24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. 28 Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
We could learn a good bit from the old Scottish preacher Job McNeill. Listen:
Near the end of the nineteenth century, McNeill was scheduled to preach at a large evangelistic service in the English Midlands. His father died a few days before this scheduled event and the funeral was planned for the very day of the revival services.
Those planning the services naturally assumed that McNeill would be unable to come speak to them since his father’s funeral would be that day. McNeill himself actually considered not going to the services. He contemplated sending a message informing the organizers of the revival that he would not be present. But he did not send that message. Listen to what Job McNeill said: “But I dared not send it, for this same Jesus stood by me, and seemed to say, ‘Now, look, I have you. You go and preach the gospel to those people. Whether would you rather bury the dead or raise the dead?’ And I went to preach.”
Now I ask you: what makes a man behave like this? What makes a man skip his own father’s funeral to go preach instead? Did Job McNeill misunderstand what it means to be a son? I think not. Instead I think that Job McNeill understood what it means to be a disciple.
Matthew 16 concludes with Jesus defining the nature of the discipleship. We would do well to listen closely.
The nature of discipleship.
Our text provides us with as clear a definition of a disciple as one will find anywhere in scripture.
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?
We begin with verse 24 and its three-fold definition of discipleship.
- Disciples deny themselves.
- Disciples take up their crosses.
- Disciples follow Jesus. [“Follow” comes from the Greek akaloutheito and is presented in verse 24 in the present tense, meaning “keep on following.”]
First, we see self-denial. If we are to follow Jesus we must deny the self. But what does this mean? Truly it means the de-throning of the self. We think of Bill Bright’s “Four Spiritual Laws,” one of which has to do with removing the self from the throne and allowing Christ to be on it. So long as the self is on the throne then the interests of the self are governed by the self. But when Christ is on the throne—when we deny ourselves—then Christ directs and governs both our selves and our interests!
Frank Stagg offers another very helpful way of thinking about denying the self.
Denying self is not to be confused with denying something to oneself, whether material things, pleasure, or whatever. Wicked people often deny themselves many things in order to achieve their selfish goals or conquer their enemies…What Jesus meant by self-denial is far more radical than denying something to oneself. He meant that one must say no to oneself. He meant the opposite of Adam’s yes to self and no to God. He meant a yes to God and a no to oneself. All man’s sin and self-destruction centers in self-love, self-trust, and self-assertion. The cross means the opposite. It means trust in God, the love of God, commitment to God, and no to self. Paradoxically this no to self is yes to the true self. One for the first time becomes what he was made to be when he denies himself.
Second, we are to take up our cross. The cross was a cruel instrument of torture and death in the ancient world. For Christians it is first and foremost the great symbol of ultimate obedience, love, and selflessness. It is where Christ lays down His life for us! To take up the cross, then, is to be willing to follow Jesus even to the point of death on a cross! It is a sobering image, but ultimately a victorious one for the cross leads finally to resurrection!
Michael Wilkinson writes of the early-16th century Anabaptist Leonhard Schiemer that Schiemer condemned the Bible teachers of his day because they fled the cross. Schiemer, writes Wilkinson:
asserts that avoiding the cross begins with the teachers, or “Scripture experts.” These teachers love their lives too much, so they judge according to the world and teach what people want to hear; thus, “they teach and live how they please in order only to flee from the cross.” As a result, they have attempted to learn about faith apart from the cross. Instead of learning from the cross, “They gladly wish to learn the truth from the advanced schools and learn with words.” As a result, the “Scripture experts” know nothing of grace because they have avoided the cross.
Schiemer brilliantly lays out the numerous devastating effects of avoiding the cross:
- It leads us to love our lives overmuch.
- It leads us to be worldly in our thinking.
- It leads us to be worldly in our teaching.
- It distorts the faith we profess to possess.
- It leads us to elevate other teaching tools above the cross of Jesus.
The cross is the great classroom of the faith. We learn best when we carry our cross and follow Jesus! To take up the cross without following will lead to morbid introspection, self-righteousness, and the idolization of suffering in and of itself. But attempting to follow Jesus without taking up your cross will lead to a stunted and perverted faith. It will lead to a carnal faith.
No, this is the way: (1) deny yourself, (2) take up your cross, (3) follow Jesus. We must hold to all of these.
This is why John Stott pined for the return of the word “disciple” to our Christian vocabulary.
One wishes in some ways that the word disciple had continued into the following centuries, so that Christians were self-consciously disciples of Jesus, and took seriously their responsibility to be “under discipline.”
That is an interesting idea, no? What if we reclaimed the language of discipleship? What if, in our evangelism, we asked, “Would you like to become a disciple of Jesus? Would you like to follow Him?” What if we called people to a life and not merely to a moment?
The goal of discipleship.
But what of the goal of discipleship? What are we disciples for? Jesus continues:
27 For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.
First, let us note that verse 27 contains two references to attributes that are applied to God in the Old Testament. First, when Jesus says that the “Son of Man is going to come with his angels” He is drawing on the language of Zechariah 14.
5 And you shall flee to the valley of my mountains, for the valley of the mountains shall reach to Azal. And you shall flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah. Then the Lord my God will come, and all the holy ones with him.
It is the Lord God who comes “and all the holy ones with him.” Likewise, when Jesus says that He “will repay each person according to what he has done” He drew on Psalm 62.
11 Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God, 12 and that to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love. For you will render to a man according to his work.
The implications are clear enough: this Jesus is none other than the Lord God of heaven and earth spoken of in the scriptures!
Jesus then makes a statement that has puzzled many.
28 Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
To what event is this referring? The ESV Study Bible note on this passage is quite helpful.
This predicted event has been variously interpreted as referring to: (1) Jesus’ transfiguration (17:1–8); (2) his resurrection; (3) the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost; (4) the spread of the kingdom through the preaching of the early church; (5) the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem in A.D. 70; or (6) the second coming and final establishment of the kingdom. The immediate context seems to indicate the first view, the transfiguration, which immediately follows (see also Mark 9:2–10; Luke 9:28–36). There, “some” of Jesus’ disciples “saw” what Jesus will be like when he comes in the power of his kingdom. This interpretation is also supported by 2 Pet. 1:16-18, where Peter equates Jesus’ “glory” with his transfiguration, of which Peter was an eyewitness.
I agree that the transfiguration of Jesus—which, we note, happens immediately after our text, in Matthew 17—is likely in view.
But how is all of this connected to discipleship? It is connected to discipleship because it is the goal of the disciple to receive the “well done” of Jesus when He arrives. It is the goal of the disciple to receive in joy that for which his heart has yearned and looked throughout the course of his walk with Jesus!
We may call this the telos of discipleship: the union of the disciple with the Jesus he or she has pledged to follow. Or we might say that the goal or end of discipleship is the marriage feast of the Lamb spoken of in Revelation 19.
6 Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. 7 Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; 8 it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
Discipleship may begin with cross-carrying, but it ends with the joyful bliss of the presentation of the church to her Savior, Lamb, Lord, and King: Jesus.
We are carrying our cross then with and toward the one whose cross is making all things new.
 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Peter H. Davids, F.F. Bruce, Manfred T. Brauch, Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), p.464.
 A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol. I (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1930), p.137.
 Frank Stagg, “Matthew.” The Broadman Bible Commentary. Gen. ed., Clifton J. Allen. Vol.8 (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1969), p.176.
 Michael D. Wilkinson, “Suffering the Cross: The Life, Theology, and Significance of Leonhard Schiemer.” The Anabaptists and Contemporary Baptists: Restoring New Testament Christianity (Kindle Locations 1296-1301). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 John Stott, The Radical Disciple (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), p.14.
 Crossway Bibles. ESV Study Bible (Kindle Locations 118527-118531). Good News Publishers/Crossway Books. Kindle Edition.