Christ’s Cross and Ours


Matthew 16:21-28

Text Comment

v.21     This was not a totally new teaching, of course.  There had been intimations of his death before this (as e.g. in Matt. 9:15), but there is a new emphasis and a new explicitness to this teaching.  For the first time he lays out the chronology of his suffering, death, and resurrection.  For the first time he says that the Sanhedrin will send him to death. He will not simply be murdered but officially executed. The three groups mentioned made up the Sanhedrin, Judaism’s ruling body.

We said last week that Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah represented a turning point in the Lord’s ministry.  We are shown in what way it was a turning point in this next paragraph. One author summarizes how it was a turning point in this way.  “The day at Caesarea Philippi marks the watershed of the Gospels.  From this point onward the streams begin to flow in another direction.  The current of popularity which seemed likely in the earlier days of Jesus’ ministry to carry him to a throne [have] now been left behind. The tide sets toward the cross.  The Galilean sunshine is suddenly clouded over, and the air grows sultry and heavy with the gathering storm.  The voices shouting applause die away, and another more ominous note is heard.  At Caesarea, Jesus stood, as it were, on a dividing line.  It was like a hilltop from which he could see behind him all the road he had traveled and in front of him the dark, forbidding way awaiting him.  One look he cast back to where the afterglow of happy days still lingered and then faced round and marched forward toward the shadows.  His course was now set to Calvary.”  [J. Stewart, The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ, 106]

v.23     Peter’s gaffe resulted from his profound misunderstanding of what the Messiah would be and do.  He had just declared that Jesus was the Messiah; he knew he was.  But surely, he thought, such a thing would not happen to the Messiah.  Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah had been from God, we read.  This statement of Peter’s, however, came from himself and was, accordingly, just one of those stupid things that come out of the darkened minds of human beings.  But if Peter labored under so great a misunderstanding, no wonder the Lord tried his best to keep his identity as the Messiah hidden from the crowds, as we saw in v. 20.  At any rate, Peter in his confusion now plays the roll of Satan, the tempter, arguing against the Lord’s fulfillment of his calling as the Savior of the world.  One writer puts the Lord’s rebuke in these terms:  “Thou art not, as before, a noble block, lying in its right position as a massive foundation-stone.  On the contrary, thou art like a stone quite out of its proper place, and lying right across the road in which I must go – lying as a stone of stumbling.”  [Morison in Vincent, Word Studies, i, 98]  Mark (8:33) reminds us that the other disciples were there to hear the Lord rebuke Peter.  That attitude needed to be nipped in the bud.

v.25     The connection between thoughts is clear.  If discipleship means identification with the master, then the Lord’s disciples must be prepared to share the fate that he has just prophesied for himself.  This statement is repeated from the original charge the Lord gave to his disciples in 10:38-39.  The almost exact repetition of the thought in two different places is some indication of how vital Jesus thought this teaching to be.  If a man would be a disciple of Jesus he must understand this.

v.26     The Greek word psyche can mean either life or soul.  The ambiguity of the term is exploited in verses 25-26, allowing “life” to be understood in different ways.  Whatever one may gain in his physical life in this world, it is not worth it if it costs him his soul, that is his eternal life, his life looked at from the vantage point of eternity.  [France, 260-261]

v.27     As so often in the New Testament the prospect of the judgment is used to motivate the disciples of the Lord Jesus to a life of sacrificial service.  That kind of life will receive its reward at the last day.  The verb translated “reward” means paying exactly what is due.  [Morris, 434]  It is not enough to say that faithful living for Christ is the mark of a Christian and that Christians will be vindicated at the last judgment.  That is true, to be sure.  It is also true that those who have loved the world instead of Christ will find that their lives are the proof of their unbelief and so they will be rejected.  But the statement belongs to a large class of statements that mean still further that within the respective destinies of mankind – to salvation or to damnation – the judgment of the Lord will take notice of and reward the Christian who makes the greater and more costly sacrifice and punish the unbeliever who gives himself over to deeper and more pervasive worldliness.  “The Lord looks back to the details of each life as the factors of the final sum of gain or loss.”  [Vincent, 98]  Some will rule over ten cities and some over five.  Some will be beaten with few stripes and some with many.  It is only what we would expect given the perfect justice of God and his often stated interest in how we live our lives.

v.28     As you may imagine there has been much debate as to what the Lord was referring to when he spoke of the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.  There are a number of possibilities, each of which has been supported by good men.  They include these: 1) the transfiguration; 2) his death and resurrection; 3) Pentecost; 4) the spread of Christianity; 5) the destruction of Jerusalem; and 6) the second coming.  I incline to the view that Jesus is referring to the transfiguration which comes soon after.  Only some of those with him when he made the remark were witnesses of his glory on the mountain, viz. Peter, James, and John.  The rest saw nothing like this to the end of their lives.  And what those three saw is well described as the Lord coming in his kingdom, for what they saw was the Lord clothed with his divine glory and majesty.  They saw what had been hidden from view and would continue to be hidden, that the Jesus of Nazareth was no one less than the eternal King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

In the context this statement reinforces the previous one.  The Lord Jesus will be the judge of all the earth and some of the disciples are going soon to witness beforehand the divine glory with which he will come in judgment.  If it is hard for them now to imagine Jesus as the Judge of all the earth, with the assembled mass of humanity before him, it will not be so difficult when they see him in his kingdom!  One sight of Jesus with the glory of God upon him and, immediately, it becomes clear that he and no one else will judge the living and the dead.

Take note, by the way of the extraordinary claims that the Lord has just made:  he has spoken of God the Father as his Father, and of the Father’s glory as his own; and of the angels of God as his servants; of himself as judge of all men; and of the kingdom of God as his kingdom.  This is high Christology from the mouth of the Lord Jesus himself.  No one less than the God-Man can do justice to these statements.

What we have here is a tightly reasoned argument.  The Lord must suffer and die.  When Peter rejects that prospect the Lord rebukes him and tells him that so much does the kingdom of God advance by the Messiah’s suffering, that his disciples, his followers must suffer as well.  If they are to do his work, they must do it his way.  As Augustine would put it some centuries later, when the gospel had made its way powerfully out into the world, “The world was not conquered by fighting, but by suffering.”  Then the Lord supports that assertion by reminding his disciples that difficulties in this world are nothing if they bring salvation in the next; that no happiness and prosperity here is worth the loss of one’s soul there.  And there is a judgment coming and it will take into account precisely in what measure one demonstrated his or her loyalty to Christ by sharing in his sufferings.  The public demonstration of the Lord’s divine glory will serve to put that fact and that prospect beyond doubt.

There is but one Cross “on which the Prince of Glory died.”  But there are many crosses by which the followers and servants of Jesus Christ do his will and serve his cause by undertaking hard and wearying and painful labor and by undergoing all manner of difficulties required of those who would be found faithful to him.

Think of some of the ways in which the Lord Jesus bore his cross before he was ever crucified on one.  He certainly suffered the ordinary privations of a poor man who had no time to devote himself to his own comfort.  We have already read in this Gospel (8:20) that while “foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”  He was, in modern parlance, homeless and that is a sad and difficult place to be.  From the very beginning of his life it was so:  born in a stable and laid in a manger.  He never went begging.  He was no example for the medieval mendicant who supposed it a virtue to ask others for food.  But, in fact, he lived on the generosity of others.  That is a humbling, if not a humiliating thing, and must have been all the more so for someone who knew he had right and title to everyone’s riches but could claim nothing for himself.  Such was his calling.  It will be good for us to probe, as far as we can, the inner thoughts of the Lord Jesus about his poverty and his dependence.  You don’t want to be poor and you hate to be dependent on others.  What of him?  He was tempted as we are, suffered as we do.

He faced, of course, terrible suffering at the end of his life, physical and spiritual torment.  He suffered the pains inflicted upon him by evil men and far deeper and excruciating spiritual suffering when the cup of the divine wrath against sin was poured out into his heart.  But, to make matters worse, he knew it was coming and had to endure the anticipation of it for months on end.  With a mind as powerful and an imagination as sensitive as his, the wracking pains of the end of his life were brought forward to be suffered again and again long before they actually began.  Gethsemane is the proof of that.  Dark night of the soul as that was, it was the pain of anticipation only, the knowledge of what was to come overwhelming his soul to the point that his body poured sweat like great drops of blood.  How many times, do you suppose, had he awakened through the year before to find the sweat of fear upon his forehead?

He suffered as well the sorrow of causing the pain of others.  He foresaw and foretold the sufferings that would be theirs because of him.  If they hated him they would hate them also.  And to a perfectly unselfish mind and a perfectly loving heart, this was sorrow indeed.  You would feel the burden terribly if, simply because they belonged to you, your children whom you love more than life itself, were to be thrown in jail, mocked, persecuted, and finally cruelly murdered.  Such was the sorrow of the Son of Man.

But his also was the sorrow, the bitter suffering of shame made infinitely worse by his own sinlessness and perfect goodness.  A man who loved righteousness more than any man has ever loved it was accused of being a drunk, a glutton, a heretic, a traitor.  He who loved the Sabbath day as no one had ever loved it before or has loved it since, was accused of treating the Lord’s Day with contempt.  The religious leaders, whose opinions people respected, even said he was in league with the Devil.  There was a young Scot shepherd in the 18th century, an orphan, John Brown of Haddington, who, when still a teenager, had, by diligent application in self-study, so far advanced in his study of Greek and Latin that he was accused by the local townsmen of being demon-possessed.  How else could a poor orphan be so knowledgeable in ancient languages?  To work hard – much harder than anyone else your age, and then to be thought evil for what you had learned!  Imagine it.  But so it was in the Lord’s case.  Who was he to tell the world what to think and do?  They thought him uppity; full of himself; a pretender.  How that must have reddened the face of the only truly righteous man in all the world.  In the Lord’s case, it would not have hurt him so much to be mocked for being a poor carpenter’s son, though it would have stung him to have his parents made fun of in that way, but to be thought a sinful man must have caused him no end of shame.  Think of it, after all he had done for them and shown to them, his countrymen finally preferred a common thug, Barabbas, to him.  That’s how low he had sunk in their estimation.  You know very well how impossible it is for you to sleep when you know that others are thinking you foolish, or cruel, or unfaithful, or impure or weak.  They mocked him, laughed at him for his weakness at the end, when he was being scourged and then crucified.  The Almighty, think of it, made sport of for his weakness and having to take it and say nothing and do nothing because our salvation depended upon his suffering such things.

But there is more.  He knew the exquisite sorrow and had to bear the cross of being deserted by his friends.  It was terrible enough to have the entire nation think him a bad man, but to have the few men who knew better desert him and run for their lives, that was the perfection of ignominy.  It was bad enough that all along the way they refused to understand what he was there to do; they refused to accept what he said over and over again was his mission; they even, as Peter here, rebuked him and told him not to say silly things.  Bad enough.  But then to be left alone by them all when the full weight of God and man was brought down upon him. What had David said centuries before?  “Even my close friend, whom I trusted, he who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me.”  [Ps. 41:9]  When a person enters into true and close friendships he gives himself as a hostage to that friendship.  He shares his life in such a way that he opens himself up to the sting of betrayal if the friend should prove unfaithful.

Near the end of his life, St. Patrick of Ireland was brought up on charges by some unworthy bishops in England.  And one of the charges they brought against him was a sin – we don’t know what it was – that he had committed as a teenager.  He had himself, as a Christian man, been so troubled in his conscience by the remembrance of that sin that he had, at last, confided in a close friend.  And for years that friend, friend that he was, had kept Patrick’s secret.  But for some reason – fear of the church authorities or the hope of reward – he finally disclosed Patrick’s sin to those who used it to shame him.

In his Confession Patrick speaks of this man.

“I had entrusted to him the deepest secret of my heart.  I even heard from some of my brothers that he had stood up for me back when they were deciding whether or not to make me a bishop…. My friend was even the one who told me later:  ‘You’ve made it!  You’re going to be a bishop! – though I wasn’t worthy of this.  So why, out of the blue, did he later publicly disgrace me in front of everyone, good and bad alike?  And over a matter that years earlier he had freely and gladly forgiven – as had God, who is greater than anyone.”  [Freeman, St. Patrick, 185]

How is that much different from Peter first declaring publicly that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God, then rebuking him for his concept of the Messiah’s work, then promising to remain faithful no matter that all others desert him, and, finally, deserting him himself to save his own skin?

And then, there was this cross the Lord had to bear: the sorrow, the painful work, the wearying labor of resisting temptation all his life and, unlike you and I, resisting every temptation to its bitter end.  We know don’t we, from the times we actually do resist and overcome a powerful temptation how much such an effort takes out of us.  And he was doing that every day.  We make a mistake in speaking of Satan’s tempting the Lord in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry as the temptation.  It was a temptation true enough, but his entire life was one continuous temptation.  Peter added another one on this occasion, a stumbling block.  The Lord was having to face the horror of his future and here his closest friend and supporter was telling him he needn’t bother.  Even his friends made his life more difficult for him by tempting him to leave the way that had been appointed for him.  And, of course, perfect goodness always brings out the worst of wickedness in others.  Jesus had to see that constantly.  What temptations were posed to him by the jealously of the Pharisees, by their virulent hatred of him, by the false love of the crowds, by the venality of Pontius Pilate and the cruel indifference of the Roman soldiers?

We have hardly begun to plumb the depths of the crosses that our Lord bore for us before he ever was hung on the cross.  But even this superficial survey of his sufferings on our behalf makes it perfectly obvious how and why those who follow him and serve him in this world must bear their own crosses in turn.  It may be the loss of this world’s pleasures and comforts because we have devoted ourselves to other things, higher things, eternal things.  I know very well that it crosses the mind of serious Christians very often to think about what they would do with all the money that the would have to spend if they were not investing so much of what they have in the kingdom of God.

It may be the scorn of the world that falls upon any man or woman who, for Christ’s sake, will not walk as the world does or seek its pleasures or worship its gods.  A faithful Christian life is a reproach to unbelief and that reproach is often not forgiven.  The more faithful a Christian life, the more certainly it will be patronized and belittled by others. If you would be godly, Paul promises, you will suffer persecution.  Or our cross may be the bitter fight that must be waged in the heart hour after hour and day after day to resist temptation and remain pure and holy before God and man.  It may be the betrayal of friends to whom one has given oneself, as Christians do.  In this sinful world not all friends will remain true. Or our cross may be, as it so often was for the Lord, that we must work ourselves to weariness to attend to all that a faithful servant of the Savior of the world needs to do on his behalf.  We could go on and on.  No wonder Jesus said that our crosses amounted to our denying ourselves and losing our lives!

But you see the point.  There is an immediate and intimate connection between the Lord’s suffering and that of his disciples, between his cross and ours.  These are sorrows he bore for the kingdom of God and ours are as well, and being such sorrows, though ours are much lighter than his, they must be of the same type.  The Devil, the world, our own flesh were his enemies and they are also ours and so our lives will be difficult in those same ways that made his life so supremely difficult.  The Lord is not talking here of the sorrows or difficulties we bring upon ourselves because of our sin and folly.  No these are crosses we bear like him and for him.

The Lord states that here as a fact.  But he goes on quickly to help us.  He knows how easy it is to resent and then to lay down such crosses as these – he was tempted to resent his and lay them down every hour of every day.  We need iron in our back and steel in our nerves.  And so the Lord gives us that here.  The day of reckoning is coming.  The man or woman who takes his comfort here, in this life, who exchanges Christ’s cross for a life of ease and pleasure and the acceptance of the world, will rue his choice forever and the man or woman who takes up Christ’s crosses will wear a smile forever in the heavenly country.  Here is the bottom line: you cannot add up your account and get the sum when you are still in this world.  The calculation of your life will be made at the Day of Judgment and there, and there only, will the true meaning of the choices we made in this world be revealed.  Eternity, heaven and hell, the rewards of the life to come, these loom above every sorrow endured for Jesus’ sake in this world; these beckon us through the trials and tribulations of a godly life in a sinful world; these promise us everlasting joy in exchange for temporary troubles or everlasting doom for temporary ease.

We cannot ever lose sight of such things.  Matthew, we have said many times, is the Gospel of discipleship.  And so it is no wonder that Matthew, over and over again, casts our vision forward to the end of the age, the Day of Judgment, and the consummation of every human life in the world to come, either in woe or eternal well-being. These things explain why a Christian man or woman follows Christ come wind, come weather.

There is a well-known story from the life of William Wilberforce, the English Christian politician who deserves so much of the credit for ending slavery in the British Empire in the early 19th century.  Speaking on the issue of slavery on one occasion, speaking as he did so often and with such passion, a woman came up to him and said, “But Mr. Wilberforce, what about the soul?”  She meant, “You are talking about justice in this world, about deliverance in this life.  What about the soul?” And Wilberforce turned to the woman and said, in all seriousness, “Madam, I had almost forgotten that I had a soul.”  In other words, this great man had gotten so caught up in his crusade – worthy as it was – and had so devoted his time and energy to the deliverance of slaves that he had almost forgotten about his own soul.  The woman was right.  He was admitting it.  Perhaps she was a busy-body, but there is no evidence of that and Wilberforce did not take her question to be insincere.  He recognized that she had asked the vital question.  What about the soul.  [Lloyd-Jones, Sermon on the Mount, ii, 292]

Jesus asked the same question of his disciples.  Think of what was happening then.  Their country was occupied by a foreign power.  Jesus had stirred up the crowds with his miracles.  There was a fever pitch of expectation.  But Jesus cut through all of this with his question: “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but loses his soul?”  What does it profit a man, however religious, however devoted to good causes, however well thought of by others, if he loses his soul?  And how does one know that he has not and will not lose it?  He shows himself willing to take up his cross for Jesus sake, to suffer in the same way the Savior did for the same reasons he suffered, and to await in faith the reckoning of the last day, knowing that the Son of Man will reward each person according to what he has done.  It was the specter of the Judgment Day and the eternal future that led Alexander Whyte to say

“Lay this down for a law, all my brethren – a New Testament and a never-to-be abrogated law – that  the best and safest religion for you is that way of religion that is hardest on your pride, on your self-importance, on your self-esteem, as well as on your purse and on your belly.  You are not likely to err by practicing too much of the cross.”

Like it or not, admit it or not, every human being in this world is in the process of making such an exchange of his present life for some situation in the world to come.  He can save his life now and lose it then or lose it now and save it then.  The wise man, the faithful man, the righteous woman, will do what Jesus did and carry a cross now so as never to have to carry it then; to suffer hardship and ignominy now, so as to live beholding the glory of God forever.

Every one of us should consider these things as if he or she were hearing them for the very first time and commit ourselves to Christ’s crosses now and for the length of our lives in this world.  Jesus said such things on a number of occasions because he knew it would be hard for us truly to receive it.  He repeated this summons and this warning because it is so vital that we receive it, believe it, and live accordingly.  Lay before the Lord now your self-denial and your taking up of the cross for his sake.  In what does it consist?  Is it a cross such as his crosses were; sufferings like his for the same reasons; and is there joy set before you as there was before him?  If so, rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven.  This is the ultimate meaning of your life as you sit here at this moment.  Nothing, nothing matters compared to this!  You are making an exchange.  Everyone of you.  Now for then!