“Satan at the Pulpit of the Passion”

One of the great gifts to the church of Christ, and one that is sadly ignored today, is the three-volume set of sermons on Christ’s passion by the great Dutch Reformed theologian, professor, and preacher, Klaas Schilder (1890-1952). The three volumes, often referred to as the Schilder trilogy, are consecutively entitled, Christ in His Suffering, Christ on Trial, and Christ Crucified.  I first read these volumes nearly forty years ago, and they had a tremendous impact on me—for two reasons.

(1) This was perhaps my first sustained introduction to biblical-theological preaching, preaching that is more concerned with the story-line of Scripture than it is with trying to mine through the pages of the Bible to find lots of great moral examples for us to follow. Schilder was the main protagonist for the biblical-theological side in a debate in the Dutch Reformed Church in the first half of the twentieth century over whether preaching should deal with the great history of redemption contained in Scripture, or with trying to find the moral, exemplary application that one should be able to find in the biblical narratives.  Sidney Greidanus recounts the history of this debate in his book, Sola Scriptura: Problems and Principles in Preaching Historical Texts.  The debate was concerned with whether, in preaching from a narrative text, the preacher should focus on how the passage contributes to the history-of-redemption plot line of Scripture, or should focus on what the takeaway is from the passage as to how we are to follow (or not follow) the behavior of the characters in the narrative.  Greidanus rightly points out that in many respects this is a false dichotomy.  Nevertheless, in our own time, I believe that a much greater emphasis needs to be placed on redemptive-historical preaching to provide a much-needed balance to a steady diet of sermons which end up saying almost nothing more than, “Jesus did it; you can too.”

(2) Schilder’s sermons on Christ’s passion taught me that the passion narratives in the four Gospels are about—get ready for it—Christ!  That is, they are truly about Christ.  They are not about Peter, or Judas, or Caiaphas, or Annas, or Herod, or Pilate, or Barabbas, or John, or Mary, or the two thieves, or the centurion.  And they are not about me.  And they are not about you.  These characters  all have their part to play, and we can learn from actions.  And there are certainly applications to be made to our own lives from Christ’s passion as to how we too, following the example of our Lord, should be prepared to suffer for our Christian testimony.  But the lesson I learned from Schilder’s sermons was that the narrative of Christ’s passion was first and foremost, deeply, profoundly, about Christ.  And maybe, eventually, I can draw the line from Christ’s passion to how I should suffer too.  But before I draw that line, I first need to plumb the depths of what Christ’s passion meant for the Christ.  Or, going back to the line I referred to above, our first reaction to the passion narrative should not be, “Jesus did it, you can too.”  Rather, it should be, “Jesus did it; let me stay here awhile and gaze on this phenomenon is awestruck love and wonder!”  But, interestingly, at the beginning of this current Lenten season, I am already receiving devotionals in my inbox that jump from text to exemplary application, with no thought given as to what the passion narrative text might mean to Christ himself.

The title of this blog post, “Satan at the Pulpit of the Passion,” is the title of the first sermon in Schilder’s trilogy. This first sermon deals with the exchange that takes place between Jesus and Peter just after Jesus has told his disciples that he is going to Jerusalem to suffer at the hands of the Jewish leaders, and that he will, indeed, be put to death by those leaders.  Peter, replies, “Never, Lord!  This shall never happen to you.”  And then, Jesus immediately exclaims, “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (Matthew 16:21-23).

There is a huge contrast between this exchange and the one that occurred just a few verses earlier in the chapter, where Peter declares that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”  Jesus responds by declaring Peter to be especially blessed by God, and by pointing out that flesh and blood did not reveal this to Peter, but it was revealed to him Jesus’ Father in heaven (Matthew 16:13-17).  Could there be any greater contrast in these two exchanges?  In the first exchange, Jesus tells Peter that he did not come to his understanding of who Jesus was by human instruction, but by revelation from God.  Just a few minutes later (at least in textual time), Jesus tells Peter that he has only human thoughts in his mind, not God’s.

Schilder envisions this passage as one in which Jesus has stepped into a pulpit. He begins to preach his sermon in which he will instruct his disciples about his impending suffering and death in Jerusalem.  But as he begins to preach, “Satan” comes along, a flesh-and-blood Satan, in the person of Peter, and he “ascends the rostrum, and places an interfering hand upon the very pulpit from which the highest Prophet of God is giving instruction.  That human satan makes a diabolical statement and a satanic gesture by which he hopes to thwart the spirit and counteract the influence of Christ’s teaching.”

And now, listen to how Schilder, in a sermon in which he could have easily made Peter the star of the show, focuses rather on the person of Christ, and what this incident meant to him:

Jesus in this circumstance proves to be very man. As such He is subject to every psychological law of action and reaction which is not the effect of sin.  Moreover, He is not only truly but also completely a man.  Therefore, in this ultra-human existence before God, He sees great significance in all small things.  The whole process of His mediatorial career is concentrated as a unity into each moment of His life.  Every point within the circumference of His circles is seen only and always from a single focal center and consequently in harmonious relationship to the whole.  Hence it must be that the satanic statement which at this time tears its way through His prophetic discourse hurts Him grievously.  It recalls to His mind, very likely, that other moment in His life, when, at the conclusion of His baptism, the Spirit drove Him to the wilderness.  Again that panorama in the desert rises before Him. Again He lives it, as though it had just happened. Again He experiences how, after the baptism which had been His objective for thirty long years, the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness to meet Satan.  There the great Satan, the very prince of hell, hurled his temptations into the pure, human desires, the manly virtues, and the mediatorial passion of His soul.  That Satan also said in effect: “Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee.”

In other words, all the clues in the narrative alert us to the fact that we are witnessing another temptation narrative.  And the new temptation narrative is no less real and no less serious than the first one.  The goal of both temptations was the same.  There was an attempt made to deter Jesus from his mission, to prevent him from going to Jerusalem, dying on the cross, and procuring redemption for the world and providing forgiveness of sins.  Indeed, it could well be argued that this second temptation was even more infernal and more insidious than the first one.  In the first temptation narrative, Satan comes as a recognized enemy.  In the second one, he comes as a close friend.  In the first one, Satan comes as one who does not have in mind the things of God.  In the second one he comes as the one whom Jesus has just declared blessed for being the recipient of divine revelation.  Indeed, I believe that, in some way, the Satanic attack in this second temptation narrative is in fact particularly set up by that first exchange in the chapter.  Jesus has just declared that Peter is the recipient of a revelation from God.  Now, as Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to Jerusalem to suffer for the sins of the world, and Peter vehemently tells him that this will never be, does this not constitute a particular temptation for Jesus?  Could he not have been tempted to think:

Peter has received a revelation from my Father that I am indeed the Messiah. Is it possible that what he has just now declared is also a revelation from the Father?  Perhaps the plan has changed.  And my Father has chosen to reveal this to me through Peter.  I don’t have to go to the cross.  My Father has found some other possible way to achieve the goal.  I don’t have to drink the cup.  I don’t have to suffer.  And this is now being communicated to me through Peter.

I believe this was indeed a factor in this second temptation narrative. But Christ was so focused, so intense, so firm in his purpose, his face so “set” like a flint (Isaiah 50:8; Luke 9:51, 53; 13:31-33), that nothing could deter him from his goal, and he saw through this temptation and recognized it for what it was, a satanic plot to deter him from his goal.

I am so thankful for that introduction, nearly forty years ago, to Schilder’s trilogy. Perhaps you would like to read some of Schilder’s sermons yourself during this Lenten season.  They are accessible online here.

But what I am far more thankful for is the Christ who was so set in his purpose, so focused on accomplishing his mission, so determined to accomplish his goal, that he could recognize the Satan, not only in devilish foe but also in close friend. I am thankful that he refused to be deterred from his objective.  I am thankful that he saw through the temptation, that he pressed on toward Jerusalem, and that he provided the full and final sacrifice for sin.  I know, I know, I have been saved for service, and the sufferings of Christ are to be emulated in my life.  But for now, during this Lenten season, let me play the Mary role rather than the Martha one.

Stay, let me weep while you whisper,
love paid the ransom for me.

Tell me the story of Jesus,
write on my heart every word;
tell me the story most precious,
sweetest that ever was heard.

                              (Fanny Crosby)

Jerry Shepherd
Third day of Lent
February 12, 2016

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