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The Confession and the Cross of the Kingdom, Part 3: The Essence of the Kingdom

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Sep 20, 1998

Matthew 16:24-28

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If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Matthew chapter 16.  Today we come to the conclusion of our study of this great chapter.  Let me ask you to turn back in the pages of your mind to our study of Matthew 16 verses 13-20 and then 21-23.  If you don’t remember those, or you weren’t with us, you might scan with your eyes those verses in Matthew chapter 16.  You’ll remember that in this passage, Jesus has stressed two very important and central facts to His disciples.  First of all, He has stressed to them the precise identity that He claims.  The Lord Jesus has made it clear in response to Peter’s confession that He is indeed the Messiah, the son of the living God.  That is something which the disciples had been gradually coming to a full realization of.  But here in Matthew 16 verses 13-20, they come to a culminating point in their understanding of what Jesus has been teaching, what Jesus has been teaching about Himself and the significance of the miracles that He has been doing.  It is very clear to the disciples now that Jesus is claiming to be the Messiah in fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophecies and that He is claiming to be a divine Messiah.  He is not only the instrument chosen for the salvation of Israel, but He is very God of very God, He is the Son of the living God.  That is the confession that Peter gives or makes of the Lord Jesus and that is the confession that Jesus accepts, saying to Peter, “Blessed are you Simon Barjonas, because flesh and blood didn’t show this to you, My Father showed it to you.”  So the Lord Jesus makes it clear that Peter’s confession about His person was right.  He was the Messiah, He was indeed the Son of the living God. 

And then He goes, on if you’ll look at verses 21-23, He begins to stress another central platform to His gospel.  And that is that the Messiah must suffer and die.  Now the disciples had a hard time reconciling what they had been gradually understanding, that is, that Jesus is the Messiah, and yet that He was not reigning on a throne in Jerusalem, but He was ministering to outcasts around the shores of the Sea of Galilee where the Gentiles lived.  That was hard enough for the disciples to understand: ‘Lord, why aren’t you in Jerusalem reigning?  That’s where the Messiah ought to be.’  And for Him to go further now and say, in fact, ‘The Messiah must suffer and die at the hands of the religious leaders of the people,’ this was absolutely incomprehensible.  The disciples had great difficulties accepting those two truths. But understand the significance of those truths, friends.  Those two truths are the very foundation of the gospel which those men would be called upon to preach to the world.  ‘Christ and Him crucified,’ Paul said, ‘that’s the center of my gospel.  That’s the focus of my gospel.’  And what has Jesus taught here, in Matthew 16 verses 13-23?  Christ and Him crucified.  You see how vital this passage is for the education of the disciples and for the sake of the church?  Two central truths set forth. 

And then in the passage we’re going to study today, Matthew chapter 16 verses 24-28, Jesus connects His unique sufferings and death, with the life that He expects His disciples to live.  And not only to His disciples does He speak these words, but to you and to me in a very direct way.  As Matthew Henry says, “Christ having shown His disciples that He must suffer, and that He was ready and willing to do so, now begins to show them that they must suffer too and must be ready and willing to do so.” So as we look together at Matthew chapter 16, verses 24-28, let’s look at the duties of disciples of the kingdom of God.  And these are duties not just for those original disciples, but for you and me.  Let us hear God’s inerrant word, beginning in Matthew 16, verse 24: 

Matthew 16:24-28 

 

Our Lord and our God, the truths set forth in this passage are perhaps harder to put into practice than they are to explain or to understand.  By the work of Your Spirit, make us doers and not only hearers of the word of truth.  We ask it in Jesus’ name.  Amen.   

Christ, having taught His disciples who He was and what His mission was explicitly.  Now begins to connect the significance of His unique work, His unique sufferings, and His unique death to the life that He was calling His disciples to live.  These words are designed to set forth the ordinary responsibilities of every disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ.  These words are not merely for the original disciples.  Jesus is setting down here a law, a pattern of life, for every Christian for the living of the Christian life.  And there are four enormous truths here that I’d like you to see today.  These truths color the whole way we look at life.  They color our whole outlook on life.  And I’d like you to consider them with me today. 

I.  Self denial is at the heart of biblical Christianity.
First of all, if you’ll direct your attention to verse 24.  In verse 24 Jesus calls the disciples to self-denial and He explains what He means by self-denial.  Notice those words, Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, He must deny himself and take up His cross and follow Me.”  And in that verse, we learn the first great truth.  Self-denial is at the heart of biblical Christianity.  Now notice what is happening here.  The disciples are having a hard time accepting Jesus’ words to them, “I must go up to Jerusalem and suffer and be killed.”  And yet He still goes on to explain to His disciples what the significance of His suffering and death is for their Christian living.  He is pressing home to them a truth, which is an implication of the fact that they are united to him.  Jesus makes it clear that if you want to be saved, you must be united to Him by the Spirit by faith.  In other words, if you’re a believer, you are united by the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration to Christ, and faith is that bond of union with the Lord Jesus Christ.  You’re united to Him, and because you’re united to Him, His work benefits you.  His death benefits you.  The saving power of His life benefits you.  Because you’re in union with Him, you are saved.  Jesus in this passage wants to explain to the disciples a flip side of that same message. 

The truth is, that what happens to the Master, happens to the disciples.  Now understand that Jesus is very clear in this passage what He is going to do in suffering.  And what He is going to do on the cross is absolutely unique.  There is no way that you and I can go in and add to that work.  It is His alone to do on our behalf.  We do not participate in it with him.  But, He does call us here to our own crosses and to our own self-denial. 

Jesus’ words in verse 24 could be translated like this: If anyone wishes to be counted as an adherent of Mine, he must once and for all say farewell to self, decisively accept pain, shame and persecution for My sake and in My cause and must then follow and keep on following Me as My disciple.  Now I want you to note the three distinct things that you find in this charge from Jesus to you:  We are to deny self; we’re to take up our cross; and we’re to follow Christ. 

Let’s look at each of those things that He says in this charge.  If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.  First of all, He calls us to deny self.  Now what in the world does that mean?  Well, that is a profound subject and there are many mistaken notions about it.  I commend to you Calvin’s Institutes, Book iii, chapters 6 through 10 that give an extended discussion of this.  It’s one of the easiest, most profound discussions of self-denial anywhere, every penned by a human.  But today, let’s just look in passing at what it means to deny yourself.  To deny yourself means to renounce your yearning to possess; to renounce your desire for power; to renounce your desire for the favor of men; to renounce the seeking of human glory for the sake of seeking first the kingdom.  Jesus’ disciples keep waiting for Him to set up an earthly kingdom in which they’re going to reign.  And Peter, when Jesus speaks of suffering and dying, rebukes Him and says “May this never happen Lord.” And the Lord Jesus turns to Peter and He says,  ‘You don’t you understand you’re going to have to deny yourself.  Don’t you understand that there is something greater here than your own self-interest to be concerned about?  It’s the interest of My kingdom.  It’s the interest of the fields which are ripe for harvest which My Father has sent Me to minister in.  It’s the interest of the kingdom of God.’  Nothing measures up to the importance of those interests.  And you must learn to deny yourself, even of legitimate things in some cases, for the sake of the kingdom. 

Next, He says, you must take up your cross.  Notice again, He’s very careful.  Take, He says specifically, up His cross.  He’s not speaking of us taking up the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.  He’s speaking of us bearing up under our own specific trails and temptations.  He doesn’t say,  ‘Take up My cross.’  He says,  “Take up your cross.”  By that, He means this:  We must be ready to bear affliction in this life knowing that God has prepared that affliction and knowing that God uses that affliction as fatherly discipline to conform us to the image of Christ.  And we must not only be prepared to endure that tribulation, to endure those trials, but we must be ready to embrace it, to take it up.  It’s not just that we hold our nose and endure it, it’s that we as His disciples are ready to bear it, to embrace it. 

And then, He says and you must follow Christ.  “Follow Me,” He says.  What does that mean?  It means to look to Jesus.  To imitate Him.  To follow Him in His obedience and in His example.  And that whatever trials may lie in your way, to continue as His disciple.  These are the three things within this charge of Christ which is given to the disciples.  What do we mean by following Christ?  William Hendriksen says this: “One follows Christ by trusting in Him, walking in His footsteps, obeying His commandments out of gratitude for salvation through Him, and being willing even to suffer in His cause.”  This is at the very heart of Christian discipleship.  Understand very, very clearly what Jesus is saying.  Jesus is not saying to His disciples, ‘I will save you because you deny yourselves.’  He is not saying, ‘I love you because you’ve denied yourself.’  He’s saying, ‘Because I’ve set my heart on you, because I’ve saved you by grace, deny yourself.  Follow Me.’  Jesus is not talking about meriting salvation through denying self.  Jesus is talking about expressing the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts by grace in a life of self-denial.  And this charge is for every single one of us.  Not just the disciples. 

Now the applications of this are so manifold that we cannot possibly do justice to them today.  But just think about a few aspects of the Christian life in which these three specific charges, these three specific aspects of this call to self-denial are relevant.  Think for a minute of repentance.  We all like to think of ourselves as relatively decent fellows: “You know, I’m a good guy.  I’m a good person.”  In the South, we even talk about folks being, “Oh, they’re good folk.  They’re salt of the earth.”  But in repentance, we admit that we’re not O.K. in the eyes of God.  We admit that we’re not good folk.  We admit that we deserve to be condemned and yet, by denying ourselves, by denying what we would like to think, and casting ourselves on the mercy of the Lord, what do we find?  We find salvation and all its benefits.  If we continue to insist that we’re good people and that we don’t need the Lord to justify us, we’re lost to hell forever.  But when we admit and repentance that we deserve condemnation and we cast ourselves upon the mercy of the Lord, what do we find?  Our life.  Our eternal life.  Even in repentance, the principle of self-denial works.  What about marriage? It works there as well.  We may be thinking that our spouse is not meeting our needs.  That may be true.  But God calls us as Christian disciples not to think about our rights, our privileges, our needs, but about the rights and privileges and needs of others.  He calls us to die to self and to give ourselves to the seeking of the best interest of others and many who have taken up that challenge to discipleship, in the context of a marriage where they feel unfulfilled, have found that sometimes in God’s goodness, He uses our self giving to draw others back to us in love.  And other times, He gives us the grace to endure a spouse who does not care for our needs even as we care for our spouse.  But self-denial is the principal of discipleship there. 

What about taking up the cross?  What does that mean in the Christian life?  For one thing, it means being prepared to bear every affliction knowing that nothing happens to us by accident in this life.  And that every trial brought into our way is brought into our way by the heavenly Father for the loving sake of making us to be like His Son.  And so, when trials come into our experience, instead of shaking our fist at God and saying, “Why are You doing this to me?”  We recognize that the heavenly Father’s loving purpose is that we may be made just like His Son, that we bear the moral image of His Son.  Even through the difficulties of trial.  Because as Hebrews 5:8 tells us, “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience through that which He suffered.”  And if the father made His Son to be the glorious Son that He was through that process, will He use another way to bring us into conformity to him?  And so one practical application of being ready to take up the cross is when we face trials in this life, to recognize them as God’s plan to craft us into the very image of Christ. 

What does it mean to follow Him?  Well, it means to follow after His desires for one thing.  To care about His agenda.  To be concerned about His causes.  What would a political candidate think if you showed up at his office and said, “You know, I would like to be part of your campaign team this autumn.   I’d like to help in the congressional races and I’d like to be on your campaign staff.”  And you begin a conversation with him and you say “Well, what do you think about my policy on that?”  “Oh I hate it.”  “Well, what about in this other area?  What do you think about my policy there?”   “Oh, that’s horrible.  I totally disagree.”  “Well, what about this?  I mean, this is a central plank in my platform.  What do you think about that?”  “Oh, I think it’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”  Do you think that that political candidate would consider you a follower of His cause?  I think not.  The Lord Jesus Christ is looking for disciples who are ready to acknowledge that His concerns, His cause, His agenda is not only right, but it’s right for their lives and they’re ready to put everything else second to that and follow after Him, because they’re going to be caught up in something much bigger than themselves.  That’s what it means to follow the Lord Jesus Christ.  And we need to be asking ourselves today: Is our Christianity characterized by that kind of self-denial?  Are we Christians because of what Christ can do for us?  Are we looking at Christ as sort of the ‘great cosmic need meter’ for us?  Or, having received the salvation of the Lord Jesus Christ, are we ready to give all for Him?  That’s the first thing that Jesus’ words in this passage press upon us.  Self-denial is at the heart of Christianity.   

II. Those who seek first their own interests never find the satisfaction for which they seek.
In verse 25, you will see the first of three arguments that Jesus is going to give to the disciples as to why they ought to deny themselves.  In verse 25 He gives an argument.  In verse 26 He gives another argument.  And then in verses 27 and 28, He gives a third argument as to why we ought to deny ourselves.  And so in verse 25 let’s look at that first argument: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it.  But whoever loses his life for My sake, will find it.”  Jesus here teaches that those who seek first their own interests, will never find the satisfaction that they’re looking for even in this life.  Those who seek first their own interest will never find the satisfaction that they’re looking for even in this life.  The one who seeks primarily for his own self-preservation and own self-interest in this life will be utterly thwarted.  Understand the backdrop of this.  Jesus has just said, ‘I’m gonna to Jerusalem, suffer and die.’  Peter says, “God forbid!  May that never happen to You! May You protect yourself!  Don’t let that happen!  Make sure that whatever we do, we repel that particular possibility!” And Jesus turns and He says, “Whoever seeks to save his life, will lose it.” Now you see what He’s doing.  In the backdrop of Peter’s objection to Jesus’ suffering and death, Jesus is saying, ‘Peter, I didn’t come to do what was good for Me.  I came to do what was necessary for your salvation.  And what is more, I came to do my Father’s will.  Not My will.  I didn’t come here to do things that would aggrandize Me.  I didn’t come here to be safe.  To be secure.  I came here to minister.  Not to be ministered unto.’  Jesus’ argument to the disciples when He says, “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it,’ is that you must deny yourself because the only way of gaining true life is to lose your life.  That is, if you are turned in upon yourself and looking out only for your own interests, only for your own advancement, only for your own reputation, you will lose real life because it can’t be found in those things.  It can only be found in a loving, living, saving relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. 

And so Jesus is saying to His disciples, you must learn to say with Me “Not My will, but Thy will be done.”  I mean, isn’t this exactly what He’s teaching in the Lord’s Prayer when He tells us to pray,  “You pray this way: Thy kingdom come.”  Now what we want to pray is: my kingdom come Lord.  Lord, I’m waiting for my ship to come in.  My kingdom come.  And Jesus is saying ‘No, you pray Thy kingdom come.” There’s something far more significant for you to pray.  You pray that the Lord’s kingdom will come.  You pray that the Lord’s will be done.  And this is why Matthew Henry can say,  “The first lesson in Christ’s school is self denial.”  The disciples must learn that their own interests sought first will never ever be realized.   

III.  No temporal gain can compare to the loss of the soul.
And then thirdly, we learn in verse 26 the second argument that Jesus gives for the importance of self-denial.  We learn that no temporal gain can make up for the loss of a soul.  Not only does Jesus teach us that self-denial is at the heart of biblical Christianity in this passage.  Not only does He teach that those who seek their own interests first, never find them.  But He teaches that no temporal gain can compare to the loss of your soul.  What does it matter to have ease and comfort and popularity and beauty and prestige and success and power and influence if you don’t have true life?  Ask Solomon.  Ask Solomon.  It’s empty.  Have you ever seen the sad spectacle of a sports figure who has worked his whole life to achieve a particular goal and suddenly he’s won the competition and he’s been declared the best in the world.  And the emptiness of that has hit him.  It’s what he’s been striving for for years and suddenly he attains it, and it’s ephemeral.  It didn’t bring the satisfaction, the lasting, the meaningful, the deep satisfaction that he thought it was.  If you saw the movie Chariots of Fire, you see this contrast between Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell.  These things cannot add up to the value of an eternally lost soul.  Nothing in this life.  Nothing that this life offers can add up to that.  Do the math.  Temporal blessing. Eternal condemnation. 

Jesus’ argument with His disciples is that those who do not deny themselves temporally, deny themselves eternally.  If you will not deny yourself now, you have by that very choice denied yourself for eternity.  Selfishness causes the soul to contract.  But love makes it expand, enriches it, fills it to overflowing with assurance in peace and joy.  That’s why men like Jim Elliott could repeat that ancient quote, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Do we truly value the soul in that way?  Do we truly believe that the rewards that are worth having are the rewards to come?  Or, are we satisfied with the trinkets of this age?  That is the question that Jesus is pressing.  Not just to His original disciples, but to you and me.  How does it make a difference?  Because if you really believe that the rewards that Christ promises are eternal, and if you really believe that those rewards are only experienced in relationship with him and will in some cases have to await the future manifestation of the kingdom, it changes the whole way you approach the things and the blessings of this life. 

IV.  The Son will reign and His judgment will be according to kingdom self-denial.
There’s one last thing I’d like you to see in verse 27 and 28.  Here we see Jesus’ third argument.  He has first said to the disciples, ‘You ought to deny yourself because those who seek their own interests first, never get satisfaction.’  Secondly, ‘Because there is no thing that you can gain in this world that is worth losing your soul eternally.’  And then thirdly, here in verse 27 and 28, He says, ‘You need to understand that I am going to reign.  And I am going to judge according to the obedience of the kingdom principle of self denial.’  He teaches here in verses 27 and 28, the Son will reign.  And He will judge according to kingdom self-denial.  Now friends, very frankly this is a startling statement by the lord Jesus Christ.  And it’s important for you to understand that Jesus is not contradicting salvation by grace through faith alone. 

Jesus is saying though something quite striking.  He’s saying salvation is by grace.  And the judgment of every man will be by obedience.  That’s an amazing thing.  Though salvation is wholly by grace through faith, yet Jesus says, ‘I will judge every man according to his deeds.’  According to his obedience.  Now understand why Jesus is saying that without us getting on a theological tangent for a moment.  Understand exactly why He’s saying that.  He knows that His disciples expect their reward when?  Now.  And He wants them to be ready to delay their expectation for immediate reward.  He wants them to understand that they will be rewarded and when they are rewarded, it will be greater than anything they can imagine now but it will not be now primarily.  Though they will experience the peace of the kingdom which passes understanding in their heart in the trials of this life.  Though they will experience the power of the Holy Spirit indwelling them.  They will not see the final victory and triumph of the kingdom until the Lord Jesus Christ comes with His angels and rewards them for their faithfulness.  The Lord Jesus Christ is saying ‘Look, I want you to value that reward more than you value anything that anyone can give you in this life.’ It’s very interesting. 

I saw a special last night on A & E on the life of Cassius Clay or Muhammed Ali. In the 1960s you’ll remember, he converted to the Nation of Islam.  And they were describing the teacher of the founder of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Mohammed.  And one of the central tenants of his teaching was that there is no heaven, there is no hell.  All the heaven that there is, all the hell that there is, is here and now.  And you either have your heaven here and now, or you have your hell here and now, it’s up to you.  And his argument was, there were some people who are experiencing their heaven now and there are some people who are experiencing hell now.  And the important thing to do in life if to make sure that you experience your heaven now.  That is exactly opposite from the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ.  He is saying, my friends, ‘The reign and the reward which you are longing for is not going to come in this phase of the kingdom.’  For now, we are the church militant. For now, we are the church persecuted.  For now, we are the church suffering.  Then, will be the glory.  Then, will be the reward. 

And He is saying to His disciples, I promise you as you have trusted in Me and as you have walked in the way of self-denying obedience, I will reward you when I come.  I promise you.  So Calvin says, “How do you put together salvation by grace and judgment by works?”  Here’s what he says: “These two things agree excellently.  For we are justified freely because God accepts us irrespective of our merits and yet, according to His good pleasure, He repays our works with a reward which we do not deserve.”  And so, we deny ourselves for Christ in order to enjoy ourselves in Christ. 

Now friends, these messages, these teachings, these truths which Christ is setting forth, are absolutely essential to the Christian life.  And we’ve got a long way to go in our growth of these truths.  But if we were to begin to put these truths into practice in our lives here at First Presbyterian Church, watch out.  Let us pray. 

Our Lord and our God, give us the grace to deny self and to take up the cross and follow the Lord.  And so, to participate in His heavenly reign that has already been inaugurated but which on one day, He will display with power from east to west and north to south when He comes again in the fullness of the glory of His kingdom.  We ask it in Jesus’ name.  Amen

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