Matthew 16:21-28: Jesus Must Go Forth to Die

13th century Crucifix (610x351)Whenever Jesus says that He must or has to do something, we should stop and take notice. In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus said, “He must go to Jerusalem and suffer a great deal from the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and that he must be killed and raised on the third day.”

When Jesus spoke of His impending death, He always said that it was something that He had to do. He must suffer and die. He must be killed by the elders, chief priests, and scribes. He must be raised on the third day. Those events weren’t optional.

Jesus wasn’t picking between what was on road A and what was on road B. The cross was the only road that would atone for the sins of the whole world. And so Jesus took that road. No alternative existed that would achieve our salvation except the cross. The way of the cross was required if we were to be saved!

Jesus had to go to the cross, for by it Jesus could take into Himself all the sins of the world. And it’s because Jesus took your sins into Himself and forgave them that He could then have mercy on you. What’s even more, nothing brings greater joy to Jesus than when you, one of his precious ones, look to Him because you want the mercy that only He can give. And that mercy, which Jesus wants to give you, can come only by the cross. That’s why Jesus said it was something that He had to do.

That’s why Jesus had such harsh words for Peter in today’s Gospel reading. When Peter suggested that Jesus shouldn’t die, Jesus bluntly told him: “Get behind me, Satan. You aren’t thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.” Jesus’ words sting Peter, even though he only wanted for Jesus what sounded good and right. Peter wanted Jesus to live. He didn’t want His Lord to be betrayed and to suffer and die.

Yet, despite Peter’s best and sincere intentions, he wasn’t speaking holy words. It’s astonishing how quickly Peter went from speaking the Father’s words to speaking the words of the devil. It was as fast as flipping a light switch. How do we know that?

Today’s Gospel reading comes immediately after Peter’s confession of Christ–that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Peter made the sturdy confession that Jesus was God in the flesh, the Lord of the Old Covenant, who had become a man to redeem His people.

When Peter heard what the elders, chief priests, and scribes were about to do, he didn’t stand up and cheer. Peter didn’t sharpen the nails that would pierce His Lord’s hands and feet. Peter heard what was going to happen and that made him sad. He wanted Jesus to live! He wanted Jesus to escape the death that He was born to die. Peter wanted Jesus to avoid the cross and move straight to the glorious stuff like reigning on David’s throne forever.

But it’s good that God didn’t answer Peter’s prayer with a “yes.” For Peter had literally said, “God have mercy on you, O Lord.” Peter prayed a prayer. He didn’t want Jesus to die. He only wanted Jesus to get what He deserved: glory, honor, and immortality. But if the Father wouldn’t have sent Jesus to suffer and die on the cross, then Peter, even you and I, would have died eternally. We would all have gone straight from this life into the pangs of eternal death.

So, Jesus had to suffer and die on the cross. Later, Jesus would quote Prophet Zechariah and say, “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered” (Zechariah 13:7). But who will strike the shepherd? Zechariah tells us: It was God Himself. God the Father took the sword and struck the shepherd. He did this because sin could not go unpunished. Someone had to die for the sins that you and I have committed.

Because of God’s holiness, the saints in the Old Covenant knew it was terrifying to be in God’s presence. They knew that the holy and righteous God could rightfully condemn them eternally for their sin. And they knew it was not safe for a sinner to be in the presence of a holy and righteous God.

Why was that? It was because God is sinless, and we are not. And to be a container contaminated with sin before the holy and righteous God leads to death. That’s why throughout both the Old and New Testaments, we find God “hiding” Himself in some way, shielding sinful people from the searing effects of being in His presence. To this day, that’s why God hides Himself behind Word and Sacrament. He comes to us in a way that brings life instead of death.

That’s why Jesus became human. Jesus was God coming to us in a form that would not kill us. He was “hiding” His glory behind human flesh and blood. Even more, when Jesus became human, He became God in a form that could die. That allowed Him to spill His blood to give us His righteousness, for no safe access to God exists apart from the shedding of blood. That was what the entire Old Covenant taught; it pointed forward to Jesus shedding His blood for the sins of the world.

It had been that way since humanity’s fall into sin. In those moments, just after Adam and Eve had sinned, God made clothing from animal skins to cover Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:21). When God covered their sin, some other animal had to die to do that.

God had warned Adam about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God told Adam, “For when you eat from it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17). And they did, for when Adam and Eve ate the fruit, they did die, spiritually. Their sin had separated them from the God, who had created them.

But God didn’t kill them outright. He was the same God to them that He is to us. In mercy, God covered Adam and Eve with the sacrifice of another animal. The Lord covered their iniquity. They did not die that day–even though they deserved it.

Throughout the pages of the Old Testament, we find God continuing to work that way. In the Old Covenant, God’s people brought animals to be sacrificed for their sins. And the Lord received those blood sacrifices for their sins. He turned His wrath away and replaced it with mercy. They didn’t die for their sins, even though they deserved it.

Today, we usually think of God as a Savior, who forgives and loves us. And that is true: we do have a God, who loves us and forgives all our sins.

But God is more than loving; He is also righteous. And so in both love and righteousness, the Father sent His Son, Jesus, to become sin for us and die our death. The Father was willing to take His one-and-only Son, whom He had loved from before the foundation of the world, and let Him become a curse for us. God’s righteousness demanded that.

The only reason that we can approach the throne of God is that we have blood on us. We have the blood of Jesus on us, which cleanses us from all sin!

Jesus drank the full cup of the Father’s wrath. That’s why Jesus’ true suffering on the cross was not the nails, not even the crucifixion itself. It was Jesus taking into Himself all the sin of the world while being crucified. That was Jesus’ real agony.

While Jesus was in that state of complete sinfulness, if the Father had not struck our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, we would have been eternally condemned. If the Father had not accepted the blood of His Son, which takes away the sin of the world, then the world would have continued in its bondage to decay, even into eternity.

While “we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Christ was obedient to His Father’s will. Jesus committed no sin. No evil word ever came from His mouth. He was fully innocent. He kept God’s Law in our place. But the Father, because of His love and righteousness, poured out what you and I deserved on to Jesus.

The Father is holy and righteous. But more than that, the Father loves all whom He has created. He even loves the sinners who have rebelled against Him. That’s why He poured out what our sins deserved on to Jesus. And God did not leave Jesus moldering in the grave. He raised Him up on the third day.

And because Jesus is risen, you know that you too will rise on the Last Day. That’s the entire message of the resurrection. Because Jesus rose from death in body and soul, your eternity is one of body and soul. Death has no power over you because it had no power over the Son of God. Rejoice, people loved by God: God poured His wrath out on His Son, and so God has no more left for you.

Without the cross is only the Father’s wrath–and no one can survive that! So, cling to the cross, dear Christian. Hold fast to the place where your salvation was won.

God loves you and brings to you all the benefits of Jesus’ death and resurrection in Word and Sacrament. Today, you cannot go back in time 2,000 years to run to the cross. But you don’t have to, for the way to run to the cross is to come to the Lord’s House. For here, God comes to you–not in His wrath–but in His mercy, giving to you the life and forgiveness that Jesus won for you on the cross. So, come and hear His Word. Come and confess your sins. Hear the Lord’s Word of forgiveness. Come and eat the Lord’s body. Drink the Lord’s blood. Come, dear Christians.

What does all that mean? It means that you are now free to walk in the ways of the Lord. You are free to live the life that God has given you. After all, living under the cross of Christ is living in the Lord’s forgiveness. Amen.