Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

104. The Cross - for Master and Disciple (Matt. 16:21-28; Mark 8:31-39; Luke 9:22-27)*

After Peter's great confession Jesus began to feel that he could now venture further in the spiritual education of his disciples. "From that time forth began Jesus to show unto his disciples, how that he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be raised again on the third day."

This is the first of a steady series of attempts on the part of Jesus to help the twelve understand the inevitability of his suffering. John the Baptist had bidden them see him as "the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world." They had also heard mysterious words about the Bridegroom being taken away, and the temple taken down, about eating his flesh, as though he

were a peace-offering-but these things made only a temporary impression, and were pushed into the back of their minds. They forgot them because they wanted to forget them.

But now, with a plainness (Mk 8:32 Gk.) not to be evaded he kept on showing them the dramatic things written in the prophets concerning himself. These things must be. There was the imperative of divine predestination about them. Written beforehand in the Scriptures, they had for Jesus all the force of a positive commandment. And they must be, because there was no other way.

The Greek of this phrase: "rejected of the elders and chief priests and scribes" (Lk.) is very expressive. The one article governing three collective nouns pointedly emphasizes the evil unanimity of these men of power and prestige. And the word "rejected" clearly implies a cool analytical examination before rejection. It looks back to the great Messianic prophecy of Psalm 118:22: "the stone which the builders rejected', a scripture which Jesus was to use with telling effect regarding himself at the end of his ministry (Mk.l2:10).

It makes an interesting and instructive piece of research (not to be followed here) to track down the various Old Testament scriptures which foretell the six separate items of precious instruction which Jesus was now seeking to inculcate as an essential foundation in the understanding of the twelve.

Alas, there was little in the way of encouragement for him, this patient misunderstood Son of man who so much needed the added strength which his followers could impart by their sympathetic understanding and encouragement.

Peter to the rescue

However, Peter understood exactly this theme of sacrifice which his Lord was now expounding, and he interposed briskly, taking Jesus on one side apart from the rest, to remonstrate with him vigorously: "Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall in no wise be unto thee." Matthew's phrase "he began to rebuke him" surely implies that Peter said much more than is recorded here, or he intended to say much more.

It is commonly assumed that Peter personally reacted strongly from the idea of being a disciple of a suffering Messiah. But there is another possible interpretation which certain details of the context seem to make more likely-that Peter, unflinchingly loyal in all circumstances, was primarily concerned about the effect of these grim warnings on his still wavering fellow-disciples. The dissuasion he now sought to apply to Jesus as good as said: 'Don't you realise, Lord, that if you talk in this miserable pessimistic fashion they will all leave you? You will soon have no disciples left at all. So for your own sake provide them with a more encouraging programme and more cheerful prospects.' Peter's imperative was strongly expressed: his negative was actually a double negative in Greek. Yet whenever men used this mode of speech regarding Jesus, the outcome always proved them wrong (Mt.26:35; Jn.11:56; 13:8; 20:25). And so in this instance also. But maybe Peter thought himself inspired once again (Mt.l6:17).

There can be doubt that, with his marvellous flair for making well-intentioned efforts in the wrong direction, he was doing his utmost to help his Master in another critical situation. And the very sharpness of the rebuke administered by Jesus is a measure of the intensity of the temptation which his wonderful disciple all unwittingly provoked. It was the third temptation all over again (Mt.4:8)-to by-pass the road to Golgotha, and choose instead the pleasant path to human glory.

Alas, Peter! how you have misunderstood! Not only must this happen to your Lord, but it must come upon you also—a day when the sufferings of "the Christ, the Son of the living God" shall be your sufferings also, and this without complaint, reproach or rebuke. Indeed, within the year there was to be a desperate situation when Peter was to say: "Be it far from me"-and to say it with oaths and curses (Mt.26:74).

One pauses here to note that John Mark, writing Peter's gospel for him, records this rebuke by Christ in detail, but yet has not a word about the unique blessing which Peter had from his Lord. What is said and what is left out together make a powerful witness to the veracity of this gospel and also to the humility of the man who is behind it.

What a change was to come over Peter in his attitude to the sufferings of Christ! Six months later he was to be heard saying: "Lord, with thee I am ready to go both to prison and to death" (Lk.22:33). A few weeks after that he boldly required the people of Jerusalem to believe that "those things which God before had showed by the mouth of all his prophets, that Christ should suffer, he hath so fulfilled" (Acts.3:18). And shortly before his own martyrdom he was to write: "Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps (as I shortly must?)" (1 Pet.2:21). The apostle who at Caesarea Philippi would fain save his Master from suffering and death was steadily maturing in appreciation and sharing of the cross of Christ.

"Behind me, Satan!"

But just now, as he sought to wean Jesus from morbid expectations, (the disciple leading his Master!) he found his good intentions rebuffed with a vigour and disapproval which hitherto he had thought his Lord only capable of when demolishing the dialectic of scribes and Pharisees: "Away behind me, Satan: thou art a stumbling stone unto me: for thou thinkest not the thinking of God, but the thinking of men." Was it possible that Peter, who loved his master as much as did all the rest together, should cause him to stumble? Peter hadn't even dreamed of the possibility of it. Much less was his ingenuousness capable of appreciating how subtle was the temptation he had inadvertently insinuated in his well-meaning effort to be helpful.

Satan! No longer was he speaking by the inspiration of heaven and providing Jesus with unexampled encouragement. As he now shrank bewildered and spiritually bruised by these hard words from the kindest and most compassionate of men, did he-the "stumbling stone"-recall hearing Jesus speak of the day when "the Son of man shall send his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all that cause stumbling, and them which do iniquity"? (Mt.13.-41; and note 18:7).

What a build-up of discouragements were adding to the Lord's problems at this time in his ministry! It began with the beheading of John the Baptist; then came the utterly wrong reaction of the five thousand after that amazing miracle for their benefit; there was the growth of doubt and uncertainty in the minds of the twelve; the contention in the synagogue at Capernaum; the head-on collision with the scribes concerning their rules about food and eating; the acrimonious demand for a sign from heaven; the apostles' crass misunderstanding of his warnings; and now Peter, with the best will in the world, was saying the most hopelessly wrong things. (See notes).

Yet it would be a sad injustice in one's thinking to leave Peter to bear alone the burden of his Master's cutting rebuke. He had been moved to speak as he did by the wavering attitude of his fellow-disciples, and it was for their sake as well as to help Jesus that he had said what he did. Jesus knew this, and showed that he knew. In Mark's record there is the valuable detail that in the very act of rebuking Peter he "turned about and looked on his disciples." Thus, by this single glance of disapproval, he included them also in his censure of too-human thinking.

Clearly there was need for a special effort to persuade them, and all others who would give him allegiance, that the path of glory is the path of self-denial and suffering. So he gathered the twelve before him and called also to the rest (Mk) who were evidently not far away.

The challenge of the Cross

Then, very solemnly, he presented them with his new manifesto, with continuous emphasis (Lk) inviting them in effect to join him in a cause that was fore-doomed to failure, as men judge failure: "If any man wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me." This was almost certainly the first time any of them had heard this austere call to commit suicide. They were to hear it repeated at least twice more in the days ahead, so hard was the lesson, and so vitally necessary.

Had not Isaiah prophesied that there would come a day when men would be called on to "deny (LXX) idols of silver and idols of gold, which your own hands have made unto you for a sin" (31:7)?

Now, more than that, "let him deny himself''-' Jesus used the very word which was to describe Peter's repeated and desperate denial, not of himself but of his Master, in the courtyard of the high-priest's palace. A man must learn to mistrust his own instincts and inclinations. He must learn that in most instances the wisest decisions are those in which he deliberately chooses to do the opposite of what he wants to do.

Describing this as 'taking up the cross', Jesus now added to what the twelve had already learned from him (Mt.16:21), that the death appointed for him in Jerusalem must be the dreaded crucifixion. If the disciples, horrified, failed to grasp that they were being bidden share that ghastly fate, there was correction of this in the Lord's demand that each take up his cross daily {Lk.) and follow him (cp.l Cor.l5:31; 9:27). How long did it take them to make the startling inference that everyday they had been with Jesus he had been carrying a cross of his own? Did they also reflect on the significant fact, known to everybody, that by far the greater number of those crucified were slaves and revolutionaries?Mass crucifixions only followed a revolt against the established order!

Five Reasons

Jesus knew how unpalatable and even frightening was his demand that his followers throw their lives away. So he patiently reinforced his appeal with a set of five spiritual principles (each introduced by the word: "For") which would only make sense when they thought patiently about them.

  1. "For whosoever wishes to save his life (or soul) shall lose it: but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake, this man will save it" (Lk.) This paradox becomes intelligible only when it is recognised that the word "life" or "soul" (Gk. psuche) was not infrequently used by Jesus for a man's lower nature, and his natural inclinations, in contrast to the aspirations of the New Man in Christ (Mt.26:38; Lk.l2:19,20; Jn.12:27; Rev.18:13; Heb.4:12). lt is only when the fully dedicated disciple is ready to let go all that the natural man deems desirable and worth having (Heb.l1:15) that he finds instincts and inclinations being transformed into instruments for the service of Christ. All self-seeking is self-destruction. Self-denial aids self-preservation.
  2. A commonsense reason for seeking this new life in Christ, which means denial of the old: "For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself, or be cast away?" (Lk) Whether this gaining of the world be the piling up of material wealth or a self-dedication to the making of converts (as in 1 Cor.9:19), it may become a man's destruction. In the former case, this is almost inevitable. In the latter, only rarely (one imagines). Yet even then wrong motives can play havoc with a man's spiritual progress.
  3. With almost brutal realism the Lord underlined another commonsense reason. "For what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" (Mk.) If he lose his life, forfeit to the justice of God, he has lost all. After it has been given up for his sins, has he anything by which he may buy it back again? "They that trust in their wealth (faith in the wrong saviour!) and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches; none of them can by any means redeem his brother (i.e. become another man's saviour), nor give to God a ransom for him that he should live always, that he should not see corruption" (Ps.49:6-9). Then how when God has consigned a man to the grave, can he possibly do anything to help himself!
  4. And then comes Christ's own reaction to the disciple who thinks that he can live two lives at the same time: "For whosoever shall be ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed" (Mk.) And since the Son of man is the only one who can give to God a ransom for a man's soul, the door of redemption then stays shut. After the word-picture of men with crosses openly following their Leader as he bears his cross, this insistence on open witness to Christ becomes almost frightening. To think that the Lord should find it positively repugnant to consider as his own one who has no liking for open association with him! But there is also (lie comforting antithesis: "Whosoever shall confess me before men, him shall the Son of man confess before the angels of God" (Lk.l2:8).
  5. And last, there is the solemn reminder that one day a man must answer for the way he has lived his life: "For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works" (Mt.). This was a tremendous claim to come from the lips of a homeless peripatetic preacher. In ancient days visions of the Shekinah Glory of God had been vouchsafed to holy prophets of Israel, and in this presence they had prostrated themselves as dead men. Now Jesus clearly implies his going away to heaven, and very solemnly bids his disciples look-with fear or with gladness-to the day when he, endowed with this heavenly Glory, will bring to those who claim his Name the spiritual perspective of an honest self-assessment.
A Problem Promise

Never had the disciples heard their bra1 in such earnest and sombre speech. He was pressing them for a decision whether they were prepared to go all the way with him or not, He held before them the reality of his own futon glory and also of his own divine authority as judge and king: "Verily I say unto you, that there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen (to kingdom of God come with power"(Mk.)

On the face of it this saying surely meant that the Lord's return must come to pass in the lifeline of some who now heard him. In the normal understanding of the words this did not happen, In consequence a wide variety of explanations of the difficulty have been advanced:

  1. The Transfiguration, which came a week later.
  2. The Lord's Resurrection and Ascension.
  3. Pentecost and the impact of the Holy Spirit's message.
  4. The preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles,
  5. The destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
  6. The Second Coming of Christ, yet future.
The first of these is the explanation most commonly adopted. Yet it hardly copes adequately with the words. Where is the point of saying: 'Some of you here will not die before next week'? The language Jesus used requires a much longer lapse of time. Indeed, it seems to suggest a privilege accorded to only a few, though this is perhaps not to be insisted on. The second, third and fourth explanations listed here fit neither the words nor the context.

Reference to the Fall of Jerusalem is an increasingly popular idea, but a re-reading of the passage is sufficient in itself to expose the inadequacy of the interpretation: "the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels. . . the Son of man coming in his Kingdom." If these words do not describe the personal visible coming of Christ for judgment and a kingdom, there are no words anywhere in the New Testament adequate to prove the doctrine of the Second Coming. Those who can make this saying of Jesus refer to an invisible coming of Christ in A.D.70 without glory and without a kingdom can make any Scripture mean anything.

There is one detail which requires reference to the Second Coming. In Mark, the Greek perfect participle describing the coming of the kingdom carries a clear implication of 'come to stay'. This means that any reference to the Transfiguration can be at best only in the nature of a token fulfilment. (More on this in study 105).

But if the actual Second Coming is the true meaning of the words, what of the promise that some would not die before that mighty climax? Another explanation, adequate to the magnitude of this problem, is the idea that, but for a massive postponement, the coming of the Lord would have taken place in A.D.70 or very soon thereafter. The details of this explanation have been set out in some detail in an appendix to 'Revelation', by H.A.W. (pp. 259-273).

Notes: Mt. 16:21-28

from that time. The words express an important new development; cp. 4:17; 26:16.

Must. Compare the power of the same imperative in Lk.2:49; 4:43; 13:33; 17:25; 22:37; 24:7,26,44,46; Jn.3:14; 12:34; Acts.l:16; 3:21; 17:3.

The third day Mt. Lk. But Mk. has: after three days.
Be it far from thee is literally: 'Mercy on thee', precisely as in Is.54:8,10 LXX. If a deliberate allusion, was Peter implying: 'Isaiah prophesied an end to Israel's suffering, and you are Israel's Messiah; therefore he foretold an end to yours also'? If so, correct!-except that Peter's timing was wrong. Contrast Peter again in Acts.3:18.

Took him. The Gk. word means 'took either to help or to be helped'. Here clearly, the former!
Behind me, Satan. Note the echoes of the temptation in v. 1,8,16,26. Why does Rome appropriate to itself the lord's great blessing on Peter, but not this repudiation?
take up his cross. Lk. 14:27 (Study 135;Mt. 10:38). The second of these must be placed later in the ministry or even after the resu rredion (see Study 90).
This saying was evidently spoken on four separate occasions: Mt.10:39; 16:25 and parallels; Lk.17:33; Jn. 12:25.

Lose his life... find it. Mk adds to the paradox with his addition: 'for my sake and the gospel's (the good news.')'. What superbly good news that a man is called to crucifixion!
Lose s.w. Acts .27:10,21; lCor.3:15;2Cor.7:9;Phil 3:7,8

Here Mk. includes:
Whosoever shall be ashamed. . .

The words 'shame, ashamed are well worth following in the concordance. Note especially Rom.1:16; 2Tim.l:8;2:12;Heb.2:11; 11:16.

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