Following Jesus: A Sermon on Matthew 16: 21-26

Preached at United Reformed Church of Clifton on Sunday, August 30, 2020 To hear this sermon preached follow this link. The sermon begins at 14:45 mark.

This morning, I want to lead you in a Bible study.  We will go through this passage step by step in order to get a better feel for it.  I hope that when we are done you will have a deeper appreciation for what Jesus is saying and that God will speak to you through these word. When we’re done.  I’m going to ask a simple question of you. “What does it mean to follow Jesus?

Last week we saw Jesus giving his disciples a mid-term exam.  The exam had one main question. “Who do you say I am?” And Peter nailed it.  He said, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Peter recognized that Jesus was God’s chosen vessel, that through Jesus, God was going to put the world to right and bring the Kingdom of God to earth. Jesus gives him an A+ on the exam.

After the midterm he begins the second of half of the course with a shocking statement—the Messiah was not going to be a victorious conqueror but a suffering servant.  Matthew 16: 21 says, “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.” 

Now, the phrase that Jesus “must” go” is a roundabout way of saying it was God’s will for Jesus to suffer, die and be resurrected.  The Greek verb here is δεῖ, which actually means it was necessary for Jesus to die.  It was necessary because it was God’s will.

You see, Jesus’ crucifixion was no accident.  When I was younger I used to think that Jesus got swept up by circumstances beyond his control.  That the political machinations of the religious elite and the placating cowardice of Pontius Pilate overwhelmed Jesus with a lynch mob.  Jesus’ death, or so I thought, was a tragic mistake.

But that was not the case.  It was not a mistake; it was God’s sovereign purpose.  Jesus had studied the scripture.  He had read Psalm 22 that spoke of the suffering he would endure.  He had read Isaiah 53 that said, “All we like sheep have gone astray … and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Jesus passion was the fulfillment of God’s will.  His s death was not due to Judas’ betrayal, nor to the machinations of the religious leaders with the complicity of Pilate.  These things were only the means Jesus used to accomplish his purpose in dying for the sins of the world.  He was not a passive victim, but an obedient servant who deliberately did the will of God. It was necessary for him to go to the cross.

Now this was a new revelation to the disciples and to the world.  Matthew does not say that Jesus began to teach the disciples about his upcoming passion, rather Matthews says he “shows” the disciple what is going to happen.  The Greek word for “shows,” δεικνύειν, is used elsewhere in the New Testament for divine revelation.  So for example the book of Revelation uses the same verb to talk about the visions which God showed to the Apostle John.  In the book of Acts, Peter, uses this word to describe the vision he had of the unclean animals when God showed him that Gentiles were to be included in the church.  As professor James Boyce says, That Jesus now “shows” (rather than “teaches”) his disciples what is about to happen marks this event as a revelation and gift of special knowledge now being imparted to the disciples.” (Working Preacher, August 28, 2011).

But Peter didn’t take kindly to this revelation. RT France says, “Peter feels particularly let down and indeed shamed by the idea that his Messiah should prove to anything less than a public success. Peter’s response indicates that he regards the prospect of Jesus’ crucifixion, not as a goal to be fulfilled but a disaster to be avoided.” Consequently, as verse 22 says, “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 

Now I want you to notice three things about Peter’s response.  First, it is a criticism couched in polite language.  In the Greek Peter doesn’t say, “God forbid,” he actually uses a colloquial expression that means “May God be gracious to you.” (Ἵλεώς σοι) Peter is acting like some overly polite southern belle who can criticize and correct all the while keeping a gracious smile on her face.  It’s as though Peter is saying. “Goodness gracious, Lord.  God bless your little pea-pickin’ heart.” It is polite but it is still a criticism and condescending at best.  It says Peter know better than Jesus.

Secondly, notice Peter expresses his objection vehemently.  Peter actually uses a double negative to emphasize how strongly he rejects Jesus’ words.  He says, “NO! NO! this must never happen to you.

Thirdly, and most importantly, Matthew says that Peter began rebuke Jesus.  This word, “rebuke,” is a very harsh word.  When Jesus casts out demons, he “rebukes” them.  So in spite of Peter’s superficial politeness, Peter is treating Jesus as if he was demon possessed.

And Jesus doesn’t take kindly to it. And so he turns to Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan.”  Now these words are very similar to the command that Jesus gave to Satan at the end of his temptation in Matthew 4. There Jesus says, “Go away, Satan.”  The verb form suggests not a one-time command but on-going command.  It’s not “Right now! Get out, Satan.” Rather it is more like.  “Get out of here and keep on going.”  Or to quote Ray Charles, “Hit the road, Jack, and don’t you come back.”

Jesus uses the exact same words with Peter but with one exception.  He adds the words, “behind me.”  He doesn’t just say to Peter, “Go away, Satan;” rather, he says, “Satan, go behind me and stay there!” 

Now these words, “go behind me,” were most often used to describe someone who was a rabbi’s disciple.  In Jesus’ day, a rabbi’s students would literally come behind him and follow him around all day.  In Matthew 4:19 Jesus’ very first words to Peter were, “Come behind me and I will make you a fisher of men.”  So Jesus is telling Peter, not just to go away, but to once again become a disciple. As Audrey West, a professor at Moravian Theological Seminary says, “By putting his own thoughts ahead of the ways of God, Peter has become a stumbling block.  Nevertheless (and this is significant), Jesus does not break relationship with him. Instead, he reminds Peter of the proper place for a follower.”  And that is good news for us, because sometimes we too get in Jesus way, but … he never he gives up on us.  Instead he invites us to once again come behind him and be his disciple.

Having commanded Peter to come behind him Jesus turns to the other disciples and tells them what will be expected of them. In verse 24 he says.  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

The phrase become my followers is an echo of Jesus’ words to Peter.  Literally Jesus says, “If any want to come behind me.”  The only place a disciple has is behind Jesus and that is where we must always stay.

Jesus lays out three conditions for discipleship.

  1. Deny yourself
  2. Take up your cross
  3. Keep on following Jesus.  

RT France notes, Jesus uses two different verb tenses in his command.  The first two imperatives are in the past tense, and the last is in the present tense.  A command in the past tense always refers to single action done once in a single moment in time, “so that it may be inferred that ‘denying oneself’ and ‘taking up your cross’ are single, initiatory acts.”  A command in the present tense always refers to an ongoing action that is to be continuously done, so the following Jesus is commanding is something that must be done each and every day of your life. (p.638).  To put it another denying yourself and taking up your cross are about making a decision, while following is about a lifestyle.

The first decision we need to make is to deny ourselves.  RT France notes that “to ‘deny’ means to dissociate oneself from a statement or a person.” (p. 638).  Interestingly, the same word is used of Peter when he denies Jesus during the trial of Christ.  And that proves to be a good illustration for us.  Will we deny Jesus? Or will we deny ourselves?

The second decision we need to make is to take up our cross.  When Jesus spoke this, it was more than a metaphor.  Crucifixion was a common occurrence in the Holy Land in Jesus day.  Jesus clearly expected that at least some of his disciples would literally be crucified. 

Although we don’t experience this in the United States this is still a reality for many Christians in our world today.  Just a couple of months ago, I read about a Nigerian pastor who had studied at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI.  This summer he and his wife were killed for their faith by Muslim extremists.   But his is not an isolated case; persecution for the faith is still rampant in such places as China, North Korea, Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East. 

So to take up your cross means to be willing to die for Jesus.  However, it also has another equally important meaning.  It means to lay down your life for others.  That’s what Jesus did.  He laid down his life for you and he asks you to do that for others. 

We in this country are very privileged but all too often we stand on our own rights and our own privileges instead of surrendering them so someone else can thrive. Since there is no longer a draft, we no longer even have to make any sacrifices in the defense of our country.  We say thank you to our military personnel, but we don’t really sacrifice anything of our own.  Christians cannot pay lip service to serving others; they must have some skin in the game. 

Jesus calls us to a life of sacrifice for others.  Jesus said of himself “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  When he invites us to take up our cross, he invites us to follow his example by living our lives for others. 

The third thing Jesus expects is that we follow him. You will only be able to live the Christian life if you keep following Jesus.  Dr. Lloyd Ogilvie once put it this way.  “We say, ‘But, Lord, I cannot.’ And God says, ‘I’m glad to hear you say that. Through you, I can.’” When Jesus walks before us, when we follow his footsteps then we will be able to live the Christian life.

So what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus. Three things.  First, it means to get out of the way and let Jesus lead.  You must come behind Jesus, not go before him. Second it means putting his interests before your own.  Jesus says “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?”  Third it means to serve others.  The way of Jesus is always about service.  How will you serve your family, your community and your world this day?

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