Matthew 16: 21-28
21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? 27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Titles in Matthew’s gospel, while important and demonstrating some understanding of who Jesus is, can only take us so far. In the previous section we have the titles Son of Man, Messiah/Christ and son of the living God all applied to Jesus, as well as the prophetic identity assigned to Jesus by the crowds. But these titles only have meaning in the context of how Jesus will inhabit these titles: Jesus will be prophetic but is not limited to how John, Jeremiah or Elijah enacted that identity; Jesus will be Messiah/Christ/King but not in the way that Peter or many others expect; and Matthew continues to hint that the title Son of God and Son of Man reflect more than just one divinely appointed. People of great faith, like the Canaanite woman or the centurion may have unique insights into what Jesus’ presence means for their situation, but for those called to be disciples one can only understand Jesus’ identity in relation to his teaching and actions as they continue to follow his path.
The focus now turns to Jerusalem. Although the next couple chapters involve actions and teaching in Galilee, it becomes a farewell tour of places and locations where much of the ministry of Jesus has occurred, because now for the first time Jesus indicates Jerusalem as the final destination of his ministry. Peter has just declared that Jesus is the Messiah, and it is natural that the Messiah of the Jewish people should go to Jerusalem and take up the seat once occupied by David. Yet, Jesus does not describe the journey to Jerusalem as a coronation but rather a road of great suffering and death. This first of three predictions of Jesus’ suffering and death in Jerusalem drastically changes the triumphal scene of Peter’s confession. Even though we hear Jesus’ state he will rise after three days it isn’t surprising that this is not understood by his disciples any better than the sign of Jonah was understood by the Pharisees and Sadducees.
M. Eugene Boring insightfully recognized that Peter’s action of taking Jesus aside and rebuking him could be read as Peter misunderstanding what Messiahship meant to Jesus, personal love for the person of Jesus and wanting to spare him from suffering or both. (NIB VIII: 349) What Peter intends as a blessing, the Greek ileos is better translated ‘God be merciful’ rather than ‘God forbid’, asking God not to bring this suffering upon Jesus becomes instead a stumbling block. Words of mercy intended to protect God’s anointed instead become words of temptation to pull the chosen one from what is necessary. Peter may misunderstand, but his words evoke compassion for Jesus.
Yet, even these words of blessing can become twisted to attempt to alter the way that Jesus embodies the identity of Messiah and Son of God and to become a stumbling block (scandalon). The title of Satan returns us to the temptation of Christ in Matthew 4: 1-11, where the devil attempts to test Jesus’ identity as Son of God. The devil’s temptations to avoid suffering, to give a sign and to take up worldly power all seem at odds with this necessary path to Jerusalem where the only sign is the sign of Jonah and suffering will come from those who wield religious and political power. Satan as a title for the devil originates with ‘the satan’ which is used as a title in Job 1-2 for ‘the accuser.’ Now Peter, albeit unintentionally, occupies the role of accusing Jesus of misunderstanding his place. Now Jesus turns to Peter to correct him.
There is a contrast between Jesus’ dismissal of the devil in 4:10 and his words to Peter in 16:23. In both cases Jesus tells the tempting one to go away (hupage) but here Jesus adds a location “behind me.” Peter is called to occupy the position of following Jesus as one who learns rather than being dismissed like the devil or left behind like Pharisees and Sadducees. Peter will have to learn that his understanding of divine and human things are incorrect and that God’s way will be learned by following this Messiah who moves towards the suffering and death rather than towards human conceptions of power and glory.
Jesus’ words to his followers about denying themselves, taking up their cross and following were challenging to his initial followers but perhaps even more so in our culture that avoids suffering at all costs. Leszak Kolakowsky’s description of our culture as “a culture of analgesics” where we are “entertaining ourselves to death” by our endless distractions (Case-Winters, 2015, p. 211) rings true. The modern world presents many ways to numb and distract ourselves away from our callings and to present us with alternatives to a life that is difficult but ultimately worth dedicating ourselves to. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words in a Detroit speech in 1963 that, “I submit to you that if a man hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live” resonates with this calling of the men and women who follow the path of Jesus to be willing to take up their own crosses, deny the distractions and stumbling blocks and well meaning friends who try to change their paths and to place their life in the service of something worth living and dying for.
In a culture of revenge, where violence is repaid with more violence, Jesus calls his disciples to a way of life that ‘turns the other cheek and loves one’s enemies.’ We, like Peter and the rest of the disciples, are called into a discipleship which walks the path that Jesus walks. The crosses we bear may be different, the suffering we endure may be unique to our position and our time, but we do this as part of a community of people who desire to follow Jesus. There may be times where those who are among us, often for well intentioned reasons, place a stumbling block before us or who point us to the myriad of distractions and numbing agents that are a part of our culture. There may be times where the tempter attempts to turn us away from the path that leads to the cross. The word the NRSV translates as life is psuche which is normally rendered ‘soul.’ The Hebrew people didn’t have a concept of a ‘detachable’ soul which goes into the afterlife, but the ‘soul’ was the very essence of what one’s life. The concept of selling one’s ‘soul’ in Hebrew would be to betray the life one is called to live instead of being a transaction where one damned one’s immortal life.
Ultimately there is a hope beyond the present that this life of discipleship yearns towards, some experience of the kingdom of heaven’s infiltration into the earth. Jesus’ words about the coming of God to reward those who choose this life of denial to find their lives embodies a hope for God’s action to overturn the injustice of the world. In Jűrgen Moltmann’s memorable phrase, “A theology of the cross without the resurrection is hell itself.” (Moltmann, 1981, pp. 41-42) This path of suffering without hope would merely be some masochistic philosophy and this suffering should produce not only a hope, but in Paul’s words a ‘hope that does not disappoint us.’ (Romans 5:6) The path which involves taking up ones cross involves a hope that the follower will share in the glory of the Son of Man coming in his glory. How Jesus’ early disciples heard the promise that some of those standing there would not taste death before Jesus came in his kingdom could relate to the Transfiguration, paradoxically the cross, or the resurrection, but as those who still attempt to follow the path of the crucified Lord we also hope in our own way to experience both moments of insight into the glory of God and some future realization of the kingdom of heaven.