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Gospel of Matthew 16: 21-28 (NIV)
21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.
28 “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Rather than consider Peter’s interruption, let us focus on Jesus’ solemn words to his trusted friends. Jesus knew in advance by what death he was to die. Each of the Synoptic Gospels* refers to his words, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
I find it intriguing that, in saying “cross”, Jesus was eliminating the two most often-used means of execution available to the Jews (stoning and strangling) and was inferring that the occupying power, Rome, would determine the means of execution. Jesus said that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed …” (verse 21). He foreknew that he would suffer at their hands but he would be killed by Rome.
I recall reading that, under Roman occupation, crucifixion became commonplace in Palestine with as many as 2,000 Jews being crucified in one year (4 BC). Others might have used the term “take up their cross” colloquially but Jesus’ choice of these words appears deliberate. The fate of so many of his followers, by execution if not by crucifixion, bares testimony to this.
We who follow him today must take his words seriously. In many parts of the world, notably North and sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Korea, Christians today are being persecuted to death.
In the West, attitudes have transitioned from requiring tolerance of other-than-Christian belief systems to enforcing state-created belief systems which deny a transcendent god. The situation today is not unlike that which the Old Testament prophet Daniel and his Jewish companions faced in Babylonian Captivity (586-516 BC). Even in Australia overt Christian witness can attract penalties including imprisonment, fines or discharge from employment.
Each of the four Gospels** includes Jesus’ words, “whoever loses their life for me …”. Are we willing to lose our lives for Jesus? Are we willing to lose freedom, possessions or employment? Let us right now decide on our priorities. Let us then be ready and proclaim our faith in him.
* Matthew 16: 24; Mark 8: 34; Luke 9: 23
** “whoever loses their life for me will find (or keep) it” is found in all four Gospels and in two Gospels more than once: Matthew 10: 39, 16: 25; Mark 8: 35; Luke 9:24, 17: 33; John 12: 25.