How Jesus prepared his disciples for the looming battle in Jerusalem, and the immediate glories that followed
Gospel Reading: Matthew 16:21-28
“Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24 NKJV).
From Caesarea Philippi, JESUS SET HIS SITES ON JERUSALEM. He knew what was going to happen to him when he got there. The Jewish leaders would arrest and abuse him, the Romans would kill him, and his heavenly Father would raise him from the dead.
Jesus began to explain these things to his disciples right after he declared his vision to build his church in the world (Matthew 16:13-20). That vision outlined his goal for the planet. He would build his church in it. Everywhere. To do that meant fighting a long war, the first and defining battle of which would be fought in Jerusalem. So to Jerusalem he would go.
But before he began the journey to Jerusalem, he spelled out the dangers and the blessings that lay ahead for those who accompanied him. A fierce battle would be fought there. The city would be filled with intrigue. Foundations would be shaken. A crisis would come. Murder would be in the air. The combined forces of the Jewish hierarchy and the Roman power would oppose Jesus and his small band of unarmed disciples. The disciples’ lives would be at risk. Jesus would lose his life.
So, as any good captain does before he leads his men on a combat mission, Jesus prepared his men for the battle ahead. It would be dangerous. But glory was promised for those who went with him. Our Gospel reading, Matthew 16:21-28, shows us how Jesus prepared his disciples for what was ahead. Let’s look into it now.
PREDICTING THE JERUSALEM EVENTS (Mt. 16:21-24)
The first section of our Gospel reading covers three issues: the Lord’s outlining of what lay in store for him in Jerusalem; Peter’s satanically inspired attempt to preempt the mission; and the Lord’s strong and instructive rebuke of Satan and Peter.
Looking toward Jerusalem (v. 21)
Jesus and the disciples were in the region of Caesarea Philippi, about one hundred and twenty miles (as the crow flies) from Jerusalem. While there, Jesus cast his vision for building his church in the world. Once he cast the vision, he began to prepare his disciples for what would happen in Jerusalem in the not too distant future. Matthew writes, “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” (v. 21).
There is a direct link between the glorious promise to build his church in the world, etc. (vv. 13-20) and the suffering and glory that would follow, as discussed in verse 21. In order to build his church in the world, Jesus would first have to die on the cross and be raised from the dead.
To win a war you must win a succession of battles. The first battle in Christ’s redemptive war for the planet would be fought and won on the cross; and his victory would be declared in his resurrection.
So, Jesus predicted the success of his reign (figuratively, his crown) in Matthew 16:13-20, and in verse 21 he predicted both his cross and his crown. The road to the crown would run through the cross, in Jerusalem. All would happen there. It was time to start the journey.
Attempt at a preemptive strike (v. 22)
But Satan attempted a preemptive strike before the journey to Jerusalem began. Writes Matthew, “Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!’ ” (v. 22) The next verse (which we will turn to in a moment) reveals that Peter unwittingly became Satan’s spokesman.
God uses human agents, and so does Satan. It is frightening to think that a chief apostle could so easily become Satan’s mouthpiece, but that is exactly what happened.
Peter was naïve and ill-informed. Satan was not. Knowing that Jesus’ death and resurrection would expose his kingdom to immediate plunder and ultimate defeat, Satan’s aim was to prevent Jesus from ever getting to Jerusalem. If he succeeded in this attempt, his kingdom in the world would continue largely unchecked as it had for thousands of years.
If there is a practical lesson in this verse for us, it is this: Satan is a master of preemptive strikes. Beware of them. They will attempt to keep you from a battle that will lead to victory.
Jesus rebukes Satan
Jesus didn’t give space to Satan (or to Peter) for an instant. Writes Matthew, “But 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’ ” (v. 22). Jesus canceled the preemptive strike. He threw Satan out of his path, commanding him to move to the rear where he couldn’t hinder the Lord’s forward progress as he struck out for Jerusalem.
The war was on.
STEELING THE DISCIPLES FOR BATTLE
We come now to Jesus’ famous call for the disciples to take up their crosses, deny themselves, and follow him to Jerusalem. I must be honest with you. I think this passage is too often preached out of context and used to browbeat Christians into taking on unnecessary burdens or making unneeded sacrifices. These things are a mistake. Before we apply these words in our lives we must first understand what they meant to the disciples when he spoke them. The fact is, the call to take up the cross, deny oneself, and follow Jesus must be understood in the framework of the Lord’s pending suffering and death in Jerusalem, and what that meant in specific terms to the disciples who accompanied him.
The call to follow
Notice that Jesus invited the disciples to consider going with him to Jerusalem. He did so with these words, “If anyone desires [emphasis mine] to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (v. 24).
This is a call, an invitation, and not a command. Having already announced what awaited him in Jerusalem, Jesus requested his disciples to accompany him there. He imposed nothing. He left the decision to them, to be made according to the dictates of their own desires. There is a lesson here. Satan, working through sects and cults, insists, cajoles, and demands. Jesus, however, invites. He leaves it to his disciples to make their own decisions.
Self-denial & cross bearing
The Lord’s call here wasn’t a general call to cross bearing. Rather, it had a specific association with his looming crucifixion.
Now, it is a matter of historic record that the Jewish rulers did not have the authority to impose capital punishment. That authority rested with the prevailing Roman authority. When Jesus previously stated that he would suffer at the hands of the Jewish authorities and subsequently be killed, the apostles knew immediately that whatever the Jews did to him, his death would be accomplished by the Roman means of execution, crucifixion. So the symbolic meaning of the cross already hung over the conversation. But in verse 21 it pertained only to Jesus. Now, in verse 24, it applied to the disciples.
The meaning was clear: Jesus would be crucified. The disciples might be. In fact, if they wished to follow Jesus to Jerusalem they needed to be willing to die as he would. That, plainly, was the Lord’s meaning.
Willingness to take up a cruel Roman cross in full knowledge of the agonizing and humiliating death it would impose went against all natural human inclinations to protect oneself. That’s why Jesus made clear that the disciples would have to deny themselves. It would take self-denial to follow Jesus into death, especially the dreaded Roman crucifixion.
So the call here—the invitation—is spelled out with a high price tag: a horrible death threatened each of the disciples if they accompanied Jesus to Jerusalem. To follow Jesus to Jerusalem was to take on a death sentence. To march with him into the Jerusalem battle was to march as dead men.
The Lord sometimes calls us to take risks, to go with him into dangerous places. He spells out the risks, but he doesn’t demand that we take them. Instead, he leaves the final decision to us.
An encouragement to follow
That being said, the Lord also offered encouragement to the disciples. In the verses that followed he gave them good reason to follow him. Here are his words:
“For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. 26 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? 27 For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works” (vv. 25-27).
While it would be perfectly natural to prefer self-preservation to following Jesus to his death, Jesus knew that it would be to the disciples’ long-term advantage to pay the price. The price tag was high, yes, but the reward was well worth it. If they desired to preserve their lives, they’d lose them. But if they lost their lives, they’d gain them.
The symbolic meaning is deep here, and we cannot plumb its depths at this time. But let me say this: With regards to Jesus’ looming death, the disciples would be most wise to fully identify with and participate in it. In his death would be their life, a life they would only begin to understand after he rose from the dead. But if they didn’t make it to the foot of the cross, they’d not make it to the Upper Room on the night of his resurrection.
In ways Jesus did not explain to them (because they wouldn’t have understood), he was calling them to be close and personal witnesses of his death on the cross. He was calling them to have a visceral connection to the redemptive event that would become a central element in the gospel they would take into the world. (I think Jesus’ words about cross bearing led the disciples to imagine they’d all be crucified together.) He saw the large picture in ways they could not. His death would provide their redemption, as well as redemption for all others who believed their word. To sear the message of his cross in their souls, he called them to take up their crosses, figuratively, on the last journey to Jerusalem.
Knowing that he would be resurrected on the third day, the Lord knew the gifts and graces he would then lavish on those who paid the price of following him to Jerusalem. It would be difficult for the disciples to deny their human inclinations of self-preservation, shoulder their sentence-of-death crosses, and follow Jesus to Jerusalem. But if they did so, he’d reward them for it.
And by the way…
As if to say, “And by the way, not all of you are going to die,” Jesus added these words, “Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” (v. 28). As with his prediction of his imminent sufferings, death, and resurrection in Jerusalem, these words applied to the immediate aftermath of his resurrection. This isn’t end-of-the-world or Second Coming language. (Similar language used elsewhere applies to that, but not here.) It’s as if he said, “Take up your metaphorical cross. Come with me, willing to die. But you’re not going to die until after you’ve seen me in the power of my resurrection.”
In other words, with these words the Lord made it clear that the self-denial, cross bearing, and following of him to Jerusalem were necessary to work an inward work in them. He was going to Jerusalem to die. They weren’t. But they needed to go to Jerusalem willing to die. Only in that way would they be there to receive the new life he would breathe into them the night of his resurrection.
Looking back on the historic events that took place in Jerusalem as Jesus had predicted they would, we marvel at the sin and devil-smashing victory Jesus won on the cross. We marvel at the proof of victory that his resurrection provided. We marvel at the success the apostles had launching the gospel into the worlds of Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth. We marvel that our present world that has more than two billion Christians in it. We see ample evidence of Satan’s kingdom being plundered. But there is yet so much more to do. We are still a long way from a Christian majority in the world. Whole nations still worship at a “Caesar-shrine” (i.e., look to the state for salvation.) The Gates of Hell still do a thriving business. So we have more territory to conquer, more people to win. And though it might be that some of our beloved number are called to martyrdom, and thus to carry a cross in a literal way, the majority of us (I trust) are called not to carry a cross but rather the message of the cross and, with it, the message of the resurrection. Jesus has built, is building, and will continue to build his Church in the earth. He uses you and me as day laborers on the building sites. With the cross behind and the crown before, let us press toward the mark of the high calling of God, which is in Christ Jesus. Let us continue the march, continue the war of grace. Jesus has paid the great price. Let us pay our lesser ones. Victory is certain if we but press on to declare his great and glorious gospel. Amen.