READ : Matthew 16:21-24
What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? Another word for Christian is “disciple.” Another word for disciple is “follower of Jesus.” In a key verse from Matthew 16, Jesus explains exactly how to follow.
Chapter 16 marks a turning point in the gospel of Matthew. This is the moment, shortly after feeding the multitudes, when Jesus undergoes a reversal of public opinion, as many in the curious crowds begin to turn away from him (cf. John 6:60-66). It’s no coincidence that Jesus’ popularity begins to wane at the moment when the cross begins to loom on the horizon, casting its dark shadow over the whole gospel landscape. And all of these changes revolve around Peter’s great confession at Caesarea Philippi.
The Great Confession
Perhaps you remember the story. One day Jesus asked his disciples what people were saying about him. Some were saying he was Elijah come back down from heaven, or John the Baptist, risen from the dead. He was a great prophet, a miraculous figure, perhaps even the forerunner signaling the coming of the Messiah. Others simply said he was a prophet and left it at that. Nobody could deny that Jesus was an outstanding figure, but at the same time people weren’t willing to go too far out on a limb in their views. And then suddenly, the Lord turned the question upon the disciples: “You – who do you say I am?” And Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
That great confession required great faith. Peter wasn’t just echoing popular opinion. Nor was he jumping on the bandwagon that was gathering momentum; remember he spoke these words of recognition and faith in Jesus after the crowds had begun deserting Jesus, after the crest of his popular appeal had broken. Jesus had led his disciples into foreign territory. Caesarea Philippi was a gentile town. Perhaps he did that in order to be safe for a while from his enemies.
So there they are. Jesus nearly alone, no influential friends or powerful protectors, rejected by the entire religious establishment who now actively sought his death. Could anyone look less like a Messiah than Jesus did at that moment? In fact, he looked like a loser. And yet Peter confessed faith in him.
How did he do it? Peter’s statement is a reminder that faith always sees more than the world sees. If faith were simply a matter of obvious common sense, everyone would be a Christian. But where did Peter get that special insight that enabled him to recognize the truth about Jesus when nobody else did? Jesus himself gives the answer: “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, Peter, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17).
Faith in Christ is itself a gift. Maybe you have heard salvation described this way: “God’s grace is like life-saving water in the desert; faith is the cup we hold up to receive it.” I’ve used that analogy myself, and it’s helpful – as long as we realize that both the water and the cup are given to us by God.
It was impossible for Peter to have recognized Christ by his own intuition. He never would have grasped the truth through his own natural wisdom. God revealed Jesus’ identity to Peter; God gave him faith. That is why believers are so profoundly grateful for salvation, why we never boast or feel proud of ourselves for trusting Christ when others reject him, why we pray with confidence for the salvation of others. It’s all because faith is the gift of God.
The Way of the Cross
But even our faith, wonderful as it is, remains frail and imperfect. It may be supernatural in origin, but it is always mixed with our own natural ignorance, doubt, and misunderstanding. We may have been given insight from above into the truth about Jesus, but our sinful nature still leaves us half blind. This is what explains the curious aftermath to Peter’s great confession of faith in Christ.
First of all, Jesus charges his disciples to strict secrecy about himself. “Don’t tell anyone I’m the Messiah,” he says (v. 20), which sounds a bit odd, doesn’t it? But it was not yet the time for an open proclamation of his nature and mission. Indeed, the disciples themselves are far from ready to speak accurately about Jesus. They still didn’t have any clue as to what kind of Messiah he would be.
So the Lord starts to take his disciples deeper into the plan of God for salvation. He introduces to them the disturbing notion that Jesus, the Messiah, must suffer and die. “From that time,” we read, “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” (v. 21).
The whole first part of Matthew’s gospel has been leading up to this point: the disciples’ recognition of Jesus’ true identity. But now that they recognize him as the Messiah, they have to learn exactly what kind of Messiah he’s going to be. And once again Peter will serve as the group’s spokesman, but this time with far less positive results.
Like all devout Jews, Peter believed in the coming of God’s kingdom, when God would deliver his people Israel, and right all their wrongs and punish all their enemies. This glorious consummation would take place when the Messiah came, so in Peter’s mind if Jesus was the Messiah, it was obvious that he had come to bring the final victory. The Messiah couldn’t suffer and die. On the contrary, he would inflict suffering on all the wicked, he would deal death to Israel’s foes.
Matthew says that when Jesus talked about the cross, Peter “took Jesus aside” – I love that, such sensitivity! He didn’t want to embarrass Jesus by correcting him in front of the others – “and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.'”
“Get behind me, Satan!” was Jesus’ counter-rebuke (cf. vv. 22-23). In trying to suggest that the Lord could turn away from the way of the cross, Peter was unwittingly speaking for the enemy.
The Meaning of Discipleship
So now Jesus wants to make sure that his disciples understand what following him is really about. He describes the cost of discipleship to them.
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (v. 24)
Here’s how you follow Jesus. If anyone, he begins. This is the universal rule for every disciple, no exceptions. There are no alternative paths of following. If anyone would come after me. This is how you follow Jesus. There isn’t any other way to be a Christian than by following Jesus, and there isn’t any other way to follow Jesus than by doing what he tells his disciples to do. Here it is:
Let him deny himself. We have a tendency to soften the hardness of those words of Jesus. So we say, or think, that denying ourselves means giving up an occasional dessert or waiting another year to buy a new car. But self-denial really means something much more radical.
It means, on the deepest level, to say no to self. And that’s not something we’re naturally good at. We naturally prefer to indulge ourselves, to give ourselves whatever we think we need or want to make us happy. Self-denial seems somehow old-fashioned, or even unhealthy. Nowadays we’re supposed to affirm ourselves, love ourselves, reward ourselves. But Jesus says the key to following him is to deny yourself, deny your self.
And take up his cross. The cost of true discipleship doesn’t just mean denying your self; it means dying to self. “Bearing the cross” – there’s another phrase that’s often misunderstood. We think it means shouldering our share of troubles patiently (“That’s my cross to bear,” we say of some difficulty in life.)
But Jesus’ image is much more shocking. Everyone who heard him that day had actually seen a man carrying his cross. The sight of someone walking with a beam on his shoulder, escorted by Roman soldiers, meant only one thing. He was on a one-way trip to execution. A cross-bearing man in Jesus’ day was a dead man. This is Jesus’ way of saying that we have to die to ourselves. None of Jesus’ disciples ever understood what this meant better than Saul of Tarsus. After he was transformed into the apostle Paul he wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
Let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. After the negatives comes a positive. Jesus tells us plainly that true discipleship means self-denial, saying no to the incessant demands of our egos, and dying to ourselves, crucifying our old nature so that we come alive in Christ. But the purpose of these hard negatives isn’t just to deprive us or make us suffer. It is to liberate us from the tyranny of our sinful nature so that we can enjoy the freedom of life in Christ. The reason we have to say no to ourselves is so that we can say yes to Jesus. The egos we slavishly serve have to die so that Christ can come to live in their place. That is how you follow Jesus.
None of this is easy to do. You might reasonably ask, “Why should I bother?” One way or another, you’re going to die anyway. If you haven’t already died with Christ, you will face death all alone. So why not choose it now – that sounds odd, doesn’t it? But choose to die with Christ because if we’re crucified with him, if by faith in him we are united to him in his death, we are also raised with him to eternal life. These are the only options: you can die now and live, or die later, period.