Read the passage here.
You will likely recognize that our passage today contains part of the passage that we looked at last time – specifically, verses 21-23. And last time, we looked at those verse in connection with the previous verses, 13-20 where the disciples (Peter) declare that Jesus is the Messiah, noting the significance of the declaration/realization by the disciples juxtaposed with their failure to understand the true meaning/mission of the Messiah. That is to say, the disciples recognized that Jesus was the Messiah but they still didn’t understand what that meant. And the reflection we applied to this was that, even though the disciples’ (wrong) expectations were not fulfilled, the hope to be found in Jesus never fails.
In today’s passage, the reason why we’re including verses 21-23 is because a key element of the disciples’ misunderstanding – that piece that they have to come to grips with – is precisely how Jesus is to fulfill the purposes of God as the Messiah.
So let’s take a quick look at the passage again. Verses 21-23, the verses that we’ve already looked at, say this:
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, the chief priests and the 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 concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”Matthew 16:21-23
The disciples declare that Jesus is the Messiah, but then Jesus begins telling them about His impending death. And we should understand this to mean that Jesus tells his disciples not only that he will die, but that he must die.
Peter’s response (again, likely representative of the disciples) demonstrates that they still don’t understand Jesus’ mission. They still have certain expectations of the Messiah, of Jesus, that don’t fall in line with His actual purpose. So the idea of a Messiah who not only doesn’t come in might and victory, but who actually has to suffer and die, is not only foreign, but abhorrent to the disciples.
Having rebuked Peter, Jesus goes on to explain:
24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their 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 they have done.
28 “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”Matthew 16:24-28
Now you might remember that Jesus says almost exactly the same thing back in Matthew 10. He says:
37 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.Matthew 10:37-39
This is part of a discourse in Matthew 10 where Jesus is warning His disciples that they will face opposition. And that this is part of being a disciple of Jesus. Because inasmuch as what Jesus is teaching and what Jesus is doing is counter to the expectations and desires of, in particular, the religious establishment, if the disciples follow in Jesus’ footsteps (as they should), they will face similar opposition.
So the phrase, in our passage today, that “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves…” makes a lot of sense. Because it has at least something to do with letting go of one’s own expectations, one’s own desires, and one’s own ambitions (even those that are apparently for the Kingdom of God). And instead, the disciples (and by extension, we) are called to take up God’s purposes for the Kingdom as fulfilled in Jesus.
But this is also where it gets difficult. This is precisely where we should pause to think about what exactly it was that Jesus did. Remember that part of what’s going on is the juxtaposition of the expectations of others (especially those religious expectations that have to do with the Messiah coming in power and victory) with the actual purpose and mission of Jesus, the true Messiah. And the opposition that Jesus faced (and therefore that the disciples would face) is not just that Jesus sought a different kind of kingdom, but how Jesus actually achieved this (which, I recognize, is inextricably related). So what I want to suggest is that Jesus doesn’t just fail to seek power and victory, but actually leans into, enters into the pain and suffering of the world. Looking at verses 24-28 again, Jesus tells his disciples that whoever wants to be Jesus’ disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross to follow him.
Oftentimes, I think we read the “deny oneself” and “taking up their cross” as essentially equivalent things – two different ways of saying much the same thing. I think there’s an obvious relationship but I also think it’s a mistake to essentially think that “taking up one’s cross” is merely something like “not thinking about oneself” or “not putting oneself first” (If indeed that’s how we understand it).
Part of the problem is that, in the post-resurrection world, we’ve lost the sense of what the cross would have meant to the disciples. While we today understand that the cross is where Jesus suffered and died, we also tend to think (rightly) of the cross as the place of victory. The cross (again rightly) is seen as the place where Christ paid for our sins and bought our salvation.
But this is not what the cross would have meant for the disciples here (or in Matthew 10), prior to Jesus’ death and resurrection. R.T. France has this to say about what crucifixion would have meant in Jesus’ world.
Christian readers have become so used to the cross as a word and a symbol (and indeed a cause for “boasting,” Gal 6:14) that it is hard now to recapture the shudder that the word must have brought to a hearer in Galilee at the time. Crucifixion was a punishment favored by the Romans but regarded with horror by most Jews, and was by now familiar in Roman Palestine as a form of execution for slaves and political rebels. It was thus not only the most cruel form of execution then in use,12 but it also carried the stigma of social disgrace when applied to a free person. To have a member of the family crucified was the ultimate shame. Crucifixion was an inescapably public fate, and drew universal scorn and mockery, as we shall see in 27:27–44. And that public disgrace, as well as physical suffering, began not when the condemned man was fixed to the cross, but with the equally public procession through the streets in which the victim had to carry the heavy cross-piece of his own gibbet, among the jeers and insults of the crowd.R. T. France, The Gospel According to Matthew.
In other words, to “take up your cross,” was a distinctly horrifying notion. To take up your cross, at this point in the disciples’ understanding, did not yet have the notion of “following in Jesus’ footsteps.” Much less did it have the notion of any kind of redemption. Taking up the cross meant to walk into pain, suffering, shame, and sorrow.
So at this point, I want to return to the first part of the passage (vv. 21-23) and the point that was briefly made earlier – that is, that Jesus tells His disciples not that He will die, but that He must die. And as we’ve said before, this was a point that the disciples, with their particular expectations of the Messiah, simply couldn’t wrap their heads around. They couldn’t wrap their heads around it, and we might miss the similar point, because Jesus wasn’t saying that he would die – that somehow His mission would fall short, that somehow He would fail and the religious leaders win. He was saying that He must die. He was telling His disciples not that His death was somehow a detour from or an intermission in His mission to effect God’s redemption. Rather, Jesus knew that it was precisely through His death that God’s victory would be secured. Jesus’ death wasn’t somehow unavoidable – Jesus’ death was intentional. In every gospel account, what we read is that Jesus intentionally went to Jerusalem, towards the cross.
And what I want to suggest is that when Jesus went to the cross, the pain and suffering that He endured, when He took upon Himself the sins of the whole world, this wasn’t just a by-product of the cross; it wasn’t just an addendum to the dying. But Jesus’ dying meant, in part, that he entered into, took on, the pain and suffering of the world.
Now I know that this is probably obvious to varying degrees – things that we already know and doesn’t need to be said. But sometimes, in this familiarity, the significance can be lost. I want to emphasize (and therefore have us reflect upon the fact) that Jesus didn’t just willingly, and necessarily, go to His death; He willingly and intentionally shared in our actual suffering.
So at this point, let’s look again at the second part of our passage today (vv. 24-28). Jesus tells His disciples:
24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their lifewill lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their 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 they have done.
28 “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”Matthew 16:24-28
Reading these verses, we probably immediately recognize the motif that we’ve seen throughout Matthew that to follow Jesus, to seek the Kingdom of God, means to forsake the kingdoms of the world. I think that’s true and obvious in these verses. But if we really understand what it meant for Jesus to go willingly and purposefully to His death, to the cross, this should also have profound implications for how we understand what it means when Jesus tells His disciples that they also must take up their cross; what it means for us to take up our cross.
This is something that we see throughout scripture. We see this concept throughout the New Testament (for example) in verses like:
17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.Romans 8:17
13 But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.1 Peter 4:13
10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.Philippians 3:10-11
5 For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.2 Corinthians 1:5
Now I want to be careful here – these verses all occur in particular contexts and I don’t want to give the impression that they outright say the same thing that we’re talking about here. But the thread throughout these verses, as it relates to our passage today, seems to say something about how being a disciple of Christ means – somehow, to some extent – to share in the sufferings of Christ; to take up the cross. And what I’m encouraging us to think about is what exactly this means. Often, I think, we tend to think about “sharing in His sufferings,” as meaning something like “receiving the blessings or benefits of Jesus having suffered.” But perhaps it’s actually more than that.
So much of how we approach life is to run away from, ignore, or fix pain and suffering. We know that everybody experiences it – the world is full of it. But we tend to think of it in terms of escape. And I’m not saying that pain and suffering is something that we should hope for – nor am I saying that it is something that we should not try to fix if we can – it’s not something that we wallow in.
So in order to help us think about it, at least in part, I want to borrow from Henri Nouwen who, along with others, suggests that acknowledging and entering into our pain, suffering, and brokenness is an integral part of acknowledging and entering into our humanness. And that there’s something about acknowledging our humanness, with all its brokenness and sinfulness, that’s necessary for opening ourselves up to the salvation that is made available through Jesus Christ. Says Nouwen:
“I am convinced that healing is often so difficult because we don’t want to know the pain.” …
“Our suffering and pains are not simply bothersome interruptions of our lives; rather, they touch our very uniqueness and our most intimate individuality. The way I am broken tells you something unique about me. The way you are broken tells me something unique about you… Our brokenness is always lived and experienced as highly personal, intimate and unique. I am deeply convinced that each human being suffers in a way no other human being suffers. No doubt, we can make comparisons; we can talk about more or less suffering, but, in the final analysis, your pain and my pain are so deeply personal that comparing them can bring scarcely any consolation or comfort…
Our brokenness is truly ours. Nobody else’s. Our brokenness is as unique as our choseness and our blessedness. The way we are broken is as much an expression of our individuality as the way we are taken and blessed… The great spiritual call of the Beloved Children of God is to pull their brokenness away from the shadow of the curse and put it under the light of the blessing.”Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved.
Now there’s a lot more to say about this that we simply don’t have time for. But what I want to say is that Jesus, in going to the cross, enters into and takes on our pain and suffering – He enters into our humanness. He did so willingly and He did so purposefully. And to say that Jesus identifies with those who are broken and wounded isn’t just a figure of speech – it’s an ontological reality. It’s somehow part of what Jesus did in earning for us, our redemption and salvation before God. And somehow, shockingly and wondrously, as people of the kingdom, we are called to do likewise. To enter into our own woundedness and enter into the woundedness and brokenness of those around us.