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To Follow Jesus

October 17, 2014 Preacher: Cameron Arensen Series: The Gospel of Matthew

Scripture: Matthew 16:21–28

Synopsis: We are over half way through the Gospel of Matthew. The book will end with the Great Commission, in which we are challenged to “make disciples of all nations.” So this is a good time to stop and ask the question: what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? In this passage (Matthew 16:21-28) and message (To Follow Jesus…) we are confronted with Jesus’ example as well as his teaching and challenge to us as his followers. Both involve a cross and a crown. But we have to get the order right.


The Gospel of Matthew concludes with a text of Scripture that we call the Great Commission. There is one driving verb in the Great Commission and it is Jesus’ command to “make disciples.”

We are over halfway through the Gospel of Matthew. So I don’t think it is inappropriate for us to pause at this point in our study and ask a question.

What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? By the simplest definition in the culture of Jesus’ day, a disciple is a follower or student. So if we are called to be disciples and to make disciples, we need to ask: what is involved and what does it cost to be a disciple and to follow Jesus?

In Matthew’s account, Jesus has now entered a new phase in his ministry. On a time-line there are approximately 6 months yet to go before Jesus’ crucifixion. After the rejection of Jesus and his ministry by the leaders and even many in the multitudes in Israel, Jesus is now focusing increasingly on his disciples, seeking to prepare them for what lay ahead. Last week we studied a pivotal passage, as Jesus confronted his close circle of followers with the question: Who do you say that I am? What do you believe about me? Peter answered with his great confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

So we can offer the first answer to the question: What does it mean to follow Jesus? We can say that a follower of Jesus must make this same confession. A follower of Jesus must believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

The paragraph we studied last week ended rather strangely. We are told in verse 20 that: Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

Isn’t that strange? If Jesus wants to build his church out of disciples who believe that he is the Christ, why is he telling his disciples not to tell anyone he is the Christ?

The answer to that question is all about timing. Several times in John’s gospel accounts, Jesus made the statement, “My time has not yet come.” The issue of timing is also related to the misunderstanding that the Jews had about the Messiah and his kingdom. They were expecting a political deliverer and a king. With this as their expectation, a premature declaration that he was the Christ would have created political unrest and caused havoc with God’s unfolding plan. So he urged them to keep quiet.

He then began to instruct them on what was going to happen to him next. And his words could not have been more shocking and dismaying to his small band of followers:

21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

It is impossible for us to overestimate the shock value of this announcement. Jesus has made hints of it before – but now he is speaking clearly. And not just once. “From that time” he began to emphasize this reality repeatedly. And this is more than just prophecy of something bad that is about to happen. This is intention. This is something necessary. Did you see the word “must” in that sentence? That could be translated “it is necessary.” This must happen. I must do this. The narrative puts this in the third person, but it would have come to the disciples from Jesus in the first person. “I must go to Jerusalem and I must suffer many things from the elders and the chief priests and scribes and I must be killed, and on the third day I must be raised.”

It’s fair to assume that his disciples only heard the first three verbs in that series, and the horror of what Jesus was saying completely obliterated the final verb in the sequence that would one day bring his followers such incredible joy. For the time being, all they could hear were the predictions of his suffering and death at the hands of the religious leaders.

In the shocked silence that followed Jesus’ pronouncement, Peter is the first to speak, but he no doubt said what was in all of their minds:

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” (v. 22)

I must admit to having a rather divided reaction to Peter’s actions here. Part of me is startled, appalled almost, at his arrogance: In one moment he makes this statement of great faith: You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. Yet in almost the next breath, he takes Jesus aside and rebukes him.

Yet another part of me is sympathetic to his reaction and words. It is difficult for us to imagine the “disconnect”, the impossible contradiction in Peter’s mind between the expectations he had for the Messiah and Jesus’ words. He had been raised on the glorious prophecies of the Old Testament of the conquering Son of David who would rule on David’s throne and restore the glory to Israel. Yet now Jesus speaks of suffering, rejection, and even death. This could not be! This can only be a human depression, discouragement, fatigue affecting Jesus. He, Peter, must take a hand, stiffen the spine and restore the courage of the faltering Messiah.

But while Peter may have been well-intentioned on a human level, there is something deeper and more sinister in operation here. We see it in Jesus’ response to Peter.

23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Let’s set aside the dynamic between Jesus and Peter for the time being and wrestle with the essential, underlying conflict. Jesus said to Peter, “You are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” I think we can accurately paraphrase that: “You are not thinking God’s thoughts, but man’s thoughts.” In other words, you are not thinking or seeing this the way God sees it. And at stake is one of the deepest, most profound realities of the kingdom of heaven. It is the reality that in Christ’s kingdom, the cross must precede the crown.

This was the reality that would be first born out in the necessary order of events that must take place in the establishing of Christ’s kingdom. This was the reality that lay first before Jesus himself. What God was thinking, what God knew was that because of our sin, the cross must precede the crown in the establishing of Christ’s kingdom. Peter failed to see this. He was looking at it from man’s perspective.

But to pursue the crown of Christ’s kingdom on earth without the cross would mean only the establishing of an earthly, temporal kingdom; one which made no provision for man’s sin. Members of such a kingdom would still die because “the wages of sin is death.” And they would die unredeemed, with sins unforgiven and Satan’s grip on the human race still intact. That is why Jesus said, “I must go to Jerusalem. I must suffer. I must be killed.” Then, with sin atoned for and Satan defeated, and the cross a completed work, then and only then would come the resurrection and the crown that followed. The crown will come. But the cross must come first.

Why did Jesus call Peter Satan? I believe it was because Jesus was always sensitive and tuned into the spiritual world and the spiritual forces that were arrayed against him. Because of that, he recognized Satan’s words and thoughts and influence in Peter’s words. This doesn’t mean that Peter was deliberately in collusion with Satan or possessed by the Devil as he spoke. Rather Satan, opportunistically, subtly and insidiously used Peter’s well-intentioned words to dissuade Jesus from his path of submission to the will of God as he set his face toward the cross. It was Satan’s influence, expressed in Peter’s words, that Jesus was rejecting.

I think it is important to note that this was not a new temptation. When Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry, one of the temptations was to take Jesus up to a very high mountain. There he showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you, if you only bow down and worship me.” The details of the temptation are different, but the essence remains the same. “You can have the crown without the cross.” After all, that was what Peter was implying, was it not? “You are the Messiah. But you don’t need to suffer and die. Go straight for the throne!” Jesus recognizes the temptation and Satan’s voice behind it and rejects it.

Jesus and his earthly ministry set the model for us as his followers. In the establishing of his kingdom, the cross had to precede the crown. But he goes on in the next breath to drive home the reality that this is not just a necessity in the establishing of his kingdom but it is a principle and reality that lies very close to the heart of what it means to be his followers. As disciples, we are called to follow the example of our master and teacher.

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. 28 Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

In this passage, we are coming face to face with the answer to the questions I raised at the beginning of the sermon. “What is involved and what does it cost to be a disciple and to follow Jesus?” Here it is in verse 34: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” On the path of discipleship, the cross precedes the crown. Following Jesus means denying self and taking up our cross.

We have all heard these words. But what do they really mean?

Let’s take the first phrase: let him deny himself. Warren Wiersbe, a well-known Bible teacher, makes the comment: “Denying one’s self is not the same as self-denial.” It is not just denying one’s self certain of life’s pleasures. It is more than self-discipline or saying no to sensual desires. It is deeper and more fundamental than that. Strong’s Greek dictionary gives the meaning as “forget one’s self, lose sight of one’s self and one’s own interests.”

Here are some additional phrases of explanation taken from different commentaries: “To renounce self – to cease to make self the object of one’s life and actions. God, not self must be the center of life. It means to turn away from the idolatry of self-centeredness and every attempt to orient one’s life by the dictates of self-interest.”

To use a metaphor taken from modern technology it means to stop taking “selfies” in which we are front and center in every picture.

In an attempt to explain what Jesus meant by these words, let me describe a set of diagrams to you. These are diagrams that I learned and used way back in university in the training materials of Campus Crusade for Christ and their witnessing tracts. In the first diagram, the life of the unbeliever, the person without Christ, is described as a circle. At the center of the circle is a chair or throne. This throne represents the control center of the life. For the unbeliever, the letter S representing the Self is on the throne. Christ, represented by a cross, is outside the circle. The conclusion to that particular tract is an invitation to invite Christ into your life.

We also used another tract with a second diagram that we would use when we encountered someone who said they were a follower of Christ, but they were not living in fellowship with Christ. In this diagram, Christ was now inside the circle – but the Self was still on the throne. Christ (represented by a cross) was peripheral to the decision making or control center of life. The third diagram represents the Christian who is pursuing the path of discipleship. In this diagram, the cross, or Christ, is on the throne. The Self is seated submissively at the foot of the throne. I think these diagrams capture in a visual sense what Jesus is calling for when he tells us to deny ourselves. With these diagrams in mind I think we can paraphrase what Jesus is saying this say: If anyone would come after me he must dethrone himself.

Now, what about the next phrase: take up his cross. What did this image call to mind in Jesus’ hearers? When Jesus first spoke these words, he had not yet been crucified. His first prophecy here of his suffering only speaks of his death. It makes no mention of how he would die; not mention of crucifixion or a cross. So the disciples had no reason to associate a cross with Jesus. But they had good reason to know about crosses and crucifixion. According to history, when Jesus was about 11 years old, a man named Simon led a Galilean revolt against Rome. They attacked the Roman armory at Sephoris, a Roman town just four miles from Nazareth. The Roman legions counter-attacked and put down the rebellion and in retaliation they crucified over 2000 rebels on crosses which lined the roads of the district.

So what do you think the disciples thought when Jesus told them to take up their cross? It was not a pretty image, or a piece of jewelry to wear around one’s neck. The cross was an object of horror, of shame, of terrible suffering. A man who was carrying a cross was a man whose life was virtually over. “Dead man walking,” is the phrase they use for someone who is on his way to his execution. His last act was to participate in his own death by carrying his own instrument of execution out to the place of his death.

I am not sure we can fully plumb the depths of this image. But we can conclude certain things. Following Jesus is costly. It involves submission. It will involve suffering. For some it will mean actual, physical death. For others it may mean the death of one’s ambitions, one’s personal dreams, the end of the self’s right to do what I want, when I want. I think Paul is communicating the same truth in Romans 12:1 where he urges us to present our bodies as living sacrifices to God.

One other phrase in the immediate context captures the force of this image. It is in verse 25, the second part: whoever loses his life for my sake…To take up my cross is to give up my life for the sake of Christ and his Gospel; to spend my life for Christ and his kingdom. It describes a life given over to doing God’s will, not my own will. It is a life in which I have taken myself off the throne and put Christ on it.

These are powerful and, frankly, disturbing images: Deny self, take up your cross, lose your life for my sake. The question before us is simple and demands an answer. Why would anyone want to do that? Where is the sense in it? The answer to that question lies in this same verse 25: For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. This is deep truth. This is fundamental to what it means to follow Christ and to be his disciple.

You might say: “But how does this work?” I can only answer: “I am not sure I know.” But we know it does work because Jesus says it does, and because countless believers have tested it and found it true. When we try to save our life, to hang on to life with all of our strength, hoarding it, trying to save up all its treasures and pleasures for ourselves, it runs through our fingers like water and is gone. It’s like trying to capture a beautiful smell in a butterfly net. But on the other hand, if we yield the throne of our lives to Christ, and spend our lives for him and for his Gospel, not only will we lay up treasures in heaven, but we will also discover an abundant life here on earth; a life that overflows with meaning and purpose and significance.

To drive home the importance of the choice and the costliness of making the wrong choice, Jesus asks two rhetorical questions in verse 26: For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?

These questions are rhetorical. I also believe that they are deliberately ambiguous. They are ambiguous because of a peculiarity of the Greek language. In Greek, this same word can be translated either “soul” or “life”. And it is the same word that was used in verse 25 and translated there as “life”. Only the context of any given passage can determine which meaning is intended. Why do I say that it is deliberately ambiguous in these verses? Because I believe in the deep realities of the kingdom of heaven it holds true either way we translate it.

If you are not a follower of Christ, and have not received him as Savior, you face a choice. Will you follow this Christ, even if it means suffering, persecution and even physical death? Or will you cling to the security, comforts and pleasures of the self-guided, self-sufficient life? If you do, there will come a time when you will regret that decision. What good will it do you, even if you have gained the whole world, but lost your own soul? Then it will be too late. No matter how many earthly riches you have accumulated, none of them will suffice as payment to buy back your soul. So this is meaning, or application number one. If you are considering whether or not to follow Christ, you may be put off by what it may cost you to follow him and what you will have to give up. But as you weigh the decision, ask yourself this question: “What will it cost me if I don’t follow him?”

On the other hand, maybe you are a follower of Christ. You do believe in him. You have trusted in him as Savior. What is at stake now is not our soul, but our life. Even as Christ’s followers, we still face the challenge of how we will invest our lives, and how we spend our time on earth. Will we live by the values of the kingdom, dethrone ourselves, take up our cross and live in submission to Christ and for the sake of his kingdom? If we do, we will find the fullness of abundant life. If we don’t, we will waste life and its opportunities. And when we come to the end of life, it will be too late then to buy back those opportunities or to trade in our earthly treasure for heavenly gain.

Finally Jesus concludes his teaching that day by dialing forward to a future day. What day is it? It’s the day of crowns. The day of glory. On the path of discipleship, the cross precedes the crown.

The cross comes first. But the crown will follow. The crown will follow because Jesus is coming back.

For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. (v.27)

I want to highlight a couple truths here. First, Jesus is coming back. The suffering, crucified and resurrected Christ is going to return. He doesn’t say “if”. He says “then”. Second, when he comes back, he is coming back in glory; in his Father’s glory. He is coming back wearing a crown. When he does who will share his glory, and who will be excluded? Those who have carried their cross and shared his shame, will on that day wear a crown and share his glory.

On the path of discipleship, the cross precedes the crown. If we will not carry the cross, we shall not share the crown. I believe this image has application both for those who have turned from Christ in unbelief, for whom this loss is the eternal loss of their souls. I belief it also has application for those who have trusted in Christ, but have shied away from the cost of discipleship and who will suffer the loss of reward and experience the regret of lost opportunities and a wasted life. You have to give your life up in order to keep it.

So, what does it mean to follow Jesus and what does it cost to be his disciple? A disciple is first of all one who has made the Great Confession and believes that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. And a disciple is one who has dethroned himself/herself to take up the cross of submission and obedience to follow Christ.

Before I close, I want to come back to the exchange between Jesus and Peter. Why was Jesus so quick to recognize Satan’s temptations, clothed in Peter’s words? Jesus was tuned into his Father’s will at all times. He was always thinking the Father’s thoughts and the necessity of fulfilling the Father’s plans. So he was quick to recognize Satan’s temptation when it came, even though it came from the mouth of one of his own disciples. We need to be equally tuned in to God’s thoughts and God’s plans and be ready to resist Satan’s temptations when they come, even when they come in words of sweet human reason from the mouth of a loved one or even a fellow follower of Jesus.

In fact these latter temptations are often the most subtle and insidious and hardest to recognize and resist. Here is a quote that I came across in my study this week from a commentary published in 1930. It hit me between the eyes: “None are more formidable instruments of temptation than well-meaning friends, who care more for our comfort than for our character.”

Wow! That hits home, doesn’t it? When we receive such counsel, it almost always urges us to bypass some cross, some hardship, some difficulty in order to feel better quickly. It is human thinking, not God’s thinking. In God’s kingdom, the cross must precede the crown. And ultimately that is how godly character is formed in us and God’s kingdom purposes are fulfilled in our lives and ministries. On the path of discipleship, the cross precedes the crown. This is a deep truth and principle which we must keep firmly in our minds, both when we offer counsel and when we receive it.

Let me close this message with a challenge and a story.

The challenge is this. I challenge you to memorize the verses we have studied this morning (Matthew 16:24-26). Why do I say that? I believe these are some of the most challenging and profound truths Jesus ever uttered. I have tried my best to make them clear and understandable, but I have done so with a deep sense of the inadequacy of my own words. The actual words of Jesus have an inherent power. This power will find multiplied applications in our lives if we will allow it to. The best way I know to do that is to commit these words to memory, and to meditate on them repeatedly and as they pertain to the many situations and choices we face in life.

Finally a story from my own family history. My mother and father left the U.S. in 1946, shortly after the end of World War 2, to serve as missionaries in Africa. My mother had a sister named Edna. Edna was a nominal Christian, but she could not understand the choice that my mother was making. Before they left, she went to my father and spoke to him in her typical blunt way. “You can go throw your life away in Africa if you want to, but why do you have to take my sister with you!” In spite of her opposition, my parents left and spent the next 44 years in missionary service in Africa while Edna kept her safe life in middle America. Late in life when they were both nearing retirement age, Edna went to visit my parents in Africa. She stayed in their home and saw and experienced the life they had led there. When the time came for her to get back on the plane to return to America, she gave my mother a hug and she said, with tears in her eyes, “I envy you!”

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Read Matthew 16:21-28
  2. The question addressed in this passage (and this message) is: What does it mean to follow Jesus and be his disciple? How does the previous paragraph (verses 13-20) help us answer this question?
  3. Why do you think Jesus told his disciples not to tell people he was the Christ? (v. 20)
  4. Jesus’ announcement in verse 21 shocked his disciples. Discuss Peter’s response (v. 22)? What would you have said?
  5. Why did Jesus call Peter “Satan”? What was the essential conflict between “the things of God” and “the things of man”?
  6. “The cross must precede the crown.” Why was this necessary in Jesus’ ministry and the establishing of his kingdom?
  7. How would you explain Jesus’ words? “Let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
  8. What rationale does Jesus give for such a radical action? What is Jesus saying in verses 25-26?
  9. Discuss this quote: “None are more formidable instruments of temptation than well-meaning friends who care more for our comfort than for our character.”

More in The Gospel of Matthew

November 14, 2014

We Beheld His Glory!

October 10, 2014

I Will Build My Church

October 3, 2014

Reflections on Children, Dogs and Bread