Publication: Pastoral Letter, July 2003
Dear Friend in Christ:
Greetings in Jesus’ name! Everyone here at CSM sends their love and gratitude to you for your prayer and friendship, and we pray that you and yours are having a blessed and enjoyable summer thus far. This month, I want to continue to focus on the cross and its implications for our lives.
The cross is the centerpiece of history and theology. It is the heart of Christian philosophy. However, beyond that, it is a personal issue that we must face individually. Matthew 16 gives us the insight in a critical dialogue between Jesus and His disciples.
In Matthew 16:15, Jesus asks his disciples a very vital question: “Who do you say that I am?” This question starts the journey to knowing the will of God. Peter’s answer was swift and spontaneous: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
Given all that had happened over the course of the three years of Jesus’ ministry, it is surprising that this question and the answer had not come earlier. But now was the time to know who they were following-there was a cross ahead.
As Peter’s answer was swift, so was Jesus’ response to Peter: “You are blessed Peter, because flesh and blood did not reveal that to you, but My Father Who is in heaven.”
We can only imagine Peter’s pride at being singled out for a revelation from the Father and commendation from Jesus. The Scriptures tell us that revelation is God’s prerogative (see Deuteronomy 29:29). Truth is a gift. But truth is not the end of the matter; it is the beginning of a journey to a place that we may not want to go. So it was with Peter and the others.
Good theology is vital to our lives. Bad theology is a bad foundation for life’s surprises. But good theology is more than a confession; it is a basis for decision and action. No true Christian Church would accept the removal of personal application from the pulpit and the pew, when we are faced with the will of God.
I do not know why the Father chose Peter for this vital revelation of Jesus as the Son of God. (Perhaps it had something to do with Peter’s ultimate conquest of his own self-centeredness.) But Peter’s journey to and through the cross would be difficult.
When Peter made his confession, Jesus made a promise: “Upon this rock I will build My Church.” Catholics, Protestants, and Evangelicals debate whether Jesus would build the church upon Peter or upon the confession that Peter made, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” I believe that Jesus built upon His confession of faith. Personal faith is the entrance to Church life. Whichever way one interprets these words, confession of faith is not the end of the matter-it is the beginning.
I would not minimize the importance or power of confession; it nails us to the truth and positions us for the journey to follow Jesus. It agrees with heaven, but it sets us on a collision course with the philosophies of earth.
The cross stood between the promise to build the Church and the actual beginning of it. From the time Jesus made the promise, He began to show them the necessity for the cross. It is interesting to note that He did not openly discuss the cross until they understood who He was-until they made their confession.
When we make our own confession of faith, we do not know what lies ahead. We only know that He is God’s Son, and that we must follow Him. As we follow the revelation of Jesus, He begins to show us the plan.
The Father’s plan included going to Jerusalem, suffering, being killed, and rising again on the third day. So repulsive was the first part that they did not hear the last part. The cross would be maximum rejection, torture, and shame. How incongruent the cross would be to the revelation of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God!
Peter again led the response, “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen.” This time Peter was not commended; he was rebuked. This time his words came not from God, but from Satan.
Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interest, but man’s.”
There it is-our personal cross is where God’s interest and ours collide. It is where we choose between seeming personal benefit versus sacrifice for His purpose. According to Luke 9:23, this is a daily choice.
Even our Lord struggled with this daily choice from the wilderness to Gethsemane. But He always chose the Father’s will (see John 8:29). We do not always make the right choice and that is why He went to the cross-to die for our sins.
THE KEY TO LIFE
Jesus was and is the giver of abundant life. The key to giving life to others is in giving up our own lives. Deny self, take up your cross and follow Him. This statement explains His philosophy and that of a true disciple. It is selfless, sacrificial, and mission-oriented. And, it must be personal. If we follow the natural urge to save our life, we lose it. Once we make our personal confession, we are daily presented with the choice: will I save my life or give it in service for Him? The cross represents the key to release and resurrection.
THE BAD EXCHANGE
In Matthew 16:26, Jesus asks another vital question: “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” I do not take this to mean that success sends us to Hell or if we forsake life’s joys that we go to Hell. I believe that it means that selfishness, greed, and ambition destroy our soul for this life and the next. To forfeit eternal life and the wonderful will of God-our destiny-for momentary benefit, is a bad exchange. The Devil’s deal is “I’ll give you pleasure if you will ignore the Holy Spirit and the will of God.”
Then, in verse 27, Jesus says, “When the Son of Man returns….” We will give an account for our choices. In Jesus’ parable of the nobleman, the nobleman returns to see how his servants have handled his resources (see Luke 19:11-27). More vivid lessons in accountability are found in Matthew 25. And, the Bible closes with the ultimate picture of accountability in Revelation chapter 20. Accountability is a fact that selfishness would ignore.
My parents and community taught me accountability. “Charles, did you do your chores?” “Charles did you do your homework?” “Mr. Simpson, how fast were you going?” I found it hard to deny or deceive. God cannot be deceived. In the end, we must answer. The best answer is to embrace the cross-His and ours.
Peter, James, John, and the other disciples represent not only their own journeys, but ours as well. They were often selfish and even denied that they knew Jesus, on the night that He suffered. The cross was an alien idea to them. They were thinking about the 12 thrones that they would occupy. Seeing Jesus suffer was a traumatic shock to their theology; the personal implications overwhelmed them. However, they recovered and came to see the essentiality, even the glory, of the cross. Most of them later died martyr’s deaths in the course of courageously and selflessly proclaiming Christ.
Their lives typify our own dilemma. We confess Christ, but struggle with His will. “I am ready to go to prison and death,” Peter protested. But he wasn’t-not yet. Jesus told him, “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and you, once you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (see Luke 22:32). Jesus’ faith for them brought them through to the reality of their confession.
Jesus is not merely a self-help coach. He is the Son of God, Redeemer, Who died on the cross to save us from our sin. And there we died with Him. As the Apostle Paul said, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (see Galatians 2:20). Either we personalize our creed or become mere spectators at a Christian theatre. If it does not call us to the cross, then it is not even Christian.
Our message and prayer is, as Jesus taught us, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Our true witness is the daily choice to obey, love, and serve.
I remember the night 48 years ago when I stood and sang with the choir, “Just as I am without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me, and that thou bidst me come to Thee, O Lamb of God, I come.” For two years, I had wrestled with the will of God, that I become a minister. I was unworthy and unable; there seemed to be other options. I had made my confession years earlier, but now I had to choose His way or mine. The alternatives had to be placed on the cross. Thank God for the grace to choose life.
Yes, it gets personal. That is when it gets real-and so does resurrection life! May the Lord bless and encourage you as you apply the lessons of the cross in your daily life.
Scripture References: Matthew 16:15; Deuteronomy 29:29; Luke 9:23; John 8:29; Matthew 16:26,27; Matthew 25; Luke 19:11-27; Luke 22:32; Galatians 2:20