“Following Jesus in the Way of the Cross”

(Matthew 16:21-26 – Pentecost 15 – September 13, 2020)

Matthew 16:21-26 – 21From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day. 22Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!” 23But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” 24Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. 25For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. 26For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”

Dear Redeemed in Christ, who was crucified and rose again for our salvation:

A popular game for children is “follow the leader.” A leader is chosen and the rest of the children follow. Not only do they try to follow the leader’s steps, but they even try to imitate his or her actions, even when the way becomes difficult or challenging.

As disciples of Jesus, He has called us to follow Him by faith. We follow Him by listening to His Word and trusting Him alone as our Savior. He wants us to follow in His steps and imitate Him, even when the way becomes difficult or strange to our natural way of thinking. Here we are reminded that we are “Following Jesus in the Way of the Cross.” Not only has He gone ahead of us to win our eternal salvation by His cross. But He also tells us that we must take up our own cross; for following His footsteps in this world will not always be easy. Here we see that: 1) Human nature rejects the cross; but 2) God-given faith embraces the cross.

1) Human nature rejects the cross

We read in verse 21: “From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.”

Jesus must go to Jerusalem and die on the cross. There was no way around it as the Savior of sinners. There was no other way to take away the sins of the world. Ever since Adam and Eve played follow the leader with Satan, disobeying the Word and will of God, they and their descendants became subject to the wages of sin, which is death (Romans 6:23). But as God promised, there would come a Savior born of woman to redeem us from sin, Satan, and eternal death (Genesis 3:15). He would redeem us by the sacrifice of His own life, by the shedding of His own blood on the cross. This foreshadowed in countless ways through the centuries, as God commanded the Jews to kill innocent animals and sprinkle their blood on the altar, as a sacrifice for the sins of the people. But all those blood sacrifices could not take away sins; only the blood of God’s innocent Son in our flesh could do that. So Jesus must go to the cross, and suffer and die, to take away the sin of the world. As Isaiah 53:5-6 foretold it: He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”

But now, as Jesus began to show His disciples the path in which He must lead, the way of the cross, we see that human nature was not so ready to follow. We read in verse 22: “Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!'” Just before this Peter had boldly confessed: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15-16). At that time, Jesus had said Peter was blessed by this God-given faith in which he so fervently wanted to follow Christ. But now, the same disciple was rebuking Jesus for describing the work which He must do. The suffering and death of Jesus at the hands of enemies had no place in Peter’s understanding. He had not meant to follow the Christ in the way of the cross, but in the path of glory.

Human nature takes offense at the message of the cross. It cannot see any good in a crucified Christ; it is appalled by such blood theology. Human nature does not want to think that it is so horribly corrupted by sin that it took the innocent blood of God’s Son, shed on a gruesome instrument of death, as the only way for the sinner to be spared from his own just punishment of death and hell. Human nature wants, by any means, to go around the cross of Christ and find life in a more self-dignifying way. Human nature seeks a theology of glory, which exalts the natural goodness of man. Thus from the beginning, mankind has devised every religion of the world that focuses on man doing what it takes to save himself from his guilt; by doing enough good works and making enough sacrifices to become worthy of God and eternal life.

Again, human nature takes offense at the theology of the cross because, to put it in terms of following the leader, it sees the danger in associating too closely with a crucified Christ. It did not take much for Peter and the others to realize that, if Jesus should suffer and die at the hands of His enemies, the same could happen to them. Where is the glory in that? Wasn’t the Messiah supposed to bring a kingdom of glory on earth, in which the disciples would be exalted leaders?

“Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!” On the surface, Peter’s words expressed concern for his Lord; but it was really about self-preservation. Jesus turned and said to him in verse 23: “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” Even though Peter meant well, his sentiments were rooted in his sinful nature, which is an ally to Satan. By opposing the Word and the will of the Lord, he had become an agent of Satan.

It was the same temptation Jesus had faced against Satan in the wilderness. At that time too, the evil one had tried to get Jesus to forsake the way of the cross, the only way of winning mankind’s salvation; and to seek a kingdom and glory an easier way, by bowing to him. Here again, Jesus uses the same command against His foe: “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve'” (Matthew 4:10).

We are reminded that often, the toughest temptations come from those who seem to be friends, not enemies. Watch out for friendly faces that suggest an easier road apart from the way of the cross. There may be times when friends suggest that we follow a path apart from the Word and the will of the Lord. We will be tempted to take the broad path, to follow the lead of many who seek life by indulging sinful pleasures and idolizing worldly treasures above God. The popular ideas of the world tempt us to follow our own heart and live the way we want. And often, such advice is spoken in the name of following a path of love and freedom. But however well intentioned a friendly face may be, if it leads us away from Christ, His Word and His will, it is satanic. This often becomes clear when we resist temptation to follow the leader that way. For when we keep to the path of Christ, and what we know to be true and right according to His Word, the face of the evil one will surely show itself one way or another. We may feel rejection and persecution; not only by enemies, but even by those we have known as friends.

This is the cross Jesus speaks of, as He goes on to tell His disciples in verses 24-26: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” By the cross of His followers, Jesus refers to the rejection, persecution, and even death that may come to believers in this world, just because we follow Him and do His will. For Satan and the evil world oppose Christ and His followers.

But consider the alternative. If we follow the easy path apart from Christ, we may gain some of the short-lived riches, pleasures, and false glory of this world; but we lose the eternal Kingdom and glory Christ came to win for us. If we seek the praise of men more than God, we may find favor among fair weather friends in this world, but we lose the favor of God.

When children play follow the leader, if parents see the path becoming dangerous, they will warn their child not follow. When it comes to our children choosing friends, we teach them not follow bad company, and not to join activities that will endanger them, physically or spiritually. We warn our children this way because we love them and we want what is best for them.

It is in love that Jesus speaks such a strong warning. He does not want to see us follow the lead of Satan, the world, and our sinful nature. He does not want us to follow any path that leads away from true repentance and faith in Him. That way leads to the loss of one’s soul in eternal death and hell. But Jesus calls us to follow Him our only Savior and our true Friend. He alone saves our soul and gives us eternal life in heaven.

2) God-given faith embraces the cross

Sinful human nature rejects the cross; but by God-given faith, we embrace the cross. First, we embrace the cross of Christ, and His sacrifice for us, by which He has saved us. Then we embrace the cross that comes with following Him in this world, in the truth of His salvation.

First we embrace the cross of Christ, because we know the answer to His question: “What will a man give in exchange for his soul?” The answer is, we could give nothing in exchange. Even if we could gain the whole world with all its richest treasures, and put that in the balance to pay for our sin, it would do nothing to lift our souls out of the punishment of death and hell. Even if we could put all the best works of mankind, and put them in the balance, it would do nothing to earn our forgiveness, and lift us up in eternal life with God in heaven.

There is only one exchange for our soul that God accepts: the death of His Son on the cross. God took all our sins, all the ways we have not followed His Word and His holy will; and He put it all in the balance of justice at the cross. Then He put the blood sacrifice of His Son in the balance, punishing Him for all our wayward paths. There at the cross, God declared all our sins paid for. Jesus has fulfilled the Word and the will of God for us; He has taken away our sin and unrighteousness; and in exchange, God declares us forgiven and righteous for Jesus’ sake.

Here Jesus told His disciples that it was necessary, not only that He should suffer and die; but also that He should rise again on the third day. For in Jesus’ resurrection, we have the proof that His sacrifice really saved us. He lives to give us His forgiveness of sins, and salvation from death and the devil; He lives to give us eternal life in His heavenly Kingdom and glory.

Now, as God justifies us through faith in Christ, it makes a difference in our life. We are led by a different spirit than the one the world follows. We are led by God’s Spirit to follow Christ alone, who lived, died, and rose again for us. Though others around us may turn away from Christ, including former disciples, and even friends; yet faith says with Peter in John 6:68: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” The faith that clings to Christ crucified as our only Savior from sin, death, and Satan says: “Jesus alone is my Righteousness and Redemption, He is my very Life. He is more important than anyone or anything else.”

By this faith, we crucify our flesh in daily repentance. In the power of our baptism, we die with Christ to sin, and we rise with Him in the true life and freedom He gives (Romans 6:3-11). By faith, we say with Paul in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

In a follow the leader game, children follow even when the way becomes difficult or challenging, because they are eager to see where the leader is taking them. By faith, we follow Jesus in the way of the cross knowing that, even when the path becomes difficult or painful, He is leading us to the most wonderful place. We say: For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). At each step our life is hidden in Christ (Colossians 3:3), who has not only gone to the cross for us, but has risen to win our place in His heavenly Kingdom of Glory.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen.