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The Rules of the Game Sermon Artwork

The Rules of the Game

February 25, 2024 | by Pastor Peter

Jesus is the Messiah that the Jews have been waiting for. But he’s not anything like they expected. What is the reason for this cavernous disconnect? Could it be that the Jews don’t understand the Rules of the Game they’re playing?

Sermon Summary

What Game Are We Playing?

I know chess well enough to know that you win the game by trapping the opposing player’s king. I’m not sure how I would react to someone who told me that I was wrong and that I would win by losing all my pieces. I would think such a person had gone mad. I imagine that’s how the disciples felt when Jesus first informed them that his job, as Messiah, was to die. 

Today’s story takes place immediately after Peter figures out that Jesus is the promised Messiah. This is shortly before they leave to head to Jerusalem for the final confrontation:

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” Mark 8:31-38

Jesus is the Messiah they’ve been hoping for, but he’s very different than anything they expected. Let’s look at why

By the time of Jesus’ ministry, Rome has been in charge the the Holy Land for nearly 100 years. The Jews have suffered under the heavy taxes, wonton violence and economic dislocation the occupation has brought. They feel like slaves in their own land. Looking back on their history, they share common experiences with their ancestors who were enslaved in Egypt. They long for a new Moses.

The Disciples think that the new Moses is Jesus. They are hoping that God can do through him to the Romans what he did through Moses to the Egyptians. They’re hoping that Jesus will lead them into a new Exodus. They’re about to depart for Jerusalem, where, they hope Jesus will vanquish their foes. So when Jesus tells them that he’s going to Jerusalem not to raise an army or cause plagues on the Romans, but to die, the disciples don’t know how to respond. While expectations about the coming Messiah were wildly different the one thing they could all agree on was that the Messiah would win. But what Jesus says is going to happen to him doesn’t look like winning in any way they recognize.

Why Are Their Expectations So Wrong?

How can Jesus be the fulfillment of the promises the Jews hoped for while also being so different from their expectations? There are two main reasons

Misidentifying Their Basic Needs

In their pain and insecurity, the Jews have misunderstood what their real need is. Rome is the presenting issue, but it’s not the root issue. The people hope God will defeat the Romans. But if he did, how long would it be before a new empire would rise and take Rome’s place? In the past, he defeated the Egyptians, but Israel needed saving again. Rather than saving them from this particular empire, God plans to attack the root: the sin and selfishness that, among other things, creates and sustains empires. 

Assuming God’s Victory Looks Like Theirs

The Jews also assume that God’s victory looks like the victory of human beings, different in degree rather than in kind. So if Rome’s victories come about through violence, they assume God’s victory will look the same, only more violent. They don’t understand that God’s victory may be of a different sort.

Is this Bad News

In a way, the news that Jesus isn’t going to be the kind of Messiah they had hoped he would is bad news. Jesus is going to die and tells his followers that they need to follow in his footsteps. This is so disappointing that the disciples don’t accept it (Hence Peter tries to rebuke Jesus). But Jesus says his way leads to real life and our way leads to death. He shows how this works by giving up his life and then being raised in glory. He asks us to follow his example of surrendering our lives to God in the hope that God will faithfully raise us as he raised Jesus.

What Does This Mean For Us?

We make the same mistakes that the disciples Make

Misidentifying Our Basic Needs

Like the Disciples, we can misunderstand what our basic needs are. We think what we need is comfort and happiness, and we see God as the person who can make us comfortable and happy. While it’s true that God wants us to be happy and fulfilled, that takes a back seat to our present problem: We (and our world) are dying because of sin. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs shows us that we don’t seek our higher needs until our basic needs are met. So if you’re living with the threat of death, you’re probably not spending your time seeking professional accomplishment, you’re just trying to survive. We are spiritually dying because of sin, so God is trying to deal with that issue rather than make us content. We look to certain things in our lives to give us meaning and satisfaction, but those things are killing us.

Imagine a businessman immigrating to a land across the sea. He converts his considerable possessions into gold. He then handcuffs the bag where he keeps the gold to his wrist. During the voyage, the ship runs into trouble and begins to sink. The captain tells the man to get rid of the case because it’s too heavy for the life raft. The man refuses. This is everything I have. The captain tries to pin the man down and cut the chain on the handcuffs so he can free the man who doesn’t understand the danger he’s in. In much the same way, we look for safety in less important things. God is trying to separate us from the things that are incompatible with life. This act of separating is painful. It can feel like God is killing us (or at least our dreams) while God is trying to save us.

But there is hope: God promises us that the life he gives is greater than we can ask or imagine. And it’s not just a hope for our life after death. It’s a hope for this life too. When we prioritize the things God says are important, we will be captured by God’s love and the sacrifices will pale in comparison to the benefits. When you find someone you love, you’re willing, even eager, to make sacrifices for the relationship because you are captured by love. If we are captured by God’s love (and other benefits he offers like peace, joy, belonging and fulfillment) then we too will be glad to make the sacrifices Jesus calls for us to make.

Assuming God’s Victory Looks Like Ours

In the church, we also mistake worldly victories for God’s victories. We uncritically accept assumptions from human endeavours about what a victory looks like. Some examples.

Business: We judge whether businesses are successful or not by numbers (revenue, profits, market share, etc). We can do the same in church, assuming that attendance or givings is what makes a church successful. But Jesus’ numbers weren’t so impressive (12 disciples after 3 years) so obviously we need to think about success differently. When we can’t measure what is important, we have a habit of making important what we can measure.

Politics: In politics, you win by enacting an agenda. But this treats people like abstractions. God is unwilling that any should perish, so the good shepherd goes looking for the single lost sheep rather than accepting the loss. We can’t show God’s wisdom by enacting the right programs, but by addressing the needs of real people. Furthermore, while Jesus had perfect theology, we are all undoubtedly wrong about some of our political ideas. This should give us humility, so we don’t try to force our ideas (some of which are wrong) on others.

Consumerism: Certain people believe that a good life comes through getting more and better stuff. We see Jesus’ promise that he comes so that we can have abundant life as a sign that God wants us to experience material prosperity. But the abundant life isn’t about consuming things that are here today and gone tomorrow, but instead, it’s about eternal treasure (like a deeper relationship with God and with his people).


The disciples balked at Jesus’ call to the way of the cross because they didn’t understand what God was doing. We can see the story from the other side of Easter, so we should know better, but we often fall for the same temptations. God’s victory happens in ways we don’t expect–ways that look hard but contain unexpected blessings. In other words, Jesus is telling us that the rules of the game we’re playing are quite different than what we’ve always assumed they are. When he invites us to play the game his way, do we refuse, saying we know better how the game is played, or do we change the way we play so that it’s in line with his version of the rules of the game?

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