In the famous words of the late American news commentator Paul Harvey, Matthew 16:21-28 is “the rest of the story”. It is a continuation from Matthew 16:13-20, in which Peter acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God. Now Jesus is telling his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem to complete his God-given mission to save the world by dying on the cross.

Naturally this comes as a shock to the disciples. After all, why would God send someone to do something as ungodlike as dying? And if dying was necessary, why couldn’t it be done on the battlefield instead of on a cross. It’s no wonder Peter rebukes Jesus. After all, here he was-a fisherman who believed Jesus, but who could not understand the true purpose of Jesus’ mission. He, like many of the Jews, thought that the Messiah would be a military ruler who would drive out the Romans and restore Israel to the glory days of the reign of King David.

Jesus told his disciples that he was going to lead them into battle-and they should not expect to come away unscathed. In fact, they should not be surprised if they died on the battlefield. They would be facing the forces of evil, and those forces were strong enough to wreak havoc. God would win the ultimate battle against evil, but in the meantime his disciples could expect the fight of their lives. It is a fight we are still involved in today.

Peter rebuked Jesus because he took seriously his new role as the rock on which the church was built. He took his role so seriously that he thought he had a responsibility to make sure that Jesus’ ministry would be successful. He thought it was his duty to rebuke Jesus, but Jesus put him in his place. His place was behind Jesus as a follower-a role we also have to play.

Peter, like Satan, tried to deflect Jesus from the way of God, and Satan tries to deflect us from God’s way today. Satan has lots of traps to put in our path, and because he is smart, he knows that the best time to trap us often comes after some great victory. In Peter’s case, it was just after Jesus told him that he was going to be the rock that the church would be built on. Peter wanted Jesus to follow the wide, smooth road of a worldly life that leads to death and sin. Jesus knew he had to travel on the narrow, rough road of life with God, and it is the same road we as Christians have to travel today.

Jesus wasted no time in dealing with Satan, and neither should we. Peter fell for the enemy’s temptations of allowing his thoughts to turn inward to himself and his desires for the nation of Israel. So Jesus moved quickly to put an end to Peter’s wrong way of thinking. We must never allow the thoughts of pride or sin to linger. We must keep our focus set on God and ask Him to reveal His perfect will to us. He knows the plan and outcome of our lives. We can trust him fully because He knows exactly what the future holds for us.

Jesus knew the road he would have to travel would lead to self-denial and the cross, and he urges his followers to be prepared to pay the price and suffer the consequences if they want to follow the same road of life. We as his followers have to sacrifice our own interests in favour of serving Christ. Our personal goals and interests have to take on a secondary importance if we want to receive eternal life. When we do, we will fulfill God’s purpose of giving life. Jesus often motivated his disciples to love and good works by reminding them that He would return one day in great glory to reward all His faithful servants for whatever they had accomplished in His name.

This concept isn’t east to understand. Spiritual growth takes place slowly. It takes a lifetime, and even as we reach the end of that journey, our understanding is far from perfect. For example, Jesus repeatedly told his disciples about the suffering that awaited him in Jerusalem, but they did not understand until after the Resurrection. The Holy Spirit had not yet come, and their eyes and minds were blinded to the eternal things of the Lord. However, after they saw the resurrected Christ, they knew He was the Saviour. God’s Word always bears fruit at the right time.

We take up the cross of Jesus any time we suffer in some way for identifying with Him and His cause. “Cross bearing” does not always include affliction or persecution in general. It may mean denying what we deeply desire in order to do the will of God. When we obey Him, we position ourselves for great blessing. We can take up our crosses and know that the Lord will bear them with us.

When Jesus said that those who want to save their lives will lose them and vice versa, he was right. Our world is full of examples of people who have sold their souls by using sex, drugs, money, careers, possessions or alcohol to find happiness in life, only to be disappointed. Whatever a person is or becomes in his outward life, the particular quality of his or her soul will be the deciding factor in how he or she lives and how others experience him or her. With God, though, there is another way. Through his life, suffering, death on the cross and resurrection, Jesus saves us by showing us the way to a life of God’s forgiveness, love and grace-given with no conditions and no strings attached. God provides for us the chance to live a life with a full range of the possibilities potentially present everywhere.

Jesus saves us by his death, by overcoming once and for all the power of sin. Sin no longer has a death grip over us. Christ makes it clear that God will forgive the sin that we confess and from which we repent in the sincere desire to renew our lives. Christ makes us realize that we are the most precious creatures in creation-creatures worth dying for.

As Jesus said, death lurks in the darkness of life. Whatever we hope to find outside of God’s plan proves elusive and temporary. Only by walking with Christ on the path of goodness will we find the security and contentment we are seeking. If our lives are more important to us than our faith, our lives will be over.  If our faith is more important to us than our lives, we will be rewarded with eternal life. Our Christian life involves sacrifice because Jesus must come first in our lives. We are to be like Jesus-selfless and obedient, even to the point of death to self and life in Christ. Matthew 25:31-46 tells us that we will be judged according to our deeds of mercy to the needy. We are saved by grace through faith, but Jesus makes it clear that our faith must be shown in good deeds.

Our crosses might not lead to death, but they can lead to other forms of persecution. For example, I subscribe to a Christian news service called ASSIST News. It regularly publish stories about persecution of Christians throughout the world, especially in Third World countries. Here are some recent headlines:

  1. “Landlord Evicts Church”
  2. “Egypt’s Double Standard Shown in Difference Between Muslim and Christian Abduction Cases”
  3. “0.1 Million Pakistani Christians Living Under Constant Death Threats’
  4. “A Christian Man Booked in an Engineered Blasphemy Case”
  5. “A Cry from Abidjan”
  6. “Afghan Christian Refugees Under Threat”
  7. “Prayer Sought for Students, Missionary Attacked While Sharing the Gospel

Here in our little corner of the world, our persecution might not be as severe. It could be in the form of rejection by friends or family. Our careers might be affected. All of these are a small price that we must be prepared to pay as we take up the cross of Christ on the road of life-just like Christ and Simon of Cyrene had to carry the cross to Golgotha.

What that will require will depend on our calling. We can discern that calling through prayer, reading the Bible and keeping our eyes and hearts open to see the challenges Christ sends our way. The cross that Jesus commands us to carry is the cross of submissive obedience to His will, even when it includes suffering and hardship and things we don’t want to do. It is a willingness to totally, absolutely, irrevocably and finally yield our lives to Him because we want what He wants more than what we want. When we take up our cross and follow Jesus, we will bring life to those he calls us to serve. In return, he will give us abundant, eternal life.

Sacrifice and self-denial are synonymous with following Christ. That is why the Prosperity Doctrine is so disturbing. That doctrine essentially says that God will bless your life, finances, business and so on if only you believe in Him. While God has called us to the abundant life in John 10:10 and the prosperity of the soul in Psalm 25:12-13, if God chooses to bless us materially, it will only be as a bi-product of putting His kingdom ahead of our own selfish interests.

The church also needs the challenge of the cross today. The church as the body of Christ and his followers also has a cross to bear as it fulfills Christ’s mission. It involves making decisions that will not please everyone, such as decisions made regarding the blessing of same-sex civil unions. Do today’s churches offer a faith strong enough that it can command a sacrifice? Can a church in today’s “me first” culture ask its people to sacrifice something for the sake of the gospel?

The pain and suffering of the cross and the spending of self for Him are a part of the Christian life. The life of self-denial and sacrifice of which Jesus spoke has been real enough for those who would follow him throughout the last 2,000 years. It has filled the meditations of saints and martyrs as well as offering rich metaphors for sacred poetry and hymns of the church.

Today we are reminded that our confession of faith has consequences and shows itself not only in public worship, but through our words and deeds in our daily lives. Peter’s story reminds us that it is not one incident alone that makes a life. Though we fall again and again, it is the getting up that marks the true child of God. So, we offer our lives in surrender to Christ’s purpose. The waters of our baptism still bubble up inside us and enable us to confess with Peter that Jesus is the Son of God. They also constantly renew in us the willing spirit that says, “Yes” to our own taking up the cross to follow Christ.

Bibliography

  1. Charles F. Stanley Life Principles Bible, NASV
  2. Exegesis for Matthew 16:21-28. Retrieved from www.sermonwriter.com
  3. Dr. Jack Graham, “Understanding the Cost of Being a Follower of Christ”. Retrieved from www.crosswalkmail.com
  4. J. Randal Matheny, “Spiritual Aspirin”. Retrieved from www.forthright.net
  5. Anne Graham Lotz, “Dying to Self”. Retrieved from www.angelministries.org
  6. Anne Graham Lotz, “The Cross of Obedience”. Retrieved from www.angelministries.org
  7. Dr. Charles F. Stanley, “Making Changes to Fulfill God’s Plan”. Retrieved from www.crosswalkmail.com
  8. Dr. Charles F. Stanley, “The Narrow Road”. Retrieved from www.crosswalkmail.com
  9. T.M. Moore, “The Primacy of the Lord”. Retrieved from www.colsoncenter.org
  10. Jude Siciliano, OP, “First Impressions: 22nd Sunday (A)”. Retrieved from www.preacherexchange.org
  11. Dr. Ray Pritchard, “How Good Christians Sometimes Do Devil’s Work”. Retrieved from www.keepbelieving.com
  12. Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament. Part of Lessonmaker Bible software program.
  13. Matthew Henry Concise Commentary. Part of Lessonmaker Bible software program.
  14. Wycliffe Bible Commentary. Part of Lessonmaker Bible software program.
  15. Notes from Peter Anthony’s Bible Study on the Gospel of Matthew
  16. “Proper Seventeen: Sunday between August 28th and September 3rd Inclusive”. Retrieved from www.ministrymatters.com/library/
  17. The Rev. Ken Kesselus, “August 31, 2008-Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17-Year A (RCL)”. Retrieved from www.episcopalchurch.org/sermons_that_work_99908_ENG_HTM.htm
  18. Dr. Mickey Anders, “Look Good on Wood”. Retrieved from www.sermonwriter.com
  19. John Shearman’s Lectionary Resource, Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Aug. 28, 2011. Retrieved from http://lectionary.seemslikegod,org/aarchives/eleventh-sunday-after-pentecost-august -28-2011

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