Proper 17 • Matthew 16:21–28 • August 28, 2011
By Thomas Manteufel
Don’t Cross Out the Cross!
Both the Old Testament and the Gospel lessons for this day show some startling, unsettling pictures of well-known people of God: (1) the prophet Jeremiah questioning the trustworthiness of the word of God, wondering whether it is “like a deceptive brook” (Jer 15:18), sometimes plentiful with water, sometimes dried up when needed, and (2) Peter, rebuking Jesus’s intention to suffer and die (Mt 16:21–22). Both were reprimanded (Jer 16:19; Mt 16:23). The episodes illustrate the fact that freedom from misbelief and serious sin is never completely attained in this life, yet God calls His people to repentance and forgives and strengthens them. What can we learn from the text today for our up-building? We can put it this way:
Jesus’s cross = his saving work
The temptation to cross out this cross—Jesus at this time began to announce that he must suffer many evil things from his enemies, adding later that it would mean dying on a cross (Mt 20:18–19). But Simon Peter thought he needed to be “straightened out” on this point (v. 22). What he wanted was the Messiah to go on preaching and teaching goodness and love, healing and doing miracles, in order to set up a glorious world government, establishing justice everywhere forever. Jesus recognized this attractive program as a temptation from the devil to divert him from what he had been sent to do (v.23), and Satan has been using it as a temptation for all who would be followers of Jesus ever since he moved Peter to urge it. It is the temptation to seek a false, worldly greatness for Jesus himself and for all whom he might appoint as leaders, reformers, and deputy rulers under him. It is the “honoring paradox”—dishonoring Christ by honoring him in the wrong way. It is a plan for a Messianic program which leaves out the Messiah’s gospel purpose. It is the error of the Muslims, who think as Peter did here: “Far be it” from the sinless Messiah (Qur’an 19:19; 3:45) to die a painful death, and so he never did die (Qur’an 4:157). It is from Satan that the teaching of the necessity of redemption by a suffering Savior is unworthy of God and ignores man’s dignity. That thought was expressed, for example, by an early president of the World Council of Churches who lamented that such an atonement teaching makes God the Father look like a “dirty bully,” and by The Interpreter’s Bible when it asserted (I:204) that it is “an ancient superstition” added to “a delight in gore.” There has indeed always been a pervasive temptation to cross out the bloody cross from our life and our thinking about the way of salvation.
Fighting this temptation with the truth about Jesus’s cross—Jesus committed himself to bearing the cross by his knowledge of the will of his Father, who had sent him to suffer and die as the world’s Savior—a holy, wise, and just plan. He knew the reason for this gruesome necessity: all have sinned, and none are able to pay the ransom price for their salvation. Therefore, he came to give his life as a ransom (Mt 20:28). He was wounded for our transgressions, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquities of us all (Is 53:5–6). The vicarious atonement was an act of boundless love (Gal 2:20; Rom 5:8). Jesus did not cross out the cross; nor will human beings who see their lost condition without his cross and live in faith and love toward Christ crucified. It is no wonder that he appealed to Peter—and to all he came to save—to set their minds on the things of God (v.23). In his love, he gives light to see that there is no other way of salvation than his cross and resurrection, no matter what Satan’s lies and mancentered schemes may say. We hope and pray that Muslims will come to see the true Messianic significance of Jesus’s sinlessness (which they do recognize).
The Christians’ cross = our faithfulness to Christ
The temptation to cross out this cross—Jesus made his cross the pattern for the whole life of his followers. He gives us crosses to bear (vv. 24–26). Our cross is all suffering, trouble, and hardship that come to us because we believe in the crucified and risen Savior. The faith (in Christ and his cross) by which we are justified gives rise to faithfulness of life. If this is hindered by impenitent sinning, faith is choked to death, and the blessings of Calvary’s cross can only be received by faith. When faith is lost, salvation is lost (vv. 25–26). Jesus lovingly warned about this in the parable of the sower (Mt 13:14–23) and elsewhere. When the early Christians were imprisoned, tortured, or persecuted for the gospel’s sake, those were their crosses. If you are ridiculed or unpopular for your Christian convictions, must sacrifice money or time to do God’s will, must fight earnestly against pressure to disobey Christ’s Word, are heart-broken if your children lose their Christian faith; whatever your crosses are, none of them would come upon you if you were not a follower of Christ. The devil’s advice here, like in his scheme with Peter, is: “Spare yourself the trouble of being a loyal Christian. Cross out the cross,” (Lk 22:31, 61; Eph 6:11).
Fighting the temptation with the truth about Jesus’s cross—Jesus’s will to suffer and die manifests his deep love for those whom he urges to follow him, taking up any cross necessary for doing so and finally receiving his riches. To strengthen them for this, he assures them of the coming of his kingdom (v.28), into which all believers in him will be gathered, beginning with his present hearers, to receive redemption through his blood (Col 1:13–14). Very soon he will begin giving his Holy Spirit to all his people to help them live a life of faith in him (Jn 7:37–39; Rom 8:13–17). This is the faith which trusts and loves the king of this kingdom with a kiss (Ps 2:2, 6, 12). To buoy his people up in faith, he sets before them the wondrous hope of his coming in glory to pour out the fullness of the gift of eternal life and of his kingdom, richly compensating us for all suffering and loss for his sake (v. 27).