Jesus the Messiah cannot be understood apart from his crucifixion. Jesus’ death on the cross is God’s answer to the disasters of Genesis 3–11. Even more, it is in Jesus’ submission to death on the cross that we see fullest glimpse of humanity as God intended and richest demonstration of God’s love for his creation. Jesus’ death subverts all human claims to power and salvation. Jesus’ death stands as the New Exodus event that liberates humanity for life in God’s kingdom. It casts the final word on injustice, power politics, cynicism, cruelty, disease, transgressions, and all other creation-depleting realities found in our post-Genesis 3 world. It stands as God’s model for resisting the suffocating status quo of the Empire in all its forms. The four Gospels move from their various beginnings relentlessly to the death of Jesus.
The institution of the Lord’s Supper creates a community shaping ritual that centers the Christ following movement on the death of Jesus (Matt 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:14-23). Its links to the Passover in Israel’s Scripture are obvious. The Christ following movement remembers Jesus’ death through the sharing of bread and wine. The focus rests on the Jesus’ death as the sign of God’s New Covenant (Mark 14:24 and Luke 22:20) and antidote to sin (Matt 26:28). Additionally, all the Synoptics regard the ritual as an anticipatory sign of the full consummation of God’s future Kingdom. The missional implications are clear. Christ followers witness to the world of the reality of Jesus’ life and work through participation as a community in the remembering of his death on the Cross. This ritual proclaims to the world that this past event holds the keys to God’s future.
Furthermore, descriptions of discipleship are intimately linked with the cross. Jesus calls disciples to follow him. But all four Gospels emphasize the potential and real cost of such following by linking it with cross bearing. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record some form of Jesus’ radical invitation/warning about discipleship: If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and continually follow me. John’s Gospel ends with Jesus’ restoration of Peter, which includes a statement about Peter’s future death as a result of following Jesus. The power of the Cross in a disciple’s life is that it relentlessly calls for God’s people to die up front to our human inclination for self-preservation as the key to unlocking a true power for living. The Cross of Jesus is an affront to all human mythologies of status, honor, power, and authentic living. By dying, disciples find true life. Moreover the Cross is a radical challenge to status and honor. In the ancient world, crucifixion was reserved for those of low status (slaves) or rebels against the Roman empire. In other words Jesus’ death on the cross was more than only a sacrificial death on our behalf—I am in no way marginalizing this tectonic reality. But Jesus’ death represents a subversive challenge to the power structures of our world by defeating such claims by Jesus’ willingness to embrace a lowly status as the means to discovering an authentic power that comes through God alone.
But we must also connect Jesus’ death with his resurrection on the third day. The cross is a powerful symbol on its own, but it is God’s raising of Jesus from the grave that fully demonstrates its power and announces God’s triumph over evil, death, and sin. The resurrection makes it clear that Jesus’ death was no mere martyr’s death but rather the true announcement and way to God’s future. A missional hermeneutic understands the cross and resurrection as the dual sided testimony of God’s ultimate victory for all creation. All four Gospels reach their climax in the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Each Gospel has its own emphases and themes but all move relentlessly and purposively to the crucifixion and resurrection. The word is clear: Jesus cannot be fully understood apart from the cross and its vindication through the empty tomb.
What does a cross-centered discipleship ultimately mean? To offer the lens of Matthew from 16:24 we discover that embracing the cross is the means to freeing God’s people to live fully for the values and mission of the Kingdom of God. A missional reading emphasizes the moment-by-moment nature of following Jesus into the world on mission. The cross becomes the symbol of the movement. The call to self-denial and taking up the cross is more than merely embracing an ascetic mode of living. It is rather a radical and steadfast refusal to value one’s own life before the mission of God. It is the opposite of Peter’s actions on the night of Jesus’ betrayal that permitted him to save his life at the expense of his relationship with Jesus. To take up the cross is a rich metaphor that described the last action taken by condemned persons on their way to their execution. Embracing the cross truly frees a person because once a person is dead to self, he or she is fully freed to follow Jesus audaciously into the darkest places on earth to announce the good news of the Kingdom.
In sum, the backdrop of Matthew’s view of discipleship is the death of Jesus on the Cross. The Cross is paradigmatic for the life of discipleship (Matt 10:38; 16:24). The cruciform life defines the essence of following Jesus Christ. Jesus’ death on the cross is the ground of salvation. Matthew does not provide a detail discussion of the “how” of atonement, but instead simply states its reality (e.g., Matt 1:21; 8:17 [cf Isa 53:4]; 26:28). Modern Christ followers must resist any pragmatic or theologically driven attempts to whitewash or marginalize the centrality of the Cross. Jesus’ call to “deny oneself and take up the cross” is a counter-cultural and revolutionary. It envisions a movement of Christ followers who live as dead (wo)men walking—persons who have died up front to self so that they can follow Jesus into the world to bring the Gospel to those who desperately need it. Mission assumes that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is the defining reality for our world.