All Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (1995 Ed.)
V. 21) The “time” that marks the beginning of the events of this passage is when Jesus has entered the far northern Jewish area of Caesarea Philippi, and has found out that Peter and the other eleven apostles believe that He’s the Messiah, and Son of God (vss. 13, 16). In response to Peter’s acknowledgement of His identity on behalf of the other apostles, Jesus forbids them from telling anyone that He’s the Messiah (v. 20).
Now that His disciples believe this, Jesus demolishes their expectations and hopes of what kind of King and Savior He is by foretelling His suffering and death. First, He tells them that He needs to go to Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel, to die. However, they believed that the Messiah would reign over Israel from Jerusalem. Second, He says that He’ll be mistreated and murdered by “the elders and chief priests and scribes”. The elders were considered to be some of the wisest men of Israel, and served as its political leaders. The chief priests were the managers of the temple, and viewed as the most able representatives for the Jews before God. Finally, the scribes were respected as experts in the contents of the Old Testament Scriptures. Nevertheless, these leaders of Israel were the very ones whom Jesus said would mistreat and murder Him. The disciples probably were expecting that the Messiah would be embraced by them, but Jesus promises them that they’ll reject Him.
Despite all this bad news for the disciples, Jesus doesn’t fail to include the fact that He’ll be “raised on the third day”. This means that He’ll be raised from the dead on the third day from His death. In the Jewish thinking of that day, it was commonly believed that someone wasn’t to be considered truly dead until the third day from their death. His prolonged burial would evidence the fact that He was indeed dead, and therefore had certainly been raised.
Vss. 22-23) Despite the fact that Jesus promises His resurrection, Peter, the main leader among the disciples, can’t stand Jesus’s seemingly contradictory statements about the Messiah. Hence, he brings Him apart from the rest of the disciples, and chastises Him for promising such horrific events. He arrogantly, ignorantly, and foolishly declares that Jesus won’t suffer at the hands of the Jewish leaders, and die.
Therefore, Jesus “turns” toward Peter, having just been speaking these things to the rest of the disciples, and rebukes Peter. He starts by commanding him to “get behind” Him, instead of standing in His way to Jerusalem. Then, He condemns him for his rebuke by calling him “Satan”, which literally means “adversary” or “opponent”. However, since He uses the word derived from the Aramaic name for the devil, it’s safe to assume that He’s implying that Peter is acting like the devil himself would. How? Jesus explains that he’s acting like a “stumbling block”, or a trap meant to make Him fall from His advance to Jerusalem. The reason He says Peter’s acting like this is he’s failing to focus on what God desires, and is instead pursuing natural, evil, and worldly human desires — the interests of “man”.
Like the rest of the disciples, Peter didn’t want the Messiah to die when He got to Jerusalem, but to establish His kingdom over Israel, remove the Romans from their oppressive rule over the Jews, and bring physical, earthly, prosperity to the nation. This would usher in God’s ultimate kingdom on earth, bringing the new, eternal, heavenly bliss to the Jews that they thought the Old Testament promised. However, God’s purposes were to send His Messiah and Son to be arrested, killed, and raised from the dead. Peter was vigorously opposing God’s work, since he desired earthly glory and honor, rather than God’s intended means to bring spiritual glory and honor to His Messiah, and His people.
Vss. 24-27) Either because Peter chastised Jesus in the hearing of other disciples, or simply because Jesus took Peter’s sin as an indication that the others thought the same way, Jesus now warns them of the radical requirements of being His disciple. In light of the fact that He’d just foretold His rejection, suffering, and death, Jesus first demands that any of His disciples that want to follow Him to Jerusalem must “deny” themselves. The word “deny” means “abandon”, “give up”, or “forsake”. In other words, unlike Peter, who had just shown that he was consumed with himself, they needed to give up their selfish interests, and their devotion to themselves. Further, He demands that they carry their “cross” to follow Him.
The expression He uses would have been very familiar to them, since the execution of the Roman cross was notorious in Israel. It was the most humiliating, and most excruciating method of execution in the Roman world, and was only reserved for those the Romans deemed to be the worst criminals. Those condemned to suffer crucifixion, as Jesus was, were forced to carry the cross beam of the cross to their death site, making the shame and suffering all the worse. By telling His disciples to figuratively carry “their cross”, Jesus was telling them that they needed to be willing to suffer the most humiliating death, if that’s what it meant to imitate and obey Him.
In verse 25, Jesus begins to explain why it’s necessary that His disciples give their selfishness up, and follow Him in suffering. The first reason is that anyone who wants to preserve his selfish, worldly, life, will lose it eventually, but those who give up their present lives because of Him will discover true life. To put it another way, seeking self-preservation will bring them death, but being willing to die for Jesus will bring them spiritual life.
In the next verse, Jesus argues the reasonableness of His demands by asking His disciples how someone will ultimately benefit if they get everything the world has to offer, but lose their “soul”. By “soul”, Jesus means the essential element of a person, which includes his ability to live a productive life, to enjoy God’s gifts, and to reflect God’s character. The answer is clearly “in no way” will such a person benefit, even if he gains the whole world. Without his soul, he won’t be able to enjoy the world. And if he loses his soul, Jesus adds, he can’t “give” anything “in exchange” for it, to get it back. Why? Because nothing anyone possesses is as valuable to them as their soul.
In verse 27, Jesus gives the reason that all these assertions about what His disciples do with their lives, and what will result, are true and valid. That reason is “the Son of Man” will “come in the glory of His Father with His angels”. The title, “the Son of Man”, is an allusion to a prophecy in Daniel 7:13-14, where the messianic person “like a son of man” is promised to be presented before God, and given authority to rule over all of mankind forever, and to be served by them. By saying that He’ll come in His Father’s “glory”, Jesus means that God’s divine power and presence will be put on display through His coming to the earth. He says that He’ll come with the Father’s angels because they will be the spiritual beings used to execute judgment on His enemies. This judgment will be part of His work in “repaying” everyone according to what they’ve done. Because He’ll reward everyone as their actions deserve, Jesus is right in saying that those who cling to their selfish lives will lose them, and that their souls will be taken away from them, even if they could enjoy all the pleasures, riches, and honors of this present world. If they live to enjoy this world, then the Son of Man will punish them for refusing to obey Him by denying themselves, and following Him in wholehearted devotion. On the other hand, they’ll be rewarded with true life and the fulfillment of their souls if they do give themselves up, and follow Him.
V. 28) Jesus presents evidence of His future coming in kingly judgment by promising that some of His disciples will actually see the Son of Man “coming in His kingdom” before they “taste death”. By “taste death”, Jesus simply means experiencing death, so the group of them that would see this event would see it before they died. But what does He mean by His “coming in His kingdom”? Well, it clearly has to be an event that happens before the last living disciple dies, narrowing it down to one of the major acts of Christ in the 1st century. Further, it’s a manifestation of His “kingdom”, or spiritual reign manifested in His work through the Holy Spirit. Therefore, it makes the most sense to see the “coming” of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost as fitting this description. It was then that Jesus came through the Person of God the Holy Spirit, and began to rule over His spiritual kingdom through His indwelling presence of the disciples, and His many works through their miracles and preaching. Jesus could say that only some of His disciples would see this, at the least, because Judas would die soon, many days before Pentecost.