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The Way of the Cross

September 3, 2023 |The Way of the Cross|Matthew 16:21-28

JD Cutler

For the sermon audio, click here

We reached a culmination of sorts as we work our way through the Gospel of Matthew.

Jesus challenges his disciples to articulate who they think he is.

Peter, speaking for the group, answers with that great confession of faith, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” To which Jesus responds, You are right, Peter, not because you figured it out, but because God graciously revealed it to you. This is how I will build my church, one God-drawn, genuine confessor at a time. This is obviously a high point for Peter, who Jesus calls blessed.

But, we notice that the encounter ends with a surprising twist.

Jesus says, now, do not tell anyone that I am the Christ. The ESV says strictly charged them.

Jesus gives them an official charge as someone of authority to not proclaim his identity to anyone. Why? Why not have them shout it from the rooftops of Jerusalem, in the surrounding towns?

I believe there are two primary and related reasons.

One, the people did not understand what that meant yet and two, neither did the disciples.

They would be proclaiming something they did not yet fully understand and their hearers would be hearing it through a cultural and religious filter that would distort the message.

Much better for Jesus to finish his work on Earth as the Messiah, send the Holy Spirit to enable his followers, and then for them to proclaim the totality of the truth, than for them to go out and proclaim what they did not understand and what would not be understood.

Which brings us to our text today, directly connected by the words from that time.

Matthew says,

Matthew 16:21-28 (ESV) 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.

Jesus began- this would be an ongoing teaching and explanation of his mission. Matthew acknowledges that it was at this time that Jesus began to explain more fully what it meant for him to be the Messiah they confessed he was.

Sometime after Jesus began explaining these things, Peter, the one who had just been praised as a rock, a part of the foundation of the church, takes Jesus aside.

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

Far be it from you, Lord!- God be gracious!

The idea is may God show you mercy and correct Jesus’ ideas and to spare him not only from death, but the wrong ideas he has about his mission.

This shall never happen- This by no means will happen.

Peter has gone from confessing Jesus is Lord to thinking he knows better than him.

Jesus turns to Peter and rebukes him with the strongest words he could have used.

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.”

When Peter was thinking the things of God he was blessed and welcomed by Jesus, when he was thinking of the things of man, he was denounced and sent away by Jesus. As we noted last week, Peter is the spokesman for the group, and it is likely that all of the disciples are thinking along the same lines, so Jesus turns to the group and explains what it means to truly follow him.

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

Jesus’s mission as the Messiah is going to take him by the way of the cross, the way of suffering, and he wants the disciples to not only understand that, but to understand that in following him, this will be their way as well. If anyone will come after me- that is to say, if anyone wants to be my disciple. This means what follows is as applicable for us today as it was for his disciples when he originally said it. As men and women who profess to be followers, we need to seriously evaluate our lives based on what we find here.

This morning, as we unpack this we are going to look at the three commands of the way of the cross and three principles that undergird the call to this way of living in the kingdom.

The Commands of Self-denial

Jesus gives us three commands in our text, each is in the present tense, which means we must perform them continually. They are ongoing actions rather than one time decisions.

Deny himself-

First, Jesus says we must deny ourselves.

What does it mean to deny, in this context? And to what extent are we called to deny ourselves?

The word used here is a combination of two words- to deny and to separate, used together they indicate a complete and utter denial.

To deny someone in this way is to affirm that one has absolutely no acquaintance or connection with the person in question. This word is used for Peter's thrice denial of being associated with or even knowing Jesus on the night of his arrest.

Matthew 26:69-75 (ESV) 69 Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. And a servant girl came up to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” 70 But he denied it before them all, saying, “I do not know what you mean.” 71 And when he went out to the entrance, another servant girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” 72 And again he denied it with an oath: “I do not know the man.” 73 After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you too are one of them, for your accent betrays you.” 74 Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man.” And immediately the rooster crowed. 75 And Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.

Understandable enough, right? To deny Jesus is to deny that you know him or have anything to do with him. This is what Jesus is talking about in Luke 12:8-9 (ESV) 8 “And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, 9 but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God.”

But when you couple the idea of denying someone with the word yourself, what does that mean?

How can you claim to not know yourself or claim to have nothing to do with yourself?

Is Jesus calling us to some spiritualized amnesia? When we come to Jesus are we to abandon all sense of self, of who we are? Of course not. God creates us all as unique and different image bearers.

When Jesus says let him deny himself, he is communicating the idea of removing ourselves from the highest position in our life. It is the dethroning of self.

Our interests, our goals, our desires.

To be a disciple of Jesus is to quit fighting for a position that is not rightfully ours.

Following Jesus is not the way to enhance your life, to further your agendas, or to gain what you want, it is a full surrender to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

This is not a one time action as we indicated in the tense of the command. Yes, it begins with confession and repenting of our sins, of acknowledging that Jesus Christ is God’s anointed, but it is also an ongoing daily decision to deny ourselves in light of who Jesus is.

We will examine this further when we get to the principles but for now it is enough to acknowledge that the foundation for discipleship, for following Jesus is self-denial.

Take up his cross

Second, Jesus says we must take up our cross.

To Take up something is to take it upon oneself and carry what has been raised. To bear something.

I think, as the church, we often misunderstand this reference. We say things super-spiritual sounding like this is just my cross to bear, or maybe that is just your cross to bear.

We refer to our cross as something laid on us that we must endure. An extended sickness, a less than desirable circumstance, etc…

There are surely times that God lays things on us we are called to bear. Think about Paul’s thorn in his flesh, given to him by God for the purposes of God. But this is not that.

Our cross is not something we passively endure, but an intentional shouldering of a burden for the benefit of others and in obedience to God.

In addition, according to Jesus’ words here, everyone that follows him has a cross to bear. This is not reserved for the spiritual elite, the JV Christians, but for all those that follow him. If you are not bearing your cross, you are not following Jesus.

What is the cross Jesus speaks of?

In Jesus and the disciples' day the cross was a well known instrument of cruel and shameful capital punishments. It was reserved for the guiltiest criminals, robbers, and rebels. Rarely used on Roman citizens. It was an intense, usually multi-day, excruciating experience that the Romans used to not just humiliate and ultimately kill the condemned, but to discourage others from following in their footsteps.

How are we to understand what carrying our cross looks like?

We need to look no further than Jesus, who in less than six months of saying this would literally carry his own cross on his way to Calvary where he would be nailed to it and would ultimately give his life while on it. But Jesus began carrying his cross far longer than the day they laid it on his shoulders and drove him to Calvary.

Remember he 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.

Suffer many things- insults, being struck repeatedly, mock trials, having a crown of thorns pressed onto his head, and being flogged were all part of his suffering. Rejection of his message and his messiahship were also part of this suffering.

From the very beginning of his ministry, when Satan tempted him to avoid suffering and grasp the glory that was rightly his, Jesus marches steadily towards the suffering he would endure. Every time he chose to rebuke the Pharisees, to reject the erroneous religious laws, every time he chose to break a commandment of man to honor the commandment of God, he was ultimately bearing the cross that would lead him to his death.

We are not called to carry his cross- his cross accomplished salvation in its entirety, a once for all, finished sacrifice for sinners to be redeemed, but we are called to carry our cross.

What does that look like? In the same way we must be willing to obey the commandments of God regardless of the suffering, loss, or cost of doing so. We must intentionally do what we are called and commanded to do, knowing that doing so will put us at odds with the world, knowing that they will hate us, that we will face persecution and suffering, and yet daily, we must choose the way of the cross, because this is the way Jesus calls us to in following Him.

Follow me

Thirdly, Jesus commands us to follow him.

To follow him encompasses the first two commands, to deny ourselves and to take up our cross, so we will just look at this command briefly.

In the context of Matthew and of scripture, to follow Jesus is to conform our life wholly to his example, in living and if need be in dying. It is to believe all that he says and to make his life a pattern for our own.

Here is what I want us to see this morning about this final command.

We do not blaze the trail of self-denying, cross-bearing living, we follow in the footsteps of our Lord. He invites us, not to do something that he did not do, but to follow him in what he has already done.

Paul says it this way in his letter to the Philippians.

Philippians 2:5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

This is the way of the cross, the way of following Jesus, who pioneered it when he accomplished his work of salvation. But Jesus doesn’t just stop at telling his disciples that this is the way of following him, denying themselves, taking up their cross, and following him, he goes on to give them three principles concerning why they should follow the way of the cross.

The Principles of Self-Denial

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.”

Jesus gives us three principles that undergird the call to self-denial

The word ‘for’ is important, each one establishes a reason Jesus gives for the way of the cross. If you underline in your bible, underline the word for at the beginning of verses 25, 26, and 27.

The principle of true life

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

The way of the cross is sacrificial. While you may not be called to physically lose your life like most of the apostles, or some of the early church fathers, or other modern day martyrs, it will cost you to follow Jesus.

The word save here can mean and I think it does here, whoever would preserve his life. The word carries the idea of rescue from suffering, danger, or disease. So to save your life would be to spend your energies and efforts avoiding suffering, danger, or disease.

It is avoiding discomfort, seeking gratification, it is living to get all that we can from this physical life.

This is the modern twisting of the American dream, right? Success, prosperity, and longevity.

Here, if you work hard enough you can achieve success, be prosperous, and live a long full life, setting your kids up to be more successful than you were.

But let’s say that is how you choose to spend your one life on this Earth, even if you find pleasure, happiness, and longevity in your life, ultimately Jesus says you will lose it.

Now, we know he is not just talking about losing your life in the sense of death, because death happens to all of us, no matter how we spend our lives. Both the ungodly and the godly end up in the grave. Barring Jesus coming back in our lifetime, all of us in this room will one day have our lives end in death.

Jesus is reminding us that true life is eternal, that this life is not it, and that ultimately what we do here matters in relation to whether we will be welcomed into everlasting life, having found true life, or we will find ourselves cast into an outer darkness devoid of any real life or light.

But, if we will, in light of our call to self-denial, lose our life for Christ sake. If when there is a conflict between saving our life, preserving it, holding on to our material success, property, or even our very life, if we choose to follow Jesus no matter the cost, Jesus says we will find true life.

I don’t think anyone who grasps the basic principles of Scripture would argue that.

To choose this life over Jesus is to put us on a pathway that leads to everlasting punishment, to choose Jesus over this life puts us on the narrow road of life that leads to everlasting life in Christ.

But I think Jesus also has in mind our time here on Earth.

Brittany and I have been watching the show ‘Hoarders’ in the evening. If you ever want to be motivated to throw some stuff away, just watch a few episodes.

But what I’ve noticed in almost every case is that the people who are hoarding these things think that they are enriching their life. Whether it is buying articles of clothing after articles of clothing, whether it is buying up every deal at the thrift store, or whether it is hoarding up food and supplies, each one thinks that they are enriching their lives through the process of accumulating things. But inevitably, the things that really matter; their relationships with their families, the enjoyment of their house, their freedom, even their actual quality of life suffers. In trying to secure happiness in their life they have lost any semblance of their lives.

Yes, this is an extreme picture of the process, but don’t doubt that it is replayed across the world on a daily basis.

The business executive that works so diligently to build a bank account for his family ends up estranged from the kids he was too busy to spend any significant time with.

The couple who divorced after 30 years of marriage because they spent so much time doing for their kids, making sure they had every opportunity that they neglected their first priority and once the kids are gone they realize they have nothing left.

The pastor whose wife leaves him because he spent so much time building up his little corner of the kingdom that he lost what truly matters in this life.

Do you see? When we pursue the lesser things we often lose the greater things.

This is what Jesus says will happen to those that choose to pursue the version of their life they want over what God calls them to do with their life.

Jesus doesn’t call us to follow him to a lesser life, but to true life.

Some may object.

If I don’t work so hard and for so long, I won’t get ahead, I won’t be successful.

If I don’t make sure my kids are at every ball game, on every winning team, they won’t get into the college they want.

If I don’t work hard building my life, won’t I miss out, on promotions, on raises, on vacations, on trophies and rings, on trophy catches or hunts.

To which Jesus gives our second principle.

The principle of true worth

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?

Let’s say that your kids get everything you want for them. They are in the small percentage that get to play ball in college, or even the smaller percentage that make it pro. Let’s say they are successful, rich, and experience this world in ways you can only imagine. What does it matter if they do not experience everlasting life?

Let’s say that you get everything the world has to offer. You eat the finest foods, swim in the finest beaches, drink the finest champagne, wear the finest clothes, and let’s say you get to do that for 50 years. What.Does.It.Matter if you miss out on true life?

What advantage is it to you if you acquire everything the world has to offer but in doing so, you cast away your soul.

Jesus says it again in another way, What shall a man give in return for his soul? We could read this two ways.

First, is there anything that you would trade your soul for? Is there anything on this side of heaven worth your everlasting life? If the answer is no, then why would you chase after getting it knowing you could lose your soul in the process.

Second, is there anything that you could earn or acquire that you could give in exchange for your soul? Jesus invites us to think about whether there is anything God would accept in exchange for everlasting life, our soul. The answer is of course not.

Jesus asks both of these questions with the understanding that the answer is obvious.

What advantage is it to you to acquire everything if you lose your soul? The answer- no advantage

What could a man give in return for his soul? The answer- nothing is worth it, nothing could purchase it

This world and its things will pass away, the only thing that has any lasting worth are the things of God, things concerning the soul. This is where true worth is found.

The last principle is…

The principle of true glory

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.”

Jesus here reminds us that this world will come to an end, he will return, not in the timidity of a baby, not in the mostly peaceful preaching ministry of a carpenter from Galilee, but in glory of the Father. We read from Philippians chapter 2 earlier about Christ emptying himself in humility, but that is not how that verse ends. Paul goes on to say, Philippians 2:9-11 (ESV) 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Jesus will return as the visible Lord of Lords and King of Kings.

When he does, he says he will repay each person according to what he has done.

The idea is to deliver what is owed as in wages.

What good will any earth-earned glory be in that moment?

What good will be full trophy rooms be, what good will all the praises you have received from man be, what good will all the status that comes with being wealthy be in that moment? All of it, all the glory you have ever received or wanted to receive in your life will vanish in the light of true glory.

Then Jesus will give what is due.

For those who rejected him and lived their lives for themselves, who did not deny themselves, who sought worth in possessions and achievements, we reveled in the glory they received from man, who sought to save their life, will lose it.

For those who embraced him and lived their lives for the kingdom, who denied themselves, who died to self daily and sought the kingdom will be welcomed into the everlasting life prepared for them. Not because they earned it but because Jesus, who secured it, offers it freely to those who follow him.

Paul says it this way in Colossians 3:4 (ESV) 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

This is true glory and it is far greater than anything we experience on this side of heaven.

Would you follow Jesus?

Then know that the way is the way of the cross.

There is no Christianity without the cross and the empty tomb.

Jesus suffered for us and then entered his glory, he calls us to suffer for him here in order to enter glory there.

This morning we are presented with a very different picture than cultural Christianity would tell you it means to follow Christ. We rightly see that it is impossible to be a Christian only when it is convenient, for there is no convenience in the way of the cross. We are left with an overwhelming sense that, for many of us, we are in danger of missing it.

We have so intermingled Christianity with the world that we are left with something that doesn’t look like what Jesus said it should.

So what do we do?

We ask God to examine our hearts, we plead with him to show us where we are seeking to save our life rather than lose it for his sake, to show us where we are more concerned with what we desire than what he commands.

We ask him to empower us to meet the demands of our cross. We ask him to give us the strength to carry on and not shrink back.

And we repent.

We repent of holding our comforts higher than his kingdom.

We repent of seeking pleasure more than obedience.

We repent of trying to find life, worth, and glory apart from him.

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