One day Jesus was praying alone. Only his disciples were with him. He asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say I am?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist. Others say Elijah. Still others say that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.’ ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Peter answered, ‘God’s Messiah.’ Jesus strongly warned them not to tell this to anyone. He said, ‘The Son of Man must suffer many things. The elders will not accept him. The chief priests and the teachers of the law will not accept him either. He must be killed and on the third day rise from the dead.’ Then he said to all of them, ‘Whoever wants to follow me must deny themselves. They must take up their cross every day and follow me. Whoever wants to save their life will lose it. But whoever loses their life for me will save it.
“One day Jesus was praying alone. Only his disciples were with him. He asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say I am?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist. Others say Elijah. Still others say that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.’ ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Peter answered, ‘God’s Messiah.’ “ (cf. verse 18-20)
What does this word of God want to tell us today for our journey with Christ? This is about revelation, and revelation always happens in silence before God, that is, in a kind of prayer room. That is why the event described here also takes place in a prayer room, as it were, when Jesus prays in solitude and his disciples are with him.
This is about the revelation of the question: Who are you, Christ? Jesus is the questioner here, but also the questioned. What is asked is the opinion of the crowd and the three different opinions of the people are, as it were, the background for Peter's confession that follows. Some believe he is John the Baptist, others think he is Elijah or one of the ancient prophets.
But then comes Jesus' direct question to the apostles and thus also to each of us today who call ourselves Christians: "Who do you think I am?" Peter's answer is literally, "For Christ, that is, the Anointed of God." This is translated in the German text as "Messiah". Christ or the Anointed One of God, however, is the one in whom the entire Old Testament law and all the promises for Israel find their fulfilment and who belongs entirely to God. The same title that Peter gives Jesus here is later used by the elders of Israel when they mock Jesus under the cross: "The Messiah, the King of Israel! Let him now come down from the cross, that we may see and believe" (Mk 15:32; cf. also Mt 27:40-42 and Lk 23:35). Thus this confession of Peter already points to the end. At the same time, Peter's primacy is also emphasised in this passage, for all the disciples agree with Peter's confession. He has spoken for all of them.
“Jesus strongly warned them not to tell this to anyone. He said, ‘The Son of Man must suffer many things. The elders will not accept him. The chief priests and the teachers of the law will not accept him either. He must be killed and on the third day rise from the dead.’“ (cf. verse 21-22)
At this point it becomes clear: Jesus is not against this title of the "Christos", the "Anointed of God", but he wants this confession to still be kept in silence, because only when the following v. 22 is fulfilled, when all this has happened, only then does this confession fully apply, only then has Jesus really proven himself to be the "Anointed of God". Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed of God, only and only as the one who suffered, as the one who died and as the one who was raised from the dead. The prohibition is therefore in a sense "limited" until Easter.
(The fact that verses 21 and 22 actually belong together is indicated in Greek by the participle: "eipon" ειπων). The next verse is connected with the participle, so to speak, i.e. both verses also belong together inseparably in terms of content. Only when death, resurrection etc. have happened, then this title is fulfilled in the fullest sense and then the disciples are to confess Jesus as the "Christos". Jesus' Messiahship is therefore not only to be kept secret for the time being, but is to be thought of completely together with his suffering, with his death and resurrection, for these are the explanation and the content of the title, as already foretold by the prophet Isaiah in the Song of the Servant of God.
Jesus, however, does not take up Peter's title of Christ, but rather speaks of himself as the Son of Man. This is a sovereign title that Daniel already used. The meaning of this revelation of the mystery of Jesus as the Son of Man already shines in this divine "must" (Greek "dei" - δει): He must suffer many things, he must be rejected, he must be killed and he must rise again. This "must" carries everything. It reminds us of the promise made and points to the Scriptures, namely to the "Servant of God" of the prophet Isaiah, in which all this is already described and promised. The word "The Son of Man must suffer many things" refers to the whole fate of Jesus. The words "suffer", "rejected", "killed" are in the infinitive in Greek, i.e. they designate as a matter of course what will and must happen to Christ from men. And also the passive form: "He will be raised", again corresponds to this divine "must". It is the plan of God and belongs inseparably to the title of Messiah.
"Then he said to all of them, ‘Whoever wants to follow me must deny themselves. They must take up their cross every day and follow me.“ (cf. verse 23)
Up to this point, Jesus has spoken of himself, of his personal destiny. But now he is speaking, as it were, to all who were around him, not only to the disciples - and thus not least also to us who read and contemplate the Gospel today. It is the law of following Christ that applies to all people and to all times.
The call to follow the cross always shows only the way we are to go, not the goal. The first two imperatives: "he denies" and "he takes up his cross", i.e. self-denial and readiness to follow, are not two completely different conditions for following Christ. Rather, self-denial only becomes concrete and realised by following Christ, by taking up the cross daily.
The word self-denial sounds a bit strange to us today, because actually everyone wants to "realise themselves". And this endeavour is nothing bad in itself. But what does Jesus mean when he calls us to deny ourselves? It is about a resolute "no" to one's own ego, that is, to one's own egoism, to this "wanting to be like God", to wanting to determine everything oneself and not be dependent on God. But self-denial in the biblical sense means: I follow Christ and not myself. Prof. Schlier explains this word as follows: To surrender myself in radical renunciation of myself, not only of my sins. To embrace one's own death with determination. This, then, is the meaning of the Greek word "deny oneself". "To take up one's cross", on the other hand, means quite concretely the lifting and raising of the cross-post that the condemned had to carry to the place of judgement. Transferred to our lives, this means: we should not simply lift the cross that befalls us daily in our profession and vocation, indeed in our whole life, a little and then immediately let it fall again, but lift it on our shoulders and really carry it. Just like the condemned, we too are not to resist our cross, but to accept it completely - and to do so "daily". I.e. the very concrete discomforts and afflictions of Christian life or even the persecutions for the sake of our faith: Persecution, being ridiculed, being mocked, not being understood. A very concrete call of Jesus to me. Finally, the third imperative: "follow me" means to walk the way of the cross that Jesus went before.
These are the three steps in following Jesus:
the resolute no to my ego;
accepting and bearing the daily cross that the Christian life entails, and
the personal following of Jesus on my own way of the cross.
“Whoever wants to save their life will lose it. But whoever loses their life for me will save it.“ (cf. verse 24)
These last words of today's Gospel make it very clear once again that the demand of the preceding word also includes the readiness for martyrdom. Following Christ can also mean quite concretely to go all the way to Jerusalem, that is, to real martyrdom.
But whoever wants to escape the dangerous situation of following Jesus in order to save his life will lose life in the coming judgement and will not gain the coming eternal life. Jesus then speaks courage to those who are afraid of possible martyrdom and makes it clear: such martyrdom will not take away real life, but on the contrary will save real life beyond the judgement. Those who have committed themselves to following Christ all the way to Jerusalem, perhaps even to actual death, will save true life. That it is really about the concrete decision for Christ and his discipleship is made clear by the word "for my sake".
In this Gospel, Jesus first explains the content of the title of Messiah - mocked, persecuted, killed, resurrected, etc. - but then invites his disciples and all those who are with him to go with him on this path to Jerusalem with all the consequences of self-denial, of taking up the daily cross, yes, of following Christ - if need be, even to the point of martyrdom. And here we too must ask ourselves again: Is my being a Christian really the Christianity of a disciple who is ready to follow Christ, and really follows him with all the consequences, from self-denial and taking up the daily cross, up to this readiness: Lord, if you want it, you will also give me the strength to give my life for you! ∎