“Christ” and “Cross” is Good News
In case you wanted to take a nap or zone out during my sermon, let me spell out my three points upfront. One, Jesus is the Christ. Two, Jesus must go to the cross. And three, we must also take up our cross. That’s all. If you got that, you got today’s lesson, and you can catch up on your Z’s or start thinking about what you’re going to make for lunch when you get home.
Even if you’re going to stay with me, you might wonder – and I wouldn’t blame you – what else there is to hear. I mean, you’d be hard-pressed to think of three statements that are less earth-shattering to hear in a church than: Jesus is the Christ, Jesus must go to the cross, and we must also take up our cross. Instead of “Amen” or “Hallelujah,” you might be tempted to respond with “And” or “Duh.”
Bear with me, because what I want to do in the next 20 minutes or so is help us take a fresh look at the old truths that are contained in this passage. But before I do that, let’s take a step back and figure out how we got here.
Matthew, you may know, is the gospel story that is geared towards early Jewish Christian readers. You know this because of the genealogy at the beginning of the book, which establishes where Jesus sits in the long family tree that stretches back to Father Abraham. You also know this because Matthew quotes the Old Testament far more than the other three gospels: 43 references by one count, vs. 21 in Mark, 22 in Luke, and 15 in John.
The purpose of the genealogy, the purpose of all of these Old Testament references, the purpose therefore of the Book of Matthew as a whole, is to show that Jesus is the one the Jewish people have been waiting for all their lives. Indeed, he is the one they have been waiting for as a people, ever since they have been a people.
When you get home today, read the first 15 ½ chapters of the Gospel of Matthew from this lens. You’ll see that everything Matthew writes – genealogy, birth, baptism, temptation, teaching, healing, conflict with the religious leaders of the day, calling and instructing followers – everything is about establishing that Jesus is the one the Jewish people have been waiting for. He is the one who is to be king, and He is the one who was foreshadowed in so many places in the Old Testament.
Jesus is the Christ
And so we get to today’s passage. And Jesus has been teaching and healing and attracting a growing band of followers and basically being the talk of the town. So it’s a good time to find out what people think of Him. So He asks, “Who do people say I am?” And their responses are extremely flattering – it’s not every day you’re talked up as John the Baptist, Elijah, or Jeremiah or another prophet. Then again, it’s not every day you see someone teach and heal with such authority.
But then Jesus asks them, “But who do you say I am?” And Peter answers, “You are the Christ.” Don’t miss the significance of this answer. Sometimes I think we gloss over this as blindingly obvious. It’s like “Christ” is his last name: “Thanks, Peter, I appreciate that you remember my full name.” Or even if we know what “Christ” means – it is Greek for “Messiah” or “Savior” – the term is so common we forget how incredibly profound Peter’s answer is.
I don’t care how many incredible things Peter and the others saw Jesus do in the first 15 ½ chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. It is a big step of faith to follow Jesus and come to the conclusion that He is the Christ. Because what you are saying when you say that is: “You are the one we have been waiting for all our lives. You are the one we have been waiting for as a people since we have been a people. Everything that defines us as a people, everything points to You.”
Think for a minute about things we wait for, and how much we ache for them to come true. Maybe it is a job, or a spouse, or a baby, or a medical breakthrough for ourselves or a loved one. Maybe it is that the Eagles will finally win a Super Bowl – I’m telling you, this is the year!
Maybe it’s just Philadelphians that think this way, but even if you get a glimmer that the thing you’ve been waiting for all your life is on the brink of being realized, you hesitate from stating it with certainty. Why is that? Maybe it’s because you’ve been here before, gotten your hopes up, and had those hopes dashed when it turned out it wasn’t to be. (Eagles fans, I see you nodding glumly.) So you are very guarded about this because you don’t want to get crushed like that again.
But Peter isn’t guarded. He knows. Oh, he doesn’t quite know the whole story. But he knows enough to say to Jesus, “You’re the one.” Are you ready to say to Jesus, “You’re the one”? Do you believe that He is everything that defines us as a people, that He is everything that everything is pointing to for history and humanity? Can you truly agree with Peter and tell Jesus, “You are the Christ”?
This is a far bigger deal than we act like in our lives and in our words, and I urge you to make it the big deal that it is in your life. Because that confession – that Jesus is the one you’ve been waiting for all your life – that confession is everything.
Jesus Must Go to the Cross
Of course, Jesus hardly lets Peter get comfortable with this momentous confession before He throws another curveball by explaining to everyone what it means that He is the Christ. It means that He must suffer. And it means that He must be murdered.
Here again, we are so comfortable with this notion of Jesus going to the cross that I think we think it’s kind of funny that Peter rebukes Jesus: “There goes Peter, talking his crazy talk again! Of course Jesus has to go to the cross.”
But is it so obvious? If we’ve finally gotten our heads around the notion of Jesus being the Christ, do we automatically understand that the way He is the Christ is through suffering? If we, as individuals and as a people, have suffered under much oppression and hardship for so many years and so many generations under so many enemies, wouldn’t our hearts tend to gravitate towards a more triumphant image of Christ, of Messiah, of Savior? Wouldn’t our souls naturally long for conquest and rescue and exaltation? From that perspective, the thought of Jesus being tortured and vanquished is enough to make me want to try to correct Him like Peter did.
But Jesus has a different kind of conquest and rescue and exaltation in mind. He is the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior, not in the sense that God’s people have been politically and physically and socially oppressed, but in the sense that all people are under a far greater and more intractable oppression, and that is the oppression of sin.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that this whole scene takes place in Caesarea Philippi. As you might guess from the name of the city, Caesarea Philippi was named by King Philip to honor Caesar Augustus.
What you may not know unless you know your old-school Middle Eastern geography is that Caesarea Philippi was built on a huge wall of rock. Wherever there were openings in this rock wall, shrines were erected to Caesar and to Pan, the pagan god. And wherever these shrines were found, you would often find worshippers of Pan engaging in bizarre and explicit sex acts in Pan’s honor.
Las Vegas is often referred to as “Sin City,” but Vegas has nothing on 1st century Caesarea Philippi. It was a place that was thick with the oppression of sin.
Caesarea Philippi was a magnificent natural wonder and a foreboding den of dark deeds. And Jesus brings His followers there. They must have marveled at this huge wall of rock. They may have shuddered at the things that took place there. And in the midst of all of this, Peter declares, “You, Jesus, are the Christ.” And Jesus replies, “You, Peter, are the rock I will build My church on, and the gates of Hades won’t overpower it.”
So there you go. The triumph is not about geopolitical oppression but about spiritual depravity. In the shadow of the massive rock that Caesarea Philippi was built on, in the presence of such debauchery, Jesus proclaims victory through the church. And He insists that this victory can only be secured through His suffering and dying.
Jesus is the Christ, the one we’ve been waiting for all our lives. And Jesus must go to the cross, because what we’ve been waiting for all our lives is not the overthrow of our earthly rulers but rather being loosed from the chains of the spiritual oppression of sin. That is the unbearable weight we all bear. And there is no other way for mankind to be loosed than for Jesus to suffer many things and be killed.
We Must Also Take Up Our Cross
And there is no other way for us to participate in this wonderful salvation story than to join Jesus and take up our own crosses. Here again is a statement that has lost all of the bite in our lives: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.”
“Taking up one’s cross” is now a mainstream phrase, synonymous with self-denial but lacking the horror that 1st century ears would feel upon hearing it. For the cross was an especially gruesome and dreadful form of suffering and dying. Those brutal Romans invented it as a way to stick it to the worst war criminals and evildoers. It was a painful, drawn out, humiliating, and sickening way to be executed. “Taking up one’s cross” was literally part of the procedure: carrying the wooden stakes on your back to your place of execution before being nailed to it to die a public and grotesque death.
Jesus considers this to be part of following Him. You cannot follow Him without actively participating in your own torturous expiration. This is the nature of the problem of sin in our individual lives and for the plight of humanity as a whole. We cannot beat it by good deeds or rigorous discipline. We can only do as Jesus did, and die to self to live for God. If we try to save our own lives we will in fact lose them. But if we lose our lives for the sake of Jesus, we will find them.
150 years ago this summer was the Battle of Cold Harbor, one of the bloodiest in the Civil War. By June 1864, it seemed inevitable that the Union would defeat the Confederacy. The Union had the moral advantage of being on the right side of the debate about slavery.
What may be less known is that the Union also had the overwhelming numerical advantage over the Confederacy. By this time in the war, President Lincoln had already made his Emancipation Proclamation and approved the enlistment of black soldiers. The Confederacy could not count on its black population serving in its army, and in fact 300,000 Southerners (white and black) defected and fought on the Union’s side.
George McClellan, Lincoln’s main general during the early years of the Civil War, was too timid to press this numerical advantage. It took Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln’s main general during the later years of the Civil War, to bring the war to a close through brute force.
Cold Harbor represented Grant’s attempt to break through to Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. Despite the fact that the Confederate troops were guarding Richmond from a fortified position, Grant ordered a full frontal assault on the capital. Massive casualties were so likely that soldiers took to pinning their name and contact information on their uniforms so they could be identified if slain on the battlefield. Indeed, thousands of Union soldiers were felled during this battle.
Most people agree that the Confederacy held its defense and won this battle. General Grant later expressed regret for ordering the charge. My point is not to glamorize war or make a political point. My point is to draw a parallel between what Grant ordered his men to do and what Jesus invites us to do. When we join His side, we are assured to be on the winning side. We are assured to be exalted with Him on the last day. But we also assured to partake in a bloody battle where we will suffer and perhaps die.
Whether we choose this depends on what value we place on our soul. We can avoid the brutality of the battlefield and enrich ourselves until we have gained the whole world. But if we have exchanged our soul in the process, did we choose correctly? On the last day, will we be found trying to save our own life, or will we be able to say that we lost our lives for Jesus’ sake and found it?
Whether you are a Christian or not, you might be here this morning because you want to hear a thought-provoking talk that makes you scratch your chin a little and leaves you with something to mull over for the rest of the week. But I am speaking to a different audience.
I am speaking to those of us who have been waiting for something, for someone, all of our lives. We are waiting because we get that there is something called sin that oppresses humanity. And sin to us is not some intellectual concept but a real and terrible thing, which binds us and mars all of mankind.
If you are there, I speak this good news to you. Jesus is the Christ. The one we have been waiting for all our lives has come. It is Jesus.
And Jesus has gone to the cross. The horrible stench of sin that permeates our generation, that permeates our entire beings, has been dealt with decisively. Jesus dealt with it on the cross.
Let us therefore take up our cross too, for His sake and for the sake of our souls. Though we march onto a bloody battlefield where we will surely suffer and may even die, we are assured of conquest and rescue and exaltation on the last day.