In his book, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, Pastor David Platt tells about several people from underground house churches in Asian countries where it’s illegal to worship or witness for Jesus Christ.
- He mentions Jian, a “doctor who has left his successful health clinic and now risks his life and the lives of his wife and two kids in order to provide impoverished villages with medical care while secretly training [a] network of house-church leaders.”
- There’s Lin, a woman who teaches at a university where it’s illegal to talk about Jesus. She secretly meets with students interested in knowing more about Him though, risking the loss of her job in the process.
Jesus talks about the strange alternative universe—the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God—in which people Jian and Lin live in today’s Gospel lesson.
It’s the world in which He calls us all to live, too. If that scares you, it probably should. It scares me. Yet there is no other place where true life can be found than in Jesus’ kingdom. Let’s learn more about it. Please pull out the Celebrate inserts and turn to the lesson, Matthew 16:21-28.
The lesson actually continues an incident we started looking at two weeks ago. Back then, you may recall, Peter confessed his belief that Jesus was “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
The first verse of today’s lesson follows: “From that time on, Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
How did Jesus “show” these things to the disciples, do you suppose? Pull out a pew Bible, please, and turn to page 609, to Luke 24:27. It’s part of Luke’s account of an encounter the risen Jesus had with two disciples on the road to a village called Emmaus on the first Easter Sunday. The disciples, blinded by their inability to believe in Jesus’ resurrection, don’t initially understand that the stranger with whom they’re speaking is Jesus. Then we’re told: “And beginning at Moses [in other words, starting at Genesis, the first of five Old Testament books traditionally attributed to Moses] and the Prophets [people like Isaiah and Jeremiah, whose prophetic ministries are recounted also in the Old Testament], [Jesus] expounded to them in all the Scriptures concerning Himself.”
Jesus always pointed to the God of the Old Testament to explain Who He was and what He was about. Jesus taught that everything that Christians confess about Him—from His virgin birth to His sacrificial death for our sin, from His kingship to His resurrection—was foretold in the Old Testament.
Peter though, wasn’t interested in what Jesus or the Old Testament had to say about the Messiah suffering, dying and rising. Peter wanted Jesus to be an earthly king who could produce results, like freeing him and his countrymen from Roman rule and their oppressive taxes. Peter wanted Jesus to make his life easy.
That’s why, in verse 22, we read: “Peter took [Jesus] aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This [suffering and crucifixion] must never happen to you.’”
Peter wanted to whittle the one he had just confessed to be the Messiah and the Son of the living God down to controllable dimensions. He wanted a king who would do things the way he thought that they should be done. He wanted a God who would wink at his favorite sins. Like Adam and Eve, Peter wanted to “be like God.”
You know, sometimes I go to God in prayer and say, "Now, Lord, what you need to do is thus and so. That will cause such and such a person to do what you and I both know they need to do. Then, I can step in and do this." Do you know what God's reaction to a "prayer" like that is? He laughs. We can't tell God how to do His job! If we do, our speech at that moment might be called many things, but it can't be called prayer.
Peter thought he was going to tell Jesus how to be God and King. Boy, was he wrong! Look at verse 23, for Jesus' reaction to Peter: “But [Jesus] turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Jesus uses the same word for Peter, the word Satan, which means accuser, that He used for the devil when the devil tempted Him in the wilderness. Back then, Satan tried to tempt Jesus to avoid the cross and take the easy way to becoming a king. No suffering. No cross. All Jesus had to do was worship Satan and Jesus could have the world He had come to reclaim for God. Jesus refused to take the easy way.
Like the devil, Peter wanted Jesus to take the easy way. The easy way, the way of going along to get along, is exactly what Jesus warned anyone who wanted to follow Him to avoid when He said, “The gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life.” What path are you and I following in life: the Jesus way or the easy way?
My mentor, Pastor Bruce Schein, used to tell us about counseling parents whose high school or college-age children were addicted to drugs. He told these parents that if they loved their children, they wouldn’t give the kids the money they knew the kids would just use to buy more drugs. “But we can’t stand the thought of our kids hating us and thinking they can’t turn to us for help,” they would say. “It’s too painful.” “How painful will it be,” he would ask them, “if you give them what they want and you lose them forever?”
Peter, like Satan before him, confronted Jesus with the same sort of choice that confronted those parents Pastor Schein counseled. It would have been far easier for Jesus to give people what they wanted, to be a king who led a revolution and tossed out the Romans, while leaving you and me imprisoned to sin and death. Jesus willingly endured the hatred of the whole human race and the punishment for sin we deserve so that He wouldn’t lose us forever, so that on Easter Sunday, when the Father raised Jesus from the dead, He could give new life to all who repent for sin and believe in Him.
It was by the hard way of the cross that Jesus won life for all who trust in Him. God’s saving grace in Christ is free, but we must give up life as it’s usually lived to be free to grab hold of it!
In verse 26, Jesus amplifies this point, when He says in part, “If any want to become My followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
To take up our cross is to acknowledge that our sins put Jesus on the cross. I love what Martin Luther says when, in The Small Catechism, he explains the meaning of Baptism for our daily lives:
[Baptism] signifies that the old Adam in us, together with all sins and evil desires, should be drowned by daily sorrow for sin and repentance and be put to death, and that the new person should come forth every day and rise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.Just as Christ’s crucifixion led to His resurrection, daily taking up our crosses, confessing our sins, and submitting to the death of our sinful impulses and orientations brings us fresh new life every moment we walk with Jesus.
When we live in daily repentance and renewal, we can confess with Jeremiah, writing in the Old Testament book of Lamentations: “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning…”
But what does it mean to deny ourselves? It means to dare to trust God’s revealed word and will and not in our own reasoning or experiences. Psalm 118 says that “it is better to take refuge in the LORD than to put confidence in mortals [that includes ourselves].”
Denying ourselves means admitting that we need God not as we want Him to be, but God as He is, the God Who can only save us from sin and death when we give Him our unconditional surrender and when we sign over control over our lives to Jesus Christ.
There is a joy and a peace to a life like this which, I confess, I have only tasted at times, but which I want more than anything! In the New Testament book of Philippians, the apostle Paul writes, “To me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” (Talk about upside down!)
Peter rebuked Jesus because he was concerned about living and organizing life as he wanted it to be. He was a slave to his desire for personal freedom and control. He wanted God to bend to His plans rather than submitting to whatever God had in mind for him.
One of the reasons I have such an irrational fear of water and have never learned to swim, I’m sure, is because I’m afraid to let go and just…swim. I like the feeling of control I have on dry land. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says that following Jesus is like learning to swim. “If you keep your foot on the bottom of the pool,” he says, “you’ll never work out how to do it.” If we are to follow Jesus into eternity, we’ll have to do something similar. Wright continues, “You have to lose your life to find it. What’s the use of keeping your feet on the bottom when the water gets too deep? You have the choice: swim or drown. Apparent safety, walking on the bottom, isn’t an option any longer.”
True living, whether in this life or in eternity, doesn’t belong to those who play it safe. It belongs to people who give control of their lives to Jesus—to people who deny themselves, who take up their crosses, and who follow Him.
This life, no matter how many years we live here, is just a warm-up lap for the one to come.
Let Jesus take control of your life now. Start living in Jesus’ alternative universe—the kingdom of heaven—today. Let Jesus call the shots. Let Jesus set your priorities. Do everything you can to tell the world about the new life that only those with faith in Jesus have.
You may not win any popularity contests for living in Jesus’ kingdom. You may not gain power or wealth or ease. But you will live in the power of the only one who can give you life, the only One Who will be left standing when sin and death have done their worst to us.
And as you live with Jesus each day, you will, as Jesus promises at the end of our Gospel lesson, “not taste death before [you] see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” You will see the imprint of Jesus on every moment that you breathe. And you will be alive.
Today, right now, this moment: Follow Jesus!