“From that time forth began Jesus to show unto His disciples how that He must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.” —Matthew 16:21
As we focus our attention once again during the holy season of Lent upon the vicarious suffering and death of the Lord Jesus and gratefully ponder in our minds the cost to Him of our redemption, our eyes of faith are drawn to and become riveted upon the “Old Rugged Cross” on Calvary’s hill. For almost 2,000 years now, that cross has been the universally-recognized symbol of our Savior’s great passion and of His atonement for the sins of the world. Sad to say, some revere it only as a memento of martyrdom by a great man in the cause of brotherhood and peace and social justice here in this world; and thus they are really doing it disservice by their unbelief and rejection of Christ as the very Son of God and the only Savior of lost mankind. Nevertheless, there it stands in simple grandeur, “towering o’er the wrecks of time” (TLH 354, 1); and, although some blasphemously set torches to it, and others invert it and attempt to pervert it into a Satanic symbol, you and I are persuaded by God’s grace, manifested in His glorious Gospel, that no power on earth or in hell will ever be able to tear it down or obliterate it from our grateful memory (Romans 8:38-39)!
It’s a wonderful symbol, the cross of the Lord Jesus; for like a priceless jewel it changes color, emits lights of different hues and intensities, and transfixes us with awe as we view it from different perspectives: In our Lenten hymns we love to sing of a “rugged cross,” a “bitter cross,” a “cross of anguish and of sorrow” — and, at the same time, tis a “wondrous cross,” a “radiant cross,” a “reviving cross” in which we “glory” with the Apostle Paul (Galatians 6:14), and a “dear cross” which “dissolves our heart in thankfulness and melts our eyes to tears.”
But, lest we become caught up in a merely emotional or sentimental fervor regarding the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, and attribute special qualities and powers to IT rather than to HIM who bore it and who shed His holy precious blood and died upon it, the Savior brings to our attention in the title-text of our article a real down-to-earth consideration which sometimes escapes us and to which He would redirect us, namely, the NECESSITY of the Cross, —its necessity, first of all, for CHRIST as our Redeemer, and then, secondly, its necessity also for US as His disciples.
In the preceding context of this verse, Matthew tells us that Jesus’ disciples, and particularly Peter, had just made a bold confession concerning Him, saying: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16). They had become convinced by Jesus’ preaching that He was truly the long-promised Messiah, the Anointed One of God; and His miracles confirmed to them His divine attributes as “[they] beheld His glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). But, while Jesus was pleased with their conviction, brought about in them by the gracious operation of God Himself (Matthew 16:17), He also knew of their misconception, common among the Jews of His day, that God’s Messiah would be an earthly savior and king who would soon manifest Himself as the heir to David’s throne —his temporal throne— who would establish Himself in the eyes and hearts of the people and win their support, and who would “restore again the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6) as it was in the days of David and Solomon, a misconception that they would continue to hold “until the day in which He was taken up” (Acts 1:2). And so, to debunk that earthbound idea, “from that time forth,” Matthew tells us, “Jesus began” —gradually at first— “to show unto His disciples how that He must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.”
Although Jesus at this time did not go into the details of His great passion —as He did later on, shortly before His entry into Jerusalem on the first “Palm Sunday” (cf. Luke 18:31-33)— this general revelation was already quite a bit for the disciples to swallow; for He mentioned enough to show them that the future for Him was not the worldly pomp and glory and popularity that they had imagined. Quite to the contrary, there would be agony and suffering and even death —not an accidental death to be sure, but what we would call today a “lynching” or a “hit” on the part of “the elders and chief priests and scribes” to put the Savior out of the way for good. Nevertheless, Jesus says, in spite of knowing all this ahead of time, “He MUST go unto Jerusalem” —to the place of sacrifice at Passover-time— where “He MUST suffer” at the hands of the Jewish court, where “He MUST be killed” at the insistence of the Jews and carried out by the Romans, and where “He MUST be raised again the third day.” The cross was to be a necessity for Him, in spite of the agony that lay in store for Him.
Indeed, this was the very purpose for which He had come down to this world of sin, to “humble Himself and to become obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8). This was the will of His heavenly Father (John 5:30), which He had come to do (John 6:38; Luke 22:42). He was delivered “by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23) according to the plan which, in eternity already, God had decreed and on the basis of which He reconciled “the world” of sinful mankind unto Himself (II Corinthians 5:19). And this had been prophesied of Him long ago, that He would bear our griefs and carry our sorrows, be stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted, wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities (Isaiah 53), that His hands and feet would be pierced (Psalm 22:16). Why?? So that “we [might be] healed.” (Isaiah 53:5). Jesus Himself said to His disciples in Luke 18:31 that “all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man shall be accomplished;” and, throughout His “Great Passion,” these and other prophecies are referred to as having been “fulfilled” to the letter (Matthew 26:54, 56; 27:9, 35; Mark 14:49; 15:28; Luke 24:44; John 15:25; 17:12; 18:9, 32; 19:24, 28, 36; etc.).
Sadly and tragically, those reject the indictment of God’s holy Law, who blind their eyes to their own helplessness and lost condition before Him, who refuse to recognize their unworthiness and the condemnation they deserve because of their sins, cannot see the NECESSITY of the cross! Even Peter, who had made such a bold confession of Him, immediately piped up with a protest, as we read of it in the verse just following our title-text! After all, Jesus was the Messiah of God! And Messiahs don’t get treated that way!! “Then Peter took Him and began to rebuke Him saying: ‘Be it far from Thee, Lord! This shall not be unto Thee!’” (v. 22; cf. also Mark 8:32-33). There’s no way that anybody’s going to do that to YOU! —In his blindness, poor Peter failed to see why it was necessary for Jesus to suffer and die…. Why?? Because he failed to see his OWN need for redemption, for reconciliation to God (Romans 5:10), for cleansing in the blood of the Lamb of God (I John 1:7).
This was the work of Satan in Peter, and Jesus didn’t waste one second on “sweet talk” or even to ask Peter what he meant! He didn’t give the poison any time to spread. Jesus spun around and rebuked Peter in the sharpest of terms, for it was the Old Evil Foe himself that He was challenging! In fact, it was the very expression He had used after His third temptation by the devil in the wilderness: “Get thee hence, Satan!” (Matthew 4:10). “Get thee behind Me, Satan! [Get out of My way, you vicious adversary!] Thou art an offense unto me! [You are a stumbling-block to Me, a trigger on a trap to turn Me away from the cross I must bear!] Thou savorest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men!” At Satan’s instigation, Peter was not paying any attention to the great, blessed, saving purposes, plans and acts of God which He had, in eternity already, determined and effected for the salvation of sinful men! His mind was on the here-and-now, the temporary, the vain and selfish!
In “the things that be of God,” however, we see, by His grace, the necessity of the cross for Christ, our Savior. Naturally, the devil would have liked nothing better than to have sidetracked Jesus from this necessity, to have spoiled God’s plan for our salvation, and to have robbed us of our only hope of heaven! And this our Savior was not about to tolerate! Neither did He want Peter (who from his New Man of faith had just made a bold confession of his Lord and Savior, v. 16, but now was speaking according to his sinful flesh) to become a tool of the devil! It was Jesus’ love for Peter, not His hatred, that prompted this sharp rebuke, just as it should always be our love for a Christian brother or sister that prompts our admonition and rebuke of him or her!
But the cross was also a necessity for us, in view of the ransom that our Savior was going to have to pay in time in order to secure our release from Satan’s bondage, in order to satisfy divine justice by paying the wages of our sins, in order to make possible God’s reconciliation of the world, of us, unto Himself. Concerning man’s ability to gain God’s favor for himself by satisfying the requirements of His justice, God says in no uncertain terms in unmistakable Scripture: “By the deeds of the Law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight” (Romans 3:20); “None of them [sinful mortals] can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him; for the redemption of their soul is precious” (Psalm 49:7-8); “Ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things as silver and gold…but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a Lamb without blemish and without spot” (I Peter 1:18-19); “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them” (II Corinthians 5:19).
Yes, Jesus looked forward to His great passion, not as to a sacrifice that He was forced to offer, not as to an experience that He might refuse to endure, not as to a payment that He was unwilling to make, but as to the rescue mission that He “must” undertake and complete in order to satisfy God’s justice as our Substitute, in order to propitiate Him, that is, to render Him a payment of sufficient value as to change the way in which He regards those who were His enemies but were “reconciled to God” (Romans 5:10), released from the guilt of their sins declared to be righteous, for Christ’s sake. Christ never shrank back from the task of being the world’s Redeemer but “steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51) as the place where His ultimate sacrifice would be made. And the necessity of the cross was ever before Him, the death of a criminal, “made…to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (II Corinthians 5:21), capital punishment for a transgressor “numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53) to serve as their Substitute and to receive and suffer “the wages of sin” (Romans 6:23) in their place. For He told Nicodemus: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:15).
Now as we, during this holy Lenten season, consider the cost of our redemption and of our reconciliation to God by the death of His Son, the cost to Him of “endur[ing] the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2) — the cost for us made on our behalf by Him who loved us unto death — how our hearts should be overflowing with thanks to our dear Savior for accomplishing the humanly impossible on our behalf: Making poor, wretched, and completely undeserving sinners right with God (Romans 5:10a) by earning perfect righteousness in their stead and suffering God’s just wrath and punishment in their place. May we therefore in humble, grateful and childlike faith, cling in confidence to His perfect merits alone as the price of our redemption, and to our reconciliation with God which in eternity already He wrought “in Christ” for the entire “world” of sinners (II Corinthians 5:19) — including you and me, singing with the hymnwriter:
When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of Glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss
and pour contempt on all my pride
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
save in the cross of Christ, my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood
See, from His head, His hands, His feet,
sorrow and love come mingled down.
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet
or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a tribute far too small!
Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all!
—D. T. M.