Matthew 16:21-28, The Cost of the Mission Jesus Sends Us On

[August 31, 2014] I’ve been away the last two Sundays—backpacking with my daughter and then, with my wife, driving her to college—and so this study follows the one of Matthew 14:22-33.

The section of Matthew we have been considering follows the parables in chapter 13 and continues up to Palm Sunday in chapter 21. Being the fifth out of seven sections, it is larger than the others, and structurally unique. Matthew 4:17—8:1 is about the sphere of the kingdom (discipleship); 8:2—11:1 about its outreach or mission; 11:2—13:53 about people’s reaction to this; 13:54—20:34, our present section, is about the relations of the kingdom; and 21—25 is about the judgment of the kingdom. All these divide between a narrative and teaching subsection. In our present section the narrative runs from 13:54 to 16:20. In all the others, however, the teaching subsection consists of a long unbroken sermon, or in chapter 13 of a series of parables with “stage cues.” In our present section, what would be the teaching section is clearly divided in three by an opening prediction by Jesus of his coming passion in Jerusalem (16:21; 17:22-23; and 20:17-19), the middle section being by far the largest, and the three sections, while being complete in themselves, being barely comparable. Furthermore, the middle section, 17:22—20:16, is divided in two by a geographical change in 19:1-2 between instructions about relations among disciples and instructions about social relations.

The present division, 16:21—17:21, is furthermore unusual because it is primarily—despite what I just said—further narrative. Yet it forms a whole: after Jesus’ prediction of his own coming passion (16:21), he tells his disciples that they must follow him on this trajectory of death with respect to the world (16:22-27), which is followed by a scene of transfiguration into glory (16:28—17:8), and concluded by a return to the world (17:9-21). Between 13:54—16:20 and 17:9—19:16 (on either side), this block of material has to be interpreted in terms of what it tells us about the relations of the kingdom, especially in respect of its mission and the reaction of the world to it. The immediate context is the question of Jesus’ identity, the Father’s revelation to Peter, and Jesus’ revelation to his disciples in 16:13-19, though that has to be understood in the context of what preceded it in 13:54—16:12.

So in this preceding narrative, we have people’s lack of response to Jesus in his home town of Nazareth (perhaps expressing the apostles’ frustration with the response of Jerusalem to the message of the Gospel), then a picture of the Herods persecuting the church (reminding us of the persecution under Herod Agrippa I in Acts 12 after Peter opened the doors of the church to gentiles), and then Jesus’ feeding the multitude (expressing Jesus’ compassion for the multitude). What follows is a series of episodes that expand on who this multitude is: the boat at sea typifies the apostolic mission into the gentile world of the Mediterranean basin, the question is raised and answered about the “unclean” world into which the mission is reaching, Jesus feeds a multitude again but this time the crowd consists of many—if not mostly—gentiles, Jesus speaks of the sign of Jonah (who preached to the gentiles), and he warns against the leaven of the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ exclusiveness as the lesson to be drawn from the two feeding miracles. All of this points to the expansion of the church’s mission to include the gentiles (i.e., the whole world) and all the outcasts and marginalized people of the world.

So yes, Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” but the significance of this confession, or rather, this revelation, is that it forms the foundation of the church, Jesus’ qahal, the messianic community—within Israel—against which even the gates of Hades cannot hold out; they shall open. Moreover, the point here is this: the kingdom of the heavens can also be loosed (its doors opened) by the church on the basis of this revelation (by the proclamation of the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit), and that Peter, as one possessing this revelation and thus representing the church, has been given the keys to open those doors—to open the doors of the kingdom to the gentiles (as embracing all people, the whole “multitude” to whom Jesus ministered). Peter indeed did open those doors when he began to present the Gospel to the household of Cornelius and the Holy Spirit came upon them—uncircumcised as they were (that is, unconverted to Judaism)—and Peter admitted them into the full fellowship of the church by baptism (see Acts 10:1—11:18 followed up by Acts 15). In this role, Peter is indeed the “son of Jonah,” for like Jonah—fulfilling the “sign of Jonah”—he opened the doors of repentance to the gentiles.

The doors of the kingdom can also be closed by the church—against those who offend the “little ones” who believe in Jesus. See Matthew 18:5-18. The church is not permitted to despise—or worse, spew hatred of—its “weaker” members (or of anyone else)! We see this often enough in congregations of the United States, so there is an immediate pertinence about this.

It is at this point that Jesus “began to make it clear to his disciples that he was destined to go to Jerusalem and suffer grievously at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes and to be put to death and to be raised up on the third day.” This is the first of his predictions concerning his death, and therefore the first time that Jesus reveals to his disciples the full extent of his identification with humanity in its sin and of his humility as the Son of Man (who is the one who comes in glory; see Daniel 7:13). In the light of what became quite clear to the church about who this Son of Man is, that is, who he is as the Son of God, Jesus is revealing here not just the humility of his messianic role, but the humility of the divine nature: the humility of God.

Prior to this Jesus had shown this “face” from the beginning, but he had not yet spoken of his death. His death is not different in character from his life; it is the ultimate expression of who he had been from his cradle, indeed from eternity, and it is the fulfillment of his baptism. The identification with us that he formally took upon himself at his baptism (a baptism of repentance), and his role as a penitent that led him fasting into the desert for forty days, is not something that shook off when he began his public ministry. We misunderstand him, I think, if we separate this from the jubilant Jesus who presents himself as the bridegroom surrounded by his wedding attendants, a bridegroom anticipating his bride. For, in fact, the two roles are inseparable. It is his role as a penitent that makes him the friend of sinners, for it is they with whom he identifies as his loved ones.

When Peter therefore takes him aside and rebukes him—“Heaven preserve you, Lord! This [being put to death] must never happen to you”—he completely misunderstands Jesus, despite the fact that the Father in heaven has revealed to Peter that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the Son of the living God. How can this be? If only we were a unity; but in fact we are all in conflict with ourselves. Peter demonstrates this again and again. The reality of Jesus was indeed revealed to Peter: he realized it by an immediate intuition in his spirit. But his mind was still stuck in its old mode. He had a lot of assumptions about the Messiah that he had gotten from others: none of which included a Messiah who would humble himself even to death.

Jesus’ reaction is severe: “he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path” who can trip me up. Jesus called the tempter in the wilderness “Satan” when he suggested to Jesus that Jesus fall at his feet and do him homage. Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:13 at the time: “The Lord your God is the one to whom you must do homage, him alone you must serve.” He speaks of Satan also in 12:26. In 4:10 and 12:26, Satan, which means “adversary,” has his own kingdom, namely “all the kingdoms of the world” (for as he says in Luke 4:6, “it has been handed over to me”). When Peter tries to turn Jesus from the cross, this is the voice Jesus hears: the voice of the adversary, the one whose kingdom is adversarial to the kingdom of the heavens. The words of Peter are a temptation of Satan, an obstacle in Jesus’ path that, if he were to yield to such a temptation, would cause him to fall. Peter is “thinking not as God thinks but as human beings do,” human beings who are under the sway of “the kingdoms of the world” and their way of thinking, which is contrary to the way God thinks. The Father had revealed to Peter who Jesus is, but this other way of thinking has nothing to do with God but rather with God’s enemy.

Yet Peter was only acting out of concern for Jesus. Of course. But that concern was counselling Jesus to cowardice, and was not at all in Jesus’ own best interest. We too must be careful not to discourage people from taking the more difficult path—if that path is obedience to the Father, to the way of Jesus, to the impelling of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus was not dying for dying’s sake. Nor, in this instance was Jesus considering his death as something he alone must endure. It was that, yes, for in dying as who he was he was accomplishing something that we by dying cannot. But Jesus was thinking of his death in this instance as a pattern that must be imitated by his disciples (just as his baptism is).

I think of the boat in Matthew 14:24 “hard pressed by rough waves, for there was a headwind.” The Pharisees and, in the Acts of the Apostles, the “Judaizers” (or zealots), historically the same group—not yet the Zealot party that instigated the Jewish-Roman war but leading up to them—harassed Jesus for his reaching out to sinners and outcasts and persecuted the church for its mission to the gentiles. Before they persecuted the church in Acts, the Sadducees did so, not for its mission to the gentiles but for the appeal of its message of the resurrection of Jesus to the “crowds.” It was the Sadducees—with the collaboration of this party of Pharisees—who handed Jesus over to the Romans for execution, handed him over in fact because the Romans were offended by his popularity with the “crowds” and wanted to make him an object lesson.

The matter of the crowd then is critical—the Sadducees were nervous about how Jesus was so popular among the poor and uneducated and the Pharisees were offended by how sinners and outcasts were attracted to him. This is why it was important for us to consider who Matthew means when he speaks of the “crowd.” It was, in other words, the compassion of Jesus for all people that indeed led him to the cross. Likewise, if the disciples follow him, they too will be persecuted not because they proclaim this or that doctrine but because of the people to whom they show compassion. In the Acts of the Apostles, it was the gentiles, the pagans, of every race and ethnicity and practice of idol-worshipping. Yet the gospels make it clear that it is not just the gentiles but all people—women, children, the poor, the sick, handicapped, deranged and unclean, and the outcast—non-observant Jews and tax collectors and even sex-workers.

When Jesus says, “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. Anyone who wants to save his life (psychē) will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it,” he has in view the church in its mission. When he says, “take up his cross,” he is not referring to suffering per se but to the risk of persecution (even execution) on account of doing what he does, of following him on the same path, the same manner of life and mission. Renouncing oneself is not about self-deprivation but of renouncing that side of our will that would cower from following him on this dangerous path, this path of love.

We associate love with peace and all kinds of nice things but these things are only that which love eventually obtains (if it does); the way of love often sets us in conflict with others. Love creates enemies. This may seem strange, but we need to look no further than the example of Jesus. Therefore if we would save our own skin by refusing the risk of love, we will end up losing his soul (psychē). If we lose our life for Jesus sake (for obedience to him, to his way, out of love of him), we will find our life, our soul (psychē), our true self.

To put it another way: “What, then, will anyone gain by winning the whole world and forfeiting his soul? Or what can anyone offer in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and then” what reward will you have? For “he will reward each one according to his behavior.” In other words, for anyone who hears this challenge, it is not worth taking the cowardly way of “safety.” The risk is far less if you risk your neck for the sake of Jesus by loving all those people whom others find hard to love, whom others find “unworthy” of love. The fellowship of the church is for them, and if we make ourselves a stumbling block, woe to us. We “would be better drowned in the depths of the sea with a great millstone round [our] neck” (Matthew 18:6).

So yes, the humble Jesus will “come in the glory of his Father”—because his humility expresses the glory of the Father!—and he will reward each of us according to how we compare to him, to himself, that is, in the humility and mission of his earthly life. We will each be revealed—and judged—in Jesus’ own light, in the light (or glory) of his Person.

Of course, by such a standard none of us can fare well. By his mercy he will also add his own merit to our feeble efforts. Our efforts, even by the grace of God (which is all they can be), still fall short, but Jesus has made us his own and takes responsibility for us. To those who make an effort, more will be added; but to those who do not, even what they have (by grace) will be taken away. I am not referring to salvation now but reward. Those whose unfaithfulness merits discipline will be disciplined until they are fit for the kingdom of God.

The final verse here, where Jesus says, “In truth I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste of death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom,” refers back to Jesus’ words, that “the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of his Father,” and forward to the vision of Jesus in the transfiguration scene that follows. Peter, James and John indeed saw Jesus as the Son of Man in the glory of his coming, of his coming in his kingdom. The context strongly suggests this interpretation. Also, in 2 Peter 1:16, 18b, Peter says, “When we told you about the power and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, we were not slavishly repeating cleverly invented myths; no, we had seen his majesty with our own eyes … when we were with him on the holy mountain.” He here clearly connects that vision with seeing “the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

This little verse connects our suffering for his sake—the import of the previous verses—with the glory that shall follow when the kingdom comes. If we share the humility of the Son of Man, we will also share his glory. The cost is great, but it is worth it. To not pay the cost of discipleship will result in a loss that we cannot imagine.

1 comment to Matthew 16:21-28, The Cost of the Mission Jesus Sends Us On

  • I read these verses in Matthew 16, particularly the part about losing or gaining one’s soul, and I harmonized them with your remarks about Matthew 18 and how today’s Church tries to close the door to the Kingdom to people who they perceive do not have the right identity, whether that identity is racial, economic class, or gender identity to name a few of the more common objections by the mainstream Church. And the principal way they do that is to try to convince people in these groups to deny who they really are, their true soul. It would be one thing if they objected, based on Scripture to an immoral activity regularly being engaged in. But no, they object to the very identity itself, not to an activity.

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