Following Jesus

By Rev. Dr. Brent Russett – Asbury Free Methodist

September 4, 2022 – Matthew 16:21-28

            Have you ever been reading scripture and you start to see yourself in one of the biblical characters? You’re reading along, and then you think – that guy reminds me a lot of myself.

            I see that when I read the story of the Children of Israel wandering through the desert. They see the power of God at every turn, but they focus on what they don’t have rather than what they do have. I see it in the church at prayer when Peter is imprisoned in Acts, and then they are surprised when he shows up at the door.

And I see it in Peter himself. Especially when it comes to this story, and unless I miss my guess, some of you will see yourself here too. The good thing about seeing yourself in the story is that there is a lot of spiritual wisdom to be gained. 

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Let me remind you of the story we looked at last week, which is found at the beginning of Matthew 16.

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who are the people saying I am.” They replied some are saying you are this prophet or that prophet. Jesus then asked, “And who do you say that I am” Peter spoke up and said, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”

            Jesus said, Peter, you are blessed. You understand this because God the father has shown it to you. And Peter, just as your name indicates, you are a rock. And on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not be able to stand up against it.”

            Peter is the Hero. Peter gets it. Peter gets a big pat on the back from Jesus. Way to go, Peter – you see it. You see who I am – at least sort of, which we looked at last week.

            Now we pick up the story from there.

Matthew 16:21–23 (NIV)

21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

            Jesus says, now that you get who I am, let me tell you what is going to happen. Now that you understand that I am the Messiah (although you don’t quite get what I mean by that) and now that you understand that I am the Son of God, let me tell you what I am going to do.

            The text says from this time on, Jesus began to explain what was going to happen. He was going to suffer from the leadership of Jerusalem, he was going to be killed, but then he was going to be raised to life again.

            Let me give you a principle of the Spiritual Life. The more you know, the more that will be revealed to you. The more you respond to the revelation of God, the more God will reveal. By the way, the converse is true. The less you respond to the revelation of God, the less that God will reveal.

            Peter got and spoke the revelation that God had already given to him, “You are the Christ the Son of the Living God.” Because he got that, Jesus went on to tell him and the other disciples what was going to happen. He was going to suffer and die and be raised to life again.

            When God shows you that you need to forgive someone, and you do, he will show you more. If you don’t, you will miss a number of things that he wants to show you. If you want to know the ways of God, you must respond to the revelation that he has already given you.

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            But here is the thing, sometimes God shows us stuff that we would prefer that he kept to himself. That is what Peter was feeling. Jesus was saying, I am going to go to Jerusalem, and I am going to suffer, and I am going to die – and then I am going to rise from the dead.

            Now we know how important this is. We know that Jesus is moving towards fulfilling his destiny. We know that the cross is central to our faith. Jesus died for our sins, according to the scriptures. We know that when Jesus was raised to life, he not only proved who he was, but he also conquered sin and death and evil and Satan.

            But because Peter didn’t have our perspective. Because he only had a limited point of view, when Jesus revealed what was going to happen, Peter had the same reaction that we sometimes have. This just isn’t right.

            Jesus, I just said that you were the Messiah, and you just said that I was right. So, you should come and conquer. You should come in power and restore your kingdom. The Messiah shouldn’t suffer. The Messiah shouldn’t be at the mercy of the leaders of Jerusalem; he should be the leader of Jerusalem. The Messiah shouldn’t die; he needs to conquer.

            But Jesus’ plan was much bigger. He was going to save the world from our sins. He was not going to be the lord of a city; he would be the Lord of the world. He was revealing himself, but Peter said no, Lord.

Matthew 16:22 (NIV)

22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

            Peter says, “Lord, this just isn’t right.”

            We have a way of saying the same thing. Jesus says forgive, we say, this just isn’t right. The Lord says, give to this particular cause or person, but Jesus, I have been working on something else; this just isn’t right. The Lord says, give some time here, or some emotional energy there, and we say, but Lord, you know how little I have. This just isn’t right. He says, spend some time in prayer, spend some time getting to know me. But lord, you know all my other responsibilities; this just isn’t right.

            If it is indeed God who is speaking to us, calling us to action, showing us what is going to happen or what needs to be done, then we end up in that very familiar spiritual place. Anyone who has been walking with the Lord for a while has been here. It is the same place where Peter was. It is post revelations but pre-insight. We know what God is saying, but we don’t know why he is saying it. We know what he is calling us to do, but we don’t know why he is calling us to do it.

            Have you ever been there? …

            By experience, I can tell you that this is a hard place to be. I know what you are asking me to do, but I want to know why you are asking me to do it. I get very nervous when I can’t explain the whys. The just shall live by faith, and sometimes faith means not knowing the whys.

Matthew 16:23 (NIV)

23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

            Remember, back just a few verses, Jesus is commending Peter. He calls him Blessed. He says you have the revelation of God. Now he is calling Peter “Satan,” and he says you don’t have God’s revelations, but you have in mind a worldly mindset.

            Peter, within the space of a chapter, goes from hero to zero. He goes from being Blessed to being Satan. He goes from having the revelations of God to having the mindset of what the world thinks.

            I must say, I like Peter. Because I have been there so often. There are times when you think, I got it. I see it. I know it. I love it. And then the same day or the same week, I blow it.

            Maybe you can relate. You come to church, and you are inspired to follow God. You are convicted of something that needs to be done or undone. And you commit yourself to do it. You can’t imagine doing anything else. You love God; you want to follow God.

            Then you go home, and you talk unkindly to those around you, or you forget about what you have done, or you yield to a particular temptation.- From hero to zero. I’ve been there. My guess is that many of you have been there.

            As we read this passage, it sounds like Jesus is being hard on Peter. But as we read the gospels, we know that Jesus has a particular affection and affinity for Peter. This is not about being hard on Peter. This is about teaching Peter and us what it means to live a Christian life. Peter, you have the perspective of men. You need the perspective of God. Here is God’s perspective.

Matthew 16:24–25 (NIV)

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.

            Jesus said to his disciples, remember when I called you and said, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Remember when I said to you follow me, and you dropped what you were doing and followed me?

            And you have been following me for almost three years now. But if you really want to follow me, here is what it is going to involve. It is going to involve going beyond the perspective of people; it is going to involve getting God’s perspective. And here is God’s perspective.

            If you want to come after me, you must deny yourself. Those of you who have been going to church for a while may be familiar with the phrase dying to self. This is not what he is talking about. Dying to self, or to use biblical language, dying to the carnal nature, is making those things that are sinful, non-options.

            But what Jesus is asking us to do is to deny ourselves. Here is the difference. The things that we are denying ourselves are legitimate desires and wants, and needs. Eating is a legitimate need, but in fasting, we deny ourselves. Having money and wanting to make ourselves comfortable with it is a legitimate desire. In choosing to give generously, we deny ourselves. To spend time working on my own “to-do” list is a legitimate desire. Taking that time and using it to help others when God asks is denying ourselves. The list could go on. Jesus didn’t want to go to the cross. It was a legitimate desire of his to live. But he denied himself.

            Then Jesus says, “Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross   ..”

            Now he is not asking his disciples to pick up a literal cross. But Jesus had to pick up a cross. That was the cost of living out the will of God, the revelation of God in his life.

            The disciples’ cross was living out the will of God, living out the ramifications of the gospel in their lives. Your cross is living out the will of God and the ramifications of the gospel in your life.

            A friend of mine traveled to Niger and visited the Tiwari tribe. It is a very Muslim part of the world.

            He told me that while he was there, he met a man named Mohammad. He became a Christian by experiencing a vision in this Muslim country. He is all alone in his faith. Since he became a Christian, he led 17 people to the Lord. But because Mohammad became a Christian, his family disowned him, his wife left him, and his 7 kids aren’t allowed to speak to him. He was wealthy; he is not anymore. That is Mohammad taking up his cross.

            While my friend was in Niger, he spoke to a house church that Mohammad had founded. Moogoo, who was my friend’s taxi driver, came to hear my friend speak. He told through a translator the story that Jesus told about the man who had 99 sheep but went in search of the one he lost. Moogoo wept. A week later, he came and asked Mohammad to lead him to become a Christian. Mohammad asked him are you sure you want to do this? Do you know what this is going to cost you? Your whole life, as you know it, will be turned upside down. He said I can’t do anything but follow Christ. He became a Christian, in full awareness of the cross he would have to pick up.

            The crosses that the disciples of Christ around the world are carrying right now are very heavy. There are many places where following Jesus is hard. Pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is their cross, but it is not easy.

            People, your cross is to live out the will of God and the ramifications of the gospel where you live. We do not live in such an extreme world, but we do have to deny ourselves and take up our cross. I don’t know what that means for you. For some of you, it will mean living ethically in a business world that is unethical. For some of you, it will mean dealing Christianly with your family that is dysfunctional. For some of you, it will mean giving time or money or talent to the cause that God has put on your heart and mind. For some of you, it will mean responding to the call of God. You have been feeling a persistent tug.

            Taking up your cross and living out the gospel is not always fair. It is not fair that we have it easier than they do in India or Niger. It is not always fair that God calls me to do something harder than my neighbour. It is not always fair, but it is always good.

Verse

25  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. 

            We have many definitions of the good life in our country. The good life is found at the cottage with a yacht tied to the dock. The good life is found in vacations around the world. The definitions go on. But Jesus says if you really want to live, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow him. If you try to live for yourself, shirk your cross, and don’t follow Jesus, in other words, if you try to save your life, you will lose it. But if you deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus. In other words, if you lose your life, you will find it.

            If you want real life, it will be found in living out the will of God and the ramifications of the gospel in your situation. There is no other way around it.

            Jesus asks the question

Matthew 16:26–27 (NIV)

26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.

            What good is it if you have this world’s definition of the good life, but you are hollow inside? What good is it if you have everything but joy and peace and love and hope? It is not worth much.

            That is true in this life, but it is especially true in the life to come. When you do the will of God, and when you live out the gospel, God promises you life, real life, abundant life, in this life. But more than that, he promises you compensation in the next life.

            I have found that not many people in our culture are motivated by talk of heaven and rewards in the next life. We are too immediate of a people. We can hardly save for next year, little own the next life. But the fact that we are not motivated by it doesn’t make it less true. And when you get to the place where you are standing on the brink of the next life, it is a good thing to be able to look back and say, “I have followed Jesus.”

            There are some of you here today who know what God is asking of you. You have known the revelation of God, but you have not done anything about it. You have been wondering why God seems so distant. Go back to where God last called you, and do what he has asked you to do. For as you respond to God’s revelation, you will have more.

            There are some of you who are in that in-between time. You know what God is calling you to do, but you don’t know why. I would encourage you to step out in faith.

            There are some of you who need to recommit to following Jesus. Like the disciples, you have been following him for some time now. But Jesus is saying,

Matthew 16:24–25 (NIV)

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.

            This is part of what it means to be a disciple. This is part of who we are meant to be as a church. We follow Jesus. People live out the will of God. Live out the gospel where you are.