The end of chapter 16 marks a turning point in Matthew’s Gospel. For 15½ chapters, Matthew has been making a case for Jesus’ Messiahship with lots of Old Testament fulfillments, authoritative teaching (over and above that of the Pharisees), and miraculous displays of divine power. Matthew’s case for Jesus as the Christ culminates with Peter’s confession, answering Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter boldly voices Matthew’s primary burden to this point, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!”
In the beginning of chapter 17, we see this divinity manifested in the mysterious and wonderful Transfiguration. Here we see Moses and Elijah, the giver of God’s Law and God’s prophet par excellence, talking with brightly transfigured Jesus before the voice of the Father booms, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” In a thrilling display of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, “when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.” Everything after this in Matthew’s gospel is pointing to Jerusalem and to the Cross.
Two magnificent and important passages, rightly given priority in preaching rotas. But tucked in between these two scriptural peaks is a cleft that we often miss. In between the first confession that Jesus is the Christ and the transfigured manifestation of that reality is the description of
1) the means by which Jesus will accomplish what he came for as the Christ and
2) the means by which we follow Him as the Christ.
First, Jesus declares that He must go to Jerusalem, be killed, and on the third day be raised. That’s a pretty odd thing for a just-revealed king to say about himself, isn’t it?! It sounds odd to us, and we already know the story! It was so strange and nonsensical to the disciples that the very one who had just confessed that Jesus was the Son of God had the knee-jerk audacity to rebuke him for it.
Do you ever have ideas about how God should accomplish things, or about what Jesus should save you from? Have you ever been put out with God for not fixing what you want fixed? I have! I want Jesus to magically make my kids behave well in public, or resolve an interpersonal conflict (in my favor!), or make gas prices go down, and on and on. The truth is, God, in Christ, does care about the details of our lives. Sometimes these things seem to get miraculous attention, and sometimes they don’t. But the truth is, because Jesus went to Jerusalem, was killed, and on the third day was raised, none of those details define us. If we are in Christ, then we are defined by what He accomplished on the Cross, namely claiming righteousness on our behalf by atoning for our sins and defeating death. His reign and righteousness define us ultimately and eternally. This helps me remember to ‘zoom out’ when I feel defined by daily struggles or victories, frustrations or successes. We thank God that He cares about the details that consume our days’ thoughts, but even more that He has won us eternity on His terms, by going to Jerusalem to be killed and then rise again.
Second, we follow Him by denying ourselves and taking up our cross. Contrary to many commentators, I think this is simply a call to deny our impulse to define ourselves by our daily struggles and successes. Taking up our cross is to define ourselves by His cross. This is a daily task, to be sure! We always revert back to defining ourselves by our own actions, failures, accomplishments, successes, victimhood – anything but what He has done. To follow Him is to deny this impulse to bear ourselves up, and take up the one Cross that matters – His!
Rock of Ages, Cleft for me;
let me hide myself in Thee!
– Augustus Toplady