Have we ever suffered for doing good? Have we ever wondered whether it was all worth it, while those who do evil seem to prosper? Is there any justice? Is evil really punished and good rewarded?
I want us all to realize that payday is coming, for those who have done evil as well as good.
We will discuss the value of the cross, losing ourselves to gain ourselves and living a holy life all from Matthew 16:21-28.
The Cross Trumps Tradition
The ministry of Jesus Christ was a total departure from tradition. Throughout Jewish history a Messiah figure was a conquering military hero who saved Israel from foreign domination. The Old Testament tells the stories of many such superstars. In Matthew 16:21 Jesus went totally against that convention by prophesying about his crucifixion. To Peter it appeared to be admitting defeat. The original language indicates that Peter’s immediate response was a strong scolding. That was not the way things were done. A Messiah was supposed to live on and conquer. He was supposed to say take up your sword and follow me, not your cross. The Church of Jesus Christ needs ongoing reformation. We constantly need to pray for and follow his direction not lean on our traditions. In Jesus, loss is gain, defeat is victory. The cross trumps tradition.
Can compassion go too far? Can parents be overindulgent of their children to their own harm? When they need money are we always there to bail them out? Some of life’s lessons must be learned the hard way, and not saving adult children from every financial difficulty is tough love. When they get in trouble at school are we among those parents who criticize the teachers and defend even the wrong acts of our children? That kind of parenting is a disaster for any child. Can too much compassion even be against God’s will at times? Peter was certainly compassionate when Jesus predicted his suffering (Matthew 16:22). Perhaps most of us can relate. We would not want anyone we loved to suffer, especially the cross. However, Jesus rebuked him because this was not the right time for mollycoddling compassion.
Get Behind me Satan
Grandma forced Dad into a job that he hated. He later changed to a career that he liked. We naturally want to protect others from possible suffering. Like Peter said to Jesus we also say, “No way!” Jesus’ reaction was blunt, “Get behind me Satan!” (Matthew 16:22-23) Perhaps we have tried to discourage children from what we imagined to be a poor career choice, when maybe it was their life’s calling, their purpose for being. It is an evil and diabolical thing to make a young person unhappy for life merely for the sake of a steady paycheck, the idolatrous perpetuation of a family business or to fit other similar vain expectations. We don’t want others to suffer, and so we tend to want to baby them. Yet, such good intentions may actually be more evil than good.
Some recent church news has been encouraging. Brad Wilcox, University of Virginia sociologist found that the more educated a person is, the more likely they are to attend church. It’s the exact opposite of urban myths associating Christianity with ignorance and low education. Other recent news is that the liberal trend in the Church is reversing. The next generation is theologically more conservative. Have we been worried about the Church? Have we been concerned that Jesus has lost control? Have we been trying to save Jesus? Do believe that Jesus is the living Head of the Church or just a figurehead? When Peter tried to save Jesus from being killed, Jesus’ quick reply to him was, “Get behind me Satan!” (Matthew 16:23) Are we guilty of lacking faith that Jesus knows what he’s doing or has things under control?
Opposing or Following Jesus
When Peter rebuked Jesus’ regarding his prophecy of his crucifixion, Jesus rebuked him in turn calling him Satan. The word Satan simply means adversary, someone in opposition. Peter was opposed to Jesus’ plans. Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan.” The same word for “behind” is translated in the very next verse as “follower.” Jesus was telling Peter to quit being an adversary but get behind him by following him. When we try to take the lead away from Jesus, we are an adversary. When we create church rules in opposition to the essentials of the faith espoused by Jesus then we are an adversary of his. When we try to be more righteous than Jesus we are in opposition to him. In effect Jesus is also saying to us, “Back me up, you who are in opposition.” (Matthew 16:23)
From Rock to Stumbling Block
Peter went from rock to stumbling block within the same chapter (Matthew 16:23). After this event he would go from that to worse, denying Jesus. We all experience ups and downs in our faith journey. There will be times when we see Jesus as Messiah and become like Peter, rock of the Rock. There are also times when we look at events around us and cry out, “Bad things like this are not supposed to happen!” Pastors know that they will sometimes be crucified or disowned, even by close friends. Of course, being crucified is something that other Christians also experience. When our fellow Christians are persecuted, are we tempted to lose faith or cry out to heaven in objection? Let us not stumble but remember that carrying our own cross of crucifixion is part of the Christian journey.
Confession without the Cross
Altar calls were popularized by Charles Finney in the 19th century and are not always successful. Only a small percentage of those who make a formal public confession immediately enter a church and live a Christian life. Jesus did not use altar calls. They tend to treat the Christian walk like a checklist with one thing on the list being successfully ticked off. Though not required as a one-time formal ceremony, confession of Jesus Christ is required throughout life. However, confession alone is insufficient as Peter was soon to discover. Earlier in Matthew 16:24 he had confessed Christ, but did not want Jesus to suffer on the cross. As he found out, confession without the cross is not quite enough. We need to set our minds on God’s interests, deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him.
Empty Cross Syndrome
Protestants do not often display a cross with Jesus on it. That is more of a Catholic thing. I have even heard Protestants criticize Catholics for it as focusing too much on Good Friday and not enough on Resurrection Sunday, but I can find no biblical reasons for such condemnation. It is just a matter of choice. Perhaps we Protestants are too squeamish. Perhaps the Passion of the Christ (movie) could only have been made so well by someone associated with Catholic tradition. Yet we Protestants do remember the passion of Christ in the bread and the wine, but perhaps we are also somewhat like Peter in wanting to avoid the fact that Christ had to suffer (Matthew 16:24). A healthy focus on the cross is a reminder that we too must take up our crosses and follow him.
Lose Life to Save It
In Matthew 16:25 Jesus made the strange-sounding statement that whoever loses his life for him will find it. How is that even possible? It is totally counter-intuitive to our natural instincts. We are all concerned with the security of our lives. We are anxious about finances, retirement, taxes, terrorism, identity theft, the stock market and the price of fuel for our cars. We do a lot to preserve this life. How can Jesus ask us to give up our lives for his sake? Each of us actually has two lives and this riddle speaks of them both. The life that Jesus asked us to lose is this temporal life and in so doing gain eternal life. He did not ask us to commit suicide, but give up our self-centered ways, deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him.
Losing & Gaining Ourselves
A Greek word often translated as soul or life can also be translated as psyche. It literally means breath, but is used metaphorically for our life, everything that makes us ourselves. The great paradox is that whoever wants to save themselves will lose, but whoever loses themselves for Christ will find themselves. What good is it if we gain the whole world, yet lose ourselves? What can anyone give in exchange for themselves (Matthew 16:25-26)? Or, what are we worth? God tells us what we are worth to him. To God we are worth the death of His Son. God’s challenge is not a call to self-hatred, but that true self-fulfillment is found in self-denial. Our true selves are found not in narcissistic solitude but as part of a sharing community, giving to God and to our community neighbors.
Entitlement mentality affects rich and poor. Some believe that their hard work or talent entitles them to gross excesses of wealth. Others believe that they are entitled to things without working for them. Peter also misunderstood what a Messiah was entitled to. His entitlement mentality temporarily put him on the side of Satan rather than God. Jesus came from privilege, became poor to save the world and now lives again in the wealthiest corner of the universe, heaven. But rich or poor, he did not consider that either entitled him not to sacrifice his life for humanity. What good is it to feel like we are entitled to the gain whole world but in so doing lose our own soul (Matthew 16:26)? A mentality that involves willingness to sacrifice the self for the sake of others is from God.
Living a Holy Life
Many Christians believe that we take the free gift of salvation and do nothing with it. This is lazy and takes salvation “by grace alone” to an extreme that neither Jesus nor the apostles would have taught. Every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire (Matthew 3:10; 7:19). The kingdom of God will be given to those who produce its fruit (Matthew 21:43). A life worthy of the Lord bears fruit in every good work (Colossians 1:10). We are created to do good works (Ephesians 2:10). In a conundrum which confuses many, we are not justified by righteous deeds. That is a gift. But a saving faith produces good deeds (James 2:17-20) and we will be rewarded by what we have done (Matthew 16:27).
For those who have suffered for doing good, payday will come. We will be rewarded so far above whatever we have suffered. Every good deed has a reward that will last for eternity.