This text contains one of the hard sayings of Jesus that is commonly misinterpreted. If we are to understand it properly, it must be interpreted within its literary and historical context. Sometimes we tend to read too much abstract theology into a text like this without first taking seriously the historical, political, social, and cultural matrix of the people to whom the words were originally spoken and to whom the document was originally written.
18-20: Peter confesses Jesus as Christ. This is a profound thing; for the first time in Luke’s Gospel, a person has referred to Jesus as Christ. But what does the word Christ mean? Well, it’s Jesus’ last name right? No, it means “anointed” or “anointed one.” But what does Peter mean when he identifies Jesus as the “Christ of God?”
Well, we might be tempted to think that Peter has recognized that Jesus is God, but there really is no indication that Peter used the term in this unique theological sense. In fact, from a historical perspective, Peter simply could not be using the term in this sense because it didn’t come to have that nuanced meaning until much later. In other words, Peter is not here declaring the deity of Jesus because “Christ of God” is not primarily a theological term, but a political title.
“The Christ of God” is a Greek translation of the Hebrew term “the LORD’s anointed” which appears 13 times in the OT and always refers to the king of Israel, the king of God’s people. In fact, the title is first used to refer to Saul, Israel’s first king. So when Peter calls Jesus “the Christ of God,” what is he saying? He is not saying that Jesus is God (of course Jesus is God, but Peter doesn’t know that yet); he is proclaiming that Jesus is King.
21-22: “Son of man” is the term that Jesus most frequently used to refer to Himself but what is the significance of this phrase? The term comes from the prophetic vision recorded in the apocalyptic book of Daniel,
“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:13-14 ESV).
Consequently, like Christ of God, Son of Man is a kingly title referring to the one who receives dominion from the Ancient of Days.
23: The three imperatives of discipleship: deny yourself, take up your cross, follow me.
- Deny yourself: this is much more radical than simply denying certain appetites or impulses. It’s the rejection of a life based on self-interest and self-fulfillment. It’s denying control of your life; even denying the impulse for self-preservation, a fact which becomes more clear in the second imperative.
- Take up your cross: The problem with the way this text is usually interpreted is that it is done so in an anachronistic and hyper-spiritualized way. We put the cart before the horse when we leap forward to chapter 23, take all of the theological significance of the cross of Christ, everything from Calvary to Easter, and then freight it back into this text in chapter 9. We read all of that theology (vicarious atonement, forensic justification, propitiation, etc.) back into Jesus’ instructions to take up our cross and we thus spiritualize it, inventing Christian clichés to go along with it like, “Everyone has his own cross to bear,” which is usually said in relationship to some manner of individual temptation or addiction.The issue is, there is no way the people to whom these words were spoken could have understood it as a spiritual metaphor because Jesus had not yet been crucified, had not yet been resurrected, and there was no theology of the cross. The cross quite simply, was an instrument of capital punishment and was the standard penalty for insurrection and subversion.See, Jesus’ lifestyle put him on a collisioncourse with the various power structures of the world: the political power structures, the military power structures, and especially the power structures of the religious establishment. And here’s the thing, Jesus knew that because of His lifestyle, because of the things He did and said, He was subversive to these various entities of power. And because He was subversive to them, they would kill Him for it.When one takes up the cross, death is a foregone conclusion. The via dolorosa has only one possible destination. To take the first step on that road is to resign oneself to the fact that death, in one form or another, is not only imminent, but inevitable.
- Follow me: Another statement that gets over spiritualized. In His Steps: WWJD. One of the most popular books in history, not to mention the fact that it spawned an entire bracelet industry. But I wonder, is following Jesus simply to ask, “WWJD?” Because it occurs to me that one of the most consistent themes in the Gospels is that Jesus routinely does what nobody expects Him to do. The most common reaction to Jesus is amazement. His disciples, the crowds, the Pharisees, the priests, Herod, Pilate – all were all amazed(θαυμάζω ) at the things Jesus did, said, or didn’t say.So perhaps we shouldn’t pretend that we actually know what Jesus would do. Because in the most common application of that question, the hypothetical answer to WWJD usually ends up being something like, “well, Jesus would have been nice.” The funny thing is, the Jesus I find in the Bible wasn’t really all that nice (cf. Mt 23:13-15, 25, 27, 33), and to “be nice” is not at all what Jesus meant when He said follow me.The most plain understanding of what Jesus is saying to this crowd of people is this, “Because of the way I live my life, because of the things I do and say, I am a threat to those who hold power; they are going to kill me, and I am going to allow it to happen. If you want to follow me, this is where the road leads.”So, Jesus tells His disciples that the road He is on leads to death. Not just spiritual death, but physical martyrdom. So it seems clear that if we are going to follow Jesus, we have to be willing to follow Him all the way to martyrdom. Now just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that everyone who follows Jesus is going to be killed. What I am saying, because this is what the text clearly says, is that everyone who follows Jesus has to be willing to be killed,both spiritually and physically, for the sake of the kingdom.Perhaps, if we want to find the answer to WWJD, in addition to reading In His Steps we should read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs or its contemporary equivalent, Jesus Freaks.
24-25: While the rest of the world is concerned with taking up arms, Jesus calls His followers to take up a cross. While the world holds forth the illusion of life, Jesus bids His disciples, “Come and die.”
This is one of the great paradoxes of Scripture. To gain life by losing life? How does that work? Here again I think we tend to focus too much on a purely spiritual application of this paradox, that goes something like this: “If I live a self-centered life, focused on the present world I will not find eternal life with God; but if I give up a self-centered life of rebellion against God for the sake of Christ and the gospel, I will find everlasting communion with God and peace in the present.” Now as true as this is, there is also a physical component to this paradox that we frequently overlook. I think the reason we overlook the physical reality of this imperative is that we don’t have a proper understanding of the centrality of resurrection. It’s not just something to talk about when studying Revelation or 1Corinthians 15; it’s the underlying assumption of the entire NT.
The temptation to gain the world while losing oneself is ever-present isn’t it? And no one knew this better than Jesus, for this was the second temptation He faced in the desert when Satan offered Him all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would bow down and worship him. Now if you really think about it, this temptation was not just an offer of power and kingship, Jesus already had power and was already a King. Essentially, the temptation is quite simply to avoid the cross, to short-circuit the path to power the Father had established for the Messiah, and this could only be done by collusion with the enemy.
Down through history, from Constantine to the present day, the church has faced this temptation over and over again. If the church will simply collude with the secular powers, she can avoid persecution; she can rise in power, wealth, and influence. Collusion with the state: this is what happened when the bishops allowed the Roman emperor, Constantine, to appoint himself head of the church in the fourth century; it’s what happens today when the various factions of the American church align themselves with the various secular political parties and in effect become a political tool for the state.
On an individual or personal level, since we live in a culture that is saturated with materialism, consumerism, and power, the temptation to gain the world at the cost of oneself is constant. May we never lose sight of the fact that the acquisition of these things comes at a tragic cost, and only in collusion with the enemy of our souls.
But let us for a moment consider the opposite course to collusion. The temptation to seclusion is as powerful as the temptation to collusion.
In Jesus’ day, there was a Jewish sect called the Essenes who went out into the desert to form a pure and holy community that would be unstained by the world. One such community was at a place called Qumran, which is the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. The Essenes didn’t want to defile themselves by coming into contact with people and things that were unclean so they retreated to desert isolation and seclusion to await the Messiah. The funny thing is, the Messiah came, but they didn’t know it because they were cloistered away in seclusion.
There are many examples of this in the contemporary church. One might point to our Amish brothers and sisters as an obvious example. But might I suggest that seclusion is much more prevalent in less obvious ways in the church today. In some areas of the church, a misconstrued preoccupation with personal holiness has not only descended into legalism, but has actually evolved into in a form of seclusion where believers are not supposed to associate with unbelievers. This crowd is fond of quoting the verse, “Come out from among them and touch no unclean thing.” Perhaps when we are tempted with this kind of seclusion we should remind ourselves that Jesus most frequently rubbed elbows with people who had been marginalized by “holiness.”
Following Jesus doesn’t mean to be isolated from the world, sitting in nice church buildings with our nice Christian friends, and entertaining ourselves until Jesus returns. In fact, if seclusion is our approach to following Jesus, when Jesus does return we might just miss it, like the Essenes did the first time around.
So what does it mean to take up our crosses and follow Jesus? It means that when faced with the temptation to seclusion and the temptation to collusion, like Jesus, we will choose the third way: collision. Because if we live our lives like Jesus did, we will inevitably find ourselves colliding with the various political and religious power structures of the world, and to collide with those power structures is a dangerous thing, which is exactly why Jesus tells us to take up our crosses.
But wait, we don’t really face persecution like that in the US. May I suggest a radical idea? The reason we don’t face persecution from the power structures of the world is this: we aren’t following the real Jesus. We are like the church in Laodicea from Revelation 3. We are following a Jesus of our own invention; maybe a Jesus who is wrapped in an American flag, or a Jesus who has a machine gun in His hand, or a Jesus who is a soft, cuddly, emasculated, friendly fellow who is too nice to expect anything hard from us.
The real Jesus draws a line in the sand and we all stand on one side or the other: we either love Him to the point that we are willing to die for Him, or we hate Him to the point that we want to kill Him. If we find ourselves ambivalent about Jesus, it’s only because we have not yet encountered the genuine article, the real Jesus recorded in the pages of the Gospels. Make no mistake about it, when we encounter the real Jesus, there is no middle ground, we will either love Him and be willing to die for Him, or we will hate Him and want Him dead.
Following Jesus is costly; it costs everything, absolutely everything. But it’s only in being willing to lose our lives, both spiritually and physically, that we save them. Collusion, seclusion, or collision; the choice is yours but only one path really follows in His steps.