Today’s Scripture is from Matthew 16:21-28.
I recently read the true story about a preacher who was standing at the door shaking hands as the congregation departed. He grabbed one man by the hand and pulled him aside. The preacher said to him, "You need to join the Army of the Lord!" The man replied, "I’m already in the Army of the Lord, Preacher." The preacher questioned, "How come I don’t see you except for Christmas and Easter?" He whispered back, "I’m in the secret service." The Secret Service? …I don’t think so.
I read a story this week about a young man who’d just been called up to go to Iraq, because our nation had declared war on Saddam Hussein. The problem for this young man was – he didn’t want to go. He explained that he hadn’t joined the army to go to war… he’d joined because of the benefits: the pay, the college tuition, the insurance, etc. I have got to tell you….there is something’s wrong with that kind of thinking!! One of the primary functions of the military is to prepare for war. You’ve got to know that if you sign up! I’m sure its somewhere in the job description. Armies do NOT exist to pass out benefits (those are perks). Armies exists to deal with conflicts. To defend their people. To fight the enemy. And hopefully to stand against evil. But there are people who actually join up hoping for a free ride. And that kind of mentality undermines the military of any nation.
That same kind of mentality can also undermine the church. Too often believers sign up for the benefits. They expect Jesus to “be there” for them… but they don’t expect to “be there” for Him.
That’s the issue Jesus is addressing here in Matthew 16. He’s explaining to His disciples that they’re part of His army. He has called them to war, and there’s a decision to be made. Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” Matthew 16:24-25. In other words – it’s not about benefits. It’s about picking up your cross and going into the trenches. It’s about being willing (if necessary) to lose your life for Christ. It’s all about being SERIOUS in our commitment to Jesus.
Jesus has been with His disciples now for at least 2 years. He’s been training them and teaching them, and exposing them to God’s power. And they’ve listened as He’s shared his teachings and His parables. They’ve seen Him heal the deaf, the mute and the lame. They’ve even seen Him raise a little girl from the dead. In addition they’ve observed Him perform powerful miracles. They were out on the sea when Jesus came walking on the water. And again they were on that same sea when He stilled a frightening storm by simply saying “Peace be still.” And they were there when 5000 men, along with their wives and children, were fed with 5 barley loaves and two small fish. And again when He fed 4000 men and their families in a similar way. But now, time is getting short. Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion are only weeks away and Jesus has to make it clear to them just how serious their task is.
So the first thing He does here is: He lays the foundation of their allegiance to Him. In the early part of Matthew 16 He calls them together and asks: “Who do men say that I am?”
And they reply, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets." Then Jesus asks: “But who do you say that I am” Never a loss for words, Peter steps right up and says: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus commends Him for that. But then Jesus explains that He has one final battle to fight and explains to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests & teachers of law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter objects. In Matthew 16:22 Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. "Never, Lord!" he said. "This shall never happen to you!" This isn’t what Peter signed up for. Jesus HAS TO LIVE… He’s not supposed to die!!! He’s the long expected King and Messiah. “Not happening on my watch”, Peter says. Jesus rebukes him. But then Jesus gives the teaching we find here in our text today: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” Matthew 16:24-25
(Jesus is saying) Boys, I’ve called you to war. And in war you face the possibility of death. That’s what the young soldier was worried about. He knew that once he went to the trenches he would face suffering, danger…and he could even die….And He didn’t want to do that! And here Jesus is telling His disciples – and us – THAT IS what we’ve signed up for. We’ve been called to go to war. And we face the possibility of suffering, danger… and maybe even death.
Jesus told us "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:11-12 Jesus said “All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” Matthew 10:22 Paul wrote Timothy and said “…everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” 2 Timothy 3:12 And Peter said to the church of his day: ”Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” I Peter 4:12-13
Paul (one of the greatest Christians who ever lived) once described the things he’d endured: “Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked,I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” (II Corinthians 11:24-28) And eventually, Paul was executed for his faith… as were all the other Apostles, except John.
Why would he do all that? Why put up with that suffering and danger, and death? Paul did all that because he was convinced that Jesus was worth it.
• He was convinced that Jesus WAS the Christ, the Son of the living God Who had come to die for our sins, and rise from the dead to give us hope.
• He was convinced that there was a war to be fought and souls to be won.
• He was convinced that the fate of men and women around him depended on his faithfulness as a soldier of Jesus Christ.
When he was on trial before King Agrippa Paul declared that Jesus had told him: “I am sending you to (the Gentiles) to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” Acts 26:17b-18 Because Paul believed all that, he was convinced that it was worth it to “deny himself and take up his cross and follow (Jesus). To face the dangers and difficulties this world would throw at him.
Now, most of us will never face those kinds of problems. In our country, we’re not likely to be whipped, or stoned, or beaten with rods because of what we believe. More than likely, we’ll be faced with the challenge of realizing that Christianity isn’t a Sunday thing. Our faith calls us to be faithful to Jesus 24 hours a day/ 7 days a week. Not just on Sundays!
A couple of years ago, a woman had the opportunity to talk to her son, who was deployed to Iraq. He had called from there to say hello and she(being a good Christians woman) asked him if he had to work on Sundays. He paused for a moment and then said, “Mom - we have to work every day… it’s called a war.” As Christians we are soldiers of Christ and we are at war with Satan EVERY DAY… not just on Sundays. Now, we are Soldiers, and we have been called to war. Given those facts, it’s possible to misunderstand what God expects of us in this conflict. There are Christians who believe that God calls us to fight like the world does. The world fights by getting angry. Have you ever gotten angry? The world fights by getting even. Have you ever wanted to “get even?” The world fights by doing whatever they have to defeat their enemy (end justifies the means) I have seen Christians use mean and hateful words to get their way. I have seen Christians who’ve spread rumors gossip to discredit people they disagreed with. I have even seen Christians destroy preachers and churches because “they were in the right” and that church/ preacher had done something that was wrong.
Paul writes to us: The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:4-5) Later, in II Timothy “The Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” (II Timothy 2:24-26) We’re not called to deny ourselves and take up our cross so that we can beat up on people. We’re called to deny ourselves because OUR way of doing things is different than God’s. OUR way is often based on getting back at someone because they’ve offended OUR way of doing things - OUR sensibilities. They’ve trampled on OUR rights. You’ll often hear that reflected in how people describe those they’re going after. “How dare they do that!” “They had no RIGHT to do that!” Let me let you in on a little secret. When you or I get angry or vengeful towards someone, it’s a sign that we’ve forgotten to deny OURSELVES, and we’ve become tempted to pick up our cross to beat someone else over the head with it. That’s our way of making war. God’s way of making war is to help us understand: We’re not supposed to be “out to get them”. We’re not supposed to be out to “destroy them” Because they’re not the enemy… they are our objective! Satan is the enemy, and Satan holds these folks captive to do his will.
As Paul said in Ephesians 6:12 “… our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil….” That doesn’t make sense to the people who DON’T belong to Jesus. If you hurt them, they want to hurt you back… but Jesus says “turn the other cheek” If you hurt them, they want to do something mean to you… but Jesus says “bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” Luke 6:28 Our enemy isn’t Al-Quida, or Iran, or the Russians, or the Chinese. It’s not the homosexuals or the atheists. It’s not the worker down at the plant that curses like a banshee. It’s not the person that says mean things about you behind your back. It’s not the guy that pulled out in front of you when you were driving down the street and then made some rude gesture. The enemy is Satan! And if we beat him, we win the battle. And the ONLY way to beat him is for us to take his captives away from him. It’s when we turn the hearts of those around us and bring them to our Jesus to be saved.
This is the challenge for us as soldiers of Christ. It’s such a big job, it can be overwhelming, and sometimes we almost believe that we’re too small to make much of a difference. I mean, after all, it doesn’t seem like anybody else is doing this and we can feel like we’re all alone doing this. But it is in the faithfulness of each of us that God wins this battle. How do you feel about going into the trenches today? Want to join me?