English service on March 15, 2020
Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison
“Setting His Face to Jerusalem”
As we move steadily through the season of Lent and toward Easter, today we encounter Jesus as He moves step by step closer to the cross and resurrection. Here He tells His followers that He is going to be killed, then return to life. Many Bible teachers think this happened about six months before His death and resurrection. Luke 9:51 tells us he “steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem” (King James Version). He knows the cross is waiting for Him there, but He actively approaches it rather than running from it. It seems He is preparing not only Himself but also His disciples for the shock and the great changes that will come to them when these things happen.
One of the very practical reasons God gives us stories like this in the Bible is to help us, likewise, as followers of Christ to be ready for the difficult times that are coming in our lives. Of course, the Lord speaks through these stories to tell us who Christ is and what His life, death, and resurrection mean. That has great meaning in itself for the whole world, aside from our own personal lives. But, as the trouble we are facing with the Coronavirus reminds us, we each face the reality that, sooner or later, our lives in this world will come to an end. Our lives are all fragile. None of them will last forever in this world. In fact, our faith teaches us that each day is a gift. We must not take it for granted but live with an attitude of thanksgiving for it. God teaches us not to waste even one of them but make them all count. He wants to help us use them all for His Kingdom, for things that really count according to Kingdom values.
None of this is news to us as Christians, is it. We know it in our heads if we have learned God’s word, the Bible. But we as humans have a way of forgetting heavy, uncomfortable things like these and avoiding thinking of matters such as the reality of death. Still, when things like viruses or illnesses or other dangers enter our lives, we have to face up to them. If we will, there is a possibility that this can show us in a very direct way the meaning and value of our faith in Christ. Facing suffering and death can serve to make it real to us.
In Matthew, Jesus first tells His disciples in chapter 16 that He is going to die and come to life again (today’s passage). But then He comes back and says basically the same thing two more times (17:22-23 and 20:17-19). Why would He do that? There are probably various reasons. For one, Jesus—as the master teacher—knows the value of repetition. He also knows that these particular students may not get that much of His teaching the first time. They need a lot of patient repeating of what He wants them to get the most.
But there seems to be another thing, and it’s in the number three. Three shows up again and again in the Bible—467 times, in fact. It often is a symbol of something that relates to God (as against only human), and it shows completeness, perfection, or harmony. Don’t misunderstand—I am not saying there are things like magic numbers or secret codes in the Bible. But God does make this world in an orderly, logical way in many senses, and He for whatever reasons chooses to speak at times in the Bible in patterns that include numbers. For example, God exists as the Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The Lord does some of His key work in the Old Testament through three family heads: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Inside Jesus’ circle of disciples, there seems to have been a sort of leadership team of Peter, James, and John, whose names the gospel writers focus on in particular. Of course, Jesus rose from the dead on the third day.
In John 21:15-17, Jesus tells Peter three times words like “Feed my sheep,” and they no doubt remind Peter painfully of the three times he denied that he knew Jesus soon before Christ’s death. This is an instance of God or someone speaking for God saying the same thing three times, especially for emphasis. He does this at points in stories. He calls the boy Samuel during the night three times as a way of choosing him to be a prophet of Israel (I Samuel 3). Later, Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane prays to God three times soon before being arrested (Matthew 26). In the prophet Isaiah’s vision (Isaiah 6), the seraphim when they look on God do not just say, “Holy.” They say, “Holy, holy holy. . . .”
God seems to be doing something like this when Jesus on three separate occasions makes a point of telling His disciples that He will be killed and then raised to life by God. He wants them to know that this is God’s work. The Bible writers, inspired by the Holy Spirit, want us to understand that Jesus did not just die on the cross because of some terrible accident or combination of mistakes or something. His coming to life was not just a beautiful, imaginative story. The whole event of Christ’s death and return to life was God’s carrying out His carefully-made plan, set from long, long before in His heart, mind, and will. It was at the very center of why He sent Jesus into this world to live as a human in the first place. It was God’s work.
And it was a complete work, providing fully and perfectly for the salvation of human beings. When Christ died on the cross and declared, “It is finished” (John 19:30), He was talking especially about the work of making possible the salvation of all who accept that gift by faith. He opened the way for the world’s people to be forgiven of our sins, washed, and made right with God through the sacrifice of Jesus’ life on the cross. He overcame sin through that, once and for all, completely. And through coming to life again, He defeated death totally and finally. In that way, He made it possible for us to live with a solid hope of eternal life after our bodies die someday. And He calls us to believe this message and place our trust in Him for our lives and our deaths.
When you really believe that, it changes your life radically. What does it do to you? For one thing, it frees you from the fear that life in this world is all there is, that our lives are small and short and have little meaning. It gives you a great hope, a tremendously broad view of the world, based on the idea that there is nothing that God cannot do. It leads you to raise your eyes to things far greater than how high a salary you get, how many accomplishments you have, what people think about you, how good or bad your looks are, and so on—things of this world, not of God.
Our hope is ultimately not in how many years we hang on to our youth and health. Unless Christ returns first, 100% of us are going to lose them all, the Bible says. It’s only a question of how soon. So if these things are all you care about, and you lose your youth and health anyway, you can finish your life with a great sense of emptiness. You may feel that you wanted to save your life but lost it (v. 25).
The sincere belief that, as one pastor says it, “My sins are forgiven, I have a purpose for livin’, and I’m on my way to heaven,” makes everything different. Our dreams are strikingly grand ones—including life with God forever in heaven—far beyond the trivial things in our daily lives. The Catholic Christian missionary Francis Xavier is quoted is saying, “Tell the students to give up their small ambitions and come eastward to preach the gospel of Christ.” He challenged people to join with God in the work of spreading the gospel of Christ around the world rather than spending our lives pursuing things like ease, comfort, and possessions. The Bible’s message of the cross and resurrection lifts our vision higher in a similar way. He calls us to set our hearts and minds on God Himself and the life in heaven He has for us. God teaches us to help bring His kingdom into our cultures, families, workplaces, and individual lives.
We’re seeing examples of this in the way some of our Christian brothers and sisters in China are reacting to the challenge of the Coronavirus. For instance, one group called WorldHelp has teams of Chinese pastors working with partners from outside China. They give face masks and food to people, many of whom are at risk of getting the Coronavirus and cannot easily get out of their homes to go shopping. Of course, doing this puts them in contact with many people, which means their chances of getting the virus go up. “They are risking their lives to provide aid to those in need,” one of their leaders said. “Our partners are being as safe as possible, they’re taking every precaution they can, but they feel this is a calling and a time to step up. . . . These pastors are choosing to go out into their communities out of love for the people and as a practical way to spread the Gospel.” That radical kind of service in Christ’s name is possible because it rests on the solid foundation of faith that our health and all parts of life in this world are in God’s hands. He is powerful to save and protect His people, and when it is time for us to meet death, we have a home forever with Him in Heaven, a far better place.
That’s one way to react to the reality of suffering and death. It makes us ask ourselves as Christ-followers in Japan, How are we reacting to the challenges to our health and safety that we now face? Are we responding in the kind of faith to which Christ is calling us at this time?
A famous psychiatrist named Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote about five ways people often react to a major loss (of someone they deeply love, for example). She said that people often go through stages of grief: (1) denial, (2) anger, (3) depression, (4) bargaining, and (5) acceptance. There may be no particular order for these, and the person suffering loss may have to go back again and again to some of these stages before accepting the loss.
Christ’s disciples are beginning that process in some ways as they begin to get the idea that Jesus, the person they have made the focus of their lives and called their Master, says he is going to die. In the beginning, when Peter hears about his Lord’s coming death, he denies it by saying (v. 22), “Never, Lord! This will never happen to you!” There seems to be a tone of anger in his voice, as Matthew says (v. 22), “Peter took Jesus to one side and began to scold him.” Matthew tells us (17:23) that “. . . The disciples were filled with deep sadness.” Sadness isn’t the same as depression, but they of course overlap a lot. It takes Peter and the others a long time to get to acceptance.
When they do, it happens only through a long, painful struggle, and the “normal” life they return to is not the same one they had before. The struggle has changed them. By the grace of God, it has deepened them and taught them that He is there with them, struggling together and strengthening them so that they can keep taking the next step and the next step until their journey is complete. They are learning that He is a reliable guide to their journey through “the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4, King James Version). When they finally come to see the deep meaning of the death of Christ, they can accept it because it is the only road to the resurrection. And they find that this greatest gift of all—the miracle of eternal life—is there not only for Christ but through Him also for them and the people He sends them to tell this good news and every person who will receive it. So in the end, the news of Jesus’ death is good news, but it cannot become that without His and His disciples’ facing the reality of loss and struggling in faith through the cycle of grief.
We are going through hard times now in some important ways, aren’t we. But the good news I celebrate with you again today is that we do not walk this path alone. God is with us—through His word, through His presence in each of our hearts, and through this family of faith, as we support and encourage each other along the way. Christ has gone ahead of us and opened the way to life. To follow Him there, we have to say no to ourselves and pick up our crosses and carry them. If we refuse to walk the difficult road with Him and try to save the lives we have now, we will only lose them. But if we place our lives in His hands and in that way “lose” them, we will in a much greater way, “find” them (Matthew 16:25). Amen. That’s good news. Holding it in our hearts and minds, let’s pray to the Lord.
Lord over life and death, thank you for loving us enough to tell us the hard truths of living in this world, as Christ told His disciples of His coming death. And thank you even more for walking step by step with us as we go through each day, with whatever sorrows and joys it may bring. Help us to hold on tightly to your hand as we move through our daily lives, even when the road leads us to suffering, loss, and death. Enable us to do that, knowing that on the other side is life eternal and unending joy. Teach us to walk by faith, we pray again today, in Christ’s name. Amen.
Bolinger, H. (October 3, 2019). What does the number 3 signify in the Bible? Crosswalk.com. Retrieved March 6, 2020 from https://www.cross walk.com/faith/bible-study/what-does-the-number-3-signify-in-the- bible.html
Christians risk lives to help fight coronavirus in China as death toll skyrockets. (February 20, 2020). Christian Post. WorldHelp. Retrieved March 11, 2020 from www.worldhelp.net
Kubler-Ross, E. (2014). On Death and Dying. Reissue edition. New York, New York: Scribner.
Xavier, F. GoodReads. Retrieved March 12, 2020 from https://www.goodreads. com/quotes/805679-tell-the-students-to-give-up-their-small-ambition s-and