This is a turning point in Jesus’ teaching of the disciples. Up to now Jesus has been making claims about who he is – through healing and parables and miracles. The healing and parables and miracles continue, the teaching about the kingdom of heaven continues. But now that the disciples understand who Jesus is, it’s time for them to learn what that means for them.
It’s not an easy lesson. And Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat it one bit. He dives right in and reveals God’s plan for Messiah. And the vision from the kingdom of heaven is so unexpected, so outrageous that Peter tailspins from the prime confessor of faith to a tempter from Satan.
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised (verse 21).
It’s hard for us on this side of Easter to really get the impact just how outrageous this statement would have sounded to the disciples. In three phrases, their idea of just what the Messiah would do is turned completely on its head.
Jesus says he “must go to Jerusalem” – nothing earth shaking there. Jerusalem was where David ruled and naturally the Messiah would take up his new rule in the traditional city of the king. The disciples would have been excited, “Yes! No more wandering around the wilderness. No more travel in Gentile and Samarian lands. We’re off the Jerusalem to claim Jesus’ rightful throne! Woo-hoo! Let’s go!”
Once in Jerusalem, Jesus will “undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and the scribes” – now things are getting dicey. Ok, well, Jesus will have to challenge the elders and the chief priests and the scribes. And maybe they’ll make him suffer for awhile. They’re not going to give up their power easily and it will be messy. But eventually, Jesus will win them over or defeat them and everyone around will become Jesus’ followers.
But suffering isn’t the end of the bad news. Jesus will “be killed” – That shakes them up and totally destroys any dreams of glory they may have had. “Jesus, you lost us here. You’re not going to die. Messiah can’t die. Messiah is going to unite Judea and raise up an army and overthrow the Romans and bring back the glory and justice and peace of the rule of David. Besides, we love you – you can’t die!”
This would have so disturbed the disciples that they probably could not even have heard let alone comprehended what Jesus said next:
“On the third day be raised” Of course, those six little words are what make all the difference. Those words tell us that God is at work here, that God is doing something - something radically different than God has done before in Israel’s history. Death will not have the last word and God’s Messiah will triumph!
Six words that reveal the kingdom of heaven vision of Messiah. And the disciples totally missed them.
We know the disciples missed those six little words, because they don’t ask, “Wait…what’s this ‘be raised’ stuff? What do you mean?”
And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you." But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." (verse 22, 23)
Peter has some nerve. He’s just proclaimed that Jesus is the Son of God. And then he has the audacity to say, “Wait a minute, God’s Son you may be, but you’ve got it all wrong. “
It’s no wonder that Peter corrects Jesus. No longer seeing things from God’s point of view, Peter hears Jesus’ words and weighs them against a very human vision of Messiah – a vision which limits God’s salvation to a single act of liberating a single people in a single point of time in a single place from a single oppressor. The disciples can’t even begin to see that this Messiah is here to liberate all people from all times and places from the ultimate oppressor. Messiah is not here to free the Judeans of the first century from Roman oppression. Messiah is here to bring liberation to the entire world, everyone that is or has been or will be, from the oppression of sin, death and the grave.
In seven short verses, Peter goes for the one with the confession on which Jesus will build the church to a stumbling block. He goes from seeing with heaven’s eyes to looking at things from a human point of view. And Jesus firmly puts him in his place – behind Jesus, right where a good disciple should be, following the master.
At this point the disciples are in chaos – they are shocked and confused.
There are more shocks to come. Now Jesus is going to explain to them how the followers of a Messiah come to die are to behave:
Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (verse 24)
We’re going to unpack this a bit here. Over the centuries, this verse has lost a bit of its scandal.
“Deny yourself” - “Deny” is not strong enough. “Disown” yourself, “repudiate” yourself. The New Living Translation says “turn from your selfish ways.
“Take up your cross” – After 2000 years and myriads of crosses in art and stained glass and in gold and silver and on t-shirts and bumper stickers, it’s hard for us to hear in these words the pain and blood and humiliation and repulsion the disciples would have heard.
It’s become part of our language – we’ve reduced ‘taking up your cross” to a cliché. We talk about unpleasant tasks and minor inconveniences as ‘our cross to bear.’
“Take up your cross” – this was the most shameful, agonizing, atrocious way to die. Today Jesus would have to say something more like, “Go willingly into a terrorist camp and offer yourself up for a public execution broadcast on the internet.”
“Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” Not a great motivational speech. Not a great recruiting slogan.
But then Jesus redeems this awful instruction by applying kingdom of heaven vision.
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? (verse 25, 26)
There’s a lot to unpack here. To start with, ‘life’ means much more than your physical life from birth to death. The Greek word is ‘psyche’ which would correspond with the Hebrew word ‘nephesh.’ Both mean more than just physical life (Greek ‘zoe’) – they mean the whole of being, the soul, the self, mind-heart-strength. We’re talking about far more than life and death here.
“Save” is the Greek word ‘sowso.’ It means ‘to save’, but it also means to “heal, rescue, liberate, preserve, keep from harm.”
“Lose” means much more than misplace, it means destroy, ruin, kill.
“Find” means “discover, come upon”; also, “obtain, be found, find oneself.”The Greek word is ‘eurisko” – the word that ‘eureka’ comes from.
Jesus is telling us, “If you try to heal-liberate-save your whole being, your soul, by your own actions, what you’re really doing is destroying your life and killing yourself. But if you give up your preconceived idea of who you are and what’s important in life to follow me – I’ll teach you to kill off that kingdom of earth way of thinking in favor of kingdom of heaven thinking, and then - Eureka! - you will discover your real self, that person that you were created to be, that beloved child of God.”
Note that you ‘find’ yourself, not ‘save’ yourself. We follow Jesus in the way of the cross, but he is the one who suffered the cross to bring salvation. Jesus saves our lives and makes it possible for us to discover our true self.
Jesus asks “What would you give in exchange for your very being? What price do you put on your soul? Is there anything – money, power, a relationship, the latest must-have consumer product, education – really worthy of your life?”
Jesus has already given us God’s answer to that question: this is why he must suffer, die and be raised. The Son of God on a cross shows us how much God believes we are worth. His death declares God’s love for us, his resurrection proclaims God’s resounding “yes!” to abundant life and renewed relationship.
When writing this sermon, I was reminded about discussing Dietrich Bonhoeffer, cheap and costly grace, faith and obedience in a class. I went back to my notes and found the following:
What changes in our lives if we are Christian and take this stuff seriously?
Cheap grace is the denial of all that, that nothing changes, grace as a principle; we go to church and learn we are forgiven and then we go back and live as if nothing ever happened. !!! Amazing – we get forgiven and act like it makes no difference.
Cheap grace liberates people from following Christ. It diminishes life abundant. Cheap grace is the grace that people bestow on themselves and locks them into sin.
Costly grace is this treasure for which we are willing to let everything else go. It comes as a gracious call to follow Jesus. It might cost everything.[i]
Costly grace is taking up your cross and following Jesus. It’s what you do in response to knowing who Jesus is and know what it means that he died and rose again.
Following Jesus is not always easy. In fact, the life of faith is a hard road to hoe and sometimes God asks you to do tough things, things you’d rather not do. But there are great rewards for sticking it out and not taking the easy ‘world thinking’ road. Those who continue to embrace world thinking will be paid for it. Those who embrace kingdom thinking will receive kingdom of heaven rewards, joyous life in relationship with God now and eternal life to come.
So, I’ll ask it again:
What changes in our lives if we are Christian and take this stuff seriously?