The Cost of Avoiding the CrossErwin W. Lutzer | April 26, 1992
Selected highlights from this sermon
If Jesus had taken Peter’s advice to avoid the cross, it would have undercut the very thing that God was going to do to redeem Peter—and us. The cross of Christianity is not an ornament. It’s a reality. We forget that it was a horrible, terrible, awful, excruciating, criminal’s death. But it should be a reminder of what God has done for us.
All of us know that the cross is a symbol of Christianity. What we sometimes forget is that crosses lose their significance because we wear them on gold chains, and we look at the cross as an ornament. And we forget that the cross is not really an ornament. The cross is a reality as it stands at the center point of the Christian message. But we romanticize the cross, don’t we? We have all kinds of ideas.
There’s a mystique connected with the cross, and we forget that it was a horrible, terrible, awful, excruciating death. In fact it was so bad that Cicero once wrote that those who died on crosses became mad before they died as their bodies wrenched with pain. And he said that sometimes their tongues were cut out so that they could not cry out, hanging on that hard piece of wood, often with nails through the palms of their hands or their wrists. The cross is terrible, and yet the cross is a symbol of Christianity. Today we have people who complain about people dying in electric chairs. They don’t want criminals electrocuted. They don’t want criminals being taken to the gas chamber because it is cruel and unusual punishment. Think of the cross, and yet the cross stands there as a reminder of what God has done for us.
And what I’d like you to do is to take your Bibles, because we are in a series on the life of Peter, and if you turn to Matthew 16, we want to see here how Peter unwittingly became a stumbling block to somebody whom he dearly loved. Jesus had commended Peter for saying, “Thou art the Son of God.” This is in chapter 16, verse 17: “And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.’” Peter is speaking as a mouthpiece of God Almighty.
And then it says in verse 20: “Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.” We may say, “Why that?” After all, wouldn’t Jesus want people to know – to understand that the disciples knew who Christ was? They understood His person, but they did not understand His work, as we shall see in a moment. For them to proclaim the Messiahship of Jesus without understanding what the Messiah was going to do would have been to leave people confused, and so Jesus said, “Be quiet.”
But Jesus did begin to tell His disciples what was going to happen, and we’re going to move very quickly today through three scenes of conversation as recorded here in the text.
It says in verse 21 first of all: “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem.” Why Jerusalem? It’s because Jerusalem, remember, was the city of sacrifice, and He’s going to give His life as a sacrifice for sinners. “He must go to Jerusalem.” Underline that little word must, “and must suffer from the elders and the chief priests.” What a shock that was to the disciples. These were the people who were admired and honored. If you wanted to have a profession where you would receive respect, it would be to be a chief priest, an elder or a member of the Sanhedrin.
I want you to know that official religion has always been an enemy of Jesus. In fact, even official Christendom is an enemy of Jesus, and here official Judaism nails Him to that cross.
And notice it says thirdly that He would be raised up on the third day. There would be a resurrection. Now why did Jesus tell the disciples these things? There were a couple of reasons. First of all, He wanted them to understand that His impending death was not a tragedy. It was a tragedy only through the eyes of men and not through the eyes of God. It was actually the fulfillment of the will and the purposes of God, if you please. Later on the Apostles are going to be praying (in Acts 4:28) and they say, “Pontius Pilate and Herod gather together with all the Gentiles and the nation Israel to do, oh Lord, what Thy hand predetermined would be done.”
If you remember, perhaps a year ago I preached a sermon showing that the death of every single Christian who walks in obedience is just as meticulously planned as the death of Christ. Even though we know that death awaits us, like a concrete floor awaits a falling light bulb, whether it is by accident or whether it is by cancer, it is within God’s providential care.
So Jesus said, “I don’t want you to be discouraged because I am going to die this terrible death.” Furthermore, He wanted to remind them that His kingdom was not a political one as they had been thinking, but rather He came first to die, and then He would come back later in glory to capture the world as His kingdom. And then He wanted to make sure that they were aware and ready for the sorrow and the tragedy and the heartache and the tears and the disappointment that was just around the corner. That’s scene one – Christ’s teaching.
Now let’s look at Christ’s temptation through the lips of Peter. Verse 22: “He took him aside and began to rebuke him.” Visualize the picture. The disciples are walking along, and Jesus has made the statement, and Peter comes and puts his arm around the Lord Jesus and says, “Come on, I’ve got something to tell You.” He said, “Lord, God, forbid it. That shall never happen to you. Not You, King of kings and Lord of lords.” Did Peter just say this because he didn’t love Jesus? Oh no! He said it because he loved Jesus very much. It was terrible advice, but it is advice borne out of a heart of love. He’s saying, “Not You!” Why? He couldn’t put together the incompatibility of it all. Here is Jesus, King of kings, Lord of lords, the Son of God, and over here a terrible criminal’s death. It just does not add up. Peter was saying, “If this, how can it be that?” If A, it cannot be B.” And so he said, “Not You, Lord.”
I want you to think about this for just a moment because Peter was thinking, “Surely there’s another way. You could just be king. Just decide to be king. Avoid the cross. Don’t let them do that to you.” And remember that Jesus had the power to make sure that they wouldn’t if he had so desired. He said that He could have called legions of angels that could have delivered Him. Why be a victim when you don’t have to be?
Are you aware of the fact, my friend, today that we should stand in awe of Peter’s heart because it is so much like ours? But furthermore, do you realize that when Peter suggested to Jesus that Easter be cancelled that he was in effect saying that if that were to happen, he himself would be in hell forever and ever. Peter’s salvation rested on the obedience of Christ going to the cross and dying. Peter didn’t understand all of that, but we know that to be true. And so, in effect, Peter’s suggestion was going to undercut the very thing that God was going to do to redeem people like Peter, and people like you and me, so that we could belong to Him forever and sing Hallelujah to the Lamb. Peter says, “Not so, Lord, not so.” Without the cross, though, there would be no salvation. That’s scene two.
Let’s look at scene three. Verse 23: “But Jesus turned and said to Peter (Wow! Is your finger on the text because I’m not making this up.), ‘Get behind me, Satan!’” Another translation says rather accurately, “Out of my sight! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
Let me make a couple of observations very quickly. First, Jesus is rebuking Satan in that strong statement, “Get thee behind me.” He is rebuking the satanic suggestion. He is not rebuking his apostle, Peter, as such. Can you imagine what that would be like, to be standing in the presence of the holy Son of God, the one you have just confessed to be the Son of God, and you’ve been commended for it, for Him to look into your eye and say, “Be gone forever, Peter. Get behind me?” No, Peter undoubtedly was jolted anyway.
Jesus said, “Satan, get behind Me. Out of my sight!” That doesn’t mean that Peter was demon possessed. What it means though is that Peter’s suggestion, though meant so well, was right in line with what the devil himself desired. Remember Matthew chapter 4? Satan said to the Lord Jesus, “You know, if you bow down and worship me, you can have all the kingdoms. You don’t have to go to the cross. You don’t have to die. You don’t have to be (have?) all this humiliation, all this pain. Avoid the cross. Grasp the crown without the cross.” And now, of all things, the very same suggestion is coming through the mouth from someone who dearly loved the Lord, Peter himself! “Lord, no not You! Don’t let them do it.”
Have you ever realized that this is scary? Some people, who because of love, tell other people things to do and give them terrible advice. And they are in effect telling them they should be disobedient to God, because they have these people’s best interest and love at heart. And yet notice that Jesus said to Peter, “You are not setting your mind on God’s interests. Rather you are thinking just like a natural human being who is always thinking of ways to make the Christian life convenient without crosses. What a statement!
Are you, by the way, surprised or troubled by the fact that Peter could at one moment speak as the agent of the living God, and speak under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit saying, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and a moment later speak under the inspiration and according to the wisdom of Satan? Does that trouble you? Are you troubled by the fact that Jesus said to Peter, “You are the rock, and you are going to have a place in the foundation of the building of the church,” and then just a few verses later in our Bible says in the middle of verse 23, “You’re a stumbling block to Me instead of being that platform, that rock upon which the church should be built.” And if not built, at least he would have a part in introducing the Gentiles to the church, which is involved in the power of the keys, as we noticed in a previous message. And now this rock becomes a stone of offense, trying unwittingly to trip Christ up. Are you surprised at that? Well, you may be but you shouldn’t be, because all of us can be like that at times.
There are times when we can sing songs, we can praise God with our lips, and we can say beautiful things which are right, and even say them under the inspiration and the guidance of God’s blessed Holy Spirit, and moments later be saying some very vile things that the devil would be very happy to hear. I’ll tell you this: We’re surely no better than Peter. We may be worse, but we are no better than Peter. That’s for sure.
And do you know something? It is also possible for us to nullify the cross. You see, if there’s anything that Satan doesn’t like, it is the cross. You say, “Well, yes, but Satan didn’t prevent Christ from going to the cross. It is now a historical fact that Jesus died.” Yes, so you and I can’t be in the position of talking Christ out of going to the cross, or trying to, as Peter did. That’s true, but you and I can diminish the cross, too, because by nature we don’t like the cross. The cross, if it is anything, is the weapon that goes to the depths of our being and runs cross-grain to everything that we would naturally think about salvation.
Let me give you some ways in which we tend to avoid the cross today. We can avoid the cross even by thinking that there are some sins that are too big for God to forgive. That’s diminishing the cross. It’s nullifying what God did.
As you know, we receive many, many letters here at the church because of our radio ministry. This past week someone handed me a letter and I didn’t read it all, but the letter said that we should pray for a young woman who has been sexually abused. We get dozens of letters like that. That was not the thing that made it unusual. The next paragraph said, “I am one of her abusers.” Wow!
You know, it dawned on me the other day that we talk about sexual abuse, and that’s why we have a sexual redemption seminar. One of the reasons is to help people with emotional and spiritual healing because of the devastation of wrong views of sexuality. But the other day I was thinking that we’re always dealing with the victims of abuse. Where in the world are the abusers? They’ve got to be wandering around somewhere. We’ve got to have some who are listening today either in this congregation or over the radio. They are out there because these things aren’t happening in a vacuum. Is there anything that we could say to them? The answer is yes. Jesus said, “It is finished,” on the cross. That death even paid a sacrifice to God, the Father, for those who abuse children. And I have to tell you, it’s hard to say that because how can people abuse children? I don’t know how. This much I know. They can also be forgiven, because when Jesus died on the cross He became an abuser, legally, dying for that sin.
No wonder Isaac Watts wrote,
Well might the sun in darkness hide,
And shut his glories in,
When Christ, the mighty Savior died,
For man, the creature’s sin.
Don’t ever diminish the cross by saying, “Oh, the sin is too big to be forgiven.” No, it is not because the cross is mighty and it is complete. It is finished.
We can also diminish the cross as Christians by living with guilt because we think that the guilt is partial payment for the sin that we’ve committed. That’s diminishing the cross. It’s kind of Protestant penance that some people go through. It diminishes the cross. Oh yes, there are consequences to sin. God will discipline us because of those consequences, but guilt is only designed to lead us to the cross. And once we have been there, staring at the wonder of somebody who died for us, and seeing the blood that was shed on our behalf and receiving to our bosoms the forgiveness that was purchased there, we no longer need to think that our guilt is partial payment for sin, because Jesus paid it all. By nature we want to diminish the cross. We say it can’t be that great. Yes, it is that great.
We can diminish the cross as Christians by thinking to ourselves that we can avoid the implications of living a cross-bearing life. Look at what Jesus said in verse 24: “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’” You say, “Well what is the cross? Is the cross an illness?” Sometimes people say, you know, “I have to bear my cross,” and they’ll talk about some kind of sickness or some kind of tragedy. It may be related, but do you know what the real bearing of the cross is? Jesus talks about following Christ and losing your life in verse 25. The cross is to die to self-will.
You see, all of us have a protective coating. Not a one of us walks with God as well as we want people to think we do, including myself. And so what we do is we encase ourselves in this life, hiding from others our true selves, so that we might live and be able to grasp all the things that this world has to offer when Jesus says that taking up your cross means a willingness, a humility to actually let God and maybe others find out who you are, and say no to all of the self-will that wants to rule our lives the way we want to have them ruled.
Jesus said, “Except a corn of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it abides alone.” You see, the reason that so many of us have not borne fruit yet is because at root we have not let God deal with self-will. We have absolutely not let Him do it. No matter how well we sing, sometimes we still hold back. Why? It’s because there’s something within us that says, “I do not want to face the full implications of what it is like to yield and to bow to the authority of that cross, and as Jesus carried His own cross, for me to carry my own and to simply say, “Lord, I’m yours for whatever, and all the pain that other people give me and all the grief that other people give me, and all of the difficulties that circumstances give me, I will accept as part of the way in which You are breaking me down to show me in a greater way my need of You what the cross is.” We don’t like that, do we?
So let’s hurry on. There’s another way we can diminish the cross, and that is by thinking that there are other ways of salvation. Do you think of this? There are ministers in pulpits in America today who are standing up and telling their people that they can save themselves, or that they don’t need Christ, or that all that they need is good teaching. And the minister is doing that because of love. He doesn’t want to offend people because of the cross. He doesn’t perhaps quite believe in the cross himself, and he certainly doesn’t like to talk about such things as a blood sacrifice. And it’s all love. It’s just like Peter. “Well, you don’t need to do that because there’s another way.” What does Jesus say? He says, “You’re setting your mind on the interests of men, and not the interests of God.”
I want you to know today that there is no other way. Do you know how some of you are diminishing the cross? Can you believe this? And I know this to be true because whenever I have the opportunity I like to talk to people about Jesus. This afternoon, God willing, I’ll be flying to Akron to speak in a service there, and then be with pastors all tomorrow morning for three hours at least, after speaking at a breakfast. You can pray for me. But if I’m sitting on the plane and if God gives me the opportunity, I’m going to talk to the person next to me about Jesus. But do you know what I find? There are some people who think that they don’t need Jesus. Honestly! They actually think that they are going to save themselves from the coming wrath of God. They don’t need a Savior. They don’t need the cross because they are as good as their neighbor or the next person.
What do you think Jesus would say? If Peter here, in this suggestion, was speaking as the word of Satan, think of all those who have so given themselves over to self-righteousness that they think that they do not need that cross. Yes, we diminish the cross too, don’t we?
Do you know what the difference is between Christianity and all the other religions of the world? Most of the other religions have blood sacrifices. They sacrifice animals. Sometimes they even sacrifice themselves, and they offer blood to God. The difference between all that and Christianity is that in Christianity God Himself offers the blood. That’s the difference. Yes!
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
I love the cross. Do you get that impression? I hope so. You know why I do. It’s because I’m a sinner, and I need the cross. I needed the cross yesterday. I needed the cross this morning. I’m going to need it this afternoon, and God knows I’m going to need it tomorrow morning. And yet we want to avoid the cross.
You’ve heard the story of the man who had the responsibility of taking care of the switches of the bridge, and as the train was coming he gave the signal that the bridge would be down. And so that huge drawbridge began to go down for the coming train. And then the man realized that his own son was caught in the gears. But there was nothing that he could do. To reverse the movement meant that the train would smash and hundreds would be killed, so he just let that bridge grind down and kill his boy. And as the train sped across the bridge everybody was waving at the man who had that responsibility, having no idea that he just gave his son for them.
And that’s the way people are, just moseying along, forgetting. My friend, God gave His Son for you. Jesus must go to Jerusalem, the text says, to suffer, to die, to offer Himself so that we could be cleansed, forgiven and welcomed by God, and received by Him.
Have you received Him as your Savior? Have you honestly thought that you could get to heaven without the cross, without belief in the Christ who died there and the sacrifice that was made for sinners? Did you honestly think that? Get thee behind me, Satan, because you are not setting your mind on God’s interests but on man’s. That is humanistic thinking that will lead you to eternal separation from Almighty God. Nobody is saved without the cross.
Now Father, what more can be said except the fact that we do love You, and we do desire to serve You. And we pray for those who are present this morning that have never trusted in the cross. We pray for Christians who think that they have sinned too greatly to be forgiven. Help them to understand the wonder and the completeness of what Jesus did. We pray for those, Lord, who are unsaved today. May they receive You as Savior this very moment. We ask, Lord Jesus, that in a wondrous way Your Holy Spirit would lead them to saving faith. Lord, I’ve said enough. Just do whatever You have to do. Amen.