The reward is worth the risk

by Scott Grant

Matthew 16:21-28

Spectacular island

After my friend and I exited the ferry that took us to Capri in Italy, we began investigating ways to tour the island. A few moments later we happened upon a man named Dominique, a cab driver. His price was reasonable, and he promised to take us to all the difficult-to-reach spots in a matter of a few hours, though it seemed to us that such a tour would take at least two days. We had serious doubts about Dominique two minutes after we entered his cab. He accelerated quickly, took turns sharply and left as little as six inches of space between our cab and oncoming traffic on the narrow roads. He scared the daylights out of us. But he was true to his word: Dominique took us to places we never would have seen by ourselves: the town, the top of the island, the Blue Grotto. It was spectacular. But it involved risk. Although frightened at first, we began to conclude that Dominique, a veteran cab driver on the island, knew what he was doing. The reward was well worth the risk.

In Matthew 16:21-28, Jesus encourages us to take the risk of giving up our right to define life. He also says there is great reward in doing so. That reward is "life" the way God intended it, and it is more spectacular than anything the island of Capri has to offer.

"You are the Christ, the Son of the living God," Peter told Jesus. "Blessed are you, Simon Barjona," Jesus answered, "because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you but my Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter [which means stone], and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:16-19). The Father had revealed to Peter that Jesus was the Christ, but Peter, like everyone else at the time, had a distorted concept of what that meant. So now Jesus begins to instruct Peter and the rest of the disciples concerning the correct concept not only of the Christ but of following the Christ.

Following Jesus is not what you think it is (16:21-23)

Matthew 16:21-23:

(21) From that time Jesus Christ 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 be raised up on the third day. (22) And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You." (23) But He turned and said to Peter, "Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God's interests, but man's."

Jesus began to show his disciples the necessity of his suffering and death "from that time" - the time of Peter's confession of him as the Christ. Once the disciples were aware that he was the Christ, it was necessary for him to correct their misconceptions.

In that Matthew says Jesus "began" to show them, it is clear that their misconceptions were so ingrained that they would not be swept away in one display. What he has to teach them - the necessity of his suffering and death - is not an easy lesson to learn. It is not easy for us to learn, either.

He likely "showed" them from the scriptures, just as he showed the two men on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:25-27). Scriptures that foretell his suffering include Isaiah 52:13-53:12. Jesus also saw Jonah 1:17 as speaking of his three days in the grave (Matthew 12:40). Daniel 7 can be seen as speaking of his suffering and resurrection. In Hosea 6:2-3, Israel was expecting its own national resurrection in three days, but Israel was wrong. The resurrection of Israel was tied up in the resurrection of Christ, on the third day. A true understanding of the scriptures helps correct our misconceptions about the shape life should take.

Jesus must go to Jerusalem, the city of David, the city where the Son of David, the Christ, was expected to reign. But Jesus does not say he is going to Jerusalem to reign; he says he is going to Jerusalem to suffer from the elders, chief priests and scribes, those who comprise the Sanhedrin, the leadership of Israel, the very people who would be expected to follow him. Sometimes, at the time and place where we think everything is supposed to come together, disaster strikes.

Peter takes Jesus aside in order to speak with him undisturbed, and probably to correct Jesus in private before he could speak with the other disciples any more about these nonsensical ideas. Peter had just identified Jesus as the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16). A living God - with a Son to be killed? The words of Jesus shatter the window through which Peter sees life, and the shards of broken glass have cut him deeply. He is in shock, and he doesn't have the wherewithal to seek an explanation, only the impulse to assert what is true about the Christ - what must be true. So he takes the Lord aside, and he rebukes him. Similarly, when our world view takes a hit, we desperately try to reassemble the pieces, at least at first.

As Jesus "began" to tell his disciples about a suffering Christ, Peter "begins" to tell Jesus about a victorious Christ. As much as Jesus sensed the need to tell the disciples about a suffering Christ, and understood that one telling wouldn't do the trick, Peter sensed a similarly urgent need to tell Jesus that "this shall never happen to you."

Peter was following this Christ who would be killed. As a follower, he expected life to take a certain shape. He expected victory over Rome. Life would get better, not worse. Easier, not harder. Painless, not painful.

Literally, the text says that Jesus spoke to Peter "after having turned." Mark tells us that Jesus turned and saw his disciples (Mark 8:33). The turning, then, is a turning to see the disciples before speaking to Peter. Perhaps the needy state of his disciples strengthens his resolve to resist the temptation that he hears in Peter's voice. Our needy state helped Jesus in his resolve to obey the Father.

After Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ, the Lord said to him, "Blessed are you, Simon Barjona." Now he says, "Get behind me, Satan." Earlier he said, "You are Peter (Stone), and upon this rock I will build my church." Now he says, "You are a stumbling block to me." Earlier he said, "Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you but my Father who is in heaven." Now he says, literally, "You are not thinking the things of God but the things of men." (Matthew 16:17-18). A more stunning turnaround could not be imagined - from blessed to banished, from Simon to Satan, from cornerstone to stumbling block, from mind open to the revelation of God to mind fixed on the things of men.

What is happening? The Son is obeying the Father. The path will end at the cross, where the Father will turn his back on the Son, who will absorb the sins of the world. The assignment was not a pleasant one, at least initially. Even the Son would ask the Father if there was another way (Matthew 26:39).

In the words of Peter, Jesus heard another voice - one that hissed in the wilderness: "Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and their glory, and he said to him, 'All these things will I give you, if you fall down and worship me' " (Matthew 4:9). The Father's will was exposure to unspeakable suffering for unimaginable glory - a heavenly kingdom bustling with the life of redeemed people with new hearts. Satan's will was avoidance of suffering and conformance to popular expectations, and he threw in the reward of a kingdom as well, but an earthly kingdom of downtrodden and joyless subjects. It was tempting, and it required a strong rebuke.

Jesus says to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan," essentially the same thing he told Satan in the wilderness (Matthew 4:10). Jesus certainly wasn't referring to Peter as Satan but using hyperbole commensurate with the nature of the temptation. The word "behind" is the same word translated "after" in verse 24. Peter and the other disciples were to come "after," or "behind," Jesus. In taking Jesus aside to rebuke him, Peter is not "behind" Jesus, where he is supposed to be; he is in front of him, trying to lead him away from his God-ordained path. Jesus tells Peter, "You are a stumbling block to me." The temptation to avoid the suffering of the cross is real.

Jesus is not only resisting temptation; he's also instructing. In his love, he wants to correct the thinking of Peter, who was "not thinking the things of God but the things of men." God's way involves suffering. Man's way does not. Jesus wants to align Peter's crooked thinking with straight truth.

Peter obviously missed the "raised up on the third day" part. What God was going to do through and out of the suffering of Christ would blow Peter's mind, but right now he has no categories for such thinking. He doesn't understand resurrection; he only understands death.

Isn't there a little Peter in all of us? As followers of Jesus, haven't we, too, expected life to take a painless shape? Don't we, like Peter, expect Jesus, if he is the Christ, the Son of the living God, to triumph over all our external problems, such as Rome? Hasn't such thinking settled in our minds, establishing such patterns of thought that now seem too natural to even question? And haven't we, too, been devastated by the truth? Aren't we flabbergasted that life is a lot harder than we thought it would be? Don't we, too, want to rebuke Jesus for breaking the rosy windows through which we view life and leaving us bruised and bloodied? Doesn't the godly way of thinking - the way that allows suffering - seem preposterous to us? Doesn't talk of resurrection make no sense when all we see is death?

The game of golf, I am convinced, is unnatural. It doesn't feel right. I have been trying to play golf for years now. The swing that feels right to me always produces a bad shot. When I went with a friend, a former golf pro, to the driving range one day, he attempted to correct my swing. There were so many things I was doing wrong that he hardly knew where to start. When I put his teaching into practice, my new swing felt completely awkward. It didn't feel right. A suffering Messiah who doesn't lead us in the kind of triumph we desire does not fit easily into our world view.

Jesus proceeds to not only instruct Peter but all the disciples concerning this preposterous way of thinking.

Following Jesus is better than you think it is (16:24-28)

Matthew 16:24-28:

(24) Then Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. (25) For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it. (26) For what will a man be profited, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? (27) For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels; and will then recompense every man according to his deeds. (28) Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom."

"Come after me" and "follow me" are synonymous. Both terms are used in the gospels of being a disciple of Jesus (Matthew 4:19-20). Jesus is saying, then, that to be his disciple, it is necessary to deny oneself and take up his cross.

What does it mean for a disciple to "deny" himself. Peter just asserted his right to define life. Peter's definition of life involved victory over Rome, the evil empire. He rebuked Jesus. In following Jesus, Peter and the other disciples are to give up their right to define life and allow Jesus to define it for him.

What does it mean for a disciple to "take up his cross"? Crucifixion was a Roman form of execution. The Jews hated the Romans, and the cross was a brutal symbol of Roman oppression, and they desperately wanted the land purged of the scourge of Roman crosses. But Jesus, quite stunningly, says that a disciple must "take up his cross," take up his Roman cross. He's saying, "Don't rise up against Rome; let Rome do what Rome will do. If Rome wants to kill you, let Rome kill you." It is the subversive wisdom of turning the other cheek to evil (Matthew 5:39). That's what Jesus did. He took up his Roman cross. He let Rome do to him what it wanted. He turned the other cheek to evil. And that's how he brought evil to its knees, absorbing into his own being the evil not only of Rome, but every form and aspect of human evil.

What does that mean today for those of us who wish to follow Jesus? It means giving up our right to define the shape of our lives. Jesus may never take away external oppression in our lives. We may have to live with one form or another of "Rome" for the rest of our lives. Things may never go the way we want them to, but as followers of Jesus, we give up our demands that they do. We let Jesus define the shape of our lives, and we trust him to do so.

The next three verses each begin with the word "for," indicating that they offer an explanation for what has gone before. Such a preposterous command in verse 24 needs a further explanation, and verse 25 provides it. Verse 25 speaks of gain and loss. Verse 25 explains the loss; verses 27 and 28 explain the gain.

What does Jesus mean by "life"? "Eternal life" is a central theme in the gospel of John, but Matthew writes of it as well (Matthew 19:6, 29; 25:46). The phrase translated "eternal life" would be literally translated something along the lines of "life of age." It is life in this new age, this new age of the kingdom. It is an extension of the "life" the Lord offered Israel in his first covenant with it (Deuteronomy 30:15, 19). It is life in the kingdom of heaven, which is life as God intended.
If one wishes to save his life, though, he loses it. This would be refusal to deny oneself and take up one's cross. A desire to save one's life is a desire to preserve one's definition of life and defend it against all challengers, including Jesus. We think by this that we save life, but we actually lose it. We know we can't ensure the success of our plans, so that leads to fear that someone might interfere with them, and the biggest someone we have to worry about is God. So there is no freedom, only fear. That's not life. By clinging to our cherished vision of life, we choke it to death. We choke the life out of life.

But if one loses his life for the sake of Jesus, he finds his life. Note that this isn't simply losing one's life; it's losing one's life for the sake of Jesus. Lots of people have a desire to lose their lives, so to speak, to give their lives to something. But if they lose their lives for a cause other than Jesus, they gain nothing.

What does it mean to lose one's life for the sake of Jesus? It is a definition of denying one's self and taking up one's cross, which in itself is a definition of following Jesus. It means giving up one's right to define life and giving that right to Jesus. It means aligning yourself with him and his causes, and following him wherever he leads, even if it's to a Roman cross. This implies trust. It means that followers of Jesus believe that he is more trustworthy than they in mapping out the courses of their lives.

Because we trust Jesus, that means we can stop protecting ourselves so much. We can stop talking too much, if we're talking in hopes of impressing. We can start talking more, if we're silent in order to avoid embarrassment. We can create an opening in the wall around our hearts and let another love us. We can stop hiding from the pain of life.

Thus we find life - life in the new age, life in the kingdom, life as God intended it. God intended life to be lived in relationship with him, in joyful dependence on him. In giving up our right to define life to Jesus, we find that life.

Although word translated "life" in verse 25 is translated "soul" in verse 26, the same concept is in view in both verses - life in the kingdom.

Saving one's life is seen as taking the form of gaining "the whole world." Peter and the disciples were concerned with Palestine. They wanted it back from the Romans. That was their dream. The prospect of gaining not only Palestine but the whole world was something beyond their wildest dreams, but even if they were to be successful beyond their wildest dreams, Jesus says, they would still lose if they continued to cling to their right to define life. Satan offered Jesus the whole world, but he turned him down (Matthew 4:8).

What will a man give in exchange for his life? Nothing would compensate for such a loss, not even the whole world. If we're successful to the point where we get what we want, when we gain whatever we consider "the whole world," we find that the whole world is not what we wanted after all. We're like Scarlett O'Hara, who spent years fawning over Ashley only to realize in the end that it was Rhett who she really wanted. Holding on to what we think is life isn't worth it.
Jesus identifies himself as "the Son of Man," just as he did in verse 13. As the Son of Man, Jesus, like Ezekiel, who was also identified as the son of man, is a suffering figure, representative of Israel, taking the judgment that Israel deserves onto himself. Jesus identifies with suffering in verse 21. But suffering is not the end of the story for the Son of Man. He will suffer; he will be killed, but he will also be vindicated.

Jesus' words in verse 27 are to be connected with Daniel 7, particularly Daniel 7:13-14. Daniel sees a vision in which "one like a Son of Man was coming, and he came up to the Ancient of Days." This figure is given a universal and everlasting kingdom. Jesus says he, the Son of Man, is, literally, "about to" come. In Daniel 7, the Son of Man "comes up" to God and receives a kingdom. Jesus, then, is not talking about his second coming. He's talking about his ascension, whereupon he receives a universal and everlasting kingdom. Paul and the writer of Hebrews tell us that Jesus is reigning in this kingdom right now (Ephesians 1:20-23; Hebrews 1:3, 1:13, 8:1, 10:12, 12:2).

On the other hand, Jesus told his disciples that "you shall not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes" (Matthew 10:23). In the context (Matthew 10:16-23), their "going through the cities of Israel" was to continue after the ascension of Jesus. In this case, it seems likely that the coming of the Son of Man is to be connected with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, which Jesus predicted and by which he was vindicated. The destruction of Jerusalem, then, can be seen as a demonstration of his kingdom authority.

When Jesus comes up to the Father, he will come "in the glory of his Father," which means the Father shares his glory and authority with the Son of Man. He will also come "with his angels." Angels in Matthew are connected with gathering the people of God and separating out the wicked (Matthew 13:41, 24:31, 25:31-32). The presence of angels at his ascension signifies his authority, particularly, in this case, as it concerns his authority to "recompense every man according to his deeds."

In this text, then, Jesus recompenses, or rewards, people not at his second coming, but in the context of his heavenly reign. That means he is handing out the rewards even now. He will reward each "according to his deeds." What deeds might these be? The context is following Jesus, denying oneself, taking up one's cross, losing one's life for Jesus' sake. They are deeds wrought in following Jesus. In other words, Jesus will reward those who follow him.

How will he reward them? The explanation begins with verse 28: "Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste death until the see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." The disciples, excluding Judas, were there to witness the ascension of Jesus, which, by the way, was accompanied by the appearance of two angels (Acts 1:9-11). They were also able to see, or hear about, the destruction of Jerusalem. They saw that the Son of Man had come in his kingdom, particularly as the gospel advanced against all odds through the gift of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts. So, Jesus is coming in his kingdom after all; it's just going to look much different than Peter thought it would.

What's the reward? The reward is that we get to see it. We get to be part of it. We participate in life in this new age, life in the kingdom, life as God designed it. We find who we really are: our destiny as men and women who follow Jesus. All the wonderfully distinct facets that God has built into our personalities emerge. The beautiful person - the one God created and redeemed - appears. Among the rewards in the kingdom is serving Jesus, the one we love (Matthew 25:21). When the king is enthroned, he shares the booty, and Paul tells us that the booty is spiritual gifts to serve Jesus (Ephesians 4:8-12). In the context immediately preceding this passage, Jesus told Peter that he would receive "the keys of the kingdom," which are connected with heavenly authority for earthly work (Matthew 16:19). As we give up our right to define life and give it over to Jesus, we find great reward in serving Jesus. Note also, simply, that they will "see" the Son of Man. That's reward. We see Jesus, as revealed to us by the Holy Spirit (John 16:14). We serve Jesus, and we see Jesus. John, in his description of the new heavens and the new earth, says that followers of Jesus shall "serve him" and "see his face" forever (Revelation 22:3-4). It's eternal life, but it begins now.

Jesus doesn't simply say "deny yourself and take up your cross." He gives us a reason to do so. The reason for doing this is that we profit from it. He advocates self-interest. He says that it is in our best interest to deny ourselves because we will be rewarded. We will find life. Thus, the command to deny yourself and take up your cross is not some kind of self-discipline or self-flagellation in which we beat all our desires out of us or ask God to do so; it is following Jesus for the joy of finding our lives in his kingdom.

Our example is Jesus. He took up his cross, the most difficult thing anyone has ever had to do, not out of grim determination, but "for the joy set before him" (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus himself was motivated by joy.

Give it all to Jesus

Is there any vision of life that you are clinging to so fiercely that you are afraid of anything that threatens it. Are you holding on so tightly to something that you are choking the life out of life? Let it go. Give it all to Jesus. Trust him. And you'll know dependence; you'll know freedom; you'll know joy. You'll find your life.

- SCG, 3-15-98