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Sermon Message


"By Way of the Cross"

Matthew 16:20-23
Theme: The way of the cross was Jesus' purpose of heart before the Father.

(Delivered Sunday, July 1, 2007 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)

We have spent the past few weeks looking carefully together at a very important passage from the Gospel of Matthew—a passage that I have argued is one of the most important in the Bible. In it, we were taught the central affirmation of the Christian faith.

Let's look at it again. Matthew writes;

When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven (Matthew 16:13-19).

The affirmation that Peter made is the central affirmation of the Christian faith. It was a "confession of faith" that was blessed by the Lord Himself, and was testified by Him to be the very revelation of the Father concerning Himself—that He is "the Christ, the Son of the living God". It was on this confession that Jesus pledged to build His church, with the promise that "the gates of hades shall not prevail against it".

Every element of this short "confession" that Jesus affirmed is essential. Jesus here proposes Himself to be the "Christ"—that is, the Messiah. This speaks of His humanity. It affirms Him to be the fulfillment of God's promise of a King through the lineage of King David. It affirms Him to be the promised King of the Jews, upon whose shoulders the government of this world will rest. And He also here proposes Himself to be "the Son of God"; which speaks of His deity. It affirms Him to be the second Person of the triune Godhead—eternally pre-existent in heavenly glory. It affirms Him to have condescended to have taken full humanity to Himself, while still retaining His divine nature. It affirms Him to be fully God, and fully Man; with both natures in one Person; and as such, He is able to take the sins of all of humanity upon His own sinless Person and die in our place for our sins as our substitute.

I do not believe that the importance of this confession can be stressed enough. If a man or woman affirms Jesus to be anything other than what He here says He is—that is "the Christ, the Son of the living God"—then they will have their faith in someone who cannot save them. They would have their faith either in a transcendent being who is so far above human beings that he cannot have any saving union to them; or in a man who is not divine, and therefore cannot take their sins upon himself.

But praise God! Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the living God"; and therefore, He can fully be—and is—our kinsman-Redeemer; our Savior and our Lord whose sacrifice on the cross is the sure trust for eternal life of everyone who believes on Him.

* * * * * * * * * *

Now; that's what the passage we have just finished studying was all about. But then comes the next passage; and if the first passage was the most important in Matthew's Gospel, then this next one is the most demanding. It teaches us that, if we believe those things about Jesus, then a certain response is required of us.

This next passage teaches us that this same Jesus fulfilled His Father's purpose for Him by faithfully and obediently suffering the death of the cross on behalf of sinners. And as a consequence, He tells those who desire to come after Him as His disciples that they must embrace the example He set as the whole principle of a brand-new way of living. They must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Him.

After that all-important passage—after Jesus had expounded on that "blessed confession" concerning Himself, Matthew goes on to write;

Then He commanded His disciples that they should tell no one that He was Jesus the Christ.
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. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!” 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.”
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. 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? 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" (Matthew 16:20-27).

* * * * * * * * * *

There are two stories connected in this passage. The last involves Jesus' call to His disciples to deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow after Him. But this second story has its basis in the first; because they are being called to do as Jesus Himself did.

Over the next couple of weeks, we'll be looking at this passage as a whole—and learning together of the high demand Jesus places on those who would follow Him. But let's begin by looking at the first story; and of how it teaches us that the way of the cross was Jesus' set purpose of heart before the Father.

* * * * * * * * * *

One of the things that has been very gratifying to me as we have studied through the previous passage together is that many of you had carefully read ahead. Several of you have pulled me aside and asked what the twentieth verse was all about. It says there that Jesus had "commanded His disciples that they should tell no one that He was Jesus the Christ". After that great "confession" had been made, and after He had gone to such great lengths to commend Peter for having spoken it, why would He now command them to keep it a secret? Wouldn't He want His disciples to now go out and tell everyone?

Well; first of all, let's be clear that it is okay now to tell everyone that Jesus is the Christ! After Jesus died on the cross, after He was raised from the dead, and after He presented Himself alive to His disciples, He told them;

“Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witnesses of these things. Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high" (Luke 24:46-49).

After Jesus ascended to the Father, He sent the Holy Spirit to His disciples. And the Spirit empowered them to go out into the world and proclaim that Jesus is the Christ. The Holy Spirit has been empowering the church to make that proclamation ever since! As one preacher said, we're no longer under the Lord's "gospel-embargo". We are free in the power of the Holy Spirit—and are even commissioned—to tell everyone about Him.

But why was it that, before these things—that is, before the Spirit was given, before the resurrection and the ascension of our Lord, before the sacrifice on the cross—Jesus commanded that they tell no one that He is the Christ?

I believe there were two main reasons. First, of course, has to do with the disciples themselves. They were not yet ready. For one thing, they were not yet fully matured in their understanding of Jesus. The "confession" had been embraced by them; but the implication of it had not yet sunk into the depths of their hearts. Even Peter—who had just made the confession—would shortly thereafter deny the Lord he confessed.

And for another thing, the Holy Spirit had not yet been given as the Lord promised. They didn't yet have the divine enablement from the indwelling Holy Spirit to be Christ's witnesses to the world. After His resurrection, Jesus would tell them to “tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). It would be then—and only then—that they would have the power to be His effective witnesses to the world (Acts 1:8). But before that divine enablement had been given to them, it would not be proper for them to go out and tell the world who He is.

And the second main reason for the Lord's prohibition has to do with those who would hear the witness. The people had already held to unrealistic and unbiblical expectations of Jesus. They expected Him to immediately be a conquering Messiah, who would ride into town on a white stallion and rid the Jewish people of all their oppressors. And there was even the fact, after Jesus performed the miracle of feeding the multitudes with a few fish and a few loaves of bread, that the people threatened to take Jesus by force—then and there—and make Him king (John 6:15).

The reaction of the people to the premature announcement that He was the Christ, the Son of the living God, would have been a terrible distraction and obstacle to the thing that He truly came to this world to do—and that was, to die on the cross for sinners.

It would have been so very easy for Jesus to have won the favor of this world to Himself. He could have been instantly and easily crowned as King of kings and Lord of lords without the cross. All He would have had to do was to behave fully as who He was—the world would so marvel at all the benefits they would have received from Him that they would have instantly bowed to Him.

But that was not why He came. And now, the time had come for Him, in obedience to the Father, to go to Jerusalem and suffer on the cross. And the fact is that He shunned the favor of this world in order to—unhindered and undeflected—fulfill the Father's will and die on the cross for you and me. And so, without regard for the favor of this world, He “steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51)—and to the hill on which He would be put to death.

* * * * * * * * * *

Not only did He set the glory and the favor of this world aside in order to go forward to fulfill the will of the Father for us through the cross; but His commitment to the Father's will also moved Him to affirm that the cross was absolutely necessary.

In our passage, Jesus for the first time tells His disciples plainly what awaited Him in Jerusalem. Matthew tells us that, "[f]rom 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). It was not the first awareness that He Himself had of these things, but it was the first time that He made them known so clearly to the disciples. And it had not been the first time He had hinted at these things (9:15; 12:39-40; 16:4); but it was the first time that He spoke of these things "openly" (Mark 8:32). And it would not be the last time He would mention these things to His disciples before they finally occurred (17:9, 22-23; 20:18-19; 26:2, 12,31). In fact, even after they occurred, the disciples didn't fully understand them until after He rose from the dead and opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Old Testament Scriptures that spoke of them (Luke 24:45).

There was a divinely-appointed inevitability about the things that Jesus had said were about to occur to Himself. He "must" experience these things. In fact, in the original language, it says that it was "necessary" (dei) that He go to Jerusalem and experience them. One reason, certainly, was because they had been promised in the Scriptures long beforehand. They were the expressed purpose of His Father for Him—just as He Himself had declared that “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

But there was also a necessity to these things because, without His going forward to Jerusalem, suffering under the hands of the leaders, being crucified, and being raised three days later, you and I would not be saved. As it says in Hebrews 9:27-28, "And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many."

How we should praise our Father for such a faithful Savior! He suffered these things because, in the wise decree of the Father, and in His mercy toward us, they “must” happen.

* * * * * * * * * *

And not only did He shun the glory and favor of this world, and feel the necessity of the cross as the Father's divinely appointed purpose for Him; but Jesus also abhorred anything or anyone that would dare to sway Him from that divine purpose.

Here, we find one of the strangest stories in the Gospel of Matthew. Peter dares to rebuke the Lord. Peter had no doubt been thinking himself very important, since the Lord had just given him a great word of commendation and praise for the confession he had just made. He then heard Jesus talking about His own death and thought such talk to be inappropriate. And so, he dared to take the Lord aside as if to privately correct Him. He told Him, "Far be it from You, Lord . . ."; or more literally, "God have mercy to You, Lord!" It was as if he were saying that it could not have possibly been God's will for Jesus to die. And then, he used the strongest negative possible in the original language so as to say, "In no way shall such a thing be to You!"

Now; I speak this cautiously and reverently. But I believe that this was a moment of temptation for our Lord. The devil had already sought to tempt Him away from the cross before. He tempted Jesus in the wilderness before His public ministry began. In one of those temptations, the devil took Jesus up to an exceedingly high mountain, showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, and—in the most outrageous act of blasphemy imaginable—said to his own divine Creator, "All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me" (Matthew 4:8-9). It was an offer of "instant kingship"—"instant Messianic rule". He was being told that He could have all the kingdoms of the world without ever having to go to the cross—if He would just bow down and worship the devil. What a test that was!

And do you remember our Lord's response to the tempter at that time? He said, "Get behind Me, Satan!" (Matthew 4:10; marginal reading). He told the devil to get out of His way, and take his proper place out of His way and behind Him. And now, as Peter is strongly suggesting to the Lord that these things would never happen to Him, He turns—looks at the other disciples, as it tells us in Mark 8:33; that is, at those for whom He was sent to die—and says the same words to Peter: "Get behind Me, Satan!"

I can't imagine what a horrifying blow that must have been to poor Peter. To have heard such powerful words of rebuke from His beloved Lord—especially after he had just been told that he spoke a confession about Jesus that was the very revelation from the Father! This must have given Peter a feeling of sadness and rejection beyond human description! "But Lord," he might have whimpered with tears welling up in his eyes; "I'm not Satan. I'm your beloved follower—your servant! I love You! Please don't cast me away as if I were Satan! I only meant to say that . . . I mean . . . You're the Christ! You must certainly go to Jerusalem; but only to conquer! Surely it couldn't be that You would die! Not You!"

I don't believe that Jesus was meaning to say that Peter was Satan. But I do believe that Jesus was realizing that Peter was being used by Satan at that moment; and Jesus spoke directly and sharply to the one who was seeking to tempt Him through Peter. Jesus spoke further to the devil—and put His finger on the motives that drove Peter, as well—when He said, "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." It's so often true that, to men, the message of the cross is utter foolishness. It doesn't make sense that the King of kings would come to suffer and die. And yet, Jesus here shows His devotion to the Father by the fact that the devil's alternatives to the cross are an "offense" to Him.

Before I depart from this point, I wonder out loud if this doesn't also speak to those times when the devil peddles his falsehoods in the church today. What happens when churches lose their focus, and cease speaking of the cross to which Jesus Himself was so committed? What happens when denominations seek to soften the offense of the cross in their doctrinal statements, and try to avoid shocking people with such a message?

Or what happens when the Holy Spirit is working the conviction of sin into someone, and they feel the oppressive guilt of having shaken their fist at God's law; and then, one of us—as Jesus' professing followers—dares to come along beside them, pat them on the back, and seek to comfort them when the Spirit is seeking to convict them? What happens when, at such times, we tell them, "There, there. You're not really so bad, you know." Do we then rob them of the sense that they are truly so bad that they need a Savior? Do we then work against the message of the cross? Do we—unwittingly—become instruments of the devil in his opposition to Jesus' sacrifice?

Jesus Himself was committed to the cross. And He was committed to the divine necessity of the cross. He even rejected the favor and praise of this world in order to go to the cross. And if we stand in the way of the message of the cross, I am daring to wonder if Jesus would turn to us, and say, "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."

* * * * * * * * * *

So then; here's Jesus' stand. He is committed to the cross. He sees it as His Father's divinely appointed purpose for Him. He shuns this world's praise and glory because of it. He approves of the divine necessity of it. And He utterly rejects any of the devil's substitutes and alternatives to it. He had set Himself resolutely to the way of the cross. He, for the joy that was set before Him, would endure the cross—despising its shame (Heb. 12:2).

Jesus rejected the easy way; and chose instead the hard way of the death of the cross. And it was then that He turned to His followers and calls them to do the same. He says, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me."

Jesus does not call us to do something that He didn't do Himself first. May we so look, and study, and learn from our Savior's example, that we too will live in accordance with His purpose!

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