief of Sinners”, that 19th century hymn, which sings that Jesus “found me when I sought Him not.” Then enters Matthew our unicorn. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have the part about Jesus saying saving your life will ensure you lose it. But only Matthew records: “whoever loses it will find it.” Find is heurisk?. This word has come into English as ‘eureka’ which probably needs no defining. And it’s also the root of ‘heuristic’ which also needs no defining among techies. The unicorn part is not the part about where Jesus says, “lose your life for the sake of Me”. For the sake of Me is in all 3 Gospel accounts and it’s emphatic in all three. Neither is the unicorn in the person losing their psych? which is soul, life, self. All 3 words can be conveyed by the Greek word ‘psych? ‘and all 3 Gospels have it. The unicorn part is Jesus promise “you will find it.”

The 1929 book Magnificent Obsession was recommended to me, I think, by a social commentator. In it the devil-may-care playboy learns through a tragedy that while people are usually obsessed with self, the magnificent obsession is to be obsessed with others. It was written by a Congregational Minister, and it’s hard to tell if he has the character spouting bad theology or he really thinks that way. However, the central point that freedom from obsession with self is the ultimate relief is Paul’s cry “O wretched man that I am who set me free me from this body of death” (Rom. 7:24). Jesuit priests in a 70s book say they’ve noticed that whenever gloom and doom descend on them it’s always connected to a rising concern with self (Linn, D & M, Healing Life’s Hurts). Jesus would free us from self. Make no mistakes that’s what denying self is about. The cross we take up is not this or that burden we may have in life. No, It’s the cross where self is crucified even as Jesus was on His.

Here’s where it’s easy to get turned around. The crucifying of self is not something we do for Jesus. Remember that’s where Pete starts out: He’s going to save Jesus. Lossing self is something we get to do because as. Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). Again Paul write, “We know that our old self was crucified with Him so that the body of sin might be rendered powerless, that we should no longer be slaves to sin” (Rom 6:6). A Lutheran book quotes a 14th  century English mystic: The root of all sins, great and small, is self-love (Church from Age to Age, 396). Luther said “that he who is pleased with the things of himself is not pleased with the things of God” (Commentary on first 22 Psalms, 65). In this same work, he says confidence in self “is the only thing that opposes His mercy” (Ibid., 260-1). Finally, Luther says Jesus commanding love your neighbor as yourself does not “include a legitimate self-love but rather is meant to exclude it” (Peters, Ten Commandments, 85, emphasis added).

Heavy stuff. Swims against the tide of self-exaltation. That’s a unicorn for sure. But when talking unicorns you’re talking not just unique, but mystery, fantasy, more wonderful, better than life. It’s losing your life in Christ only to find something larger, better, grander. Give Kathy Mattea’s 1989 song “Come from the Heart” a listen. Forgetting one’s self, enables you to “love like you’ll never get hurt.” And “dance like nobody’s watching.” Imagine what that looks like in Christ. Amen

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20230910);  Matthew 16:21-26