Divine logic sometimes surprises us. We can imagine being among the disciples as Peter confesses Jesus to be the Messiah and thinking, "Great! Now victory, power and authority are right around the corner. Surely God will vindicate the righteous now. We can sit next to the king. We will rule with him!" But immediately after the confession Jesus moves to reorient the disciples' thinking. They continue to wrestle with such questions even as late as Acts 1:6-11, but Jesus is always reminding them that the divine call involves service and witness, not the raw exercise of power. People are to be won over and served, not coerced.
The same truth endures for disciples today. The cross Jesus bore is the cross the church is to bear. Giving oneself on behalf of sinners is just as integral to the gospel today as it was in days of old. Ministry is not a matter of power and privilege, but of humility and service.
Jesus will have to make his point several times before the disciples get it. Divine logic requires a listening ear and an open heart.
This passage has two parts: the prediction of Jesus' suffering (vv. 21-22) and the announcement of the "new way" of suffering, bearing one's cross daily (vv. 23-27).
Jesus' command that the disciples keep his identity secret has provoked considerable discussion. Why would Jesus want to hide his messianic role? This problem is known as the "messianic secret" in New Testament studies. The command for silence has bothered some interpreters so much that they have argued (1) whether Jesus really ever presented himself as Messiah and (2) that a Gospel writer (generally said to be Mark) created this idea to explain why the church later preached Jesus as Messiah though he had not presented himself this way. I mention this view not because I think it is right but because its very existence shows how surprising Jesus' messianic presentation was. Jesus' command shows that he wanted to communicate certain facts about this title to the disciples before it was bandied about in public. There was much potential for misunderstanding about Jesus' task.
So Jesus discusses the approaching suffering of the Son of Man. This is the first "suffering Son of Man" saying in this Gospel. Later Luke will speak of the Christ's suffering (24:26, 46). Both here and in 24:26 this suffering is said to be necessary (dei). The plan is for Messiah to suffer and serve before receiving glory (19:10). Luke emphasizes this point from here on (9:44; 11:29-32; 12:50; 13:31-35; 17:25; 18:31-33; 20:9-18; 22:19-20, 28; 24:7, 46-47).
This passage's teaching is clear enough. Jesus will suffer, be rejected, be killed and on the third day rise again. Subsequent history and the church's continuing proclamation of this point make this message easy to comprehend today. But what strands of Old Testament hope served as the original basis for Jesus' saying that such things must be?
Probably various themes contributed to this portrait. (1) Psalm 118 (117:22 LXX) predicts the suffering of a regal figure. Some even link this imagery with Daniel 2 and 7, but there the presence of regal suffering is not so clear. However, the theme of rejection, as expressed in Luke, is reflected in Psalm 118. (2) The portrait of a suffering representative for the nation in Isaiah 52:13—53:12 easily suggests a representative role for Jesus that includes suffering. (3) The general biblical portrait of the righteous sufferer, as found in many psalms (18, 22, 32, 69), also supports this expectation. God's righteous ones often suffer at the hands of the world. Surely the One who is righteous and represents them would share in their journey. These three strands seem to be the biblical base for Jesus' remarks and his synthesis of Messiah's career. Since an emphasis on suffering was not a standard element of Jewish messianic hope (in fact, no Jewish messianic text found up to this time clearly refers to it), Jesus wanted to instruct his disciples about it and not use the title Messiah publicly to explain who he was until they understood all that was involved. They got the point eventually, as evidenced in Acts 2:24-33 by Peter's linking of the resurrection to Psalm 16, a psalm also about righteous suffering. Jesus will go the way of saints before him, and those who follow him must be ready to travel the same road.
Suffering is by nature hard, and it will take time for the disciples to understand that God's promised deliverer will indeed experience suffering, even death. In fact, the New Testament is clear that it took the events themselves to make the point acceptable to the disciples (24:13-36).
But Jesus' path also meant that these disciples lived in tension. They had access to many blessings through Jesus, but Jesus' departure meant that other blessings the Messiah would bring were yet to come. In addition, the world's harsh reaction to Jesus and those identified with him would continue until he returned.
So Jesus says that to follow him means walking in the path of the cross. Disciples are like their teacher. Whether that path involves "taking up the cross," "losing one's life" or "not being ashamed of the Son of Man," disciples need to understand that life in the world will not involve an easy, stressless trip into glory. The apostle Peter would write later that this road of trial to glory mirrors what Christ himself was predicted to experience—suffering and then glory (1 Pet 1:3-12).
The essence of discipleship is humility before God. That humility expresses itself as self-denial. Taking up the cross daily and following Jesus means approaching ministry in the world as he did. He served and gave of himself daily, even to the cultural ignominy of publicly bearing rejection on the cross (Acts 5:30; Gal 3:13). The Savior bore rejection and death for others, and the disciple must follow in the same path of service. We must be prepared to accept rejection as a given. Everything Jesus teaches his disciples in chapters 9—19 will underscore this point.
The tense sequence in verse 23 is important. Two aorist imperatives are followed by a present imperative. Two summary commands are issued: deny oneself and take up the cross (aorist imperatives). These are basic orientations of the disciple. Then the disciple can continually follow (present imperative) Jesus.
Jesus explains that to seek to preserve one's life will result in its loss, while giving one's life up will lead to its being saved. The remark's context is crucial. During Jesus' ministry, anyone concerned to maintain their reputation in Judaism would never come to Jesus, given the leadership's developing official rejection of him. Someone whose life and reputation in the public sphere were primary would never want to come to Jesus. But if they gave up a life of popular acclaim and acceptance to come to Jesus, they would gain deliverance. Jesus understood that trusting in God means nontrust in self and nonreliance on the security the world offers: Whoever loses his life for me will save it.
Jesus' explanation now goes a level deeper by probing the issue of gain and looking at the question spiritually. One can possess the world but lose one's soul and thus have nothing spiritually. By implication, it is far preferable to lose the world and gain one's soul. Such contrast between the world and a person's spiritual welfare is common in the New Testament (Jn 3:17, 19: 1 Cor 1:18-31; Gal 2:20; 2 Pet 1:4; 1 Jn 2:1516; Sasse 1965:888). Turn to God through Jesus and for his sake. Jesus made a similar commitment himself, when he turned down Satan's offer of all the power in the world (Lk 4:5-8).
So Jesus exhorts his disciples not to be ashamed of the Son of Man. The mention of shame reveals Jesus' concern about the persecution that will come to those who identify with him. In ancient Middle Eastern culture, personal shame was to be avoided at all costs. But to suffer shame while serving God can be a badge of honor, if one is in God's will (1 Cor 4:9-13).
Again Jesus calls himself the Son of Man. Only here it is the Son of Man of glory that is in view. One day he will render judgment. If some have not identified with Jesus, he will not identify with them in that day. So the stakes are high: the issue is one's soul. With Jesus, there is no doubt about one's fate.
In the midst of this warning Jesus offers a promise: some will not see death until they see the kingdom of God. Contextually this is a reference to the preview of glory some of the disciples get in the transfiguration, an event recorded in verses 28-36. Seen in light of Luke's development in the book, the arrival of the kingdom also is made visible in Jesus' current ministry (11:20; 17:20-21). In fact, the benefits of promise are distributed in Acts 2 (Lk 24:49 with Acts 2:30-36). So Jesus has in view both the preview of total glory and the initial arrival of promise as a result of his ministry. Those disciples who were present at the transfiguration, as well as those who shared in Pentecost, shared in the sneak preview of the kingdom's arrival before they "saw death."
The disciples are never to forget that they are associated with the Son of Man, the one who bears and comes with the glory of God. In suffering they imitate Christ. After the cross of suffering there is blessing and glory. Allegiance to Jesus in service to God and a needy world is worth the cost.