Jesus does not end his conversation with Peter with a rebuke. Rather Peter’s challenge to Jesus’ mission serves as the impetus for Jesus to make his clearest statement about the nature of discipleship in the Gospel of Matthew. In 16:24, Jesus articulates clearly and positively what it means to live as a follower of Jesus Christ.
NIV Matthew 16:24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
Verse 24 serves as the center of Jesus’ portrait of discipleship.
A Key Assumption
Before looking at the details of this verse, we need to put this passage into its proper context. The Gospel of Matthew needs to be read in a missional context. Discipleship at its heart is missional. Jesus calls disciples in order to multiply his own work of making disciples. This is clear in the climactic passage of Matthew (28:16-20). This text, better known as the Great Commission, centers on Jesus’ exhortation to “Make disciples.” Thus, we need to read 16:24 and its call to discipleship within this overarching framework of mission which undergirds Matthew’s portrait of discipleship.
Discipleship implies movement. Look at our text. “If anyone would come after me…follow me.” This verse begins and ends with words about movement. At its heart, being a disciple of Jesus involves movement. Why movement? If we desire to be missional, we have to embody a “go to” mentality rather than waiting for the world to come to us. As we read through the Gospel, Jesus was always on the move. He didn’t wait for persons to come to him. He moved around the countryside and served the people as he met them in their own contexts. Furthermore, when large crowds did surround him, Jesus slipped away and moved on to others who needed him.
Discipleship simply means following Jesus. Too often today we think of “following Jesus” as “following Jesus’ teachings.” This is correct as far as it goes. As Jesus’ disciples we are to be shaped by a Jesus ethos. Yet, Matthew goes out of his way to make it clear that the Risen Christ resides with His Church on Mission. Matthew’s Gospel is framed by two references to Jesus’ presence: 1:23 and 28:20.
NIV 23 “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”–which means, “God with us.”
NIV Matthew 28:20b And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Thus, following Jesus involves literally following our Risen Savior into the world for mission. Jesus resides with his people.
To where does Jesus ask us to follow him? As we read the Gospel we find many clues:
1) To those desperate for the things that only God can provide. Jesus routinely interacted and served those on the margins of society: lepers, blind, tax collectors, demoniacs, children, etc (see especially Matthew 8-9).
2) To the crowds who were “harassed and hurting as sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus served those neglected by the religious and righteous of his day. Jesus motivated by compassion (9:35-38) called on his disciples to look upon the fields ripe for harvest and to pray that God would send additional workers. In 10:1ff, Jesus empowers and sends out the twelve to serve the world.
3) Perhaps most radically for his original Jewish audience, Jesus reached out to all nations. This is subtle in most of the Gospel. Jesus’ earthly mission was to the people of Israel. There are exceptions, such as the healing of the Centurion’s servant (8:5-13). The Genealogy also suggests that Jesus has a wider mission by tracing his lines back to Abraham. As Son of Abraham, Jesus lived to fulfill the promise to Abraham from Genesis 12:3 “all peoples will be blessed through you.” The scope of Jesus’ mission becomes clear in 28:16-20. There the Risen Jesus unleashes his disciples into the world to “make disciples of all nations.”
Thus, we may conclude that if we seek to follow Jesus, Jesus will lead us to serve and make disciples of all peoples. He will call on us to break down boundaries that separate people. He will push us to pay attention to the very people that polite society and self-absorbed religionists are happy to ignore.
1) To whom is Jesus leading me?
2) Have I embraced mission as the principle function of following Jesus
3) How would my life be different if I embraced movement as essential to discipleship?
© 2015 Brian D. Russell