In a sense, in chapter 16 Matthew is introducing us to Jesus Christ. He has been telling us about Jesus all along, of course, but here he gets to the heart of his introduction. Who is Jesus? Peter had the answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Then, what does Jesus do? Jesus Himself answered that part. “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, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that He must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
How do you introduce a person to Jesus Christ? You say, “This is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He came to earth to suffer and die on the cross for your salvation and rise from the dead.” You may have to say that more than once, of course, and explain it. Jesus had to do so more than once with his disciples. In fact, that is the significance of the words “from that time on.” It is a turning point in the Gospel. Before this, Jesus had alluded to His death indirectly only once (Mt.9.15) and to His resurrection only once (Mt.12.39–40). Now He begins to teach the disciples openly and repeatedly. This teaching is so difficult for them to receive that Jesus comes back to it again and again. Jesus explains that He will be betrayed, arrested, beaten, tried, and crucified in Jerusalem, but He promises that on the third day He will rise again.
Did the disciples understand what Jesus was telling them? In one sense they didn’t understand it at all, because when Jesus was arrested and killed, His death was a shock to them and they scattered immediately, each to his own home, like the Emmaus disciples. Not one of them understood the necessity of His death or anticipated His resurrection. In fact, most of them refused to believe in the resurrection even after they had heard about it. On the other hand, the disciples understood Jesus’ words all too well. Otherwise, why would Peter have tried to dissuade Jesus from this “mistaken” way of thinking? “Never, Lord!” Peter said. “This shall never happen to you.”
The problem was not their understanding of the words. The problem was that suffering did not fit into their ideas of what the Messiah should do. Like everyone else in their day, they thought the Messiah would be a strong political figure who would drive out the Romans and once again establish Israel as a free and independent nation.
None of this is surprising. The disciples were merely people of their time. What is surprising is Peter’s arrogance in taking Jesus aside to rebuke Him. It is an arrogance made even more shocking by his earlier confession of Jesus as the Messiah. If that meant anything, it meant that Jesus was Peter’s Lord. But immediately after saying that Jesus was his Lord, Peter speaks as if he knows more about God’s will for the Messiah than the Messiah does.
Something else is equally surprising—the sharpness of Jesus’ rebuke of Peter. A moment before, Jesus had called him blessed: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.” But now Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” One moment Peter is God’s mouthpiece. The next moment he is a mouthpiece for the devil.
Jesus recognized that this situation was exactly like the temptation Satan had made in the wilderness at the start of His ministry. It was a temptation to achieve worldly success without the cross. “All this [the kingdoms of the world and their splendor] I will give you, if you will bow down and worship me,” Satan said. Jesus’ response was the same then as when He rebuked Peter: “Away from me, Satan!” He told Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!”
Without the cross there is no salvation because there is no Savior. Christianity without the cross is worthless. Christ’s example helps no one, both because we cannot follow it and also because it is not an example we need but a Savior.
English bishop John Ryle wrote: “On matters of church government, and the form of worship, men may differ from us, and yet reach heaven in safety. On the matter of Christ’s atoning death, as the way of peace, truth is only one. If we are wrong here, we are ruined forever. Error on many points is only a skin disease; error about Christ’s death is a disease of the heart. Here let us take our stand… The sum of all our hopes must be, that “Christ has died for us.” Give up that doctrine, and we have no solid hope at all.”
It is easy for us to be exactly right one minute and terribly wrong the next. One-minute Peter is a prophet, a true spokesman for God. The next minute he is advancing the agenda of the devil, not realizing that in trying to deflect Jesus from the cross he is actually asking for his own damnation since apart from Jesus’ death neither he, nor any of us, can be saved.
If we are going to be right in spiritual things, it will only be to the extent we study the Bible and grow in understanding. Whatever we may not fully understand, these two things at least will be clear: (1) Jesus died to save us from our sin, and (2) there is no salvation apart from him. We must go on from there, but without that starting point we are nowhere.
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org