Matthew 16:21-28 At the very beginning of his public ministry, when John was baptizing at the Jordan River, Jesus came to be baptized. The sinless Son of God stepped down into those baptismal waters filled with the sins of the people and he publicly identified himself with sin and sinners. John said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” And God the Father spoke from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
There was never any question about who Jesus was—there was never any question about what he had come to do. Jesus was God’s Son who came to take away our sins. Almost immediately his identity and mission were under satanic attack.
“If you are really God’s Son…” the devil said, “then prove it”. In other words, “Cast aside your Father’s testimony and claim, reject your Father’s Word and demand that he do some miracle that will testify to your sonship.” “If you are really God’s Son, then your Father wants you to have all the things the world has to offer. There is no need to go to the cross—there is no need to die. You can have it all right now.”
The devil continues to tempt us in the same way. God claimed us as his own precious children in the waters of Holy Baptism. He is well pleased with us on account of Christ. But the devil is right there, telling us to reject God’s claim and doubt his Word and insist that God do some great thing, give us some great blessing, to prove our identity as his children.
The devil says to us, “If you are really God’s child then your heavenly Father must want you to have every earthly blessing, he cannot intend that you would suffer in some way. He wouldn’t withhold some pleasure from you. I will give you the desires of your heart.” And we are tempted. And we fall.
What good news it is for us that Jesus never did. Not when tempted by the devil, not when tempted by his friends--but again and again, Jesus rejected the temptation to avoid the cross.
Jesus knew who he was—that he was the Christ, the Son of the living God--and he knew what he had come to do: to suffer and die and rise again for our salvation. The Bible says that:
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.
With every miracle the disciples witnessed—with every victory they celebrated—with every sick person that was restored—the disciples must have thought that they were on the cusp of a new day when sorrow and suffering were at an end.
When they heard Peter’s confession, that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God and Jesus’ affirmation that, yes, that was true—they must have thought the day was at hand when the lion will lay down with the lamb and the weapons of war would become the instruments of peace.
But Jesus’ affirmation that he was the Christ and the Son of God led to a very different place than earthly peace and prosperity. He would not go to Jerusalem to defeat the Romans. He would go there to suffer. He would not be recognized by the powers of the day as the one true king. They would reject him. He would not slay his enemies. They would kill him.
And these events were not just one possibility among many. It had to be this way. This is what Jesus had to do. This was the price that had to be paid. This was the Father’s plan for our salvation. There would be life—rich, new, abundant eternal life—but it would only come through the cross. The Bible says that at these words:
Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.”
All of us can identify with Peter. We don’t want those we love to be in pain. We don’t want them to suffer rejection. We don’t want them to die. We want those we love to enjoy the earthly blessings of peace and prosperity.
Which one of us wouldn’t have put our arm around the Lord’s shoulder and try to convince him that it didn’t have to be this way! Who among us wouldn’t have done the same? It is a completely natural, normal, human thing to do. It’s the caring, compassionate thing to do. Which is why Jesus’ response is so shocking:
“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.”
The first lesson that God wants us to learn today is that we must not and indeed we cannot separate Jesus from the cross. It is not just mistaken—it is satanic! The devil tempted Jesus with that very idea in the wilderness and here Jesus faced it again—this time from a friend.
Just a few moments earlier, Peter was the great hero. He confessed the truth about who Jesus was—the Son of God and Savior of the world. This confession would be the foundation of the church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it.
But that Jesus was the Messiah—that he was the Son of God—that he was the Savior of the World—meant just one thing: that he came not to be an earthly ruler, not to live a life of ease, not to go from one mountain top experience to another—but to suffer and die for our sins. There would be life—new, abundant, overflowing eternal life-but that life would take root in a grave. This was God’s way.
Peter and the disciples and those who followed Jesus didn’t understand that. They wanted a never-ending stream of earthly blessings. They wanted what Satan offered Jesus in the wilderness.
I wonder, are we any different? We’re glad enough to be forgiven. We can check that off and go on to things that really matter—things to do with this life and what I want. But the way to life goes through the cross—for Jesus and for us. The Bible says that:
Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
These words are the call to discipleship to everyone who claims Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. And so dear Christian friend, if that is true of you—that Jesus Christ is your Lord, that he is your Savior--hear again what Jesus has to say to you this morning: deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.
Here is the second lesson God wants us to learn today, the way of the cross was not just true of Jesus—but of his disciples as well.
To deny ourselves means that we say “no” to our flesh and the devil’s temptations. It means that we put the needs of others before our own. It means that our chief concern is not about being served but about serving those around us—not about being first but being last—not about getting more stuff but realizing that life does not consist in the abundance of our goods. None of this comes naturally to us. None of it is easy. Much of it is painful.
That’s what Jesus is talking about when he says that if we confess him as Lord and Savior and we follow him as a disciple--we must take up our cross. The cross is an implement of death. Jesus would not be deterred from it and neither must we.
In his vocation as Savior, Jesus died a real death on a real cross. In our daily vocation, in ways that are unique to us, we are called to die to self and accept the hardships, difficulties and pain that come from following him as a disciple.
Our cross may be rejection by those we love in our families or among our circle of friends. It may be ridicule by the world around us. It may be the loss of earthly blessings. It may be the sacrifice of some activity. But whatever form it takes, to be a follower of Jesus is to bear a cross.
When we realize that this is what following Jesus is, that this was the path he took and the path he asks us to take—it becomes easier to understand the temptation to avoid it altogether—to try and make some uneasy alliance with the world and the devil where we can have God’s blessings apart from the cross. But that is an eternally fatal mistake. Jesus asks all who would follow him to count the cost of making that demonic deal:
What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?
The answer to both of these questions is: nothing. All of the wealth we could ever possess—all of the success we could have—all of the pleasure we could ever enjoy still do not equal up to life itself. The richest, most powerful man who has ever lived cannot purchase or demand one extra second of life beyond what God has appointed for him-- to say nothing of a life that extends beyond the grave.
And yet God in his mercy gives life freely and abundantly in his Son Jesus Christ. That is why to lose our life for Jesus is to gain eternal life. That is why denying ourselves for Jesus is the only way to learn our true identity. And that is why bearing our cross as we follow Jesus is the only way to know true peace and joy in this life.
The satanic temptation that Jesus faced in the wilderness and the satanic temptation that he faced from Peter (the temptation to avoid the cross for the things of the world) is the same satanic temptation we all face and the consequences of giving in to that temptation is eternal. Jesus says that:
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.
In effect, what Jesus is saying is this: if you are struggling to deny yourself when those around you are constantly promoting themselves—if you are tempted to reject the difficulties of being my disciples because it’s easier to go along with the world—if you are wondering if following me is the right way to go—consider my call to discipleship in the light of eternity and then decide.
Jesus is coming again and this world and everything in it will be destroyed. On that day, what will any illicit pleasure that we have avoided, or any sacrifice we have made, or any difficulty we have endured for the sake of following Jesus matter compared to the blessing of living forever with God in the kingdom of his Son? They won’t! Jesus says:
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.”
Peter confessed the truth about Jesus, that he was the Christ, the Son of God. But he didn’t understand what that meant. Jesus had to tell him that it mean rejection, suffering and death. And yet, we hear the promise of Jesus that those who were standing there that day would live to see him come into his kingdom. How is that possible?
For that answer we have to travel to Calvary. Raised upon a cross is Jesus—rejected and crucified just as he promised. But above his head is a sign, placed there by his enemies, acknowledging him as king. Beneath Jesus was a soldier, making the same confession as Peter: This man was the Son of God. Beside Jesus was a repentant sinner asking to be remembered when Jesus entered his kingdom. Here at the cross is where it all comes together: the Son of God—the Savior of the world—the one true King.
This is his kingdom—it is the kingdom of the crucified—the kingdom of the One who bore the cross for us and of all those who are his, bearing their crosses for him. Let us take up our cross and follow Jesus! Amen.