Matthew 16:21-28

Look Good on Wood

By Dr. Mickey Anders
At the 100th anniversary of the arrival of missionaries in Zaire, Christians gathered to celebrate from that part of Zaire that was once called the Belgian Congo. The festivities lasted all day with music, preaching, food and conversations. Many reminisced about the early days and praised God for the progress of the gospel and the church.

Near the end of the long program, a very old man stood to give a speech. He said that he soon would die and that he needed to tell something that no one else knew. If he didn’t tell, his secret would go with him to his grave.

He explained that when the first white missionaries came, his people didn’t know whether to believe their message or not. So they devised a plan to slowly and secretly poison the missionaries and watch them die. One by one, children and adults became ill, died and were buried. It was when his people saw how these missionaries died that they decided to believe their message.

The missionaries never knew what was happening. They didn’t know they were being poisoned, and they didn’t know why they were dying. They didn’t know they were martyrs. They stayed and died because they trusted Jesus. And it was the way they died that taught others how to live. (1)

Our gospel text today offers Matthew’s follow-up on that crucial “hinge” moment when Peter states for the first time that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Immediately afterward, Jesus reveals to his disciples the shocking nature of the Messiah’s future.

“From that time, Jesus began to show his disciples
that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things
from the elders, chief priests, and scribes,
and be killed,
and the third day be raised up.”

Jesus shares the stunning prediction of how he would be violently killed by his enemies. This is the first of three such predictions that Jesus would make. These words were hard for the disciples to hear because it was so far out of their expectations of what the Messiah was supposed to be.

“Peter took him aside, and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This will never be done to you.'”

Here we find Peter’s immediate rejection of Jesus’ death. Of course, Peter was examining the issue by human, earthly reasoning. He thought it disgraceful to Jesus that he would even contemplate such a fate.

Peter had recognized Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This was well-known terminology in Jewish tradition. But the common understanding was that the arrival of the Jewish Messiah was to herald the defeat of Israel’s enemies and the victory of God’s chosen people over all their oppressors. The Messiah was to be a powerful figure with a military answer to Israel’s problems.

The Messiah was not to be an unarmed teacher killed in the most shameful, humiliating form of execution the Romans had at their disposal. Peter didn’t want to hear that. And neither do we. We often gloss over all this death talk by focusing instead on the Resurrection. We know the end of the story, so we don’t get hot and bothered by the death part. But Jesus would not let Peter get away with that, and he won’t let us get away so easily either.

Matthew 16:13-28 shows us that Christian faith is a lot more than assigning the right titles to Jesus. Indeed, the story shows us that sometimes these titles can get in the way of understanding who Jesus is at least as much as they help.

Peter had learned that Jesus is the Son of God. But he had not learned of the mystery of the cross and the resurrection.

No wonder Jesus forbade them from telling others. If it so confounded the disciples, what would have been the response of those who knew even less about Jesus true identity?

“But he turned, and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan!
You are a stumbling block to me;
for you are not setting your mind on the things of God,
but on the things of men.'”

When Peter confessed Christ, Jesus praised him. But when he was irrationally terrified, Jesus rebuked him (Theodore of Heraclea). Here Jesus says that Peter, the rock, was in danger of becoming a stumbling block or a stone in Jesus’ path toward Jerusalem.

Jesus was saying that suffering and death, of all things, becomes him. It is as if he was saying to Peter, “You suppose that suffering is unworthy of me. But I say to you that for me not to suffer is of the devil’s mind.” (Chrysostom) Then adds that suffering becomes all who follow him.

“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone desires to come after me,
let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever desires to save his life will lose it,
and whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it.
For what will it profit a man,
if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his life?
Or what will a man give in exchange for his life?'”

Jesus makes an unqualified call to a life of sacrifice. If we can hear this phrase as if we were hearing it for the first time, we would find that it intrudes rudely into our safe, secure and convenient lives.

Here is a ringing challenge. True disciples must give up their “lives,” and instead willingly make God their final authority. Only this kind of transformation will bring them eternal life.

Do today’s churches offer a faith strong enough that it can command a sacrifice? Do you have enough faith to offer up a genuine sacrifice for Christ’s sake?

Can a church in today’s self-centered, self-help culture ask its people to sacrifice something for the sake of the gospel? Jesus’ challenge to all would-be disciples requires more than a “feel-good” or self-hug spirituality. True discipleship asks, “Are you willing to sacrifice something for the kingdom?”

In the words of Father Daniel Berrigan, “If you want to follow Jesus, you had better look good on wood.” Would you look good on wood?

But what does that mean, to take up one’s cross? It’s clearly something that’s important to Matthew, as he reports Jesus saying something very like this twice.

The passages in which Jesus tells his followers to take up the cross implicitly tell the story of what happened to many who followed Jesus. Some were left destitute — and some ended up on literal crosses of their own.

When we become Christians, Jesus calls us away from our old identities, our old selves. When we become Christians, we undergo a character change. It is a call to self-denial.

Too many today think they can have Christianity without the cross. They are curious by-standers at the foot of the cross. They are casual followers of Jesus. They take their Christianity like cream in their coffee – just a little something added to life to make it interesting. I’m afraid most of us have not yet heard Jesus’ call to radical discipleship. We don’t yet understand the real meaning of the cross. Many of us talk about the cross or display the cross without any idea of what it really means.

On one occasion, a young man came to Jesus and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus spoke to him of the commandments. The young man claimed to have kept them all. Then Jesus said,“One thing you lack. Go, sell whatever you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me, taking up the cross.” (Mark 10:21).

Jesus’ call was absolute demand. When he said, “Follow me,” he meant leaving something or someone or some place behind. To obey meant to walk into the unknown unencumbered – ready to listen, to learn, to witness, to serve.

Many of the people who heard this call to radical discipleship found that they could not break loose from the things that bound them. The rich young ruler sadly walked away “for he had many possessions.” Another man wanted to wait until his elderly father died. One of the most poignant verses in the Bible is John 6:66, which says, “At this, many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.”

Jesus always wants us to count the cost, but make no doubt about it — He calls those who would be his disciples to come and die with him. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Have you heard this call to radical discipleship? Does your faith entail a radical commitment to Jesus Christ? Are you willing to die with him? Or are you still going through the motions with a casual Christianity?

Jesus tells us there are two roads which represent two contrasting ways of life. The first way is that of saving our lives out of fear. The other road is losing our lives out of faith. One way is traveled by the people who seek power and status for themselves. The other is followed by people who relinquish status and power in order to bring the good news of God.

Two roads stand before us today. There is the way of the divine things, which is the way of Christ. And there is the way of human things. There is a way to save your life, but you will lose it there. And there is a way to lose your life for the sake of the Kingdom, and there you will find it.

Joseph Ton was pastor of a Baptist church in Rumania while that country was ruled by Communists. The authorities hated him because of his preaching. They arrested him, and threatened to kill him. Ton said to the arresting officer:

“Sir, your supreme weapon is killing.
My supreme weapon is dying.
Sir, you know my sermons are all over the country on tapes now.
If you kill me, you will be sprinkling them with my blood.
Whoever listens to them after that will say,
‘You’d better listen. This man sealed it with his blood.’
They will speak ten times louder than before.
So, go on and kill me.
Then I will win the supreme victory.”

The officer sent him home. Ton then said,

“For years I was a Christian who was cautious
because I wanted to survive.
I had accepted all the restrictions the authorities put on me
because I wanted to live.
Now I wanted to die, and they wouldn’t oblige.
Now I could do whatever I wanted in Rumania.
For years I wanted to save my life, and I was losing it.
Now that I wanted to lose it, I was winning it.” (2)

There is the road of our culture that says, “Get more. Be more. Build a bigger enterprise. Be more successful.” And there is the road of Christ that says, “Deny yourself, take up a cross, and follow me.”

I leave you with the words of the poet Robert Frost who said it so well, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.”Then Frost concludes with these words,

“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”


1) Leith Anderson, Winning the Values War: Thirteen Distinct Values That Mark a Follower of Jesus Christ (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1995), 198.

2) SermonWriter, Dick Donovan – Second Sunday in Lent year B, March 19,2000.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2005 Dr. Mickey Anders.  Used by permission.