Throughout the gospels, we notice that there are times when Jesus is surrounded by crowds of people who either want His attention or whose attention Jesus wants to have. But there are other times when Jesus wants to avoid the crowds and be alone with just the 12 disciples because He wants to talk to them something that He doesn’t want anyone else to know just yet. It’s important for them to know, but it’s also important that everyone else not know, at least, not yet.
“They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, for He was teaching his disciples.” The 12 disciples would be the pillars of His New Testament Church in the same way that that the 12 sons of Jacob were the pillars of the Old Testament Church. When the time was right, they would be the ones responsible for getting the word about Jesus out and into the whole world. They would be the preachers, on whom all future preachers would base their sermons. They would be the evangelists who would build the one, holy, catholic and APOSTOLIC church, one baptism at a time, in a succession of baptisms that would continue long after they were gone.
There were certain things that these 12 needed to see, like His transfiguration, that no one else needed to see. There were certain things they needed to know beforehand that no one else needed to know beforehand. That Jesus would suffer, be crucified, die and be raised from the dead was at the top of that ‘need to know’ list. They were the ones who had to understand that was not a random act of violence in a fallen and sinful world, an unfortunate and sad situation that ruined the hopes of many. No, this was the intentional, purposeful, foreordained will of God for the redemption of the whole creation.
“They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And He did not want anyone to know, for He was teaching his disciples saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.’”
This is the second time that Jesus has spoken to His disciples about this.
The first time was while they were on the road to Caesarea Philippi. “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.” That was the time when Peter pulled Jesus aside and “rebuked him.” And Jesus rebuked Peter right back again, “Get behind me Satan, for you are not setting your mind on the things of God but on the things of man.” (Mark 8:31-33).
So this time, on the road to Galilee, when Jesus repeats the same message about His destiny, “they did not understand the saying and were afraid to ask.” The still don’t get it. But no one is going to ‘rebuke’ Him this time. At least they had learned something.
Jesus would repeat this same lesson with the disciples a third time before it actually happened. The third time, it would not be on the road to Caesarea Philippi or Galilee but on the road to Jerusalem. And still, they didn’t understand.
They didn’t understand when He was BETRAYED by Judas and handed over to the Temple guards. They didn’t understand when He was TRIED by the chief priests and the Sanhedrin. They didn’t understand when Pontius Pilate ordered Him flogged and then CRUCIFIED. They didn’t understand when He was hanging from the cross and breathed His last and DIED. And they didn’t understand when the women returned from the tomb and breathlessly gasped out their report that His body was not where it had been laid.
And they really didn’t understand when He walked right through the locked doors and stood in the midst of them and said, “Peace be with you.”
How could they understand? You and I wouldn’t have understood it either. I’m not sure that any of us really understand it still. Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” But ‘the way’ to ‘the life’ runs through the cross and no other way. And this we do not understand any more than the disciples did.
Like them, we find it incomprehensible if not just a bit embarrassing, that God could not have accomplished His purpose in another way than the way of the cross. We expect God to be God and God is glorious and almighty and in control. But in the cross, we see a God who is pathetic and weak and a prisoner of His own creation. And how are we to understand the fact that God has stamped His divine approval on the way of the cross by raising Jesus from the dead?
“They did not understand the saying and were afraid to ask.” “Afraid to ask” not because they were afraid of asking a silly question, but ‘afraid to ask’ because they were afraid of what this would mean for them. They had left everything to follow Jesus. Had they made a mistake? Was it all for nothing? What would become of them now? “They were afraid to ask.”
So what do you do when you don’t understand something and you’re afraid that if you do understand it you’ll wish you didn’t? You ignore it and change the subject. “And they came to Capernaum. And when He was in the house, he asked them, ‘What were you discussing on the way?’ But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.”
“They were afraid to ask,” but He wasn’t. ‘What were you discussing on the way?’ It was one of those ‘Garden of Eden’ questions that makes you realize there’s no hiding from God. “Adam, where are you?” “Who told you that you were naked?” Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent. The disciples ‘kept silent.’ They took the 5th. Anything you say can and will be used against you.
It would have been so much better if rather than keeping silent, they had confessed. But before you are ready to confess, you’ve got to understand what the cross of Christ is all about. You’ve got to understand that the way of the cross is the way of forgiveness and new beginnings and life from the dead. The guilt of mankind, from Adam to Eve to the disciples of Jesus to you and me was put on Him. And He went the way that the guilty go, on our behalf, in our place. The only innocent one became the only sinful one and all the sinful ones became innocent and holy and righteous before God, because Jesus went the way of the cross.
This is the sum and substance of everything that Jesus came into the world to do. Healing diseases, opening the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf, making the lame to walk, feeding the 5000, that was only the advance publicity before the main event. Everything centers on the cross of Christ crucified and apart from that, nothing really matters.
What if Christ had not been crucified? What if Judas had actually taken His place as the Muslims say? Or what if Joseph of Arimathea had taken His place as the Jehovah Witnesses say? Now there is a question that we should really be afraid to ask. If Christ is not crucified, we should all keep blaming each other and arguing over who is the greatest and confess nothing but remain silent before God.
“The disciples were arguing with one another about who was the greatest.” That’s a sure sign that they did not yet understand the significance of the cross and resurrection. “And James and John, the sons of Zebedee came to him and said… ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right and one at your left, in your glory.” “And when the 10 heard it they began to be indignant at James and John.” (Mark 10:37,41). Ever been in one of those arguments?
James asks, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?” Before you can take the 5th, James answers, “Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.”
When James says, “among YOU,” he’s talking about ‘you Christians,’ you brothers and sisters in Christ. He’s talking about fights and quarrels that go on in the church, in the congregation for power and position. Some of you know what James is talking about.
“And He sat down and called the 12. And said to them, ‘If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.’”
However the argument among the disciples went, you can be sure it wasn’t about who was the last and servant of all.
Remember how it went in the Upper Room before the Last Supper. There was no servant on duty, no one to wash their feet before dinner. Which one would be the “servant to all?” None of them. They didn’t understand. No, I take that back. There was one who was first and made Himself last and a servant to all.
They were so busy competing with one another that they all failed to recognize that the greatest among them was Jesus. He is “the first born of all creation.” And “He made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant and humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” (Phil.2:7)
He has come down from the right hand of the Father to be the ‘Divine Servant’ and wash not only their feet with water but to wash their whole life with His blood. He has come to serve the least and the lowest, the outcast and the sinner, even those who argue with one another over who is the greatest.
All of us are willing to serve someone that we acknowledge is greater than us. But how many of us willingly, eagerly extend ourselves to serve someone lower than us. “He took a child, a “paidos,” a toddler not yet able to walk, and put him in the midst of them and took him in his arms.” The Son of Man has made Himself this child’s servant.
Folks, this is what greatness in the Kingdom of God is all about. Greatness is what is bestowed on us, when through no merit or worthiness or greatness of our own, Jesus takes you in His arms. Those arms outstretched on the cross, reconciling the Father to you, wrapped around you, taking you into His death and resurrection and His glory.
Don’t worry that you don’t understand this. The toddler didn’t understand what Jesus was doing either. Just believe it. Jesus has wrapped His arms around you in your baptism most likely when you were just a toddler or younger. You are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven simply because you are in the blessed arms of Jesus.
And that sets you free from all of the competition and arguing and striving to be greater than those you work with or live with. The Son has set you free from all of that by giving you a greatness that this world does not understand. No more knocking yourself out to climb the ladder. You’re free to take the way of the cross and be the last and a servant of all.
When the day of Pentecost came, the Holy Spirit opened the mind of the disciples and they understood. The way of the cross set them free to do what Jesus has called them to do, to preach the gospel – the message that He had so carefully taught them. “The Son of God was delivered into the hands of men, was crucified, died, buried and on the third day, rose again from the dead just as He said.”
To the world, the way of the cross will always seem like foolishness. And the preachers and those who walk in the way of the cross will always seem like silly little children. But listen, ‘whoever receives one such child in my name receives Me. And whoever receives Me receives not Me but the one who sent me.” And it doesn’t get any greater than that.