Competition is the core of our culture. From politics to commerce to art and sport, it’s about being hungry enough to win. Katniss portrayed it in The Hunger Games: only those who deserve to win survive. Empires practiced it throughout history: only those who can assert their superiority deserve to be in power.
By that measure, Jesus does not deserve to be our Lord. A “crucified Christ” is a contradiction. The Roman procurator of Judea mocked the “King of the Jews.” Recently I saw a placard, “If Jesus returns, kill him again!”
We’re so embedded in the story of the powerful that Jesus’ powerless path feels foreign. We want to say with Peter, “You are the Christ!” (16:16) and “Never, Lord! You will never be put down!” (16:22). Like those who planned to make Jesus king by force (John 6:15), Peter imagines Jesus coming to power by overpowering his enemies. That mindset makes Peter Jesus’ enemy (16:23).
Jesus calls his followers to prepare to die with him. He does not mean fighting bravely and dying a noble death in the battle for supremacy like the soldiers of Joshua or David. He means taking their stand with their leader while the rulers execute him (16:21). Jesus expects to be slaughtered like a criminal, so any who join him on this journey to Jerusalem are effectively walking down the road with crosses on their shoulders also, marching to their own execution:
Matthew 16:24–26 (NRSV)
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?
This looks like a dead-end journey, so if they wish to save their lives, they can opt out now — an offer similar to Gideon’s in Judges 7:3. But what would be the point? Jesus wants them to weigh the alternatives: even if they lived on to gain a monopoly on all the wealth and power on the planet, what benefit would that be compared to Jesus’ vision of restoring God’s reign for everyone on earth? Which is the better investment of their lives?
It’s all about what they will do with their life. That’s the key phrase: 4 times in 2 verses:
- save/lose their life (25)
- forfeit/exchange their life (26)
Unfortunately, many English versions follow the KJV in translating the word psychē inconsistently: as “life” in verse 25, but as “soul” in verse 26. This is misleading if we think of “soul” as a disembodied existence after death. (BDAG 1098–1099) defines the range of meanings for psychē in Scripture as:
- life on earth in its animating aspect making bodily function possible;
- seat and center of the inner human life in its many and varied aspects, soul;
- an entity with personhood, person extension of 2 by metonymy.
Jesus gave them the option to save their lives. But before they take that option, he wants them to weigh up what greater project they could spend their lives on than the re-foundation of God’s kingship over the world in his Christ.
In the time and place where I live, identifying as a servant of King Jesus does not place my life in danger. I don’t expect to carry a cross down the road for my crucifixion. What will I spend my life on?
You’re reading these words because I spend my life promoting the world-transforming news that Jesus is king. What else could compare to the good news of the kingdom, the one leader who can transform the world.
What motivates you to get up in the morning? Gaining wealth? Recognition? What price would you pay to get people under your power? Life isn’t a monopoly game. Gaining the whole world for yourself would still be losing compared to a world set right for everyone in the Messiah’s reign.
The strong cannot comprehend the wisdom of a king who dies so the weak can live. That’s why the face of his kingdom is not celebrities but nobodies like you and me — people who have crucified other agendas to live for this one king.
Open Matthew 16:24-26.
What others are saying
Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 434:
“Taking up one’s cross” in antiquity hardly meant the relatively minor burdens assumed by many popular readers of the text today … It meant marching on the way to one’s execution, shamefully carrying the heavy horizontal beam (the patibulum) of one’s own death-instrument through the midst of a jeering mob. … Jesus anticipated literal martyrdom for himself and many of his followers by the Romans’ standard means of executing lower-class criminals and slaves; his kingdom was ultimately incompatible with Rome’s claims (Manson 1979: 131; F. F. Bruce 1972a: 19; Klaasen 1981: 88). If disciples “come after” and imitate their teacher, their lives are forfeit from the moment they begin following him; to “come after” Jesus Peter himself had to return behind him (16:23). Self-denial in this text refers to following Christ to the death (16:24), rather than denying him in the face of persecution (10:33).
Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 153:
Jesus, therefore, tells his disciples that if they are to follow him they must take up their cross. If they seek to save their lives using the means the world offers to insure their existence, then their lives will be lost. Rather, they must be willing to lose their lives “for my sake” if they are to find life. Jesus is not telling his disciples that if they learn to live unselfishly they will live more satisfying lives. Rather, he says that any sacrifices they make must be done for his sake. The crosses they bear must be ones determined by his cross.