The passage for our third lent meditation on the cross is Matthew 16:24-27 (for the parallel passages see: Mark 8:34-38, Luke 9:23-26).
There is a lot leading up to the passage in view. Thus, it would be helpful to summarize what immediately precedes in 16:1-23.
(16:1-4) The Jewish leaders, who deeply oppose Jesus, challenge him to prove himself with a sign (a distinguishing mark, a miraculous wonder).
The Jewish Leaders, like most of us, want a sign from heaven. Yet, they already have every sign they need from God—as 16:1-4 strongly implies these signs are revealed in the combined realms of the natural, political, and supernatural. Their testing of Jesus provides no sign, for not even the resurrection of Jesus from the dead will convince them or anyone else (Matthew 28:11-15, Luke 16:19-31). Why? Because these leaders, and this is true of all of us, are proud rebels! How often have we said, ‘if God would but give me a sign, a proof!’ Yet, God has, and God does, provide us with abundant signs and proofs that are plain as day to those who are genuinely seeking the Lord. What muddies the waters for these leaders, and so ourselves, is their prejudice against Jesus as the Christ, God incarnate.
(16:5-12) Thus, after his altercation, Jesus warns his disciples of “the teaching” of these leaders. Their teaching, which is essentially a god-replacement, blinds them, and all who listen to them, to the glorious gospel of God, and hardens their hearts to the inner working of the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51). This is Genesis 3:5 and it is death in this life leading to eternal death in the life to come (Genesis 2:15-17). Therefore, let each one of us humble ourselves before God that we might see Jesus for who he is and know what he has done for us (1 Peter 5:6-7, James 4:5-10). Flee all brands of teaching that obscure Jesus, flee it like the plague it is.
(16:13-23) Then, amidst the cacophony of what people think of Jesus, Jesus walks his disciples through to the clear truth about himself, that he is the Christ, the Son of the living God, who will go to the cross in their place, a substitute for all who will believe. This is a turning point in Matthew’s gospel account. (Beale and Gladd, The Story Retold, 60.)
Thus, we come to “the singular call” and “the rigorous way” of the cross. (Gladd, Handbook on the Gospels, 59.) This is where the proverbial rubber meets the road! Or, most likely and most often, it does not.
Think of the countless people who make the New Year’s resolution to get fit! How many make it to the first class? How many make it past one week? How many follow through to the intended goal of physical health? Comparatively few!
It doesn’t help that the broad path is easy, that it’s all down hill, while the narrow path is hard, dragging you upward at great pain (Psalm 73). The narrow path in Christ is constricted, compressed, squeezed, constrained, difficult, and distressing (that’s how the Greek word “narrow” is often used). It’s the way of the cross.
The real problem of follow through resides in us and in the evil one who holds sway over us.
Yet, the strong man, Satan, has been bound and his house is being looted (Isaiah 49:24, Matthew 12:29)! The door has been opened by Christ, who has bound Satan and cast him into the abyss until the appointed time of the end (Revelation 20:1-10), as he sets any captive who desires it free.
Sadly, even tragically, in the light of this amazing invitation of Jesus, we just love any kind of “teaching” that satisfies our fallen nature. We long for that which allows us, in our vain imaginations, to proudly walk the broad road of this world, somehow believing it to be freedom. We fall head over heals for that which is not truth (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12). The god of this age blinds us so that we misplace our faith in that which is unworthy of worship (2 Corinthians 4:3-4).
But then there is Peter. Why does he, a disciple of Jesus, aggressively push back on Jesus’ revelation that he is going to the cross (Matthew 16:21-23)?
Bottomline: While we, like Peter, can readily agree on the identity of Jesus, we also, like Peter, are simply not prepared for what Jesus came to do for us and the implications of that for our lives.
We in the west love his power, we want to experience his healing and blessing, his mercy, compassion, and kindness, we want Jesus to empower us to live free and happy, we want to feel good, we want our lives to workout. But we do not want to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and walk in his steps (1 Peter 2:21-25). We do not want to suffer. This is you and me, and the sooner we face our issue the sooner we can start repenting and finding a hope that infinitely surpasses anything we could otherwise know.
Here, then, is “the call” and “the way” of the cross.
First, while the call of the cross is a command (Acts 17:30), you will also notice that it is an invitation. In 16:24a Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him” without any coercion from us.
Second, there is the reality of this present world being under divine curse and pending judgment. This means that Jesus’ simple invitation to his cross is the only way out of this proud, perishing world.
Then, to the one who would respond, to the one who would desire Jesus, Jesus further says in 16:24b, “let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
As counterintuitive as it would seem to us, this is a new way of life that feels like death. And death it is! It is death to what you want in order to come alive to what God wants.
Again, the critical reminder: The way of the cross is not an “earn your way to heaven” deal but is based squarely and fully on what Jesus has already done for us. 16:24-27 follows after and rests upon 16:21. This is to say, we are called to run a race that has already been run and won for us (Hebrews 12:1-2)—we add nothing to it. We simply set out on a new path in Christ by God’s power (Romans 6:1-4).
Notwithstanding, 16:24, says we must: (1) deny ourselves; (2) take up our crosses; and (3) follow Jesus through thick and thin to glory. Let me rephrase it: (1) leave behind what you’ve wrongly love, (2) though it will feel like death, (3) so you can gain Jesus who is infinitely better. Then you will be walking a new path, of pain yes, but of abounding and abundant life in your soul.
It will feel like death as you learn to turn from idols to God. It’s like an addict coming out of a longstanding debilitating addiction. The withdrawals are painful; the pain is awful; and there is always the possibility of relapse.
You may not be addicted to drugs or alcohol but I guarantee you have a massive addiction to something, to a god-replacement, something you have idolized, on which you rely to get you by. The thought of giving it up is painful and the pathway proves even more painful. The only suitable way to describe it is death. But, via the cross, what you gain in your mind and heart, in your soul, is more than worth the short term pain. Not to mention, at Jesus’ return, the pain will end in the bliss of the resurrection to life!
The way of the cross is no bed of roses. It’s the hard, painful path of death to what is so that we can receive what is to come. But it’s pain first then bliss—no pain no gain!
The way of the cross of Christ is the way back to who we truly are, image bearers who’s deepest need is God and to image him throughout all creation in all things.
Hence, the rub! The way of cross of Christ is not an attractive thing to us—it forces us to stop what we want and to do what we don’t want.
To be fair, we were made for life not death. So we naturally push back on death. Didn’t we see our Lord agonizing in the garden, pleading with his Father to take the cup of suffering from him? And so, like Christ, we will have a reaction to the way of the cross. Yet, like Christ who submitted to his good Father’s good will and overcame on our behalf, so in Christ, by his way of the cross, we overcome through death to what is temporary to gain that which is eternal – 16:25-27 (2 Corinthians 4:17-18, 1 Peter 1:3-9, 17-19, 2:11-12).
The cross is our call back to God—to that which we left behind way back in history, to that for which we were made, which we had cast behind us as not worthy (Romans 1:28a). This is why the way of the cross feels like death—because it is death—death to what we would otherwise desire and pursue in serving ourselves. It is denying what feels so natural to our flesh, to what our flesh clamours for, and it is painful. Yet, it leads to perfect freedom in life everlasting.
And don’t forget. It is not so much God who makes the way so hard, but the world who puts so much of the spiritual and physical pressure on us to say no to God (that is, to the true and living God). However, God requires you to love and value him above all else, even your own life. This is just the “way” and the “call” of the cross.
Heeding this “call” and walking in this “way,” death though it is in this world, leads to a glorious hope. This is what Jesus alludes to in 16:28 to 17:2 (1 John 3:1-3). As surely as Jesus is risen, our Easter Sunday will come. So let us wait patiently and continue in faithfulness in the call and the way of the cross.
Until that day when our hope goes beyond the deposit of the Spirit, who seals us for that great day, we can expect a great deal of pain resisting sin from within ourselves and also from turning the cheek to the harassment and persecution of this proud world.
But this is the “call” and the “way” of the “cross.” And you are invited to it …