“But He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.’” Matthew 16:23
A movie I’ve always loved for its intelligent writing and nuanced acting is “Meet Joe Black,” the story of wealthy news and media mogul William Parrish (Anthony Hopkins) who on the eve of his 65th birthday is visited by Death in the form of a man named Joe Black (Brad Pitt).
In a key scene foreshadowing the end of the film, Joe is in a conference room talking with the movie’s antagonist, “Drew.” Joe challenges Drew about the inevitability of a major financial transaction to which Drew responds “We all know this deal is as certain as death and taxes.” Pausing, Joe comments “Death and taxes? What an odd pairing.”
Death and taxes. Unless you’ve been on a remote island the last few days you’ve no doubt heard the hysteria around the debate in the US on the Tax Reform Bill that was just passed by Congress.
I won’t debate the merits or flaws of that legislation here (you can check out John Pavlovitz any day of the week to get an overdose of that). Rather, I want to focus on the flawed idea of believing anything (taxes, justice, politics, governments, etc.) is “certain” other than death.
Nowhere to Hide
The whims and policies of man are transient and will change with the times, while the nature of God is eternal. As Jesus responded when asked about the morality of paying Caesar’s poll tax in Matthew 22, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” What belongs to God will always be returned to Him.
There is simply nowhere to hide from physical death. We may fill our days with endless workouts, pad our diets with supplements and nutrition, slather our faces with creams and ointments, push retirement out another ten years but the truth is that each and every one of us has one appointment – an appointment with the end of our earthly days – we can’t cancel or reschedule.
Jesus also had an appointment. One scheduled from the beginning of time, foretold over generations of prophets, foreshadowed in the long wait between Malachi and Matthew. His appointment was certain. It was unchangeable. His appoint was with death.
When Jesus finally revealed this divine appointment to his disciples, explaining he will suffer betrayal, trial and execution, be entombed for a time, and finally raised up on the third day, Peter would have no part of it.
He denied the inevitability of God’s plan.
He expects Jesus, the Messiah, the Anointed Christ, the Lion of Judah to raise a victorious hand against the oppression of Rome. Messiahs conquer, they do not succumb. And in an ironic twist, Peter foretells his own betrayal of Jesus following the arrest in Jerusalem by denying the very mission Jesus had announced.
Jesus responds in the only way Pete will understand – implying Satan had possessed him and to go away. Peter simply had not comprehended the true oppression Jesus came to defeat … the certain oppression of sin and death. The great “waiting” of the Jewish people would be fulfilled in Jesus laying down his sinless life to atone for the flawed and sinful lives of all mankind. This was the appointment only Jesus could keep.
Turning the Page
In rejecting Peter, Jesus tells us a much deeper truth. The problems of the world are infinitely great than politics, or our personal desires, even our own deaths. What we believe is the end of the story (death) is actually the turning of a page.
Jesus conquers the horrors of death so that we will never experience those horrors even as we face our own demise . We no longer need to hide, fearing and forestalling the inevitable. We no longer need fear the ravages of disease, the pain of broken relationships, the soul-crushing weight of financial ruin.
Rather, Jesus writes an entirely new chapter for us, telling us to embrace the death he suffered in our own lives, every day. To follow his example means willingly taking up our own crosses and running toward the death he calls us to experience: death to pride, death to apathy, death to unfaithfulness, death to hate, death to lying, death to hypocrisy, death to denial.
Jesus teaches Peter and his disciples that the only way to avoid our inevitable appointment with death is to embrace that very death while we live. Luke 9:24 recounts his words: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.”
The Price of Life
Advent, this time of waiting and expectation, is also a season of understanding. We learn through enduring anticipation that God never meant His call to be convenient or inexpensive. Often, He leads us to suffer for His work. He challenges the strength of our faith. Being a Believer can be costly, lonely, disappointing.
Yet the clear message of Christianity is simply this: die to the selfish, vain, fleeting promises of the world and receive the assurance of eternity. Die to the whispered seductions and lies of the enemy and experience the radiant joy of unearned grace. Die to death and receive life.
The ultimate Good News is that Jesus has already paid the price for our lives. His death and resurrection were the tax we owed, the payment we should have made. The price for our lives is now … free.
Joe Black teaches William Parrish there is no fear or sorrow in death if we learn to live a life of service and sacrificial love. While we all suffer the same fallibilities of being human, our final breath is not a tragic failure of frailty but a transcendent triumph over death.