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 “The Cost and Reward of Following Jesus”

Sep.25, 2011 Mt.16:21-28


Today we look at one of the strongest and most challenging commands of Jesus: Matthew 16:24, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” DENY himself. If there’s one thing our flesh resists, it’s denying oneself: our natural self tries to wiggle out of saying ‘no’ to our desires any way it can. The whole thrust of our North American or Western consumer society is to be ‘comfortable’ and feed our creaturely appetites.
    So we try to re-define ‘denial’. One vacation magazine lists this under the heading of Winter Denial: “8-night Eastern Caribbean [cruise vacation] from $534...While much of the country faces a February freeze, this cruise delivers you to the heart of the tropics. In St. Thomas, hop on an undersea motor scooter (no diving experience necessary!) And descend 8 feet under the surface to explore a coral reef. Next it’s on to Antigua for an aboveground view of the rain forest and countryside villages via a 4-wheel-drive-vehicle safari...” (Etc.) Now, does that sound like ‘denial’ to you?! A couple of pages over, another cruise offer entices us thus: “...the rest of the ship entices you to indulge.Have a swim, then settle into a lounge chair to watch a movie on the giant screen at the pool deck. Forget about weather permitting; this open-air cinema has a retractable glass roof...Regenerate your energies at Samsara Spa, with an invigorating four-hands massage (that’s right: two therapists).In the evening, head to the piano bar for live music and cocktails.” Yes, that would classify as ‘indulging’ - when one masseuse just isn’t enough.
    That’s the game plan of consumerism: work so you can play, indulge yourself rather than deny yourself. But Jesus teaches us that’s an illusion; like a balloon full of air that either pops or slowly leaks and deflates, it’s going to let you down. He has a better, longer-lasting offer.


Beginning at v21 we read, “From that time on Jesus began to explain to His disciples...” This marks a turning point in Jesus’ ministry: up to now His miracles have established His astonishing reputation - feeding the 5000 and 4000, stilling the storm and walking on water, healing all kinds of diseases. But after Peter’s confession of Him as the Christ, He begins to focus less on ministry to the crowds, and more on teaching His disciples about what’s coming very soon - Jesus’ sufferings, death, and resurrection. His prediction is repeated on at least three occasions (see 17:22f; 20:18) - He was emphasizing His coming passion and glorification.
    What was He predicting? V21, “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” Note the word ‘must’ occurs twice in the NIV translation; NLT uses “it was necessary’. The corresponding word in the Greek occurs only once but by implication applies to the whole chain of events in the sentence: He must go to Jerusalem, must suffer many things, must be killed, and must be raised to life. Why ‘must’? Where was He getting this? These things certainly weren’t part of the popular Jewish expectation of the coming Messiah. Why was any of this necessary?
    The reason for the ‘must’ extends all the way back to man’s fall in the Garden of Eden. The prophets in the Old Testament understood making amends for human sin was a key part of the Suffering Servant’s role, see Isaiah 53 - “for the transgression of My people He was stricken...He will bear their iniquities” (53:8,11); Daniel 7(13f) and 9(26f) - the Messiah would be cut off, there would be a period of trouble, and the king would come in glory; and Jeremiah 31(31,34) - God would make a new covenant and forgive people’s wickedness and sin. So it was written - and Jesus understood the key role He had to play in order for it to happen. See also His talk to the disciples on the road to Emmaus just after His resurrection in Luke 24(44-47) - “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms...This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.”
    Jesus saw clearly that forgiveness required Him to be ‘the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’ (Jn 1:29) Saving / reconciling / atoning / being a sacrifice on behalf of others requires an ABSORPTIVE life-pattern, shielding others by taking the blow, living for others not oneself.
    He did it for us. Now He calls us to live that way for others - not as if we become their atonement, He’s already accomplished that in His innocence and perfection as the God-Man. But for the sake of love, and as God’s agents in the world. So this “must-ness” also applies by extension to OUR lives: v24, the person who would come after Jesus “MUST deny himself and take up his cross...”
    Jesus died once for all. He is our Saviour, also our example, leaving us an example that we should walk in it (1Pet 2:21). Writing to the church at Philippi (2:2-7), Paul urges that they be like-minded, one in purpose, not following selfish ambitions or looking only to their own interests. Instead, he says, your attitude should (=must?) be the same as that of Christ Jesus, who made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant. His ‘must’ becomes our ‘must’, our imperative.


In a way, it’s surprising who first voices an objection to Jesus’ command. Back in v16, when Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?”, Peter was the first disciple to confess that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus commended Peter, saying he was shown that by God not man, and making a word-play on Peter’s name (rock) Jesus said “On this rock I will build My church.”
    Perhaps Peter figures he’ll be the spokesperson on behalf of all Jesus’ disciples, for in v22 - after Christ’s prediction of His coming suffering and death - he takes Jesus aside and protests, in effect, “God forbid that this should ever happen to you.”
    Why would Peter react that way? Isn’t it natural? A) He loved Jesus and wouldn’t want to see any harm come to his rabbi; B) Suffering isn’t part of the world’s categories, what we understand of ‘the good life’; and C) suffering and death were NOT part of the popular Jewish expectations of the coming Messiah that were current at the time. Judge sin and conquer the pagan Romans occupying the land, yes, but none of this suffering stuff.
    Peter meant well. Our friends mean well by protecting us, wanting us to be risk-free, but that may in fact be a source of great temptation for us, in contrast to the priority of obeying God’s will. FF Bruce wrote, “None are more formidable instruments of temptation than well-meaning friends, who care more for our comfort than for our character.” The Life Application Bible comments, “Great temptations can come from those who love us and seek to protect us. Be cautious of advice from a friend who says, ‘Surely God doesn’t want you to face this.’ Often our most difficult temptations come from those who are only trying to protect us from discomfort.”
    How did Jesus respond? V23, “Jesus turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men."” Shortly before, Jesus had praised Peter for realizing He was the Christ, a revelation that came from God not humans; here He’s rebuking Peter for listening to Satan instead of God, for having man’s outlook not God’s view. Peter’s not seeing things from the long perspective of the Old Testament prophets, the revelation of Scripture; he’s just grasping at what’s expedient in the immediate. As the Life Application Bible notes, “Satan is always trying to get us to leave God out of the picture.”
    How are we going to get God’s outlook rather than just have a human perspective and evaluation of a situation? How can we ‘keep God in the picture’, so to speak? On our family vacation in Alberta this August, we seized the opportunity for a family photo [GRAPHIC]. It’s a real keepsake, especially with the mountains in the background. But can you spot the controlling element in the picture? You wouldn’t know it, but my son Keith is holding a remote control for his camera right at my shoulder.
    You likely wouldn’t have guessed that unless I’d told you. By my revelation, you became privy to ‘inside information’. Likewise, if we want to keep God in the picture, we need to be listening to His communication. He can show us things that are not otherwise knowable by human means. Be praying, waiting before Him in a listening posture, praising Him for His excellent greatness, honouring Him and humbling yourself as His dear child. At the same time, be reading your Bible regularly, as part of your daily routine, so that over time you begin to develop a ‘long-term’ view like that of the prophets, seeing God’s over-arching redemptive plan at work in the universe: then you’ll be on His wavelength, seeing things from His angle.


So with that backdrop, let’s look again at Jesus strong and challenging command in v24, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” This echoes Matthew 10:38 in Jesus’ lecture on discipleship and mission, “anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” NLT for “must deny himself” in 24 has “you must turn from your selfish ways.” As Jesus ‘must’, so we ‘must’.
    Yet the way Jesus sandwiches this (come after - deny - follow) suggests the focus here ought not to be on self-rejection/denial/renunciation for its own sake in some masochistic sort of way, always putting yourself down because you’re no good (that would be listening to the Accuser’s whisper) – the focus is on self-denial FOR a greater cause, FOR something better. The lectionary defines “deny” as “to forget one’s self, lose sight of one’s self and one’s own interests.” Lose sight because something more important, more rewarding is in view.
    “Take up your cross and follow Me.” How did Jesus take up His cross? In John 10, the chapter on Jesus the Good Shepherd, He talks about laying down His life freely, of His own accord, as a command He received from His Father; why? “I lay down My life for the sheep.”  Because Jesus foreknew you and loved you from eternity, He laid down His life for you. You’re the reason He ‘took up His cross.’
    Hebrews 12(2) talks about it another way: “...who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Here he took up the cross “for joy”! - the joy He would enjoy forever with those who trust in and commit to Him. Note the ‘bread’ on the ‘sandwich’ of v24: “If anyone would come after Me...follow Me”: the goal is being with Jesus, being His disciple, accompanying Him: that’s the treasure worth taking up one’s cross for, worth the self-denial.
    As well, the grammatical structure of the paragraph here suggests two supporting reasons to renounce selfishness. Look closely at the way both v25 and v27 begin: “For whoever wants...For the Son of Man...” It’s just a little 3-letter word in the Greek (‘gar’) but it’s analagous to ‘because’: so here are reasons WHY you should do such an outlandish counter-cultural thing as v24. The first reason we might call ‘existential’, the second ‘eventual’.
    First the EXISTENTIAL reason: vv25-26a, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” Take the initial part - the person who “wants to save his life will lose it.” NLT “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it.” The root verb means “to keep safe and sound”, to rescue from danger; to protect yourself totally, eliminate risk. You can become so protective that you never really LIVE; or, you can let yourself be so co-opted by worldly possessions and pleasures that you lose yourself, your belongings start to own you, you’re always hankering after the latest and greatest, you won’t be complete until your house has that new addition, your retirement nest-egg just doesn’t look quite big enough. Pre-occupied by ‘stuff’, your life-core or soul becomes empty, vacuous, jaded, dangled by externals. Some people try to ‘save’ themselves by becoming so narcissistically selfish that they become redundant to other people, holing themselves up in their castle or their cruise, and they’re ‘gone’ so much they lack ongoing relationships and true community. If they died, they wouldn’t really leave much of a hole.
    V26, “What do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?” It’s possible to gain everything from a worldly view - fame, fortune - but sabotage your soul, the inner person, the spiritual ‘you’ built to walk in fellowship with God - in the process. Existentially, in this life, ‘success’ by this world’s terms can take a huge toll.
    One name that’s been in the news a lot in recent months - a man who seemed to ‘gain the whole world’ as many would tally it - is Conrad Black. Mostly the news has been about his court appearances, charges, and going to prison. Did Mr Black ‘lose’ something of himself along the way - if not at least respect and honour?
    What is Jesus’ promise in the second half of v25? “Whoever loses his life for Me will find it.” That’s positive! NLT, “If you give up your life for My sake, you will save it.” John 12:25 has a parallel meaning, “The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Love Jesus more than your life; let Him be guiding you, and you’ll keep real life for eternity.
    So there’s the EXISTENTIAL reason; also the EVENTUAL reason. V27, “For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.” Jesus is coming - that’s underscored in v28, “the Son of Man coming in His Kingdom.” When He comes, He will judge all people according to their deeds, and reward or pay accordingly. 1Corinthians 3(12ff) talks about various categories of rewards, depending on the quality of each one’s work (wood, hay vs. gold, silver etc.). The Lord will reward each one for renouncing themselves where necessary in order to follow Him. So it’s not so much that you’re ‘sacrificing’ things in life; rather, you’re ‘investing’ your life for eventual payoff.


Luke records Jesus’ challenge to us this way: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Lu 9:23) Did you catch that little extra detail? It’s a DAILY discipline. Each day, re-commit yourself into the Lord’s hands, tune in for His direction, find the path through which He’ll pour His Spirit’s joy into you as you obey. And, as He’s promised, you’ll find your life enriched for it.
    Tony Campolo shares a story by M.Scott Peck, the famous psychologist and author, of a woman patient who was suffering from extreme depression. One day, when she was due for an appointment with him, she called on the telephone and told him that her car had broken down. Dr Peck offered to pick her up on his way into work, but he explained to her that he had to make a hospital call before he got to the offIce. If she was willing to wait in the car while he made the call, they could have their appointment. She agreed.
    When they got to the hospital, he had another suggestion. He gave her the names of two of his patients who were convalescing there, and told her that each of them would enjoy a visit from her. When they met again, an hour and a half later, the woman was on an emotional high. She told Dr Peck that making the visits and trying to cheer up those patients had lifted her spirits, and that she was feeling absolutely wonderful.
    Dr Peck responded by saying, “Well, now we know how to get you out of your depression. Now we know the cure for your problem.”
    The woman answered, “You don’t expect me to do that every day, do you?” [!]
    Campolo comments: “That’s the tragedy of our lives. Doing what Jesus would do lifts us out of our doldrums into a higher quality of life. And yet, we often think that imitating Jesus is something burdensome. It’s not! Doing what Jesus would do feeds us emotionally and lifts our spirits. One experiences the flow of the Spirit in the context of ministry.” Losing our life for Him, we find it! Amen.