There are turning points in the pages of history; times when decisions are made, actions are taken or things are said which mark the end of one chapter and the beginning on another. Matthew 16 marks such a turning point in the life of Jesus as He takes His disciples to the remote region near the city of Caesarea Philippi, and asks them what appears to be a relatively simple question, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" (16:13).
Some of the disciples say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets. Jesus, however, is more concerned about what they think. He says to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter replies, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Jesus commends Peter for his answer and instructs the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. But He is not finished, as verse 21 marks the turning point in Jesus’ ministry.
"From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised."
I can only imagine how the disciples felt when they heard these words. I suspect, however, that what they were thinking is reflected in Peter's words, "Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you" (16:22).
Jesus had heard this message before. During His temptation in the wilderness, Satan had tempted Him to achieve greatness without dying, inviting Him to bypass the cross. Now, He hears the temptation again from the mouth of one of his disciples. And so, just as He rebuked Satan in the wilderness (4:10), He turns to Peter and says, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man" (16: 23).
In our day, the mind of man is manifested similarly in the belief that suffering has no place in the life of the Christian. It finds its voice in the assertion that persecution is an intrusion in the life of the Church and the believer, and that opposition is a rare exception. It is heard when people wonder aloud that perhaps God has forsaken those who suffer persecution or that the persecuted are suffering because they have done something wrong or because of sin in their life.
A number of years ago, I was representing The Voice of the Martyrs at a large conference. As part of our display area, were displayed the pictures and testimonies of a number of Christians who had been tortured for their faith and yet had persevered by God’s grace. One of the stories was about a young Sudanese man named Philip.
Philip had been captured by Islamists loyal to the government of Sudan, who tried to force him to convert to Islam. As a Christian, Philip refused. In order to compel him to change his mind, the soldiers held burning sticks to his chest, while others held him down. Philip was sure that he would be killed, but he determined that he would rather die than deny his Lord. Miraculously, he survived, and his life is a testimony to the power of God in the midst of persecution.
At one point in the conference, a middle-aged woman came to our display. As she was reading Philip’s story, I could not help but notice that she began to shake her head in disbelief. As I walked towards her, I could hear her muttering to herself, "I don’t understand. I just don’t understand." Drawing up beside her, I cautiously inquired, "Excuse me, Ma’am. What is it that you don’t understand?" Looking at me with wide eyes, she pointed to the picture of Philip and blurted, "I don’t understand how God could forsake His people like that!"
Such a comment starkly reflects the mind of man. Of course, it is often more subtly expressed by believers who suggest that God's plan for His people is inevitably a trouble-free life, characterized, for the most part, by health and happiness. This is not that far removed, however, from Peter's rebuke of Jesus. To this disciple's mind, suffering had no place in the plan of God for His Messiah. While he had correctly identified Jesus as the "anointed one" of God, it is obvious from his response to Jesus' words that he does not understand how suffering, shame and death can be part of the plan of God for His anointed one. His Messianic expectations did not include a suffering Christ. He was thinking as men do, not as God does.
How does Jesus respond to this mentality?
Then Jesus told his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (16:24-25).
Jesus wants Peter to understand that what He has just said about His own life and ministry is exactly how God is going to work in the life of all who are part of God’s plan. It is not only the Christ who will suffer and die; it will also be the fate of all those who follow Him. This is how God thinks.
While Peter was able to identify who Jesus was, he failed to grasp what being the Messiah of God meant. What Jesus was talking about did not fit Peter’s expectations for who the Christ was.
Who do you say Jesus is?