Cross-less Christianity

Matthew 16:21-23

7/19/2009

G.K. Chesterton once said, “The cross cannot be defeated, for it is defeat.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The figure of the Crucified invalidates all thought which takes success for its standard.” These two authors are saying much the same thing. The cross is a symbol of defeat, not of victory. We have to wait until the resurrection to see victory. But many people cannot see their way past the cross. Other people simply ignore the cross altogether. Indeed, that is what Oswald Chambers thinks: “All heaven is interested in the cross of Christ, all hell is terribly afraid of it, while men are the only beings who more or less ignore its meaning.” There are many versions of Christianity today that ignore the cross. The most extreme example of this is the health and wealth gospel, which not only ignores the cross, but actively preaches against it, especially that the true disciples of Christ should not experience suffering in this life. We will speak more on that in two weeks, when we come to part two of this passage. For now, suffice it to say that the cross still offends people. It offends Jews, for whom a “crucified Messiah” was a contradiction in terms. It offends the non-Jew, since crucifixion was such a shameful way to die. As we will learn here, it even offends the disciples, who still do not understand what Jesus came to do.
The context is rarely so important for understanding a text as it is in this passage. Peter has just finished being blessed by Jesus for proclaiming the truth about who Jesus is. Jesus is the Messiah, and He is the Son of God. For saying that, Peter gets blessed by Jesus in very strong language. Peter could only have learned this lesson from direct revelation from God. Peter is a rock. Peter’s confession is rock solid, meaning that it will support the church of Jesus Christ, it is that strong. However, if Peter is a rock that is foundational, he can just as easily become the rock of stumbling.

The stage is set by Jesus, in that He starts telling His disciples what they can really expect as they make their way to Jerusalem. In fact, the expectation is a certainty, since what Jesus is going to do and suffer happens because it is necessary that it happen. The word “must” is very important here, and actually governs everything that Jesus says is going to happen: He must go to Jerusalem; He must suffer many things; He must be killed; He must be raised again on the third day. It is divine necessity, since that is what the Father and the Son had decided would happen ages before the world even began. Now, the disciples would have been okay with the first one of going to Jerusalem. But the word “suffer” got them very nervous. Then, when Jesus said that He must be killed, they went haywire. There was no such category as a “successful crucified Messiah.” There were many people who had claimed to be the Messiah, but who had been killed. Being killed marked one as a false Messiah. Of course, all the previous people who had claimed to be the Messiah had not really been the Messiah, because none of them had freed the people from the greatest bondage of all, which was their bondage to sin.

However, this is not the understanding of Christ’s mission that the disciples currently have. They have inherited (quite naturally) the view of Messiah that the Jews of the time had: someone who would free them from the Romans. So when Peter heard Jesus say this, and Peter knew what the Jews would think of all this, he took Jesus aside to rebuke Him. Now, first of all, we need to know that for a disciple to rebuke the rabbi was an extremely disrespectful thing to do. Peter had the audacity to correct Jesus! He was probably emboldened to do this from the recent commendation that Jesus had given him. He thought that obviously, since he knew so much about Jesus, that therefore he knew better than his master what the mission of Jesus ought to look like!

But Peter is operating under a wrong theology entirely. We could use Martin Luther’s categories here. Martin Luther said that there were basically two kinds of theology: the theology of the cross, and the theology of glory. Now, when Luther says “theology of glory,” he does not mean a good thing. It is rather a theology that says that we need glory here and now. We need to avoid suffering at all costs. We need something that will make us look good. We need to avoid the cross like the plague. This is what Peter was thinking. Don’t forget that the same fate would probably happen to the disciples as happened to the master. Jesus will go on to say just that in verses 24-28. Therefore, what we see here is Peter wanting to protect his own skin, even if he also loves his master, and doesn’t want to see anything so horrid happen to Him.

But in espousing this theology of glory, Peter was completely overturning what he had said before. Remember that Peter’s name means “rock?” Well, a rock in Scripture can do one of two things: it can either be a foundation stone, or it can be a stumbling stone. For Peter, it all depended on what he said. When he said that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, he was being a foundation stone. But when he said that the cross was impossible for Jesus, he was being a stumbling stone. In fact, from Jesus’ words, we learn that Peter was not being the spokesman for God that he was in the previous paragraph. Rather, he was being the spokesman for Satan! Satan had tempted Jesus with the very same thing in chapter 4. Satan had said, in effect, “Look, Jesus, you don’t have to go through all that suffering. You don’t have to go to the cross. I’ll give you everything in this world without the cross. All you have to do is bow down to worship me.” Satan was offering to Christ a cross-less way to kingship. Peter was saying exactly the same thing. So Peter was being Satan’s mouthpiece. In fact, we learn that after the temptation of Jesus, Satan only left Jesus for a time. Satan intended to come back with the same temptations. Only this time, it would be even harder, since the words would be coming from the mouth of a friend! In the Christian life, we also find that some of the most difficult temptations of all to resist come from our friends and even our family.

Jesus resists the temptation with flying colors, however. He tells Peter, who is being a stumbling stone in front Him; He tells Peter to get behind Him, so that Jesus will not stumble over him. These are some of the harshest words in the entire Gospel. Jesus, who had just blessed Peter for being the mouthpiece of God, now actually calls Peter Satan! Why this harsh language? This was hardly tactful. This wasn’t politically savvy. This wasn’t politically correct. If we had to say what Jesus had said, we would probably have modified it to say “Well, I think you may have overstated things a bit.” That is not what Jesus says. He recognizes the voice of the tempter in Peter’s words. And we would be thinking the things of men, and not the things of God. Peter is thinking about human things, and not about God’s things. God’s purpose is to save His people from their sins, not merely to remove human oppression from them. So, Jesus’ words are not overstated. Because Peter doesn’t get the whole picture, he is actually opposing the plan of God!

However, even more important for our purposes is the importance this sets on the cross. Any attempt to dissuade Jesus from going to the cross is met with the harshest refusal! The language rejecting Peter’s words is almost identical to the language Jesus uses in rejecting Satan in chapter 4. There it is “Get away from me.” Here it is “Get behind me.” That is the language that meets any attempt to offer Christ a kingdom without the cross. As Paul would later say, he resolved to know nothing except Christ, and Him crucified. The crucifixion is at the very heart of Christianity. Why is that? It is because the cross is the very reason why Christ came to earth. The cross is that most shameful death whereby Jesus took on Himself the judicial wrath of God in our place, so that we would not have to suffer that wrath. And that is for our sins!

As we turn to application, let us notice first of all that after a great spiritual high can come a great spiritual low. Peter’s great confession comes immediately before his devilish attempt to derail God’s plan. We see it also in the life of Elijah. Elijah had a great confrontation with the prophets of Baal, where the people acknowledged that the Lord alone is God. Immediately after that, he is fleeing for his life from Jezebel, and thinks that he is the only one left who honors God. So we must beware right at that spiritual high experience that a low could come immediately afterwards. The Lord often does this to make sure that we do not become arrogant and prideful in our spiritual experience. Undoubtedly Peter was being prideful in seeking to correct the plan of God!

Secondly, our words are either building up someone else or being a stumbling stone in their way. Peter’s confession of faith built up the church by the grace of God. But then immediately afterward, he was seeking to tear down the plan of God. We must watch our words very closely to see what they are going to do to another person. Words are extremely powerful things. One of the most contributing factors to unhappy marriages as well as divorce is the words people use. Among couples who would later split, according to a recent study, 10 out of every 100 comments were a put-down or insult. Eventually, those couples wind up flinging five times as many insults or putdowns towards each other as happy couples. One researcher says that “hostile putdowns act as cancerous cells that, if unchecked, erode the relationship over time.” It will eventually take over the relationship, until hardly a week goes by without a major blowup. Other relationships can be just like that, as well. Words are very powerful things. We can be either the mouthpiece for God, telling people encouraging things from God’s Word. This would include evangelism, by the way. Or we can be the mouthpiece for Satan.

Lastly, we must have a cross-centered Christianity. This is a very good judge of what you hear on the radio or the TV: do they preach the cross? Do they preach that we need the cross because of our sin? Unfortunately, very few radio and TV preachers actually say this, let alone make the center point of their ministry.

Lastly, we must note that the cross is not the end of the story. Jesus says that it is just as necessary for Him to be raised from the dead, as it was for Him to die in the first place. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, if Jesus is still in the tomb, then we are still in our sins. In our minds, we should never separate the cross from resurrection. For therein lies our hope for eternal life. If Jesus is not eternally alive, then how could we expect to be eternally alive? Noe, the cross and the resurrection belong together. In fact, John Calvin once said that every time in the Bible we see one, we should always supply in our minds the other. So, every time we see the cross mentioned, or Christ’s death, we should immediately add the resurrection. Every time we see resurrection, we should always add in our minds the cross. They are absolutely inseparable. As we will see next time, this is true of our lives just as much as it is true of Jesus.

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