One of the great things about being a pastor is that I get to regularly talk to people about the Bible and how it works. On Tuesday’s I publish old sermons that have been slightly reworked to become longer form blog posts. This is one of those sermons.
There’s this old maritime legend of an American aircraft carrier.
One foggy night the ship was off the coast of Newfoundland cruising along at a pretty good speed. Suddenly it saw a blip on its radar. The blip was a way off, but it was right in the path of the shop. The navy ship got on their radio and said, “This is the USS Lincoln to the unidentified vessel. Please be advised we are currently on a collision course. Please divert your course 15 degrees north to avoid a collision.”
Pretty soon the blip responded. They’re Canadian, obviously, and they say, “Oh, no can do b’y (cause they’re Newfies). We recommend you divert your course 15 degrees south if you want to avoid that there collision.”
The captain of the American aircraft carrier was astounded. He got back on the radio and said, “This is the captain of a US navy ship. Divert your course, sir!” And once again the Canadians came back with, “No b’y, divert your course.”
The captain tried one last time. He says, “This is the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln, the second largest ship in the US Atlantic fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, four cruisers and numerous support vessels. I demand that YOU change your course 15 degrees north, that’s one five degrees north, or countermeasures will be undertaken to ensure the safety of this ship.”
The Canadians replied, “Well we’re a lighthouse, so it’s your call.”
The story probably isn’t true, but it’s still fun to tell. The truth is that all of us tend to get into situations where we think we know exactly what’s going on. We think we have all the information and we know how things should play out. And what tends to happen much more often than we would probably like to admit is that we have some combination of ignorance and arrogance that keep us from seeing the whole picture.
Today, we’re continuing our series Scandal: The Offensive Gospel of Jesus. This is our fourth week in this series. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been talking a lot about expectations. We’ve been talking about how Jesus came and fulfilled the Hebrew scriptures but he did it in ways radically different than what they were expecting.
Last week we talked about how Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. We talked about how the religious people of the time were expecting God to reward them for their piety and shun sinners, but how Jesus came welcoming sinners into the kingdom of God and criticizing the piety of the religious folks.
This week we’re going to continue talking about the scandalous nature of Jesus’ gospel by looking at the first time Jesus predicts his death in Matthew 16:21-28.
21From 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, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
22Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
23Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
24Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.
28“Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
This passage is significant because it’s the first time Jesus predicts his death. This passage acts as a turning point in Matthews narrative. Up until this point, Jesus has been teaching and healing, doing miracles and challenging the way people think about the Kingdom of heaven.
On a few occasions, he’s even hinted at the idea that he’s the Messiah, the long-awaited anointed one who is to come. But he hasn’t specifically said it, nor has he revealed what exactly that means for him in regards to his crucifixion. In the passage right before this, verse 13 through 20, which ties in with this section, we see the first declaration that Jesus is the Messiah.
Jesus has taken his disciples up to Caesarea Philippi, which is the most northern part of Israel. It’s about a two-day walk from Galilee. Remember, last week we talked about how Herod the Great controlled all of Palestine, but when he died his kingdom was divided among his three sons. Antipas was in charge of Galilee and Perea while Philip was given the area north and east of Galilee, what is modern-day Syria and the Golan Heights.
So Jesus and his disciples are up in Caesarea Philippi—which is named after Phillip—and by this point in history, though it was originally an Israelite settlement, this area is mostly settled by gentiles. In fact, the original Greek name of Caesarea Philippi was Panyas, named after the Greek god Pan.
There’s also a river that flows out of an underground spring in this area. In ancient Greek mythology, they believed this was an access point or a gate to the underworld Hades and the underground spring came from the river Styx which was kind of like a boundary of Hades. Because this area was viewed as the gates of Hades, the area became known for all kinds of pagan worship and festivals. Shrines to all sorts of false gods existed here.
All that to say, this is not the kind of place where good, observant Jews would usually come. In fact, it’s probably a little bit risqué that they’re here. And it’s in this place that Peter speaks up as representative of the disciples and say, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Now, it’s important to know that when Peter says “Son of the living God” he doesn’t mean “Second member of the Trinity.” The idea or the realization that Jesus was divine didn’t happen until after his resurrection. When Peter says “Son of the living God” it’s viewed more like an adoption; that he is God’s chosen representative, which is exactly what it meant to be the messiah.
Messiah, or Mashiach in Hebrew, simply means anointed one. It’s God’s representative; the one who has been set apart for God’s purpose.
Peter confesses this and now in our text, starting in verse 21 it tells us “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, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
This is the first time we see Jesus start talking openly about how he’s going to die and it comes on the heels of Peter and the rest of the disciples acknowledging that he’s the Messiah, the anointed one, the Son of the living God. And that’s important because how Jesus understands his mission and role as the Messiah is drastically different than how Peter and the disciples understand the role of the Messiah. It’s important that they first understand that, yes he is the Messiah before he can start to explain his purpose.
Essentially, they needed to understand who Jesus is before he could discuss what he was doing. And now that they’ve acknowledged who he is he can start to explain what must happen. So he says, I’m heading to Jerusalem where I’ll suffer at the hands of the religious leaders, then I’m going to die but come back to life on the third day. And Peter responds in verse 22 by taking him aside and rebuking him say, “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!”
I think it would be easy for us to look down on Peter and think “Why doesn’t he get it. Obviously, Jesus has to die on a cross.” But Peter is working from a classically first-century worldview. Jesus is not the first potential messiah to have shown up on the scene.
When Herod the Great died in 4 BC there were multiple uprisings. Simon of Perea, a former slave of Herod’s led a revolt burning multiple royal buildings before the Romans came in and destroyed his army. Simon fled but was eventually captured and decapitated. Then there was Judas ben Hezekiah who also led a revolt after Herod’s death. He gathered together some men from Galilee of less than reputable character and assaulted the palace. They stole gold and weapons to arm themselves. But Publius, the Roman governor of Syria came in and wiped them out. And probably most famous of all was Judah Maccabee or Judah the Hammer, who we briefly mentioned last week. Judah led a revolt back in 167 BC and was moderately successful at defeating the Seleucids and Romans. But after 7 years he was finally defeated and killed in battle.
There certainly wasn’t a consensus, but all of this men had people who at one time or another looked at them as the Messiah; as God’s anointed one. And every single one of them met the same fate: Death. Execution by the reigning power for trying to subvert the system.
According to a first-century Jewish worldview, death specifically meant that you were not the Messiah; that you had failed in your mission to bring about God’s kingdom in Israel. No wonder Peter rebukes Jesus. False messiahs die. False messiahs get executed. But Jesus is the real messiah. He really is God’s anointed one. He’s actually going to lead us and reestablish the kingdom of Israel. What’s this talk about death? That’s what happens to those who fail.
N.T. Wright puts it this way in his book Simply Jesus,
“[Jesus] attempts to explain to the disciples what his particular messianic vocation involves are met with horror and incomprehension. The disciples, we may assume, were still working on the assumption of a more or less standard messianic model, the model that had allowed the family of Judah the Hammer to become kings following the military triumph and the cleansing of the Temple, the model that would animate Simon bar Giora in the 60s and Simon the Star in the 130s. They were expecting Jesus to march on Jerusalem and, by whatever means necessary, to overthrow the wicked Jewish leadership and the hated Romans. All the signs are that they thought he was going to be a king in the normal, obvious sense and that they would form his immediate circle.”
Jesus, as the Messiah, is supposed to be a great military leader. That’s how these things work. In fact, to Peter, it probably made sense that Jesus took them up to Caesarea Philippi to announce that he’s the messiah. It’s far from the Pharisees and Sadducees who might want to stop him. It’s the furthest away from Jerusalem that they could reasonably expect to find some Jewish people. Which means if Jesus is going to gather a following and march on Jerusalem, this would probably make sense as a place to start from.
And so Peter rebukes Jesus. Now a rebuke is not a kind or casual correction. This isn’t Peter saying, “Oh come on Jesus, don’t talk that way. It will all work out, you’ll see.” This is Peter using that voice you use with your kids when you’ve already told them a couple times not to do something and they still continue. Peter goes, “Hey, Jesus! Cut it out! Stop talking like that!” And Jesus immediately replies with, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Now, to clarify Jesus isn’t calling Peter the Devil. The original meaning of the word Satan or ha-satan was “accuser” or “adversary”. Jesus is saying that Peter’s desires are adversarial or contrary to God’s desires. He says that Peter is only thinking of things from a human perspective and not God’s perspective. Peter hears the word Messiah, and it’s loaded with all kinds of meaning to him. And so when he confesses that Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus confirms it, he just went ahead and continued to think of the Messiah in the ways he had always thought of the Messiah.
And honestly, we do this as well. Since none of us, Peter included, live in a vacuum we all have outside influences that inform our understand without us even knowing it. For example, when someone says the word “heaven” you probably have an image or an idea that immediately comes to mind. Maybe your picture of heaven includes pearly gates, clouds and angels playing harps. Whatever your image of heaven looks like, when you read Scripture, whenever it says the word heaven, somewhere in your mind you’re going to think “Oh yeah, I know what that’s talking about.” And you’re going to input your current understanding.
The same thing happens when you talk about God, Jesus, hell, the Rapture, the Tribulation, Creation, and on and on it goes. We have these subconscious assumptions that tend to be formed half from Scripture and half from the culture around us, even Christian sub-culture. Part of the trick of studying Scripture and the reason to study the socio-political context that Scripture emerged from is trying to figure out as many of our unconscious or subconscious biases as possible and trying to eliminate them.
And that’s where Peter is at. Peter acknowledges that Jesus is the Messiah, but for him, it’s a term loaded with meaning. When Jesus rebukes Peter for rebuking him, he says “You don’t have God’s concerns in mind, only human concerns.” Essentially, God’s ways are different than human ways.
Then he uses this, as Jesus tends to do, as an opportunity to teach the disciples. And he says, starting in verse 24,
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
In first-century Palestine, crucifixion was the preferred method of executing any criminals, revolutionaries or slaves. The Romans liked to hold their crucifixions in common, heavily trafficked areas so that everyone could witness it. For Jesus’ disciples “Take up your cross and follow me” probably wasn’t seen as a metaphor. Rather it would have been understood as an invitation to martyrdom. Jesus continues in verse 25,
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their very soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?
Jesus takes this rebuke from Peter and turns it around and he says, “No Peter you don’t get it. You’re looking at things from the human perspective, not God’s perspective.” And then he launches into this teaching and says, “If you try to save your life you’ll end up losing it, but if you go ahead and lose your life, that’s how you’ll find it.” Essentially he’s saying, “The Kingdom of God is upside down.” In the Kingdom of heaven, or the Kingdom of God, everything is backwards and so the way to win is by losing. Or rather, I think Jesus is actually saying, not that the Kingdom of God is upside down, but that this world—the world we live it—is upside down. And he’s revealing to his disciples a whole new way of living.
Here in this world, in this kingdom, we’re worried about things like strength and power. We care about political power or religious power or economic power. For so many of us, we need to be the strongest or the best or the brightest or the fastest. We need to work harder and longer and accomplish more. We need the biggest house or drive the newest car. Or we need to be involved in the most church activities and be the biggest prayer warrior. And here Jesus says, “None of that matters.” The way God’s kingdom will be established is through my death. The way God’s rescue will happen is by losing.
In truth, God’s kingdom is radically and completely different than anything else we’ve ever encountered. And we need to remain open to the weird and unexpected ways in which God wants to work in and through us. There is still plenty of mystery to what God is doing. Paul says as much is 1 Corinthians 13 when he says, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then shall I know fully, even as I am fully known.” For now, we see only a reflection; we know only in part.
We need humility to start seeing things from God’s perspective. Because here’s the irony. Peter probably could have pulled out all kinds of Scripture verses to back up his belief that the Messiah wasn’t supposed to die. In fact, to this day, many Jews insist Jesus wasn’t the Messiah and will use Scripture to explain why. And throughout Church history, we can look at many examples of new works of the Spirit like the Protestant Reformation, where people on the other side have used Scripture to explain why God couldn’t possibly do what people are claiming he’s doing.
Ben Witherington in his commentary on this passage says it this way,
“God is not finished with our understanding or our belief system or our behaviour just yet. Recognizing this fact should produce a little more humility and a little less of that lethal combination of arrogance and ignorance.”
Peter, like the captain of the navy ship in our fictional story, thought he knew what was going on. Peter thought he had all the pieces put together—but he was wrong. God had a different plan. God had something new and unexpected in the works. And similarly, God is continuing to work in new and fresh ways in our personal lives as well as the Church corporately. God’s kingdom is upside down. What seems like the obvious way forward for us isn’t always the obvious way forward and we absolutely need to stay open to the mysterious ways in which God is working.
I know in my life God has continually done that. I’m a city guy. I love living in the city and I love visiting cities. My dream vacation would be to travel to some new big city and experience the culture there. Halifax is the smallest place I could conceivably see myself living. In some ways, I’d prefer someplace bigger. Beyond loving cities, my theology is more Wesleyan, which means I come from the Methodist movement and have an Arminian background.
And yet last year God called me to be the interim pastor of a Reformed church in a small farming community. Every time I told people I was pastoring in Milford they would say “Where’s that?” I was a city guy who’s Wesleyan-Arminian in my theology, pastoring a Reformed church in Milford. And I loved it! I honestly did. I absolutely love being there with those people who had radically different church traditions than I did. God used Faith Community Church to teach me more about the broad, diverse Kingdom of Heaven.
But I could have missed that. When Faith first called me up to ask if I was interested in going there, I easily could have said “Sorry, I’m a city guy. I don’t think I’d fit well in a small town church. Besides I’m Wesleyan and you’re Reformed. That’s just not how God made me.”
I would have lost out on experiencing God and learning more about his Kingdom if I had simply said, “No… God doesn’t work that way.” I could have said, “Everyone knows Messiahs don’t die; they conquer.”
I still need to hear Jesus words to Peter. How often does Jesus actually say those words to me? “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Are you open to being wrong? Are you open to the possibility that your theology or your way of thinking or your values are wrong? As Ben Witherington said, “God is not finished with our understanding or our belief system or our behaviour just yet.” The truth is that all of us, myself included, have inaccurate theology and inaccurate values and inaccurate behaviours. But we don’t know what we don’t know. If we knew our theology was wrong somewhere we would correct it. But we don’t know where we’re wrong. Are you open to the possibility that somewhere you have an inaccurate or incomplete understanding of God?
Are you open to God doing something fresh and new in your life? Are you open to the idea that God might want to act in some radically unexpected way in your life? Essentially, we could ask this question this way, are you open to the mystery of God? Are you open to God doing something in your life that grows your understanding of him?
This week, while you’re spending time reading the Bible or in prayer, just pray this small little prayer, “God, show me who you really are and not just who I want you to be.”
Personally, I don’t want to be like Peter. I don’t want to be someone who acts as a stumbling block to God or “quenches the Spirit” as Paul says in 1 Thessalonians. I don’t want to put God in a box and say that he can only act in the ways I already understand him to act.
God’s kingdom is radically different than anything we’ve ever encountered. It’s an upside-down kingdom where winning is losing and losing is winning. And I want to remain open to the weird, wild and unexpected ways in which God wants to work in me and through me.
What about you? Are you open to being wrong? Are you open to seeing God and his grace and mercy as bigger and better and more wonderful than you’ve previously encountered? This week spend time in prayer, ask God to show you who he really is and ask him to expand your understanding of him beyond what it is currently.