Here are some collected thoughts on one of my favorite biblical texts (Matthew 16:21-28):
I want to begin a series of essays on Jesus radical call to discipleship in Matthew 16:21-28.
NIV Matthew 16:21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. 22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” 23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” 24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. 28 I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
This text occurs at a major transitional point in Matthew’s Gospel. In Matthew 16:13-20, the disciples through Peter declare the true identity of Jesus - “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus commends Peter and gives a great deal of authority to the disciples for the ordering of the life of the community of faith for the future (Matt 16:17-20).
Matthew 16:21 serves as the transition to the remaining third of Matthew’s Gospel which will culminate in Jesus’ death, resurrection, and commissioning of the disciples for a ministry of “disciple making” (28:16-20). Note the force of 16:21. If Matthew 16:13-20 marks the climax of the initial chapters of Matthew’s Gospel in the disciple’s unambiguous declaration of Jesus’ identity, Matthew 16:21 focuses Jesus’ identity as the Son of God on a journey to Jerusalem where Jesus the Son of God will suffer, be killed, and on the third day raised to life.
In this one verse, Jesus explodes most of our conceptions of the Son of God. Jesus essentially is saying that his identity cannot be fully comprehended apart from his death and resurrection. This is challenging for us because it forces us to come to the cross as well. My friend, Alex McManus likes to talk about the need for Christian leaders to be people “who must.” Notice that Jesus was the first. It was not optional for him to go to Jerusalem, suffer, die, and be raised. He had to do this. It was a “must do” for him. In the verses that follow, we will discover that the cross is a “must do” for us as well.
1) What role does Jesus’ death and resurrection play in my own faith?
2) Would the Jesus that I believe in be crucified?
3) Have I been so touched by the power of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that I have been transformed into a person who must?
Let’s continue with our reading of Matthew 16:21-28. As discussed in above, this passage marks the beginning of Jesus’ movement toward Jerusalem where he would suffer, be killed, and be raised on the third day.
Vv. 22-23 describe Peter’s attempted rebuke of Jesus, and Jesus’ response to Peter:
NIV Matthew 16:22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” 23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”
Peter’s response to Jesus’ mission is stunning. He rejects Jesus’ words about his suffering, death, and resurrection with some of the strongest wording possible in Greek - “may this never be!” This response is particularly stunning in light of Peter’s confession just a few verses earlier - “You are the Messiah, Son of the Living God!” (16:16). Peter goes from heroic (and correct) confessor of Jesus’ true identity to goat in the face of Jesus’ revelation about the true meaning of his Messiahship.
Why does Peter do this? How is it possible for Peter to be dead-on right in his identification of Jesus and so wrong about the meaning of Jesus’ identity?
Jesus’ response to Peter helps to answer these questions. Jesus responds to Peter in a manner reminiscent of his rebuke of Satan during Jesus’ wilderness temptation in 4:1-11. In 4:10, Jesus orders Satan away from him in a similar fashion (this is somewhat obscured in English translation of both verses but is very close in the original Greek). By calling Peter “Satan”, Jesus implies that by his words Peter is aligning himself with the forces of evil who desire to thwart Jesus’ mission. Furthermore, Peter functions as a stumbling block. In Matthew’s Gospel, this term describes those persons/things that have the potential to cause others to sin (see 13:41 and 18:7).
Why is Peter a stumbling block? Jesus focuses on Peter’s motivation or intentions. Peter’s motivation arises from his focus on the things of humanity rather than on the things of God. In other words, Peter is living his life from a human perspective rather than a divine perspective. Peter wants to follow Jesus, but he wants to do it on his own terms rather than on God’s. In God’s economy which Jesus courageously and steadfastly embodies, Jesus must go to Jerusalem. Peter cannot accept this.
What does It mean to live life from a human perspective? In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus teaches on a variety of topics that challenge our all too human inclination toward self:
Reputation versus Character
We have a tendency to go to great links to protect our reputation. Yet when we read Matthew, Jesus does not seem a bit worried about his reputation. In fact, Jesus is reviled. The Pharisees are scandalized by Jesus’ dining with “tax collectors and sinners” (9:11). He is accused of casting out devils by the power of the “prince of demons” (9:34). We could go on, but this serves to illustrate the point that if Jesus were to have worried about his public reputation, it is unlikely that he would have had the impact that he did.
Jesus fulfilled the mission that God gave to him without worrying about his reputation. What does this mean for us? We need to worry less about what others say about our actions and worry more about whether or not we are living faithfully and obediently for God. God will not be able to use us to our full potential if we are afraid to risk our reputations. We will not be able to interact with and reach those who desperately need the Gospel if we are afraid to lose our reputation by associating with those on the margins of society.
Instead, we need to focus on allowing God to shape our character after the image of Jesus Christ and then obediently following Jesus into the world to reach those who need God. Those who focus on the things of God understand the difference between godly character and public reputation.
Peter was no fool. He understood that a trip to Jerusalem would end in Jesus’ death and perhaps his own in the process. In his three-fold denial of Jesus later in the Gospel, it is clear that Peter is committed most profoundly to saving his own skin. Those who live life by the “things of men” rather than the “things of God” privilege their own security over the completion of God’s will in the world. Ultimate security is found in God alone (see Matt 16:27-28). The future of the disciple is secure. This doesn’t mean that we are guaranteed security and safety in this present age - rather it suggests that claims of security in this age are an illusion and ultimately a hindrance to living the unbelievable life that God calls us to live on behalf of God’s kingdom.
Jesus teaches extensively on the dangers of wealth (Matt 6:20-34; 13:22; 19:16-30). I think that it is incorrect to read these texts as suggesting that we should not work and provide for our loved ones, but we do need to hear the warning: wealth and possessions can lure us away from living whole heartedly for God. Those who focus on the things of God place God’s mission above the personal accumulation of wealth and possessions. Furthermore, when resources are acquired, they are good stewards of these and use them primarily to fuel the advancement of the Kingdom rather than the satisfaction of their own comfort.
1) How are we like Peter?
2) In what areas of our lives do we need to turn away from a human focus to a focus on God’s mission?
3) If Jesus were on earth today, what would hinder us from following him to Jerusalem?
Jesus does not end his conversation with Peter with a rebuke. Rather Peter’s challenge to Jesus’ mission serves as the impetus for Jesus to make his clearest statement in the Gospel of Matthew about the nature of discipleship. Jesus uses his encounter with Peter as an opportunity to articulate clearly and positively what it means to live as a follower of Jesus Christ.
NIV Matthew 16:24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
Verse 24 serves as the center of Jesus’ portrait of discipleship.
A Key Assumption
Before looking at the details of this verse, we need to put this passage into its proper context. The Gospel of Matthew needs to be read in a missional context. Discipleship at its heart is missional. Jesus calls disciples in order to multiply his own work of making disciples. This is clear in the climactic passage of Matthew (28:16-20). This text, better known as the Great Commission, centers on Jesus’ exhortation to “Make disciples.” Thus, we need to read 16:24 and its call to discipleship within this overarching framework of mission which undergirds Matthew’s portrait of discipleship.
Discipleship implies movement. Look at our text. “If anyone would come after me…follow me.” This verse begins and ends with words about movement. At its heart, being a disciple of Jesus involves movement. Why movement? If we desire to be missional, we have to embody a “go to” mentality rather than waiting for the world to come to us. As we read through the Gospel, Jesus was always on the move. He didn’t wait for persons to come to him. He moved around the countryside and served the people as he met them in their own contexts. Furthermore, when large crowds did surround him, Jesus slipped away and moved on to others who needed him.
Discipleship simply means following Jesus. Too often today we think of “following Jesus” as “following Jesus’ teachings.” This is correct as far as it goes. As Jesus’ disciples we are to be shaped by a Jesus ethos. Yet, Matthew goes out of his way to make it clear that the Risen Christ resides with His Church on Mission. Matthew’s Gospel is framed by two references to Jesus’ presence: 1:23 and 28:20.
NIV 23 “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”–which means, “God with us.”
NIV Matthew 28:20b And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Thus, following Jesus involves literally following our Risen Savior into the world for mission. Jesus resides with his people.
To where does Jesus ask us to follow him? As we read the Gospel we find many clues:
1) To those desperate for the things that only God can provide. Jesus routinely interacted and served those on the margins of society: lepers, blind, tax collectors, demoniacs, children, etc (see especially Matthew 8-9).
2) To the crowds who were “harassed and hurting as sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus served those neglected by the religious and righteous of his day. Jesus motivated by compassion (9:35-38) called on his disciples to look upon the fields ripe for harvest and to pray that God would send additional workers. In 10:1ff, Jesus empowers and sends out the twelve to serve the world.
3) Perhaps most radically for his original Jewish audience, Jesus reached out to all nations. This is subtle in most of the Gospel. Jesus’ earthly mission was to the people of Israel. There are exceptions, such as the healing of the Centurion’s servant (8:5-13). The Genealogy also suggests that Jesus has a wider mission by tracing his lines back to Abraham. As Son of Abraham, Jesus lived to fulfill the promise to Abraham from Genesis 12:3 “all peoples will be blessed through you.” The scope of Jesus’ mission becomes clear in 28:16-20. There the Risen Jesus unleashes his disciples into the world to “make disciples of all nations.”
Thus, we may conclude that if we seek to follow Jesus, Jesus will lead us to serve and make disciples of all peoples. He will call on us to break down boundaries that separate people. He will push us to pay attention to the very people that polite society and self-absorbed religionists are happy to ignore.
1) To whom is Jesus leading me?
2) Have I embraced mission as the principle function of following Jesus?
3) How would my life be different if I embraced movement as essential to discipleship?
A Paradoxical Existence
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (emphasis added).
The central characteristic of discipleship is to live as though you were already dead. Too often we read the call to self-denial as a call to an ascetic or disciplined life. We read this as an exhortation to life a more simplistic lifestyle or to take a vow of poverty. Cross-bearing can easily be spiritualize or sentimentalized. A careful reading of the context of Matthew’s Gospel however betrays a more radical agenda for Jesus.
Why do I say this?
First, the only other context is which the word translated “deny oneself” is used in Matthew is chapter 26. There Peter denies Jesus three times. In this context, Peter is clearly trying to save his own skin by denying any relationship with Jesus. This suggests then that to deny oneself in Matt 16:24 is to renounce one’s claim to life. This need not be interpreted as a call for suicidal martyrdom or to live recklessly. But it does mean that the ultimate call in life is to follow Jesus. It is a call to renounce self-preservation as one’s modus operandi for living.
Second, “take up one’s cross” is found in two other contexts - Matt 10:38 and 27:32. The first is parallel to 16:24. 27:32 is illuminating. In it, Simon of Cyrene is commissioned to “take up” Jesus’ cross and bear it to the place of Jesus’ execution. This is profoundly important as this context shows the literal meaning of the phrase. To “take up one’s cross” is to live as though you were on the final journey of your life. To use a modern phrase, it is to live as a “dead man walking.” Jesus is thus calling his followers to a radical life in which they die to themselves up front and by doing this paradoxically find life: Matt 16:25 “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life on account of me will find it.”
Why does Jesus call for this radical sort of existence? I think that it is simple: God’s mission in the world requires that disciples be willing to enter the darkest places in the world - places where only dead women and men can go.
Remember the movie Braveheart‘s tagline: Ever man dies; not every man truly lives.
We truly find lives of meaning and significance when we die up front and then follow Jesus moment by moment in order to create an unbelievable future. It all starts with the Cross. Have I found my place on Jesus’ cross? Tim McGraw’s hit song from 2005 had the great line “Someday I hope you will live like you were dying.” This summarizes aptly Jesus’ call.
A Secure Future
Jesus is not calling persons merely to die for a lost cause. Discipleship is not an invitation to a pointless martyrdom. Jesus’ call is radical, but it is also rational in light of the future. Remember Jesus’ words in 16:21 “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life“ (emphasis added). Jesus was already pointing to a victorious future when he talked about the “mustness” of his journey to Jerusalem. Resurrection would follow suffering and death. Notice also how our passages ends:
NIV Matthew 16:27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. 28 I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
These two verses also point to the victorious future. In other words, Jesus’ call to a radical, sold-out discipleship in which we live as though we were already dead needs to be read in light of God’s future. The future is secure. The way of Jesus Christ is not merely about this life - it is about life in the age of salvation (present and future). This sort of hope ought to unleash us in the now of our existence to live fully for God.
A Way Forward
How do we live into the radical standard that Jesus establishes for his disciples? The issue is that Jesus is looking for to lead us into places that only dead women and dead men can go. The mission is to “make disciples of all nations” (28:19). The Risen Jesus continues to go before us calling us to follow him moment by moment.
As I reflect on Jesus’ call for discipleship, I realize that Jesus is calling for me to die to myself so that I can truly live. I am to live as one who is carrying his or her own cross - as a person with nothing left to lose. There is great freedom in this. But first I need to recognize that all of my gifts and talents are not enoughâ…That being smart is not enough…¦That the walls that we build based on past experience (good or bad) are not high enough…that we are not courageous enough. In other words, the focus can no longer be on self, but on Jesus Christ. And when we focus on Jesus Christ, we must inevitably face the Cross. At the cross, we find the essence of discipleship. There God invites us to live as a community of the Cross. There we are shaped into a Mosaic of broken pieces that are renewed and transformed by the Cross so that we can offer wholeness, hope, and salvation to a broken world.
If anyone would come after me, let him or her take up his or her cross, deny him or herself, and continually follow me.
1) Am I living fully deployed as a follower of Jesus Christ?
2) What is holding me back from a full commitment?
3) Am I seeking to secure the future on my own terms or do I trust God with my future?
4) Have I found my place on the Cross of Jesus Christ?
Â© 2007 Brian D. Russell