“If anyone wants to become one of my students then let him stop looking after his own self-interests! Let him pick up his cross and follow me. Because whoever wants to save his own life will end up destroying himself in the process, but whoever destroys his life because of me and because of the good news will end up saving it. What does a person gain if he takes over the whole world but loses his soul in the process? What can a person give to buy back his soul?”
One of the problems that I have with this text is that we tend to read it after the crucifixion, when chronologically in the story, the crucifixion had not happened yet.
The scene is that Peter just declared that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus tells him not to tell anyone that. Jesus then immediately begins to teach that he is going to die. Peter gets upset and chastises Jesus for saying that he would die. Jesus then rebukes Peter and says that he is behaving like an enemy and is out of line. And to put the exclamation point on the sentence, he then says the words above.
So what did it mean for Peter to confess Jesus as the Messiah? It may be difficult for us to hear it fresh after two thousand years. The popular expectation of the Messiah was a warrior-king who would defeat the enemies of Israel and restore the line of David to the throne. He ranged in popular thought from being a purely political/military figure to being some sort of supernatural figure — a superhero who could not be defeated.
Peter confesses that he believes Jesus to be this superhero, this Superman, who would defeat the enemies of Israel and establish Himself as the Anointed King of Israel, restoring the line of David forever — that is what Peter is confessing. Yet, moments after this confession, without missing a beat, Jesus tells Peter and anyone who was listening that He — the superhero of Israel who could not be defeated — was going to be defeated. And not only defeated, He was going to be defeated by the very people He was supposed to destroy. The Messiah cannot be destroyed! The Messiah cannot lose! Yet, Jesus the Messiah tells them that He will be killed by the enemies of Israel and rise again in three days.
I guess the rising part was not heard because they stopped listening at the Messiah being killed part.
So, when Jesus says that a follower has to pick up his own cross or else he could not be a follower of Jesus, this would have stung in a very practical manner, not because Jesus was crucified — the people in the story do not know that is going to happen. Even if Jesus tells them He will be crucified when He tells them that He will be killed, they clearly do not believe it, or do not accept it. And it hasn’t happened yet, so there is no visceral emotional impact of having seen Jesus crucified.
There was only one way to end up on a cross — challenge the authority of Rome. A Roman citizen could not be crucified (which is why Paul was beheaded), only a provincial could be crucified (which is why Peter was crucified). Crucifixion was a political punishment for a political crime. Romans did not just crucify anyone. They crucified political threats, dissidents, rebels, insurrectionists. They crucified people who fought against Rome and challenged Rome’s authority to occupy and govern. Crucifixion was Rome’s Public Service Announcement which stated: DON’T MESS WITH US!
So Peter expressed that be believed Jesus to be an invincible political figure and Jesus counters by saying that only those who accept the political punishment are worthy of being his disciples.
Peter declares: “You are invincible!” Jesus responds: “Only those who are vincible are worthy to be my followers.”
The expectation for the Messiah was to be political and violent. By using the political punishment for those who challenged Rome, Jesus is saying: “Unless you are willing to give up your expectations and your lust for violence, you cannot follow me!” “Unless you give up your desire for winning and let yourself lose, you cannot follow me!”
He goes on to say that only through this sort of submission can you win. Only be letting yourself be defeated can you overcome. If you try to do things your way, and try to impose your expectations onto others, you will lose. And even if you can win and impose through force and violence your expectations onto others, even if you can win the entire world, you’ll lose yourself in the process and you will destroy the things you are fighting for. You will destroy the very values you are trying to assert, so that even if you can win, what is left is nothing like what you intended.
When you realize that no one can govern your thoughts or legislate your heart, you will realize that you are free. Even though they may kill the body, they cannot kill you. They cannot destroy what makes you, you. You cannot be defeated. Only you can defeat you by losing who you are through imposing yourself and your expectations onto the world and forcing the world to submit.
Crucify your expectations! Let the life of violence and coercion die. Die to yourself and live for Christ. Lose the world but keep your soul.
It may sound absurd. It may even sound offensive. But it is the only path to victory.
The painting is Take Up Your Cross by Day Williams
For sale at: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/take-up-your-cross-day-williams.html