Today’s passage overlaps a bit with the passage we studied last week, because really it’s all one long story that we’re examining a piece at a time. After eight chapters in which Jesus’ divine authority is on display, his disciples begin to understand what’s going on. Peter realizes, “You are the Christ!” So finally we’re getting somewhere. Jesus is the king, anointed by God, whom the prophets had said would come to rescue Israel.
Unfortunately for Peter’s dreams of a glorious political kingdom, Jesus announces that his mission is to suffer, be rejected, be killed, and rise again. That doesn’t exactly fit into his disciples’ mindset of what glory looks like, so Peter takes him aside to rebuke him. But Jesus turns the tables on Peter and chews him out, calling him Satan and telling him, “You are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
Now, I think most of us would agree that what Peter said was wrong. But why does Jesus come down so hard on him? Well, we’re about to find out, because Jesus won’t let this teaching moment slip by. There’s a crowd following him and his disciples, so he calls them all together and tells them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Apparently, Jesus isn’t trying to be Mr. Popular.
Remember from a while back that to be a disciple of Jesus means that you need to be with Jesus and you need to imitate him. To be with Jesus, you need to know who he is—that he’s the Messiah. To imitate him, you need to know his mission, and his mission is to fulfill all that God the Father has in store for him—his suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection. He has come to submit to God’s will. Now, Jesus is also calling his followers to submit. He tells them that they need to deny themselves; they don’t get to choose for themselves how they will live. Every disciple must “take up his cross.” This is a vivid and repulsive image in the mind of the crowd. They’ve seen crucifixions take place at the hand of their Roman overlords. The main point of crucifixion isn’t to torture a person to death; it’s to present that person as a public spectacle of what happens when you defy the might of Rome. A man going to his crucifixion would be led through crowded streets, bearing the crossbar of his own cross. On his public death march, he is no longer acting as a rebel; Rome has won, and he has submitted to its authority. In the same way, Jesus is telling his disciples, “If you want to follow me, you must join me, abandoning your old mindsets and old ways of life. You must come alongside me in absolute submission to God.”
Now, that’s a tough pill to swallow, so Jesus tells us why it’s necessary. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Counterintuitively, a disciple must give up his entire life to God in order to save it. Like the oil in the jar of the prophet’s widow (2 Kings 4:1–7), it can’t be renewed unless it’s entirely poured out. A disciple can’t hold back a few corners of his life for himself. He can’t play it safe. He must devote himself exclusively to his Lord, take risks for him, wear himself out with the Lord’s work. If he tries to hold back, he’ll give up the very life he’s been trying to keep for himself, because God will take it away from him.
You’ll lose your life if you try to keep it for yourself; you’ll save it if you let it go. Jesus explains this paradox: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” If you keep yourself back from God, it won’t be gain at all, even if you got all the approval and money and comfort and pleasure and self-esteem you could dream of. You’ll lose your soul, and you won’t be able to get it back. “For what can a man give in return for his soul?” Jesus asks, and the answer is, “Nothing.” All that honor and luxury you’ve gained won’t be enough to buy it back.
Why can’t you buy back your soul? Jesus warns, “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” You can’t buy your soul back because Jesus will be too embarrassed to be seen with you. He’ll be too ashamed to be around someone who prefers “this adulterous and sinful generation” to “the glory of his Father” and the presence of “the holy angels.” No amount of contaminated money or worthless prestige that you can offer will ever wallpaper over that shame. Jesus can’t be bribed.
But then, Jesus delivers a guarantee to the crowd. “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.” Jesus won’t allow you to buy your way into his kingdom; he offers it freely. And there are some in that crowd who will consider the cost and still choose to be his disciples. And three of them are about to catch a glimpse of the King with his veil removed and his glory revealed. This kingdom is of supreme worth, more valuable than any earthly kingdom.
So Jesus has come to submit himself to his Father’s will, and his disciples are called to do the same. If you tend to be a self-ambitious person, Jesus is warning you not to seek earthly glory but to submit to God, devote yourself to him, and in this way receive the glory of his kingdom. If you tend to be a lazy person, Jesus is warning you to stop holding back and to start pouring yourself out for God. Go all in. And then…then you’ll begin to see a radiant sliver of the glory that awaits you.