Peter made his confession that Jesus was the Christ. Jesus spoke of his invincible church being built on that confession. But then, to Peter’s shock, he began to talk about his impending suffering and death. Imagine the reaction of the disciples when Jesus, in Matthew 16:24–28, includes them in the path of suffering and death! Don’t forget that Jesus also calls you to walk that path.
Take up your cross. Deny yourself. This denial is not a denial of certain things. Members of the Ethiopic church deny themselves certain foods during certain fast days. Muslims fast during the daylight hours of the month of Ramadan. Many Americans may think of Christianity primarily in terms of things they might have to give up. People may make a list of things they give up for Lent. But sin does not lie in things: Acts 10:15; 1 Corinthians 8; 10; 1 Timothy 4:4,5. Too often this kind of self-denial betrays a works-righteousness. Jesus requires that you deny, not certain things, but rather that you deny yourself. Turn from any form of self-worship to placing God central, Deuteronomy 6:5. Jesus is calling you to a radical commitment to him—one that is stronger than family ties, one that goes beyond self-interest. This denial is deep enough that it involves a willingness to sacrifice (lose, verse 25) your life for the sake of the Son of Man and his kingdom. He is telling you that your life must be shaped by the cross. Your life in Christ is cruciform, shaped like a cross.
Pick up your cross. Your cross is not the trials of life. We may speak casually of certain afflictions (or even people) as a cross we have to bear. Christ chose this phrase because of his coming death. Start on the path that leads to death! We use a cross in decor or jewelry. But it was a detestable means of execution. Jesus’ disciples, living under Roman rule, had doubtless seen men pick up their crosses. As one took the first step carrying that cross, he knew that he had started a journey that would end at the place of execution, where the cross would be put to its use. Christ gave his life to build his church. He sacrificed himself for you, his people. Now he summons you to a commitment to him that is encompasses all of life. And death with Christ may cost you your life. You are crucified. The New Testament writers, Paul in particular, pick up on Jesus’ theme. Your (sinful) flesh is crucified, Galatians 5:24. You are crucified, Galatians 2:20; Romans 6:5-7. You are united with Christ in his death. What else could you possibly exchange for your life in the day of judgment? Even the whole world would not be enough. (The one with the most ________ does not win.) Note that the basis for salvation is not the value of the human soul, but God’s love for the rebellious people for whom he gave his Son. To trust in Christ and to pick up your cross are inseparable. “To leave all things for his and the gospel’s sake and then to take up one’s cross and follow him (Matt. 10:22f.; 16:24ff.) is only possible by faith in his person. Accordingly, as soon as Jesus arose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and sent the Holy Spirit, they began to proclaim him as the one whom God had made both Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:36) that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins (2:38; 5:31).” (Herman Ridderbos, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 4, p. 106)
Keep following Jesus. You are united with Jesus in his suffering and death. You take up your cross because he was first willing to take up his for you. He has walked before you every step of the way. Jesus is not simply pointing to his death as an example. His going to the cross was in your place. There is something about his sacrifice that can never be imitated by anyone else. He and his sacrifice are unique. That was the reason for the must of Jesus’ suffering and death. Trust in the Lord who suffered and died for you means union with him. And that union means that you are willing to sacrifice yourself, to commit yourself, all that you are, to him. Losing your life here is specifically for the sake of Christ. We want to fix problems in our own lives and in the life of the church. But we need the reminder, which I recently heard a pastor pass on to a member who is struggling with the problems in her church (and they are real problems), that we are called to follow the cross-bearing Jesus. Sometimes we have to die in order to live. “In the Christian pursuit of the kingdom of God, suffering and trials are the inevitable concomitants; and far from hindering him in his progress, they must become the means of helping him onward through the development in him of patience.” (Geerhardus Vos, “Running the Race,” Grace and Glory, pages 134–135) The church, in a world that is increasingly opposed to the gospel, needs to be prepared for suffering. What choice will you make as the world pressures you to compromise your commitment to the Lord? As you do make the sacrifices that belonging to Christ involves, remember that you are not alone. Your Lord is with you. He has even walked that path to death ahead of you, and will not abandon you as you tread it. Keep on following Christ. The present tense of the imperative implies a continuing action.
You will follow the Son of Man in the Father’s glory. Jesus continues to identify himself as the Son of Man. The title grows out of Daniel 7:13,14. It avoided the political connotations which the term Messiah tended to carry. Jesus has used that self-designation as he has described his suffering and death (Matthew 16:13). But now he focuses on the glory which clings to that name as it appears in Daniel. Precisely because he obediently suffered and died as the Son of Man, he would rise, and will return. When would that happen? Some of Jesus’ hearers that day would witness his coming in glory. Don’t conclude that Jesus was teaching that his second coming would be within a few years at most. Rather than trying figure out time, focus on the progressive revelation of the glory of the Son of Man. In six days he would be transfigured on the mountain. His disciples, Judas excepted, would see him in the glory of his resurrection and would witness his ascension to the right hand of the Father. Don’t underestimate the glory of Christ revealed in his building his church. “The presence of the Spirit in the church in its more ordinary form of operation is something sufficiently marvelous and stupendous to justify the strong terms employed [in Matt. 16:28, etc.]. The church actually has within herself the powers of the world to come. She is more than the immanent kingdom as it existed before Jesus’ exaltation. She forms an intermediate link between the present life and th life of eternity.” (Geerhardus Vos, The Kingdom of God and the Church, p. 84) The process will culminate in the great and glorious day of judgment, a day of vindication for the people of God. The angels accompany him. His Father’s glory surrounds him. Part of his vindication is your salvation. His welcoming you, his rewarding you, is part of the reward the Father promised him as the obedient Savior. Keep in mind that future glory–and ask yourself if the fleeting pleasure of sin is worth risking that. Focus on yourself–and you lose everything. Be willing to sacrifice all for the sake of Christ–and you gain your life for all eternity.
Christ will come in his Father’s glory. In that day, what will you give in exchange for your life? Have you taken up your cross? Are you continuing to follow him, walking the path that involves sacrificing, not just some things, but yourself for his sake? If so, despite whatever suffering is yours, remember that the end of that path is not a hill outside Jerusalem. Yes, it leads there, but it goes on until it reaches the glory of the Father.