Embracing the Cross
Topic: Stand-alone Messages Passage: Matthew 26:36–26:46, Matthew 10:37–10:39, Matthew 16:24–16:26
As would be expected at Easter season, we as a church family have in recent days been considering the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. This past week I have found myself reflecting on the meaning of the word, “passion.”
Like so many terms that have been hijacked by contemporary culture, this word used to mean something other than how it is typically used today. More often than not, we find it within the context of sexual desire or lust. At least that is what the producers of movies or writers of songs seem to imply when it appears in their titles. There is even a perfume named “Passion,” which promises to turn the heads of men when the woman wearing it passes by. In its more general sense, however, “passion” refers to “an intense emotion, a compelling enthusiasm, or a great desire for something or someone.”
It may interest you to know that our English word, “passion” is derived from the Greek verb “πασχω,” which is nearly always used in the New Testament in reference to “the condition of suffering,” including “the endurance of suffering.”
Therefore, when we refer to “the Passion of Christ” we are speaking specifically of the intense suffering that Jesus endured in securing salvation for His people. Although suffering may be said to have been the theme of His entire life—living, as He did, as a stranger in a land that was not His true home—the period of the Passion is generally considered to have begun when Jesus entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday and extended through His crucifixion five days later.
As I reread from Scripture the events of that week, I tried to imagine the last agonizing hours that Jesus spent with His disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane shortly before His arrest. As He anticipated the events that would transpire and He would endure, not even our deepest imaginings are able to fully reveal what the Savior must have been thinking and feeling. And although the information found in the Scriptures is sparse, thanks to the Synoptic writers, we are granted a glimpse into that holy scene.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke each recount that evening, and their record is quite consistent. Luke adds a detail not found in the other two accounts, but he omits other details that Matthew and Mark do record. Perhaps because Matthew was an eyewitness to what took place that night, and so we will focus primarily upon His testimony this morning.
Therefore, I encourage you to follow along in your Bible as I read from Matthew 26, verses 36 through 46. It is here that we find these sobering words:
36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” 37 And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here and watch with me.” 39 Then going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
40 And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So could you not watch with me one hour? 41 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” 43 And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. 45 Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”
What we find in this passage and its parallel counterparts is an expression of the agony Jesus experienced as the surrounding events—each orchestrated by God’s Providence—were rapidly unfolding and would lead to His crucifixion. And despite knowing full well what He was about to experience,
Jesus embraced the cross in order to die for us (Matthew 26:36-46)
There are three short acts to the passage we just read, and each demonstrates a willing submission of Jesus’ part to the will of His Heavenly Father. Let’s look at them one at a time. Act One is described in verses 36 through 41.
The Passover observance has ended and Jesus has led His disciples beyond the eastern wall of Jerusalem to a garden located at the foot of the Mount of Olives. It was a familiar place, a place where He often met with them in quiet conversation, away from the “hustle and bustle” of the city. But this night would be different from all of their previous gatherings, for it would be the final time He would be with His closest companions before the cross would call Him away.
Jesus had a purpose for taking them to that spot, and it was not to carry on the normal teaching time and conversation they so many times had enjoyed. On this night it was to pray...to pray alone in anticipation of the cross that He must bear alone.
At first it looked like three of the disciples—Peter, James, and John—would join Him in prayer. But no, as the grief of His impending departure from them intensified, He told them to remain behind while He proceeded a little farther where He would enter into holy discourse with the Father. He left them with these words, “Remain here and watch with me.”
Arriving as if to a predetermined spot, the text says that “He fell on his face and prayed.” The description is significant. It doesn’t say that He knelt, bowed His head, and prayed. Instead, it says that “He fell on his face (as if suddenly and uncontrollably) and prayed.” Not a carefully crafted prayer, mind you, but a spontaneous and earnest prayer...one borne out of a “sorrowful and troubled” heart, as its content reveals: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” And then, as if overwhelmed by His eternal union with the Father, He adds, “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
It is difficult for us to imagine the level of personal submission, the depth of devotion to the Father, and the undiluted commitment to God’s eternal purpose that it took to make such a statement when the hour of trial was most intense. You and I may utter those words when not very much is at stake, but I want you to imagine saying them when you are fully aware that the Father’s will is leading you to a torturous and agonizing death...death on a cross.
It is here that Luke inserts something that Matthew does not tell us. In chapter 22 (verse 44) of that writer’s Gospel, we read, “And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” What a graphic description of the internal turmoil being endured by Son of God.
Composing Himself sufficiently to return to the disciples whom He had asked to “watch” with Him, He finds them sleeping. Luke tells us that it was a sleep borne out of their “sorrow” (Luke 22:45). Rousing Peter, the disciple with whom He seems to have been closest, Jesus asks, “So could you not watch with me one hour?” And then He instructs him again, saying, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Who among us cannot say “amen” to those words? How often we say them in admitting our own “human weakness.” How often our “spirit indeed is willing, but (our) flesh is (oh so) weak.” It has been crudely said that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” In a similar vein, the Apostle Paul admitted in Romans 7:18, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” That is because none of us are able to “do the good” that Jesus did...both in living life or in facing death.
Act Two takes place in verses 42 and 43, and Matthew records it with brevity. Jesus leaves the disciples a second time and once again enters into prayer. The words He addresses to the Father this time are somewhat modified: “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” In the first prayer, He had said, “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me;” but here He says, “If this cannot pass unless I drink it.” This time there is a sense of resignation and inevitability heard in Jesus’ words. The “cup” would not pass. He must “drink” it...all of it.
Returning to them again, He finds the disciples again having fallen asleep. It had been a long and emotional evening for them as well, as they sensed Jesus’ rising sorrow.
Act Three is found in verses 44 through 46. For a final time He leaves them in order to pray, and here we are told that the content of His prayer was similar in nature to the first two. Undeterred by the emotion of the hour, Jesus is now more resigned to the task He had been sent to fulfill. All of the necessary preliminary events had transpired, and the plan which God had drawn up concerning the death of Christ was about to reach its culmination. Coming to the disciples this time, He alerts them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.”
Please notice that, rather than recoiling in fear from the inevitable outcome, Jesus faces it head-on. “Rise, let us be going” he tells them. “My betrayer is at hand.” Instead, the Savior is seen embracing the cross upon which He was about to die.
Permit me to make a few observations as we reflect upon this brief three-act drama that took place on that fateful night. For one thing you and I cannot mentally grasp how much Jesus was able to be tempted and endure. His prayers in Gethsemane reveal this. But consider that if Jesus had given in to the temptation to bypass the cross, no one (let me say that again, no one) would ever be saved. If Jesus had refused to drink the cup of suffering set before Him, Satan’s domain would never end and the Kingdom of God would never come.
But allow me to press on that a little harder. Even the smallest step away from the will of the Father would have equated to blatant disobedience and rebellion before God. The tiniest blemish or imperfection would have permanently disqualified Jesus as the spotless Lamb of God. In fact, if Jesus had sinned even once throughout His entire life, then He Himself would have needed a savior. But no other savior would have come for either Him or for unredeemed humanity because no other such redeemer existed. Thus, Jesus embraced the cross...for God and for us.
Have you stopped to consider how trivial the trials and temptations that storm your life are in comparison to what Jesus endured? In order to demonstrate the sinlessness and unblemished character of Jesus, God granted Satan “the hour” and the authority to do all he desired to do to Jesus. And Satan purposed to torture and torment Jesus beyond the capacity of all previous human suffering combined.
That Satan would find no weakness in Jesus by no means reduces the intensity of Satan’s attack. Quite the contrary. We do not know exactly how Satan and his hordes tormented Jesus...we only know that they did. But where hate raged, Divine love reigned. Because of His love for lost sinners, and that includes you and me, Jesus would not relinquish His hold on the cross. In fact, He embraced it on our behalf.
You may be here this morning never having been confronted by the fact that you are a sinner. Look around you... that person sitting next to you or in front of you is also a sinner. We are all sinners, and we all desperately need a Savior. That is because our “first parent” Adam chose to sin, and by his one act of sin his guilt has fallen upon us all.
We are born into a realm of sin that we did not choose, but are nevertheless affected it. Consequently, we are under the same condemnation that Adam experienced. Adam’s sin may have been a simple act, but at its heart was a defiant act of disobedience. The creature willingly rebelled against his Creator. Yet even beyond this is a deeply sobering truth: one sin resulted in the death of God’s Son.
You see, on the day that Jesus Christ died the sins of lost people were placed upon Him. All of the painful physical, emotional, and spiritual agony that was meant for us was poured out in full measure upon Him. To use a biblical term, Jesus “propitiated” (cf. 1 John 2:2) the wrath of an infinitely Holy God on our behalf. And we know that this offering of Himself was accepted by God because three days later He was raised from the grave!
Today we stand on the side on the cross where we can see its work as complete. But we must not minimize the fact that all of the events leading up to the cross—before the first spike was ever driven into His hands and His feet or the crown of thorns affixed to His brow—Jesus anticipated and even embraced the cross so that His Father might be glorified and sinners like you and me saved from the torment of an eternal hell.
But the story does not end there. There is yet a sequel that is imperative to understand if the death and resurrection of Jesus is to mean anything for us personally. Just as He embraced the cross in order to die for us, so...
We embrace the cross in order to live for Him (Matthew 10:37-39 and 16:24-26)
Jesus had made reference to the cross earlier in His ministry while giving preliminary instruction to His disciples. At that time it is unlikely that any of them would have known that He was actually beginning to preview the manner and necessity of His death. And surely, they could not have envisioned the fact that to follow Jesus would mean to lay down their own lives. And yet, that is precisely what we find when we read from Matthew 10, verses 37 through 39. These words would have been quite shocking when they were first heard, just as they remain for us today. Jesus speaks...
37 “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
The cross was the symbol of death. Anyone living in the Roman Empire in the 1st-century would have immediately caught the significance of Jesus’ words. But wasn’t He just speaking metaphorically here? That’s what many modern scholars tell us. Sure, there is a measure of “sacrifice” associated with following Jesus, but certainly He didn’t mean to insinuate that it could cost someone his or her life to be a Christian, did He?
Were we to probe a little deeper into Matthew’s Gospel, we would see that this is precisely what Jesus was demanding. Please turn over to Matthew 16 with me, where we find Jesus instructing His disciples in verses 24 through 26 with these words:
24 “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”
It is actually Luke who develops Jesus’ teaching on this subject more fully. And he does so in two passages, employing the same terminology Matthew does in his account. You don’t need to turn there, but listen as I read from Luke 9:
“And he (Jesus) said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels” (Luke 9:23-26).
Note here that the theme of the cross resurfaces. Jesus is clearly calling for a radical commitment. Anyone who lays claim to being a “Jesus-follower” must be willing to replace his or her own desires with the willingness to “daily” embrace their cross, just as Jesus embraced His cross. What that suggests is that living for Jesus is not a “part-time” thing.
So let’s be clear about something. When Jesus speaks of our “crosses, He is not referring to the “annoyances” and “inconveniences” that we face with varying degrees of frequency in our lives. Clearly, He is speaking of something far more serious in nature. The context of both Matthew and Luke demands that a “life-and-death” matter is at stake. Those who would follow Jesus must be willing to embrace their cross, just as Jesus embraced His.
It means being willing to identify with Christ in His death...a death in which being misunderstood, rejected, and cruelly abused is part and parcel. Jesus is not calling on His disciples to adopt a “martyr’s complex,” but He is giving fair warning that following Him involves “total commitment.”
The Apostle Paul was someone who became aware of this after meeting the risen Jesus. He would later write of his desire to “know him and the power of his resurrection” and that he might “share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10). A person has to be truly committed to something or someone in order to be willing to die for that cause. And isn’t that the very definition of “passion”? Therefore, when we think of “the Passion of our Lord Jesus,” it is a similar “passion” that compels His followers to take up and bear their crosses.
It is not a commitment to be entered into lightly. Listen again to the Gospel-writer Luke, this time from chapter 14 (verses 27 through 33):
“Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and in not able to finish it, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”
Jesus often spoke hard words like these to those who thought they had what it took to be His disciple. The truth is, none of have “what it takes.” We must come to the cross empty-handed. Indeed, the only thing at all we have to offer is our total surrender to Him.
For most people, that requirement is too demanding. Even in Jesus’ day, we read that many who at one time had professed being His disciples, “turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66). That is why He tells us to “count the cost.”
You may have never considered a commitment to Jesus Christ in this way. He did not die the death He died so that He might become a “tack-on” in your life...a “check” in the “religious box of life.” The cross embraced by Jesus in order to die for us is the same cross that we embrace in order to live for Him.
When I say the “same cross,” I am implying that you must enter into the experience of Christ’s death by recognizing that it was a death He died for you personally. There is no other way to have a relationship with the Father but through the Son and the work He accomplished on the cross. Or to put it another way, there is no life apart from the blessed truth that Jesus Christ has died “once and for all” for sin. To see its application for you personally and to embrace it for yourself to have life forevermore. To neglect it or to reject it is to forfeit any hope of life beyond this one. Therefore, we must embrace the same cross that Christ embraced when He died for our sin.
I’m not sure what brings you to this service this morning. Perhaps not even you are certain. There is One, however, who does know why you are here...and that is the Lord. I can assure you are here not by accident or chance. You are here by Divine appointment. Just as God providentially orchestrated the events that led Jesus Christ to the cross, so you have come today because His sovereignty has guided you to the chair where you are now seated. Therefore, I ask that you pay careful attention to what I am about to say.
It could just be that this is the opportunity He has provided for you to come face-to-face with the true meaning of Easter. Both the cross and the tomb of Jesus are empty this morning because His work there is “finished” (cf. John 19:30). But maybe—just maybe—His work in your life is just beginning.
Have you ever considered that Jesus embraced the cross so that He could fight on your behalf, entering into the conflict in which your soul was the prize? The forces of darkness were holding you in their grip until the Son of God was sent on a rescue mission to set you free. And though it cost Him His life, a life He would reclaim when He emerged from the tomb three days later, the cost was not too great for Him to pay.
The Gospel is called “Good News” because it addresses the most serious problem that we as human beings face, and that problem is that God is holy and just and we are not. At the end of our lives we are going to stand before this just and holy God in order to be judged. And we will be judged either on the basis of our own righteousness—or lack thereof—or the righteousness of Another. The “Good News” of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ lived a life of perfect righteousness—of perfect obedience to God—in order to be the perfect substitute for His people. He has done for us what we could never possibly do for ourselves. And not only has He lived that life of perfect obedience, He has also offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice to satisfy the justice and righteousness of God.
Therefore, the Gospel is the message of Jesus. From cover to cover, the Bible is the story of who Jesus is and what He did. Furthermore, it makes clear that we cannot justify ourselves by our own works or efforts, but only by His grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The only way you can receive the benefit of Christ’s life and death is by putting your trust in Him...and in Him alone. When you do that, you are declared righteous by God and made a member of His family. You are forgiven all your sins, and you have entered into His life which knows no end.
Jesus embraced the cross for you. The question on this Easter Sunday is, are you embracing it in order to live for Him?