Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Matthew 16:24–28

Matthew 16:24–28 (ESV): Take Up Your Cross and Follow Jesus


In the last passage Jesus rebuked Peter because Peter didn’t believe Jesus’ claim that he was going to die. In this passage he takes it further; not only was Jesus going to die, but all of his followers have to die, too.

He says the following:
  • Verse 24 (ESV): Anyone who wants to follow him must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow him. In other words, follow him to the cross.
  • Verse 25 (ESV): Paradoxically, he says that anyone who would save his life will actually lose it, whereas anyone who loses his life for Jesus’ sake will find it. (At least, it seems paradoxical.)
  • Verse 26 (ESV): All of this is because a person’s soul is more important than anything else; what good would it do a person to “gain the whole world” and lose their soul, or what could you possibly give in return for it?
  • Verse 27 (ESV): And that’s important because Jesus is going to come back (with the angels, in the glory of the Father), and repay each person according to what they have done.
After this—and maybe a bit unconnected from the progression above, although it highlights the urgency of what he is saying—Jesus says that some who are standing with him will not taste death until they see him coming in his kingdom.


This passage builds logically verse by verse; if you go back and read the passage again in its entirety, notice the word “for” in front of most verses. It might be easier to understand if you substitute the word “because”:
  • Anyone who would follow Jesus has to take up his cross and follow him …
  • because anyone who would save his life would lose it, and anyone who would lose his life will gain it …
  • because the soul is more important than anything else …
  • because the Son of Man is coming back to judge us for what we’ve done, and all we’ll have at that point is our soul
I’m sure this has been said many times before, and it’s somewhat obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: the cross was an implementation of execution in Jesus’ day. When Jesus says “take up your cross and follow me” it’s analogous to someone saying “take up your electric chair and follow me,” or “take up your hanging noose and follow me.” In Jesus’ time the person being executed was made to carry their own cross to the place where they’d be nailed to it, thus the “take up” part; we lose this part of the metaphor a little bit, in modern times, because we don’t do the same—a person being electrocuted doesn’t carry the electric chair anywhere, or a person being hung wouldn’t carry the noose to the gallows. But we get the essential point: Jesus was on his way to be executed, and his followers—all of them—are to follow in his footsteps and go be executed as well.

I’m sure many people tend to think of this in terms of martyrdom; you have to be willing to die for Jesus. In my day I’ve heard many people phrase it that you have to be “willing to take up your cross and follow Jesus”—but Jesus doesn’t say to be “willing” to take up your cross, he says that anyone who would come after him must take up their cross and follow him. I see this playing out in a few ways:
  1. The most obvious way is in a general way: when we become Christians we kill the old, human nature in us, and are resurrected into new life with Him. We have to be willing to let that old nature die—and, since that sinful nature is inextricable from the rest of our soul, we have to be willing to die. This is what we celebrate/signify when we are baptised; our sinful nature dying and being buried (under the water), and the new creation in Christ being raised up (out of the water).
    • Not that this is an argument that baptism has to be full submersion to be a valid Christian baptism; that’s not an argument I want to get into. However you do it, it’s a symbol—we aren’t saved through baptism, baptism signifies a salvation that has already happened.
  2. In a more specific way, there is the day-to-day death of sin that must occur in us. Even after we have been saved, unfortunately that old sinful nature is still there, tempting us with the allure of sin. It’s as good as dead, once we are saved—we know that it will one day be gone (although not this side of Paradise)—which is why we can celebrate its death with our baptisms, but unfortunately it still hangs on and causes us problems. (Paul gives an eloquent description of this in Romans 7:7–25 (ESV).) This is what I think of when Jesus says that we have to “deny” ourselves, although I guess this could also apply to the larger sense of letting ourselves die.
  3. Finally, I don’t want to fully discount the notion of martyrdom being part of this. Some people will be called to die for their faith, and because they count their lives as nothing compared to what God has given them they are willing to do so. This is the most extreme case of the first point, and although not all Christians will be called to martyrdom—in fact most won’t—it’s not invalid to say that we have to be “willing” to literally die for God in this way. We just can’t claim that this is the only meaning behind Jesus’ words, because the text won’t allow that—it says that we all have to take up our cross and follow him. People who are martyred will die twice for Jesus: their sinful natures will die, and then they will literally give their life.
For verse 25 (ESV) (“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it”), this sounds paradoxical (and I even called it such above), but in fact Jesus is using the word “life” in two different ways, with two different meanings: there is our human, earthly, sinful lives, and there is true Life that comes from the Holy Spirit. (I’m just capitalizing “Life” in this instance to make a point, it’s not usually capitalized like that.) If we are willing to give up our human, earthly, sinful life for Jesus’ sake, then we’ll be granted true Life with God; if we are not willing to give up our human, earthly, sinful life, than we will not be granted Life—we will “lose” out on the opportunity to have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10 (ESV)).

I don’t know that I even need to say anything about our soul being more important than anything else. I think the point is an obvious one, although we sometimes might forget it in the moment, when we’re in the mode of building our acquisitions. Even if we were to gain “the whole world” (an obvious exaggeration), it still wouldn’t be worth giving up our souls for. Of course, most of us who give up our souls do it for much, much less. If we think of it in terms of eternity, even assuming we live to be 200, and have all the riches and wealth and power that we can possibly get, we still have to die eventually, and then we have eternity ahead of us. The fact that we used to be rich and powerful when we were alive won’t mean so much then.

None of this might seem important if we don’t believe in an afterlife, or in the judgement of God. However, Jesus tells us explicitly that he’s going to come back and “repay” us for our actions. This should fill us with fear; the only reason it doesn’t fill the Christian with fear is that Jesus has already been repaid for our actions. When he “repays” me, he’ll actually be repaying me for his own actions, because I will be judged as if Christ’s righteousness was my own. Doesn’t that blow your mind? He’s coming back to repay us for our actions, but will end up repaying me for his own actions. God is good!

The last verse, in which Jesus states that some who are with him will not taste death before they see him come back in his kingdom, has a few interpretations. According to the ESV Study Bible notes, some of those possible interpretations are:
  • Jesus is referring to his transfiguration (coming up in the next passage, which might lend some weight to this interpretation)
  • Jesus is referring to his resurrection
  • Jesus is referring to the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost
  • Jesus is referring to the spread of the kingdom through the preaching of the word in the early church
  • Jesus is referring to the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 (to me this seems like a stretch—the ESV Study Bible notes for Matthew seem obsessed with the destruction of the temple, as they keep referring to it over and over—but I’m not a biblical scholar)
  • Jesus is referring to the actual second coming and final establishment of the kingdom
The note goes on to say that the last option probably isn’t the right one, because it would imply that Jesus was mistaken about the time of his return. (i.e. that he actually thought he was coming back within the next decade or two.) However, I think they’re missing an option, which to my mind actually points to the last interpretation: Perhaps Jesus was referring to the vision(s) that John would see when he wrote the book of Revelation, and was actually given a glimpse of Jesus’ second coming. Again I’m not a biblical scholar, so maybe there’s some reason this couldn’t be it, but… it’s how I’ve interpreted this passage for a long time. (It wasn’t until reading the note that it even occurred to me that Jesus might have been talking about the transfiguration, which comes next; when he talks about his second coming, I just naturally think of Revelation.)

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