It was July of 1961 and the 38 members of the Green Bay Packers were gathered together for the first day of training camp. The previous season had ended with a heartbreaking defeat when the Packers squandered their lead late in the 4th quarter and lost the NFL Championship to the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Green Bay players had been thinking about this heartbreaking loss for the entire off-season and now, finally, training camp had arrived and it was time to get back to work. The players were eager to advance their game to the next level and start working on all the details that would help them to win a championship.
But their coach, Vince Lombardi, had a different approach in mind. He walked into training camp holding a football. He held it up to his players and he said, “Gentlemen, this is a football.” Coach Lombardi figured that it was time to have his team go back to the basics.
Lombardi focused on all the fundamentals throughout training camp. Each player reviewed how to block and how to tackle. They opened up the playbook and started from page one. At one point, Max McGee, the Packers’ wide receiver, joked, “Uh, Coach, could you slow down a little? You’re going too fast for us.” Lombardi reportedly cracked a smile, but he continued his obsession with the basics. Six months later, the Green Bay Packers beat the New York Giants 37-0 to win the NFL Championship.
There are times in our lives when we need to go back to the basics. It may need to happen at work, it may need to happen at school. And there are times when it needs to happen even in our relationship with Jesus Christ.
In Matthew chapter 16, Jesus brought his disciples back to the basics. After teaching his disciples for nearly three years, Jesus paused to ask them a very basic question, “Who do you say that I am?” And then he waited for them to respond.
There are times when we may be eager to do some great things or some profound things in our spiritual lives, but it’s possible that we may need to pause for just a moment and go back to the basics. And you can’t get any more basic than Jesus’ question — “Who do you say that I am?”
Before we take a closer look at this conversation between Jesus and his disciples, let’s watch this overview of the second half of the book of Matthew from the Bible Project.
VIDEO (Matthew, part 2)
Our text this morning is Matthew chapter 16. Matthew 16 is a critical turning point in the ministry of Jesus. By this time, he has been preaching for several years. He’s well-known to the people of Israel. His fame has spread far and wide. The common people have embraced him. They’ve seen his miracles and they’ve heard his teaching. And word has spread from village to village, “Have you heard about this man Jesus?” And all along the dusty roads of Galilee, men and women talked about Jesus and wondered who he really was.
The religious leaders, of course, had also heard about Jesus and they didn’t like what they heard. They saw Jesus as a threat to their power and control over the people. Earlier, there had been a bitter confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees. They had accused him of doing miracles by the power of Beelzebub, prince of the demons. In essence, they said, “You have come straight from hell.”
So, when we come to Matthew 16, it’s clear that the religious leaders intend to have Jesus killed. And even though the common people flocked to Jesus, they didn’t really understand who he was. They liked him, but they didn’t worship him. To them, Jesus was a great teacher and a great miracle-worker, but nothing more.
So, Jesus took his disciples and traveled out of the country. He went north out of Israel into Gentile territory, to a place called Caesarea Philippi. Jesus knew that it wouldn’t be long before he would be crucified. It was inevitable at this point. His fate was sealed. And so, Jesus needed to form a new group of people who would carry on after he was gone.
But before Jesus can do that, he needs to know where his followers stand. Are they with him? Do they know who he really is? If you want to think of it in school terms, Matthew 16 is like the disciples’ final exam.
Jesus has never before put them on the spot. He has never before directly asked them this question. But he does in Matthew 16. In fact, Jesus actually asked his disciples two questions. One was the warm-up; the other was the real thing.
The first question is found in verse 13. “Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13). Or, in the words of the New King James Version, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?”
You might say that this was the first Gallup Poll. If Steve Harvey was there, he would have said, “We’ve polled one hundred people and we’re looking for the top three answers to the question, ‘Who do people think that Jesus is?’” So, the disciples gave Jesus the most popular answers. In verse 14, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (Matthew 16:14).
Now, it’s easy to see why the people might have associated Jesus with these great men. John the Baptist preached about the kingdom of God and called sinners to repent. Elijah performed a lot of dramatic miracles. Jeremiah and the prophets of old delivered messages from God to the people. So, you can see why people might have associated Jesus with those men because Jesus also preached about the kingdom of God and called people to repent, he also performed dramatic miracles, and he also delivered messages from God to the people.
The Jews were like a lot of people today. They thought that Jesus was someone good, maybe even someone important. And I think most people in this country would say the same thing, that Jesus was a good man, maybe even a great man, maybe even a man who had a special relationship with God. But they don’t believe that he was the Son of God, come down from heaven.
But Jesus wasn’t satisfied with any of those descriptions, because he wasn’t merely human. He was God in the flesh. So, Jesus gave his disciples the second (and more important) question. In verse 15, “But who do you say that I am?”
Jesus wants to know. They’ve been with him for nearly three years now. They’ve seen his miracles, they’ve heard his teaching. And now Jesus, for the first time, asks them point blank who they think he is. It’s the most important question in all the world, and it’s a question that every person must eventually answer.
We’re not surprised that Peter was the first one to open his mouth. Usually that got him into a lot of trouble, but not this time. And when Peter answers here, I don’t think he’s just speaking for himself; I think he’s speaking for all the apostles. Peter says in verse 16, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
In the original Greek, the word “the” is repeated four times. You could translate it this way: “You are the Christ, the Son of the God, the Living One. Peter was saying to Jesus, “I know who you are. You are the Messiah, you are the one who was sent to save us and you are the Son of God from heaven.” What he said was short and simple, but he said everything that needed to be said.
There are probably a lot of people who read that statement and say, “Well, that’s really no big deal. I would say the same thing.” In fact, I would imagine that every one of you watching this video would be willing to say concerning Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
But Peter was the first person in human history ever to say it out loud. And when he said it, there were very few people who were siding with Jesus and there were many people who were against him. So, Peter deserves a lot of credit.
There’s something else important here. Peter said to Jesus, “You are the Christ.” Not “I think you’re the Christ” or “People say that you’re the Christ” or even, “We got together and took a vote and we decided that you are the Christ.” Rather, it is a declarative statement — “You are the Christ.”
We sometimes forget that the word “Christ” is a title, not a name. We talk a lot about Jesus Christ. Jesus is his name; Christ is his title. Christ is the Greek word for Messiah. It refers to God’s Anointed One.
And with that one word comes the whole weight of ancient Israelite tradition. Throughout the Old Testament, there were three groups of men who were anointed — priests, prophets and kings. All three of these were combined in Jesus. As a prophet, he gives us God’s message. As a priest, he obtains forgiveness for us by the sacrifice he offered. And, as a king, he has all authority and power on earth.
Peter says, “Jesus, we know who you are — you are the Christ, the Messiah sent from God, the long-awaited Anointed One!”
And with that confession, the entire focus of the gospel of Matthew changes. Up to this point, Matthew has been trying to show us who Jesus is. But now that we know who he is, the question changes to, “What does that mean for us?”
As soon as this “great confession” is made, we might expect for Jesus to congratulate the disciples for finally understanding, or maybe throw a party to celebrate. But no, the next thing that happens is that Jesus tells the apostles what it means for him to be the Messiah – it means he is going to die.
“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples 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)
While medical science has progressed a great deal, I’m not sure that it will ever reach the point that I once heard Jeff Walling speculate about. In a sermon several years ago, Jeff wondered what it would be like if we could go to the doctor and get plugged up to a machine with all sorts of sensors. And based on your current health, your heartbeat, your metabolism rate, and so forth, this machine would tell you the exact day and hour that you’re going to die.
Can you imagine what it would be like if you had a diagnostic sheet that gave you the exact day of your death? You could circle that date on the calendar and then start marking off the days. What do you suppose that would be like? As you got down to a week left, four days left, two days left?
I don’t know about you, but I think that would be terrible. And I really don’t believe we could accept it. As human beings, we have this tremendous instinct for self-preservation. Our natural response would be to frantically look for some way to beat the system, some way to prolong our lives, even if just for a little bit.
The story of Jesus Christ is, in many ways, a battle with that instinct of self-preservation. Jesus had to overcome that instinct to try to save himself when he voluntarily went to the cross. As men cried out, “Save yourself, and come down from the cross!” (Mark 15:30), I’m sure that Jesus had to resist the temptation to do just that.
But here in Matthew 16, Jesus shows his disciples that he because he was the Messiah, there were several things that had to happen:
- The Messiah must suffer many things
- The Messiah must be rejected by the Jewish leaders
- The Messiah must be killed
- The Messiah must rise again on the third day.
In his account of this conversation, Mark tells us that Jesus spoke this word “plainly”. There are no parables. No more riddles or cryptic figures of speech. Jesus wants his disciples to understand, so he says it in a way where there won’t be any way to misunderstand. He tells them straight up — this is what is going to happen.
But despite the fact that what he said was very clear, the apostles still didn’t understand. That instinct to preserve the self, to protect the self, is so strong that the disciples are reluctant to grasp what Jesus is saying.
And so, in verse 22,“Peter took [Jesus] aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” (Matthew 16:22)
The Greek word for “rebuke” is a strong word. It’s used of Jesus rebuking the demons. It’s used of Jesus rebuking the winds when he calmed the storm. And so, it indicates a very strong response on the part of Peter. Peter takes Jesus aside, rebukes him, and tries to set him straight!
You see, Peter had these preconceived notions of what it meant to be the Messiah, and when Jesus started talking about a cross, Peter was sure he had it all wrong. It just didn’t make any sense.
And I think it’s also safe to say that Peter’s own instincts for self-preservation got in the way here. Peter hadn’t spent the last three years of his life following Jesus just to end up at a cross.
The problem is, as soon as Peter confessed that Jesus was the Son of God, he began to argue with Jesus and claim that he knew better than Jesus did what that meant. Peter tried to correct Jesus’ vision of the future without stopping to think that he gave up the right to define what it means to be “Christ” the moment he confessed that Jesus was the Son of God.
And so, Jesus rebuked Peter in return. “He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’” (Matthew 16:23)
Satan had been trying since the birth of Jesus to keep him from going to the cross. And now, Satan tried once again using one of Jesus’ own disciples. Jesus condemned Peter for thinking about “the things of men” rather than the “things of God”. In essence, Jesus was saying to Peter, “You’re letting your instincts take control. You’re acting just like a normal man would act. But if you want to be my disciple, you’ve got to overcome that desire to protect yourself.”
Because it wasn’t enough for Jesus that his disciples understood that he was the Messiah. It wasn’t even enough that they grasp what kind of Messiah he intended to be. Jesus wanted them to also understand what kind of disciples this kind of Messiah demands. Because a humiliated, abused and crucified Messiah requires disciples who are willing to be like him.
And so, as soon as Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus begins to explain what discipleship is all about. It’s as if Jesus was saying, “If you admit that I am the Messiah, then there are a few things you need to know about what it means to follow Me.” Because up until this time, the disciples had been following Jesus’ popularity, following Jesus’ power, following Jesus’ miracles and following Jesus’ authority. But now Jesus starts talking about a different kind of following.
In verse 24, “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)
To the people of Jesus’ day, the cross was the instrument of execution reserved for Rome’s worst enemies. It was the electric chair of that day. It was the gallows, the guillotine. When the disciples heard Jesus talk about taking up the cross, they immediately understood that a man who took up his cross began his death march, carrying the very beam on which he would hang.
For a Christian, to take up our cross is for us to be willing to start on a death march. It is to be willing to pay any price for the sake of Christ. It is the willingness to endure shame, embarrassment, reproach, rejection, persecution, and even martyrdom for his sake.
Now obviously the extent of suffering and persecution varies from Christian to Christian, from time to time, and from place to place. Not all the apostles were martyred, but all of them were willing to be martyred. Not every one of us is called on to give up our lives, but every one of us is to be willing to give up our lives.
Because to come to Jesus Christ is not just to walk down the aisle when the invitation song is sung, or to step into the baptistry, although those things play a part. To come to Jesus Christ is to become so intent on following Christ and putting on his righteousness that you will make any sacrifice necessary in order to do that.
Jesus requires what we often sing, “All to Jesus I surrender, all to him I freely give…I surrender all”. In warfare, there are basically two ways you can surrender to the enemy. The first is a conditional surrender, a surrender with terms. The second is an unconditional surrender.
And I think most of us are more comfortable with the idea of a conditional surrender to Jesus. We’re willing to live for Jesus as long as he meets our terms, as long as he allows us to hold back a certain part of our lives for ourselves. But we’re very uncomfortable with the idea of an unconditional surrender to Jesus. And that’s why the rich young ruler was so uneasy, because Jesus lets us know that he demands everything we have.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
So, what does all of this mean for us? Well, as uncomfortable as it might make us, the application for us today is exactly what it was for the disciples back then. Jesus wants to know, “Who do you think I am?” And I would imagine that most of us would say, along with the apostle Peter, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
But Jesus wants us to know the implication of that statement of faith. If you truly believe in Jesus Christ, then you must deny yourself, take up his cross and follow him. If we accept the Messiahship of Jesus, then we must also be willing to accept the discipleship of Jesus.
Jesus demands that we unconditionally surrender our lives to him. He will not allow us to hold anything back. He will not allow us to set the terms of the surrender. We must be willing to surrender all.
We want to be safe, but following Jesus was never intended to be safe. When Jesus called Peter to step out the boat and onto the raging sea in Matthew 14, he wasn’t calling him to do something safe. In fact, there’s something very significant in that passage. Jesus didn’t calm the sea before he asked Peter to step out in faith. He could have. He could have calmed the storm first and then asked Peter to step out. It would have been the safer thing to do. But God has never been about calling us to do the safe thing.
When God called Abraham to leave his family and set out for an unknown destination, he wasn’t calling him to do something that was safe. When God arranged to have Joseph carried away as a slave to a foreign country, he wasn’t calling him to a life that was safe.
When Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were cast into a fiery furnace, it’s very significant what they said to King Nebuchadnezzar. They said, “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it to be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods…” (Daniel 3:17-18).
We read that story and we think to ourselves, “They don’t need to worry, God will take care of them.” But they didn’t know that! They believed that God had the ability to protect but they weren’t sure that he would. Their faith in God didn’t put them in a safe position at all. But somewhere along the line, we got the idea that Christianity is the safe path.
Allow me to close with this quote from Edwin McManus: “Somewhere along the way the movement of Jesus Christ became civilized as Christianity. We created a religion using the name of Jesus Christ and convinced ourselves that God’s optimal desire for our lives was to insulate us in a spiritual bubble where we risk nothing, sacrifice nothing, lose nothing, [and] worry about nothing.”
So, who do you think Jesus really is? Because if you say that he’s the Christ, the Son of the Living God, then you need to prepared to give up everything, just like Jesus did.
“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)