Peter's Confession of Christ
18Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, "Who do the crowds say I am?"
19They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life."
20"But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?"
Peter answered, "The Christ[a] of God."
21Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone. 22And he said, "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life."
23Then he said to them all: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. 25What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? 26If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. 27I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God."
For years I thought my wife was rude. I loved her, though, and was willing to just bear with that but I really did think that she could behave quite boorishly in certain situations. Little did I know that she thought the same of me. It took several years but it finally hit me one day as I was reading a book on cross cultural communications. It wasn’t that either of us were rude or even wrong in our behavior, It was that we were operating from different cultural backgrounds. These cultural backgrounds determined how we interacted with one another and how we perceived the actions of each other. The specific issue was that if my wife wanted a favor of me, should would just ask directly and straightforwardly. I didn’t know why that bothered me so much over the years but I just knew that it did. I, on the other hand, would tend to drop a hint and wait for her to pick up on the hint and offer to help me out. We were both acting according to our cultural training. The problem came in that I perceived her actions as being too straightforward and rude and not giving someone an opportunity to willingly do the favor without any obligation being placed on them. At the same time, she thought that I was rude by hinting and not just asking. The problem wasn’t necessarily with either course of action but the difficulty came in when either of us could not correctly understand or interpret the cultural context of the other.
That type of potential problem is just as present as we read the Bible. The word of God is living and active and able to be relevant to us even today, but the fact is that we are separated from the authors of the various books of the Bible by a large cultural gap. Most of us read the Bible according to our Western individualist mindset. We see everything as though it primarily pertains to us as individuals first. This can be demonstrated by a simple task. When you read the word “you” in the Bible, to whom does it refer? Most of us would say “you” refers to our own self as an individual reader. Yet, most of the usages of the word “you” in the Bible are in the plural form and actually refer to “you all,” as in the corporate church family. The fact is that the ancient culture in which the Bible was written tended to think collectively rather than individually. They thought first in groups of people and community rather than in individual terms.
With cultural differences like those described above, simply being aware of those differences is an important step to identifying them and working through those misunderstandings. When we read passages in the Bible, we do well if we remind ourselves that the authors and first readers generally approached things from this group-focused mindset rather than our me-first thought process. When we do that, we can begin to dig in and discover the full depth of what the author intended.
Jesus is about to take part in a pivotal conversation as far as his ministry is his concerned and we see him, as was his custom, to retreat into prayer before the conversation. Jesus truly knew that the source of his ongoing connection with the will of the Father was to commune with him in prayer and that serves as a constant reminder to us that if Jesus thought constantly going in prayer was necessary before he took action, so should we.
Jesus had an important question for his disciples. He wanted to know who people were saying that he was. Were they perceiving him to be the Messiah or not? The answers varied but they all had one thing in common. No one was thinking of him as Israel’s promised Messiah. A great prophet of some kind, surely, but the way he was acting was just too different from their messianic expectations. Israel wanted a great king that would lead Israel out of oppression and defeat her enemies, but they thought that Israel’s chief enemy was Rome rather than her true enemies of sin and death.
In his question and their response, though, Jesus has accomplished two things. He has verified that no one in Israel has perceived his true identity and vocation. At the same time, he has very subtly, but importantly, established that his disciples are a separate group from the masses. Jesus has created a category of the others that think he is nothing more than a prophet.
But the real question right now is who they think he is. Have they seen enough to realize that rather than downgrade Jesus, they must adjust their expectations of the Messiah? To this point in Luke, only the demons have identified Jesus as the Messiah (the Christ). No human being has perceived what God has revealed to the disciples. Peter, answering for the group, declares that Jesus is the Messiah. They have affirmed Jesus’ action in distinguishing them from the rest of the people in Israel. They know that he is the Messiah that God has sent. This doesn’t mean that they now grasp everything that Jesus is doing in inaugurating the kingdom of God or that they even fully grasp all of the implications of his identity but they do understand that he is the Messiah.
Now that the disciples understand that Jesus is the Christ of God, he will be able to begin to teach them the true nature of his vocation and what it means to follow Jesus. The Messiah would not be an exalted and celebrated figure. He would, like the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, suffer and be rejected by the religious leaders of Israel. This was so different from what anyone would have thought would be the fate of the Messiah that they had to come to the conclusion of Jesus being the Messiah on their own. The expectations of the Messiah were so entrenched that for Jesus to simply say that he was the Messiah would have been misleading. This is why Jesus never simply told Jewish people that he was the Messiah. If asked, he always pointed people to his actions. They had to see what he was doing first and then realize that this was what the Messiah would be like. This is why he asked his disciples to keep quiet about his identity as Messiah. If they went and simply declared that Jesus was the Messiah it would lead to mass confusion and many people would follow him for the wrong reasons. People simply had to understand what Jesus was doing in introducing the healing power of the kingdom of God for all people first, then they could come to the conclusion that this is what God’s Messiah would look like after all. They had to follow him because they embraced the values of the kingdom that he was calling people to rather than following him because they thought he was going to do what they expected of the Messiah. They had to be willing to follow God’s Messiah not Israel’s Messiah.
Those who truly understood that he was the Messiah would be ready for his further re-working of the Messiah’s vocation. This is why he immediately began to teach them that to follow him meant that they needed to be ready to go the way of death and suffering just as surely as he would. Verse 23 is one of those passages that we will read in the tone of our Western individualistic cultural mindset if we’re not careful. We tend to read that verse as though Jesus is saying that we must deny ourselves, meaning that we must deny our own desires and wants and follow Jesus’ way. Although that’s true, Jesus’ call here, in it’s cultural context, is far more demanding. The call for denial would have been heard by the people of Jesus’ day in a more collective mindset. To deny oneself meant to deny your identity within your community and family. The Jews believed that their family identity is what made them who they were as a people so Jesus is calling them to be ready to lay that down. They must deny their claim to being the people of God based on their standing as Jews. They must concede that they had no claim to being the people of God on their own at all. Thus, rather than just denying their own personal wants and desires, Jesus was calling his disciples to forfeit their very lives. They must give up everything that gave them security, identity, and status as God’s people.
They must die to all of that and go the way of the cross, which was an instrument of death alone in the first century. If they wanted to hang onto their identity and their own life, then they would find the irony of losing it. If they embraced the concept of dying to themselves, their identity, and their own will, then they would surely find life in Christ.
The Jewish belief was that when the Messiah returned that Israel would be freed from oppression and would be exalted to rule over the entire world. That would certainly happen but not in the way or in the timing that any Jew expected. But what a shame it would be to gain the whole world and think one was going to rule over it with the Messiah, only to find the deeply bitter irony that they had forfeited their soul by trusting in their own life rather than that of Jesus. We shouldn’t think that Jesus was teaching the entirety of the need to die to self and enter into the life of the Messiah, but he was laying the foundation. At the very heart of following Jesus was the need to understand that we have to deny our entire identity and see our need for a completely new way to reconcile with God. We need to embrace the life and way of the Messiah regardless of how embarrassing or counter-culture it might be. To be ashamed of the life of a Messiah who would suffer and be put to death would be to incur his being ashamed of them at the day of final judgment.
Yet, this death that Jesus was speaking of for them was not a literal death. They didn’t need to literally die on a cross in order to be part of the kingdom of God, that was his role. They needed to die to themselves but this would not be a physical death like his would be. Some of them (not all of them, for Judas would not see the kingdom of God come fully) would still be alive when the kingdom of God came at Pentecost. In the same way, we do not have to wait until our physical deaths in order to enter into the kingdom. We can do that right now through the very principles that Jesus described, by denying ourselves and trusting in the life of Christ rather than trusting in our own lives.
Have you truly made the decision and stayed with the decision to completely deny the totality of your life in order to live the life of Christ? Read Galatians 2:20. Does that verse truly describe your heart or do you find yourself living for yourself much more often than you would like?