Good Friday’s Theology of the Cross (Matthew 20:17-28)

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Good Friday is one of my favourite holydays. In South Africa, Good Friday is a public holiday, and we are privileged as Christian churches to meet for worship on this day. It is a service I rarely do not preach.

I love Good Friday because the cross is central to Christianity. There are many “languages” or “grammars” of the atonement: various “languages” by which the saving work of Christ on the cross is presented. For example, the victory of Christ at Calvary can be portrayed in terms of a battlefield, marketplace, exile, temple, or law court. But the single most irreducible theme that runs through every one of these is the idea of substitution.

The substitutionary death of Jesus on behalf of sinners is consoling and appealing. Though on that particular Friday the Lord Jesus suffered much, nevertheless He also accomplished much. He accomplished the salvation of His people (Isaiah 53:1-12), the defeat of the devil and his demons (Colossians 2:14-15), the glorifying of His Father (John 12:27-28), the vindication of His nature/personhood (Matthew 27:54) and the setting in motion for His exaltation (Philippians 2:5-11). His suffering was the means of his success. That is why we call it Good Friday.

Yet as I have contemplated the cross of Christ in recent times—particularly as it relates to both Good Friday and its contemporary meaning in my life—I have been sobered by the reality that, though Christianity is deeply rooted in the matter of suffering, I nevertheless don’t like to suffer at all. In fact, I do all I can to avoid it.

In many ways, though I deeply appreciate the Good Friday, I would rather hurry up and get to Sunday. “It’s Friday, but Sunday is coming” is not an erroneous way to live—unless we fail to appreciate that, without Friday, Sunday would be like any other day—as it is for Jews, Muslims and a host of others who reject Christ.

The cross of Christ is a stumblingblock for such people. But often it can be for Christians too. That is, we can become so focused on the hope of glory that we miss the reality that, until glory, there will be groaning (Romans 8:18-25). The way to the crown is by the way of the cross. Philippians 2:5-8 precedes Philippians 2:9-11. Revelation 1—20 precedes Revelation 21—22. Put another way, the theology of the cross must precede the theology of glory.

As someone has said, Christianity is glorious, but its glory is in “cruciform” shape. If we lose sight of this, if we do not glory in the cross, then we will glory in ourselves. And there is nothing glorious, helpful or hopeful in this.

The disciples themselves struggled with this. In terms coined by Martin Luther, they embraced a theology of glory rather than the theology of the cross. This is clearly seen in several gospel texts (e.g. Matthew 20:17-28; Mark 9:30-37 [38-41]; Luke 9:43-56; Luke 22:14-30).

In each of these passages, the dispute concerning who would be the greatest was preceded by Jesus foretelling His betrayal, death, burial and resurrection.

It has always struck me as insensitive that the disciples would immediately talk about themselves and their position in the kingdom immediately on the heels of Jesus speaking of His impending cross. In fact, both Matthew and Luke record that this happened on at least two occasions. (In one, a mother joined ranks!) We might conclude that the disciples were a self-centred, insensitive group. How thick could they be? After all, should they not be thinking about their Master at a time like this?

It is true that some of what Jesus told them was “veiled” so that “they did not understand this saying, and were afraid to ask Him” (Mark 9:32). This does not seem to be the case in Matthew 17:23, for in that instance “they were exceedingly sorrowful.” It is possible that they were “exceedingly sorrowful” over their confusion, but likely they partly understood what Jesus said.

What is clear from their response is that they believed that Jesus would establish His kingdom. Whatever He meant by being betrayed, arrested, flogged, crucified and rising the third day, Jesus was going to establish the prophesied, glorious kingdom. And they wanted to be a part—in fact, a big part! The problem was (and is!) that they wanted the glory with little regard for the groaning. They were not sufficiently humbled by the cross before hankering after the crown.

Sadly, I can relate all too well with their theology of glory rather than what they really needed: a theology of the cross. In this study, I want to consider this subject in a little more detail. I want to ask what precisely is a theology of glory, what is a theology of the cross and then note what difference it makes.

What is a Theology of Glory?

Fundamentally, a theology of glory is a theology of success: self-sufficient success. Technically, it is an approach to life in which the emphasis is subtly, yet surely, on human ability and human reason. This is fundamentally what Martin Luther taught.

But more practically, a theology of glory is precisely what we see in the passages referred to such as Matthew 20:17-28. Grace is considered as something of a supplement to whatever is left of human will and power. Theologically speaking, it operates on the assumption that we are not seriously addicted to sin. Practically, at least for the Christian, it sees the cross as the starting point, but that “glory” is pursued by our other means—our own means.

The illustration of this is found in vv. 20-22:

Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Him with her sons, kneeling down and asking something from Him.

And He said to her, “What do you wish?”

She said to Him, “Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom.”

(Matthew 20:20-22)

“We are able” is at the heart of the theology of glory. The theology of glory is rooted in self-sufficiency. (We will note later the practical outworking of this.) This self-sufficiency flows from a failure to properly assess and appreciate our radical sinfulness and the need for the radical solution, which is the cross.

But note its subtlety. Clearly, the disciples (and James and John’s mother) believed Christ’s words—at least at a superficial level—about the glorious kingdom. Where they went wrong was to interpret His certain triumph as an invitation to “triumphalism.” This is illustrated in Luke 9:49-56 on two fronts. In the first instance, John rebuked an individual casting out demons because he was not one of the “in” group; in the second instance, James and John wanted to call fire on a Samaritan village that rejected Christ. They wanted everything to go their way exactly as they intended it.

This is a fundamental characteristic of the theology of glory. Essentially, it fails to recognise that, though our identity is in Christ, nevertheless we are not Christ. In other words, it does not consider the tension of the “already / not yet” dynamic. It assumes glory eventually (which is correct), but it presumes glory now (which is incorrect).

Simplistically, the theology of glory operates on the mindset: a lot of gain with little or no pain. It works itself out in contemporary terms in prosperity theology and in the expectation of instant sanctification (and frustration when this is not realised). It expects the promise of Jeremiah 29:11—“For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope”—to happen according to our plans. It anticipates health and healing, success, wealth and hassle-free relationships. In the words of a best-selling book, it expects “your best life now.”

The question to be asked is, what causes this? At least in this case, they failed to listen to the whole counsel of God. Perhaps they selectively listened. Someone has noted that the Gospels (and perhaps particularly the Gospel of Mark) are passion accounts with long introductions. That is, everything in the Gospel accounts builds up to the cross. The cross is shocking; it is scandalous; it is counterintuitive—and therefore we want to rush to Sunday. Sunday is indeed coming, but we would do well to pause on Friday and take it all in.

What is a Theology of the Cross?

A theology of the cross is basically a theology of suffering—Christ-centred and therefore Christ-dependant suffering. Technically, it is a term coined by Martin Luther to refer to the approach to life that posits the cross as the only source of knowledge concerning who God is and how He saves us.

Essentially, the theology of the cross emphasises that we are more sinful than we ever dare to think and therefore we need God’s grace more than we realise. It is a God-centred approach to life. It is a theology rooted in suffering. Such theology “comprehends the invisible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.” (Luther) It emphasises that only through suffering will we know God in this life. And this suffering is necessary, for otherwise we become self-sufficient and this always blinds us to the knowledge of God (see Romans 1:21).

Practically, the theology of the cross is what we see in Jesus’ response to Peter’s theology of glory (Matthew 16:21-28). When Peter vociferously objected to any notion that Christ would die, Jesus strongly rebuked him, before telling the disciples what to expect as His followers:

Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works.”

(Matthew 16:24-27)

The apostle Paul wrote of this same truth to the Galatians when he said that he was crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20-21). He wrote to the Philippians, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Again,

Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind.

(Philippians 3:8-16)

Clearly, Paul was not caught up in a theology of glory. He understood that the cross in this life was necessary for glory in the next.

To embrace a theology of the cross is to see ourselves as deeply, sinfully flawed. It is to see ourselves in desperate—and continual—need of God and His grace. It is to believe God’s promise of eventual glory, but in the meantime not to be surprised by failure. Our “dilemma” is more with the problem of pleasure than with the problem of pain. That is, we do not wonder why bad things happen to us, but why good things do. The theology of the cross displays itself in humble dependence rather than brash can-do. Fundamentally, the theology of the cross is a supernatural response (cf. Matthew 16:13-20). It is a gospel-centred, gospel-saturated approach to life.

It is clear that the disciples in Matthew 20:17-28 needed help here and so do we.

The glory story is natural while the cross story is supernatural. The glory story is wildly optimistic while the cross story is worshipfully realistic. This was Paul’s attitude (see 1 Corinthians 2:1-5).

But what causes this? How do we develop a healthy theology of the cross?

We do so by paying attention to what Jesus emphasises and by honestly assessing your life. Calvin said that the knowledge of God is dependent on ourselves. And, of course, the reverse is true. We must preach the gospel to ourselves—continually. Luther said that the gospel is for us the “principle article of all Christian doctrine. . . . Most necessary it is, therefore, that we should know this article well, teach it unto others, and beat it into the head continually.” There is a sense in which we should refuse to rush from Friday to Sunday. There is a reason for the delay.

What Difference Does it Make?

Having defined the two theologies, the question remains, what difference does it make which we embrace. The answer, simply is, all the difference!

Consider what a theology of glory produces.

First, it produces sectarianism. Recall Luke 9:49-56. The disciples believed that they were a special group with special privileges reserved for them alone. That is why they rebuked the man who was casting out demons but was not of the Twelve. He was not part of the “in” group and so, in their mind, he had no right to exercise “in” privileges. The Bible, however, does not favour such sectarianism.

Second, it produces self-righteousness. When Peter displayed the theology of glory by rebuking Jesus for suggesting that He would die, Jesus replied, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offence to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (Matthew 16:23). In that moment, Peter had lost a Godward focus and embraced instead a man-ward (self-ward) focus.

Third, it produces self-sufficiency. Returning to our text, when Jesus asked James and John whether they were able to handle the suffering that was associated with following Him, they quickly replied, “We are able” (v. 22). Their self-sufficiency proved to be a veneer when, later in the garden, “all the disciples forsook Him and fled” (Matthew 26:56).

Fourth, the theology of glory produces approval junkies. Even after many years of faithful ministry, Peter once again fell into the glory trap when he hypocritically refused to eat with Gentiles in order to curry favour with his Jewish brothers (Galatians 2:11-13ff). The theology of glory produces in us a desire to please others and a neglect to please God. Thankfully, Peter’s repentance proved that he was ultimately concerned about pleasing God, despite his temporary setbacks.

Fifth, it puts you on the wrong side: on the side of the “naturalists.” Once again, when Peter embraced a theology of glory he failed to savour the supernatural things of God and chose instead to savour the natural things of man (Matthew 16:23).

Sixth, it stunts your growth, for “we must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

Seventh, it will enslave us to the pursuit of escaping suffering. In the end, we will be disillusioned at best and eternally lost at worse (see Luke 9:57-62).

On the contrary, consider what a theology of the cross produces: joyful and hopeful perseverance. It produces a true and meaningful hope of glory. Fundamentally, it enables to hopefully live in the face of reality.

In this life, the reality is that some relationships will not be fixed (see Proverbs 18:19). Some marriages will not be reconciled. Some spouses and children will not be saved. Some wars will not end. Some poverty will not be alleviated. Some crimes will go unpunished and some injustices unrectified. Some doctrinal divisions will not be mended. Some church splits will not be avoided. Some sins will not be conquered. Glory is coming, but the cross is the way of life on earth.

We are not the ones who determine the outcomes. We strive for resolutions to the above but humbly cast ourselves upon the mercies and grace of God. The continual reminder that we live in a broken world drives us back to the cross. It drives us back to a theology of the cross—to the power of the gospel. It drives us back to God in Christ, where we learn who we really are and who He truly is. The theology of the cross “recognizes God in the place he has hidden himself—the cross and its suffering” (Horton). This, of course, is where the journey began. And so, as we embrace a theology of the cross, we may loudly sing “at the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the Lamb,” but we will willingly leave out the part about being “happy all the day.”

The glory story is not the full story—though it is the end of the story. The cross story is the means by which we learn that the glory story is really God’s glorious story. Jesus said on the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30). That is the theology of the cross. And one day we will experience the full effects of this. This is the theology of glory. Until then, let the theology of the cross inform your theology of glory.

And to those who have yet to embrace the Christ of the cross, you have embraced the theology of glory. It will let you down in the end. In On Being a Theologian of the Cross, Gerhard O. Forde describes this as “the most common overarching story we tell about ourselves.”

We came from glory and are bound for glory. Of course, in between we seem somehow to have gotten derailed—whether by design or accident we don’t quite know—but that is only a temporary inconvenience to be fixed by proper religious effort. What we need is to get back on the “glory road.”

But you are not sufficient of yourself to save yourself. You are a sinner who needs the Saviour. Turn from your sins! You have fallen short of God’s glory: Trust the Lord Jesus Christ alone. This is where the theology of the cross begins. Again, listen to Forde,

The theology of the cross is, in the end, a theology of hope rather than of despair. But it is a hope that sees suffering and the cross as the only means by which we can know God in this life, rather than as an unwelcome interruption to the “real story” of human and divine glory.

To put it another way . . . the theology of the cross sees the cross as the key to understanding glory.

May this be your story. If it is not then may it begin today!