Tasting Death?

“And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” (Mark 9:1, NRSV)

“Then he drove it home by saying, “This isn’t pie in the sky by and by. Some of you who are standing here are going to see it happen, see the kingdom of God arrive in full force.” (The Message)

Here’s what Kent Brower says in his commentary on Mark (“Parousia” refers to Jesus’ return or second coming):

“In isolation, this statement seems to suggest that Jesus’ mission leads to the glorious appearance of the vindicated Son of Man. Through his coming, God’s rule will come in power within the lifetime of some of Jesus’ original audience.

“But if this refers to the Parousia, the prophecy fails: the Son of Man did not come before the death of some of Jesus’ listeners.

“Many scholarly proposals have been offered, including seeing it as predicting the resurrection, the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the recognition that the kingdom has arrived in Jesus’ life and ministry, the miraculous growth of the church, the transfiguration, or the crucifixion. Each of these proposed alternatives has strengths and weaknesses. The preferred solution should be the one that makes the best sense of the saying in its narrative context.” (Mark: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition, p. 237-8.)

These are all valid ideas and legitimate conclusions, certainly, but let’s set the stage for what is going on before reaching conclusions about Jesus’ prophecy.

After a long, 25-mile journey to Caesarea Philippi from Bethsaida, and even impatience and an acted-out parable on Jesus’ part because the disciples are just not getting the big picture, Jesus steers the conversation toward the Messiah.

It was evident from the conversation, though, that there was some confusion about Jesus’ identity, so Jesus asked, “But who do you say that I am?”

Peter responded, “You are the Messiah.” Here, with the backdrop of Rome and Greece at Caesarea Philippi and their glorious pantheon of gods, a simple wandering rabbi and tradesman is revealed to be Israel’s Messiah. And when Peter names him as Messiah, Peter believes he’s the one who will unseat Rome and all of the other pagan influences that have corrupted Israel for so long.

But Jesus, in fact, turns things upside down, and talks about how he must suffer instead. Many believed, based on Daniel’s vision (Daniel 7:13), that the “Son of Man” would make things right. Now, Jesus doesn’t deny his coming kingdom; the kingdom is coming, and Jesus will make things right, and fulfill Daniel’s vision, but it’s just not in any kind of way that disciples or Israel expect!

Here’s what Jesus does say about the Messiah, from the end of Mark 8:

“…the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

And this – if you want to actually follow this Messiah who just ends up getting himself killed:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

He makes the same point three different ways: We must die to ourselves in order to have true life in God.

In the eyes of those with power, those who have indeed gained the whole world, and those who have first saved their lives, it is shameful – like carrying a Roman cross and being crucified for all to see. Not only is there physical pain and anguish, but there’s pain and anguish in the embarrassment of it! There’s shame, pain, and anguish on multiple levels. You have to deny everything that the world puts in front of you that distracts you from God and focus on Jesus first and foremost, pushing everything else away.

Pause and ask yourself: What are those things in your life, and are you willing to risk putting those things aside, even to the point of carrying humiliation like God carrying a cross to death, to follow Jesus? Jesus casts aside the temptation of Satan in the desert and the temptation of Peter, his new accuser in this chapter, to have a worldly, militaristic, and powerful kingdom, in favor of his true Godly kingdom: an upside-down power that comes in the form of humility, meekness, and selfless love.

And what about tasting death?

At first glance, it does look like a potential failed prophecy of Jesus if we think it refers to his second coming, as Brower discusses. But looking at the context of the verse, we can see that there’s more going on.

Consider that the Pharisees earlier in this chapter asked for a sign, and Jesus responded, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.” He unloads on the disciples in the boat when they are not getting it. And he talks about death on a cross to the crowds, and says to them, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Perhaps, on a different level than all the other ideas – Parousia, resurrection, Pentecost, fall of Jerusalem, Jesus’ life and ministry, the church, transfiguration, and crucifixion – Jesus is implying that it will take an incredible miracle or sign, maybe one of the above events, before some people get the point about the kingdom of God, Jesus’ identity, and dying to one’s self. After all, one of the themes of Mark up to this point, and highlighted in this chapter, is people not seeing and understanding clearly the first time around. On the other side of the coin, however, is judgment: if it takes a sign like the Pharisees are asking for and depending on the motives, the consequences may be more dire than we expect.

As I close this post and as you consider these ideas, I encourage you to watch the following clip about Jesus and Barabbas. We watched it this past Sunday in the church community I am a part of. Jesus carried his cross and tasted death for each one of us because of his unconditional love and grace, even if we don’t deserve it or don’t even want to pick up our crosses in response to Jesus.

But if we are going to truly call ourselves his disciples, understanding the point of God’s kingdom and Jesus as Messiah, then we must be willing to do the same. When we taste the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ and follow in it, we find life and we find God’s kingdom in all of its power and full force.

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