Matthew Bible Study (The Gospel of the King and the Kingdom of Heaven)

Matthew 16:21-28, Understanding Jesus’ Death


We are looking at the hard sayings of Jesus that are found in Matthew 16-20. We are at a turning point in Jesus’ life in Matthew’s gospel account as we come to the end of Matthew 16. Look at what Jesus starts telling his disciples in Matthew 16:21.

The Purpose of God (Matthew 16:21)

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. (Matthew 16:21 ESV)

Jesus starts telling his disciples about what is going to happen because it is important to understand the meaning of Jesus’ death. For much of the world, people have heard about the death of Jesus and maybe even go to church every once in awhile to commemorate it. But few understand what the death and resurrection of Jesus is supposed to mean to their lives. Jesus begins the instruction process for his disciples about what is going to happen to him shortly. Jesus says that he must go to Jerusalem. When he goes to Jerusalem, he must experience suffering at the hands of the Jewish leaders. Further, he is going to be killed but then raised on the third day. I want us to see that nothing that is happening is a surprise to Jesus. He knows what is his purpose is. He knows he must go to Jerusalem and he knows what is going to happen in Jerusalem. Jesus is in control of what is going to happen. If Jesus did not want to give his life for the world, he could simply not go to Jerusalem. He could stay in Galilee. He could move outside the Jewish area. What is going to happen is not an accident or a series of unfortunate events. What is about to happen is the predetermined will of God and Jesus knows the plan.

Confused By God’s Purpose (16:22-23)

Now I hope that we can put ourselves in the sandals of the disciples as they heard these words. They have confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16). While others only see Jesus as a prophet, the disciples are fully aware that Jesus has come from heaven, sent by God, as the Savior and King of the world. So imagine hearing what Jesus just said. Jesus said he is going to go to Jerusalem to suffer and be killed. I want you to think about this to understand Peter’s response in verse 22.

Peter takes Jesus aside and tells him that this could never happen to him. Peter tells Jesus that there is no way that this could be the case. Now why does Peter say this? I believe Peter says this because he knows who Jesus is. He knows that the Jesus who can walk on water, who can cast out demons, who can feed more than 5000 people with a mere lunch, who can heal the blind, stop a flow of blood, and raise a girl from the dead, has the power to not die at the hands of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. I believe Peter is saying, “They can’t kill you.” This will never happen to you! Here is the important thing to think about: Peter is right. They cannot do this unless Jesus allowed them to do this. According to John’s gospel account, Jesus has already proclaimed that no one takes his life from him. He will lay it down of his own will (John 10:18). Maybe Peter is remembering that Jesus said this earlier in his ministry.

Another reason to see that what Peter is saying is true is because of Jesus’ response in verse 23. Jesus gives the strongest rebuke that we have ever seen come from his lips. He turns and says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.” When the scriptures speak about being a stumbling block or an offense, it means that you are a cause for sin. How is Peter a cause for temptation to Jesus? The answer is what we just explored. Jesus knows what is going to happen and can choose to not go to Jerusalem. Jesus is being tempted at avoid the cross. Jesus has repeatedly been tempted to avoid the cross. We see this happen in the first recorded temptations of Jesus in Matthew 4. Just bow down to the devil and you can have the kingdoms of the earth. You can have your rule and avoid the cross. You can avoid the suffering, the shame, and the death. He can avoid all this and Peter is telling him that he can avoid all this. The temptation is real.

Jesus puts his finger on Peter’s problem with what he said. Look at the end of verse 23. “You are not thinking about God’s concerns but human concerns.” How does Jesus overcome this stumbling block? How is Jesus not tripped up by the fleshly desire to avoid suffering and death? Jesus gives a very clear answer. He is thinking about the purposes of God. Peter, however, is thinking in a human way about human concerns. Jesus has his mind set on God’s ways and God’s will. Peter does not.

Now think about this for a moment. Don’t you think Peter would have said that he does have his mind set on the things of God? Peter is concerned for Jesus. Peter knows who Jesus is. Peter knows the power of Jesus. Peter knows that no one can take Jesus’ life. Peter is upholding the kingship of Jesus. Peter is well-meaning and believes he is thinking spiritually. But Jesus confronts Peter and exposes that he is not.

The Call (16:24)

Jesus uses this opportunity to teach all of his disciples. Look at what he says in verse 24. “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Please let this statement sink deep into your hearts. This is a countercultural call. This is a counterintuitive call. You have to deny yourself to follow Jesus. We have a real problem with this teaching. How can we be told to deny ourselves? We should be able to do whatever we want! We should be able to think what we want, believe what we want, and do what we want. We should be able to do whatever sounds good to us and feels good to us. We should never be uncomfortable or inconvenienced. In fact, I would argue today that our culture proclaims that the true sin of the world is self-denial. You should not have to deny yourself and no one should ever tell you to deny yourself. This is the truth of the world. You should not deny doing what you feel. You should not deny doing what you think is right. You should not deny anything about who you are or what you want. This is truth today in our culture.

So let the words of Jesus sink in. If you want to be his disciples and if you want to follow him, you have to deny yourself. Please listen to me on this. There are not only certain groups of people who have to deny themselves. Every person has desires that must be denied. Jesus has a desire that is expressed in what Peter said that he is going to deny. He is going to give his life rather than preserve it. So please hear me on this important message: every person has desires that they must deny to follow Jesus.

Friends, this is the message of the cross. Look at the rest of verse 24. We must deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him. The message of the cross and the message of Jesus’ death is not simply that he died to save the world, as glorious as that message is for us. The message of Jesus’ death on the cross includes following Jesus. Just as Jesus denied himself and went to the cross, we are told that we must deny ourselves and go to the cross. The cross becomes the symbol of total denial to self and a willingness to give our lives completely for Jesus. We cannot follow Jesus if we do not deny ourselves. We cannot follow Jesus if we do not say no to ourselves. We cannot follow Jesus if we are unwilling to give up our comforts, feelings, and conveniences for him. So here is the important question. Why should we deny ourselves? Why is this necessary?

The Explanation of the Call (16:25-26)

In verse 25 Jesus proclaims that there is a choice between two worlds and between two lives. You can have this world and this life but you are going to lose the world to come and life in eternity. Or you can have the world to come and life in eternity but that you means you must give up this world and this life. It is one or the other. We try so hard to reconcile both. We try to have we want with all our sinful desires and think that we are still following Jesus. The problem is that the way of the world and the way of Jesus are completely opposite. It would be like standing in Texas and proclaim that you can go to California and go to Florida at the same time. They are not the same direction. They are not the same path. They are opposite of each other. Living for Jesus means not living for this world and living for this world means not living for Jesus. A step one direction means you are going further away from the other.

True life only comes from giving up the desires of this world. The reason is because God’s ways are not our ways. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. The truth of the world is not the same as God’s truth. What we do naturally goes against God’s righteousness and purity. Selfish thinking is against everything about God because God is selfless to us. God’s creation is harmed when we think about ourselves and do what we want to do.

Further, we should want to deny ourselves because of what Jesus says in verse 26. What is the point of gaining everything there is in this world only lose everything for eternity? What does it matter if you enjoy all there is in this life and lose everything that is permanent, meaningful, satisfying, and eternal? Sexual sins are the big fulfillment in our culture today. So let’s use it as our example. So you commit your sexual immorality, whatever it is (pornography, fornication, adultery, homosexuality, or whatever physical desire you want) and receive your minutes of pleasure. Then what? It did not last. The feeling is gone and joy is gone and all you have is a memory. You are trading eternal pleasure, joy, and satisfaction for a few minutes. What good is it to get what you want for a few minutes and lose everything?

Then Jesus asks this another way. What will you give in exchange for your life? What is your life worth to you? Why would you throw your life away on the fleeting pleasures of sin? Sin does not last and does not satisfy. Friends, Jesus is teaching us that the cross is not a license for us to do what we want. When we honor the cross, we are reminding ourselves to deny ourselves and to take up our own crosses if we are going to follow him. The death of Jesus is not merely about remembering that he died for me. The death of Jesus reminds us that we die for him.

The Promise (16:27-28)

But God has a promise for you if you will set your mind on God’s concerns and not your own. If we will deny ourselves and give our lives to him, there is a promise that is given to us. Look at verses 27-28. Jesus will come with his angels in glory and reward each according to what they have done. Verse 28 is the proof of the promise. Jesus denied himself and went to the cross. What happened three days later? Jesus was risen from dead in glory and ascended to the Father where he received glory and honor and power and the kingdom (cf. Daniel 7:13-14; Philippians 2:8-11). In the same way, there is a promise of reward for us.

Jesus is the trailblazer for this truth. Jesus denied himself and that brought about the immediate good of the whole world. Jesus could have the joy and satisfaction of saving the world. But then he was also raised to glory for all eternity. The same is true for us now and for eternity. Jesus is telling us to deny ourselves because he has a better way for us for this life. We gain two great lasting benefits. First, Jesus says he will reward you when he returns. We cannot begin to imagine what the glories of God will be and what the reward God will grant to us when he returns. We cannot imagine heaven. We cannot imagine eternity. We cannot get our minds around it. What I will say to help us get our minds a little around the idea is this. God is the one who created all of these pleasures that we enjoy in this world and they last but for a moment. So what will the pleasures of God be like when we can enjoy them for eternity? If he made what we have to enjoy here, then try to imagine what God has for us to enjoy when we have eternity.

Second, you will never regret following Jesus’ instructions for life. God is not giving you bad rules for this world but if you follow them you will have joy in eternity. God is giving you rules to have a good life now and if you will follow them you will also have joy in eternity. What Jesus is giving to us is a win-win situation. If you deny yourself and follow Jesus’ teachings on family, then you are going to have joy in your family. If you deny yourself and follow Jesus’ teachings on relationships, then you are going to have joy in your relationships. If you deny yourself and follow Jesus’ teachings on sexual purity, then you are going to have joy in who you are with. The denying of ourselves is the best decision we can make but we will find the right joy in this life and the eternal joys in the life to come.

Finally, let us understand the death of Jesus to be life changing for us. He died for us so that we could have life. If we die for him by not following our fleshly, sinful desires we will have true life now and in the life to come. What have you gained if you fulfill every sinful desire in your mind and lose your eternal soul? Setting our minds on the things of God means we will look at life through the lens of God’s purposes and not doing whatever sounds good or feels good for the moment in this life. The cross must stand as the memorial to that decision every day.

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