Theme: Faith Translates Fear
1. So that we can understand God’s Word
2. So that we can trust God’s work
Dear friends in Christ,
In 1996 a US astronaut spent 188 days in space with two cosmonauts from the formerly Soviet Union. Obviously, when confined in a tight space station for that long, you have opportunities to get to know one another. One evening they conversed after supper about what life was like for them during the Cold War. The Cold War was aptly named because it was a period of aggression that was strained and tense, not with weapons and armies but with secrets and spies. In that setting, perceptions drove fear of one another.
Both the American and the Russians were surprised at how terrified they were of each other’s countries. I suppose the tension of the Cold War had to have come from somewhere, but for these astronauts the idea that their nation hated the other to the point of declaring nuclear war seemed far-fetched. It was the perception of fear and no more.
Whether perception or reality, fear can be a strong motivator. During the Cold War it caused entire populaces to believe things about others that in the end didn’t seem to match reality. It you look at other pivotal, terrifying moments in history, fear is always present and often leads to misguided actions. Think of our text today, and the effect that fear had on the disciples before Jesus:
Mark 9:30-32 Then they departed from there and passed through Galilee, and He did not want anyone to know it. 31 For He taught His disciples and said to them, "The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And after He is killed, He will rise the third day." 32 But they did not understand this saying, and were afraid to ask Him.
These are the inspired and holy Words that God has recorded for us in His Word. They are trustworthy and reliable. They are relevant to our lives. They offer the eternal wisdom of Christ the crucified. May the Holy Spirit bless our study of these words as we come to recognize that “Faith Translates Fear,” So that we can understand God’s Word and so that we can trust His Works.
We know that fearing God is an important part of believing in Him. The Bible speaks to great lengths about the need for sinners to fear God. For example, Psalm 33 says, Let all the earth fear the LORD; Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him. Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear Him, On those who hope in His mercy (33:8,18). This type of fear, namely reverence or respect, is the most common Biblical example of fear. It’s important to mention this because when we hear the word fear we often think first of terror. When the Psalmist compares fear to “hoping in God’s mercy” it’s clearly not a matter of terror.
When considering fear, any Lutheran will naturally be drawn to Martin Luther’s explanations to the Ten Commandments. Each one begins, “We should fear and love God…” Luther certainly knew ‘terror fear’ and ‘faithful fear’ of God. He experienced both in his life. But, he also knew which one was more important. There is a healthy need to be terrified of the holy God, but that feeling should not remain in faith. For those who rely and trust in Christ there is never a reason to be terrified of God, and if that terror remains it can be damaging to faith. God wants faith in Jesus to translate terror fear into respect fear, this is the theme of our text.
When you look at that text, however, you see terror in the words and inactions of the disciples. The last verse tells us that they were afraid to ask Jesus what His words meant. Why were they terrified? Jesus hadn’t said anything harsh, at least not anything directed toward the disciples. In fact, what Jesus said was the pure gospel. He foretold His satisfactory death of atonement on the cross and His resurrection, the very events of history that would conquer sin and the grave for all people. We hear these words and we rejoice. We’re certainly not afraid. What was different for the disciples? They didn’t understand. And their terror of Jesus caused them to shy away from asking for more clarity.
To understand why the disciples responded this way we have to understand the context of this moment with Jesus. There were three very clear moments in Jesus’ ministry when He said very blatantly that He would suffer, die, and rise again. Each of these moments is recorded in Mark’s Gospel. This first came in Mark 8:31 and this is the time when Peter replied by telling Jesus that this would never happen and Jesus said to Peter, “Get Behind Me Satan!” This was quite a stern rebuke of Peter. It’s not surprising that at the second occurrence when Jesus predicted this, the words of our text, the disciples were a little nervous about inquiring more. The third and final prediction came in Mark 10:32-34. The disciples’ reaction here was not to ask about it, but it was the time when James and John asked for preeminence in heaven. If you read on from our text, there is a similar exchange as we’re told that the disciples argued about who would be greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.
The disciples were afraid of Jesus’ prediction, but we should recognize that their fear came from a misunderstanding of the nature of Jesus’ work. They were afraid because they didn’t understand. Our text literally means that they were “ignorant” in verse 32. But, they didn’t understand because they were afraid. It was a terrible cycle to be caught in.
When Jesus made these predictions, it was almost as if He was speaking in a foreign language to the disciples. The message itself was very succinct. "The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And after He is killed, He will rise the third day." By themselves, these words have no confusion. It was the meaning of it all that escaped the disciples. What they didn’t yet realize is that faith translates those things that would make us afraid of God, so that we can understand their meaning in the proper context of His grace.
The same problem exists for all those who look at God’s Word in the light of His almighty power alone. To the person who is truly aware of their sins and God’s necessary punishment of those sins, the raw power of God doesn’t not illicit comfort. The disciples were well aware of Jesus’ power and holiness. They had witnessed the miracles firsthand. This text comes immediately on the heels of the Transfiguration. In previous moments of sheer power, they had made the good confession that they believed in Jesus. And yet, in these moments of great simplicity and clarity, when Jesus predicts the very work He was here to accomplish, the disciples were dumbfounded.
This truth teaches us that just as a healthy fear of Jesus helps us understand His Word, so also it helps us trust His work. Within the very prediction that Jesus made was the greatest example of His love and mercy. This grace cracks the hard exterior of human sinfulness and fear and reveals to us that we don’t have to respond to God in light of His holiness alone. It was the very thing that the disciples needed.
But to the person consumed with the power of God, the idea of suffering and dying doesn’t seem to fit. This is why Peter was rebuked so harshly in chapter 8. Peter was denying the very thing that would bring him life with God – the very reason Jesus came to earth. Satan is more than happy for believers to look at Christ alone as the all-powerful God who is distant and demanding of His creation. This is what makes the temptation so tricky. Sometimes it’s the truths of God’s Word that are most apparent that can also be twisted to become the most dangerous. Satan wants us to confess Christ’s deity so long as it means we deny His sacrifice. Peter was on the brink of that distinction and Jesus sternly called him back to the truth.
This is also why we need to be so constantly aware of Christ’s work in our lives. Many people wonder, why isn’t worship and church livelier? Why don’t we branch out to different topics more often and cover things we don’t yet know outside of the Word of God? Why stay so closely attached to the same Bible lessons day after day and year after year? It’s because the Word and Work of our Savior is so vitally important, and we need reminders of it regularly.
Take the topic we’re considering today. Proper fear versus misplaced fear. Respect versus terror. In a way both things are needed in our relationship with God. When we’re complacent and comfortable in our sins, we need a terrifying wake-up call of judgment and repentance. We could call that a good thing for our faith. But, if we get stuck on that type of fear alone, we create even bigger problems – insecurity in our faith, reluctance to communicate with God in prayer, and a desire to be distant from His Word and sanctuary. A blessed truth can be ever-so slightly twisted to become a dangerous temptation, and there are hundreds of areas of our lives where this can happen. It’s only by returning to the work of Jesus for us, with clarity and frequency, that we stay healthy in our faith. And it’s only through the Word of our Savior, Jesus, that we return to His work.
Our text sounds like there was almost a ‘cold war’ type of tension between the disciples and Jesus. They were not openly at odds with their Savior. They trusted Him. They knew Him. They desired to follow Him. But there were also certain things they didn’t understand; important things too, like why Jesus was going to suffer, die, and rise again. This tension was created and dominated by fear – not respect, but terror. This tension also led the disciples to think more about what they had to do. So they questioned who was greatest. So James and John desired to be greatest in heaven. If God was strict and demanding then they needed to be better than the rest. At least then, if one of them was found at fault, they could point the finger at something worse done by someone else. This was the sad state of the disciples’’ faith at this point. It’s no wonder that Jesus spent extra time with them near the end of His ministry – to teach them and to comfort them for what was coming.
Is there tension between you and God? Do you trust God as your ally, as your head, or are you afraid of what He demands? You can fall into the same trap the disciples found themselves in – even if you know and believe exactly what Jesus’ death and resurrection mean for you. You can fall into a trap by ignoring God’s Word and Work in other areas. The pressing need for us to listen to our Heavenly Father’s voice is just a needful in our lives because our danger, while it could be different from the disciples, can lead to the exact same place – separation from God and reliance upon ourselves. In fact, this is the very brand of Christianity, the very nature of faith, that so many claim to have today.
The disciples were lost at this point, but the very truths that here perplexed them would become their greatest source of strength after Jesus accomplished what He set out to do. If you look at the ministries of the disciples as recorded in the Scriptures, they all come back again and again to their Savior’s death and resurrection as payment for the sins of the world. Was it because they understood it better with time? Perhaps in a way. But, the gospel still baffles human reason to this day. Was it because they figured out how Jesus did it all? No, the gospel still defies our understanding. The disciples didn’t have anything more than what you have – the word of God, the works of God, and the gift of faith to trust them.
It was the confidence of faith, gifted to them by the working of the Holy Spirit that finally translated the disciples fear. No longer was this gospel proclamation a foreign sound to their ears. Through faith, it was the key that unlocked the heavenly wisdom of their Savior, Jesus, and it’s the same gift that continues to draw desperate, longing Christians back to the throne of God, to hear their Savior’s words and to reflect upon His Works. God continue to grant it so in our lives. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.