Taking up the cross
Pp Mark 8:34-9:1, Luke 9:23-27
Finding one’s life
An end and a beginning
Matthew only speaks of Jesus telling His disciples the words recorded for us here but Luke 9:23 hints at there being more than simply these present when he uses the word ‘all’, while Mark 8:34 is the more plain and records that Jesus
‘...called to Him the multitude with His disciples...’
indicating a short discourse which, although primarily coming out of the context of Peter’s rebuke that Jesus shouldn’t think that His death is inevitable, is also particularly relevant to the crowds who were presumably massing to both hear Him speak and to have their illnesses dealt with.
Mtw 16:24-25 is closely paralleled in Mtw 10:38-39 which was spoken in the context of the need to give up family relationships for the sake of the preaching of the Gospel and of following after the requirements of Jesus upon the disciple’s life. The reader should turn to my previous notes for an overview and background to these sayings - what I intend dealing with here are only the words in context without providing a reason for some of the statements which I shall be making.
The three passages follow one another very closely, though a few extra words appear to be added by the authors, such as Luke’s addition of the word ‘daily’ in 9:23 to define how often the cross needs to be taken up and Mark’s addition of ‘and the Gospel’s’ in 8:35 when the laying down of one’s life is being considered. Both Mark and Luke speak of the life being saved rather than use Matthew’s ‘find’ while Mark and Matthew prefer the forfeiting of a person’s ‘life’ rather than Luke’s ‘himself’. Luke omits entirely the question that Jesus poses as to what a man can give in exchange for his life but the two biggest differences are tied up with the final two verses of each of the passages where Jesus speaks of the Son of man coming in the glory of the Father and the fact that some who were standing there would not die until they saw the Kingdom of God.
Matthew speaks of a reward given to each individual man based upon what they’ve done but both Mark and Luke place the interpretation of what this means in the context of how a person reacts to both Jesus and the message of the Gospel and it seems that this is what the weight of Jesus’ words should be taken as meaning. It isn’t simply that Jesus will rebuke individuals for the type of life which has been led, but that the final ownership of mankind will be determined based upon a response to the words and person of Jesus Christ.
The final verse starts off perfectly enough, each of the authors recording Jesus’ words that there were those present who would not taste death ‘until’ - but what follows varies in each of the three records. To Matthew, the event is
‘...the Son of man coming in His Kingdom’
while to Mark it’s that they will see
‘... that the kingdom of God has come with power’
and, to Luke, that they shall see
‘...the kingdom of God’
Although these statements differ, we should note that Jesus is inextricably bound up with the Kingdom itself and that to experience one must necessarily be to experience the other. After all, the King who decides on what takes place in His Kingdom must also be the one who perfectly does what is required in the Kingdom - and, if the Kingdom comes, the King’s rule must also necessarily be present.
Therefore, Matthew’s statement seems to be the fullest explanation of what Jesus was saying whereas both Mark and Luke have summarised it into a declaration of the coming Kingdom. Even so, this verse is one which has caused a great deal of variation in the interpretation as we’ll see when we come to deal with it.
However, for the time being, we should note that the three passages are close enough to one another to take the text of Matthew at face value with only a couple of explanations of the parallel passages. That the scene is still centred around the area of Caesarea Phillipi seems fairly certain for it appears that the description in Mtw 16:13 is still applicable here and that this entire half of the chapter spanned a very short space of time.
Taking up the cross
For a background to this concept of the disciple needing to take up his cross, see my previous notes where a similar phrase occurs in the context of familial responsibility. Here we will just look at the statement in the context of the previous revelation of Jesus’ impending death.
Here, Jesus’ words are recorded by Matthew as
‘If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up His cross and follow Me’
whereas, in Mtw 10:38, they’re
‘...he who does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me’
As I noted on the page which dealt with Mtw 10:38, we shouldn’t take Jesus’ use of the word ‘cross’ to colour our interpretation and so insist on the need for Jesus’ crucifixion to be in mind in the disciples. The proclamation that this form of punishment will be the type of execution by which Jesus dies is only made plain in Mtw 20:19 as they’re journeying towards Jerusalem but while they had probably still not yet reached the city of Jericho (Mtw 20:29) - certainly, they hadn’t left it!
Although the thought of death hangs heavy in the air because of Jesus’ words in Mtw 16:21, the use of the word ‘cross’ is unlikely have been taken at that time to have inferred that Jesus was predicting His literal crucifixion and that, in a similarly literal way, the disciples should expect the same treatment.
What Jesus intends here is to emphasise the need for the disciple to realise that they must be willing to forsake their own way of living and the outworking of their own will - as Peter was forced to do (Mtw 16:21-23) - if the will of God was to be done in their own lives. Matmor is insistent - and rightfully so - that we shouldn’t miss the force of the use of ‘his cross’ in this verse, writing that
‘Jesus was speaking about a death to a whole way of life; He was talking about the utmost in self-sacrifice, a very death to selfishness and all forms of self-seeking’
Man’s thoughts of how God will deal with mankind and what He would have them to do next is often so far removed from what He actually intends being done that it can be said that it is satanic (Mtw 16:23) without having to infer that a satanic revelation has been imparted to the believer.
Luke’s ‘daily’ (9:23) seems to demand a spiritual application and interpretation rather than a literal one and it may be a fair comment that this sentence did much to cause the disciples to misunderstand the context of Jesus’ previous words when He referred to His literal death (Luke 9:45, 18:34). Not that Jesus was deliberately doing this to conceal the truth, but the disciples’ perception of spiritual matters seems to have been foggy on previous occasions when they took Him literally (Mtw 16:5-12) and, the other way round, their hearing of a natural matter was taken previously as something which needed to be spiritualised (Mtw 15:10-11,15 - where Peter calls the plain statement about man’s defilement a ‘parable’).
Jesus appears to have been misunderstood in just about every way possible even by His disciples who were given the opportunity to know the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven (Mtw 13:11).
Recapping, what Jesus means by His statement must be understood in the context of Peter’s statement that the impending death of Jesus shouldn’t have to take place - that is, that man’s own will so often gets in the way for God’s will to be outworked that they must be concerned to kill their own reasoning and understanding off that they might live for the will of the Father and, ultimately, the will of Jesus.
Man’s understanding is seen to be in conflict with the revelation of God’s will - it’s vitally important that not only a revelation of who Jesus is should be received (Mtw 16:16-17) but that a revelation of what the will of God is for Him should be accepted. To accept the character of Jesus is also to accept His will - one can’t accept the Man and then attempt to conform Him into one’s own image.
Finding one’s life
For a background to this concept of the disciple losing his life to find it, see my previous notes where a similar phrase occurs in the context of familial responsibility. Here we will just look at the statement in the context of the previous revelation of Jesus’ impending death.
Mtw 16:25 records Jesus’ words as
‘...whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it’
whereas, in connection with familial responsibility, Mtw 10:39 notes that Jesus’ said
‘He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it’
It’s the context which is the main difference here for the phrase was adapted by Jesus on numerous different occasions and applied to them (Mark 8:35, Luke 17:33, John 12:25) and it’s one of the more universal of statements which recurred throughout His ministry and teaching.
Although the previous verse has spoken of the need to forsake one’s own way that the will of God might be done, this statement appears to be more applicable to a literal death of the disciple where he or she is sorely tempted to opt for a more acceptable path rather than go along a road which appears to be leading to their suffering and death - there is a very real sense that a more spiritual application is possible, too, where the disciple who chooses his own way of living will ultimately lose their spiritual relationship with God, but I shall interpret these words in a more literal sense. Mattask comments that
‘...discipleship involves...saying “no” to the imperious sinful ego which not only puts self first, but makes “safety first” its primary aim’
There’s a sense in which a disciple should be concerned to safeguard his own life that the Gospel might be further preached elsewhere (Mtw 10:23) but when that safeguarding of natural welfare conflicts with the revealed will of God, an application of the need for flight becomes disobedience and totally unjustifiable.
This applies directly to the context in which Jesus finds Himself and we should note that what He does by entering Jerusalem knowing what is about to befall Him is in direct fulfilment of the instruction which He’s here giving to the disciples. If their Master will fully accept the will of the Father for His life, then so must they - they may petition God to see if there’s another way of achieving His will (Mtw 26:39) but, ultimately, it’s only in following after His ways that they’ll find life - even if it means physical death.
In the previous use of this concept, we saw that Jesus spoke of what I called a ‘familial crucifixion’ where a figurative death in one’s own family took place for going after Jesus and the ways of God, but here the primary meaning seems to be one of physical and literal death as being what may be required of the disciples in the outworking of the will of God.
Mtw 10:26 goes on from here to view the scenario in which a disciple could find that, in so saving his own life, he elevates himself into a position of authority where he has almost endless possessions at His disposal (an exaggeration to make a point) but where, because he’s opted out of following after God, the life which he now has is devoid of the presence of God.
Many in the Church have thought that material wealth and prosperity is an advantage which should be striven for simply because the material gain can be employed in the support of furthering the Gospel of the Kingdom. While this may be the will of God for a great many people, it doesn’t follow that it’s an unerring truth for, in that case, we might as well all try and progress in our careers that we can commit as much money as we can to the proclamation of the Gospel.
Some who have achieved great wealth and riches may have walked out of God’s will for their own lives by turning their backs on the way that had been prepared for them in one of lowliness and humility which was far removed from the wealth of their present circumstances. Where God may have willed that an individual become dependent upon Him, they may now have become independent while their support of Mission is more a result of what they have rather than of what God requires.
What this passage also teaches us is that God’s will is not irresistible. If a believer is presented with options, the correct choice needs to be made. If God’s will is being done, there will always be alternatives which rise up and which vie for one’s attention, attempting to side-track the believer into something which is opposed to God’s will.
Gain, in itself, is not a sign of God’s blessing - neither is promotion within the workplace. In everything, the believer has a great need to clearly perceive the will of God and to opt for that path regardless of the consequences.
As Jesus concludes by saying in Mtw 16:26, a man may possess all earthly things, but nothing He would give could ever buy Himself that spiritual life which is a free gift given to those who follow after God Himself and who do His will.
An end and a beginning
The latter of these two verses is somewhat controversial but it shouldn’t detract from a correct interpretation of Mtw 10:27 which sits as a conclusion to the three verses which have immediately preceded it. Indeed, it’s only in this context that the verse should be understood and, even then, it should be taken as a broad generalisation rather than to be pressed to give specifics about events concerning the Son of man coming
‘...with His angels in the glory of His Father...’
This verse marks an end, just as the following marks the beginning from which this end is a fitting conclusion and seems to have been added by Jesus as an aside for the crowds gathered before He concluded His short teaching upon self-denial.
I believe there’s a pitfall here into which many a commentator has strayed by taking Jesus’ words and applying them in general terms to the time of the final judgment when all men will be judged before the establishing of the visible Kingdom of Heaven and I feel that we should, rather, take them strictly in the context in which they were uttered.
There is a sense in which these words may necessarily be describing the final judgment of all men and women before God, but Jesus has been talking about denying oneself and of refusing to follow after worldly success and material gain so that the will of God can be done in a disciple’s life - where the way of the cross is one which chooses the path that God has prepared beforehand rather than seek after gain and, in so doing, deny the less glorious way that’s clearly been revealed to them.
Therefore, when we read of Jesus repaying
‘...every man for what he has done’
it seems best to take His words as referring primarily to disciples who, for a time at least, would have embraced the demands of the Gospel upon their own lives but who opted for the way of self-preservation and self-love rather than to lay down one’s life and to walk in the footsteps of Christ.
This may be anathema to some - especially to those who don’t accept the possibility that a person, once saved, can choose to walk in their own will, against what God would have them to do. But, if the sentence was spoken in the context of the preceding verses, we’re thinking primarily of discipleship not conversion - that is, we aren’t thinking that a denial of self is the be-all-and-end-all of coming to know Christ but that the onward walk after initial submission to Christ is the crux of what Jesus is trying to convey.
The judgment which will fall upon the believer, therefore, is one which is partly based upon whether they have denied their own way of living and of a commitment to their own pathway through life and have opted, alternatively, to be obedient to the will of God in Christ.
This is made more plain in the parallel passages of Mark 8:38 and Luke 9:26 where being ashamed of both Jesus and of His words is taken as just reason for Him to be ashamed of those who have the name of being His follower. It appears to be impossible to take the words here as referring to those who don’t know Jesus and His ways, for a knowledge is implied within the statement.
It seems best to accept the words as teaching that living in the reality of Jesus’ commands is what’s laid upon men and women, not head knowledge which isn’t outworked both in and through the disciple - and this must be in connection with the self-denial previously mentioned Mtw 16:24-26.
As a contrast, to be proud of Jesus’ words and so to live in their reality must necessarily command Jesus’ pride in the believer on that Day when He returns in the glory of the Father. The opposite truth seems to be equally applicable here and worthy of full acceptance.
Finally, Mtw 16:28 has caused widespread differences of opinion amongst commentators and, seeing as the statement appears to have been tacked on to the end of Jesus’ statements which precede, there’s no certain context in which we can interpret His words, even though, in some commentators scheme of things, they are taken as referring to one and the same event.
Matmor observes that
‘Some interpreters have understood this to mean that the end of the age would come about during the lifetime of some of Jesus’ hearers’
and Mathag is more definite when he notes that
‘By far the most natural understanding of this verse....is that the consummation of the present age and the coming of the eschaton proper with its concomitant blessing and judgment would be experienced within not many decades through the triumphant return of the Son of man’
That this didn’t take place is absolutely certain from our knowledge of subsequent history but we would do well not to discard the interpretation simply because we believe that prophecy is pre-written history. As I showed in my notes on Prophecy, a statement of a future situation need not come to pass when the reaction of an individual or group of people to whom the message comes react either positively or negatively.
However, the reason for my rejection of such an interpretation is simply because it doesn’t read this way. Jesus’ words appear to need a certain fulfilment within a short space of time that is definite and without possibility of being revoked, in the same way as the prophetic word concerning His imminent suffering and death was equally certain.
Matmor, citing Plummer in a commentary on Luke, notes that the author summarises seven such possibilities for the interpreter, listed as
‘The Transfiguration, the Resurrection and Ascension, Pentecost, the spread of Christianity, the internal development of the Gospel, the destruction of Jerusalem and the second advent’
each of which could have a good case made for it. For example, the transfiguration which follows appears to be a revelation given to Peter, James and John where they witness the glory of Jesus firsthand and, being immediately concurrent with the present verse, it’s natural to read it as a fitting conclusion. But in what way could this be called the ‘coming of the Son of man in His Kingdom’ when, after the event, everything seems to return to normal and life goes on as it was before it took place?
Similarly, the Second Coming of Christ similarly bears similarities (Mtw 24:27) and many see the coming of the Son of man to be a phrase which is equally possible as being fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD (Mtw 24:27 again!), but we’re expecting that certain of those present would have had to have been resident in Jerusalem at that time and then the promise becomes not a blessing but an unfortunate fact as they get caught up in the city’s destruction!
However, the best interpretation seems to be as stated by Mattask when he writes that
‘...the humiliation of the Son of man in death will be followed by His resurrection; and raised from the dead, He will begin to exercise a worldwide dominion, and in a very real sense come in His Kingdom...’
In the OT, Daniel 7:13-14 refers to the ‘coming of the Son of man’ to be presented before the Ancient of Days in Heaven itself. After fulfilling the Father’s plan on the cross, therefore, Jesus’ resurrection and temporary ascension into Heaven (John 20:17), His receiving of the Kingdom (Daniel 7:14), receiving all authority in heaven and on earth (Mtw 28:18) and entering into the glory that had been laid aside voluntarily at His incarnation (Luke 24:26, John 17:5, Phil 2:6-7) is what is being envisaged.
When Jesus returned to teach His disciples for forty days before His final ascension into Heaven (Acts 1:3 - but note His brief return in Acts 9:3-6), He came in His glory (I Peter 1:21), pouring out the first fruits of the Kingdom upon the disciples at Pentecost (Acts chapter 2, Romans 8:23). This was, therefore, the ‘coming of the Son of man in His Kingdom’ - the beginning of the reign of Christ and of the reception of the Kingdom by His followers (Daniel 7:18) until the end when all His enemies will be finally placed under His feet (I Cor 15:24-25).
Tying the interpretation down to one specific event and time period is warned against by a few commentators even though Matfran’s sentence which states that
‘It is better not to look for a specific event but to see the fulfilment of this prediction with its unmistakable echo of Daniel 7:13-14, in the authority of the risen Jesus which will be proclaimed...in 28:18’
seems to be negated by the end few phrases which associates itself specifically with the resurrection! Better is Matmor’s comments here which speak of the disciples seeing the fulfilment in
‘...the early manifestation in the resurrection and what followed immediately, though the fulfilment of the words is yet future. Some such understanding of Jesus’ words is surely required’
where he notes that both the end of the first coming and the beginning of the second should be thought to be included within the statement. This is certainly possible and may, indeed, be correct, but, primarily we should take the words to be referring to the establishing of the Kingdom through the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus - and everything that those events implied.
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