THERE IS NO SALVATION WITHOUT A CROSS.
In the name + of Jesus.
The gospel reading begins with the phrase, “From that time on....” (Matthew 16:21) It begs the question: What just happened? What was the event that sparked Jesus repeated instruction 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)? It was this, that the disciples confessed and acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
There was a great misunderstanding among the Jews about what the Christ would do when he came. All the Jews were awaiting the Lord's Messiah, but they also had various ideas about the mission of the Messiah. One common expectation was that the Messiah would restore the throne of David, the glory of Israel, and times of prosperity to the people of God. In practical terms, that could mean expelling the Romans, an abundance of wealth, great honor and prestige, and continual dominance over surrounding nations. In short, they wanted a worldly Messiah who would bring in a worldly kingdom of worldly success.
The disciples had confessed that Jesus was the Christ. So, “from that time on,” Jesus continued to teach his disciples what that meant. It meant that Jesus must go to Jerusalem, suffer many things, be killed, and on the third day be raised from the dead. The reason this must happen is that there is no salvation without a cross.
One reason the Christ must suffer this way is because that is what the prophets foretold. If God had promised it, the Christ must fulfill it. So Jesus must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert (John 3:14-15). Jesus must be pierced in his hands and feet (Psalm 22:16). As he hung from the cross, the Christ must have his bones disjointed (Psalm 22:14) but not broken (John 19:36). He must die according to God's will (Isaiah 53:10). And more prophecies foretold what must happen. If God had promised it, the Christ must fulfill it. The cross was not an option; it was a pre-determined destination. There is no salvation with out the cross.
But the Christ does more than merely fulfill prophecies. The prophecies were given for a purpose—to proclaim the Lord's salvation for sinners. Therefore, the Christ must do what he was sent to do in order to win salvation for you; and there is no salvation without the cross. The Christ, the Son of God, must come to take upon himself the sins of mankind. The Christ must submit himself to the righteous judgment of God and die as one accursed. The Christ must lay down his life as a guilt offering on behalf of the guilty. The Christ must endure this condemnation publicly so that all the world could know what God has done to remove the curse of sin and to graciously pardon our offenses. After the payment for sins has been made, the Christ must be raised up from the dead to prove that the payment is complete, that sins are forgiven, that the grave is powerless against mankind, and that Jesus has been entrusted with all judgment. Since he has taken away your sins and emptied the grave of its sting, he has already assured you of a judgment of innocence and eternal life. All of this is only fulfilled through his death on the cross. There is no other way of salvation, and that is why Jesus taught his disciples that this is what it means that he is the Christ. This must happen, for there is no salvation without the cross.
Jesus' instructions, however, continued. He said that the cross was necessary for him, but he adds this: The cross is necessary for you, too. “Jesus told his disciples, 'If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.'” (Matthew 16:24-25) There is no salvation without the cross.
This is, perhaps, where you start to appreciate Peter's rebuke of Jesus. Jesus had just taught his disciples that he must suffer many things and be killed. Peter was appalled. “Suffer shame, rejection, and a bitter death? No, Lord! God have mercy on you and spare you this. And what about us, your disciples? What do we get? What is in this for us?” Such opinions are held today as well. What benefits does Christianity deliver to you? What blessings does Jesus bestow? Our longings are often as misguided as the people in Jesus' day. Many want Christianity without a cross.
Perhaps this is illustrated best by athletes who succeed or win championships. They give glory to God, which sounds noble. But underlying these claims is the belief that God rewards those who follow him with worldly success. God gives strength to hit a home run. God gives trophies and medals to those who honor him. God will bless you if you share the Facebook post. But what blessings are we expecting? Like the Jews of Jesus' day, we want a worldly Messiah who will bring worldly success.
There is no salvation without the cross. Jesus did not take a path of glory, fame, success, and wealth to the cross. Why should his disciples expect a different path? Jesus called Peter's thoughts about this Satanic, and indeed, they are. These are the dreams and schemes of men—to seek worldly blessings from a worldly Messiah and to bask in a worldly kingdom. But the world and all its riches will pass away. If you devote yourself to them, you will perish with them. “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)
There is no salvation without the cross. That is why Jesus teaches us: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) We never overcome our desire for personal glory. We accumulate wealth not to benefit others, but ourselves. We tell stories to enhance our own honor. You can discover your true nature when you consider the kinds of things you daydream about. How often are your daydreams about helping other people? How often are your daydreams about the kingdom of God? Are they not about your own pleasures, your own pride, and your own kingdom? This is why Jesus tells you to deny yourself. Jesus delivered you from your selfishness so that you would not be condemned for it, but not so that you could continue in it.
There is no salvation without the cross. “If anyone would come after me, let him … take up his cross.” (Matthew 16:24) Sometimes the cross is what the Lord lays on you. In his wisdom and in his mercy, he has you endure pain and loss. It surely does not seem like mercy, and your own wisdom strongly disagrees with the Lord's. But the Lord is not looking for you to be happy in the next few minutes. The Lord seeks your eternal salvation. Therefore, he may take away from you good gifts. The losses that truly grieve us are the loss of good things. And yet, the Lord chooses to take them away from us to teach us to not put our trust in them. We can give thanks for them, but we cannot rely on them. Sometimes this is the cross that we must bear—to put to death our reliance on gifts that can be lost.
There is no salvation without the cross. Each one of us has a cross that is unique. You take up your cross to put to death the sinful inclinations that you struggle with. Every one of us is plagued by a different set of temptations. Things that appeal to you may have no appeal for me, and vice versa. If you than shrug your shoulders and say, “Oh, well, this is just who I am. God will forgive me anyway, so I will not fight against sin and temptation”, This means you have no interest in denying yourself or in casting away your sins. But God has not saved you so you can still dabble in the sins you find attractive. These are the thoughts of men which lead to death. But you have been transformed by the thoughts of God who calls you to flee from your sins. He teaches you that defiance of his word is never good or harmless. He calls you to put those desires to death. This may be especially hard for you. Daily, you may find yourself in a battle to resist temptation. Just as Jesus did when he was facing his cross, you will have to call on God to strengthen you as you bear your cross. And God is merciful. He does not leave you to face sin and temptation alone. He summons you to pray, and then he gives you a promise: “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” (Psalm 50:15) And if you still fall, he extends another promise: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
There is no salvation without the cross. The cross was designed for killing things, and the sinful nature cannot be tamed; it must be killed. Our sinful desires must be put to death in us so that they will not claim us and control us. And that is why you pick up your cross. You have been set free from your sins; do not welcome them back. You have been saved from sin's curse; do not return to it. Rather, follow Jesus. We devote ourselves to his word for comfort, guidance, and hope. We consume his body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith. We follow not just his words, but also his ways; and his way is the way of a cross. Then, after the cross, everlasting glory. These are the things of God. And there alone do we find salvation.
In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.