If you've been around here long enough, you know that I'm all for reading the Bible in context. Not our context, but its context. And that raises an interesting question concerning one of the most famous statements Jesus ever made:
You must take up your cross and follow Me.
We read this passage - and we quote this passage - and it makes perfect sense to us because we understand how Jesus carried His Cross on His shoulders and walked to a hill just outside of the holy city to die a criminal's (disgraceful) death.
But here's the thing - Jesus didn't say these words after He carried His Cross on His shoulders and walked to a hill just outside of the holy city to die a criminal's (disgraceful) death. He said them before.
Way before. Matthew has Him speaking these words as early as chapter 10 - less than halfway through the Gospel. Jesus's death on a Cross wasn't even on the radar of the disciples to whom He was speaking. And how could it be? It wasn't even on their radar when it was actually happening. They couldn't fathom it even while it was going on. How could they have possibly understood these words so far before that fateful Passover?
So then, we have to go back and ask - how did the disciples who heard these words comprehend them at the time?
Maybe they didn't. Maybe it was just one of those things that Jesus said - like many things that Jesus probably said - that the disciples just let slide, just shrugged off, just accepted as one of those "Jesus" things that didn't make any sense, so they just let Him say it and let it go.
Textual critics of the Bible might say that it's the Gospel-writer's artistic expression to put those words in that particular spot, that it just makes sense for those words to be there and no one should question it. After all, the Gospels were written after the Resurrection, so stuff like that just made sense. The author didn't think twice about it.
Except that raises the question of why the author would remember those words and would put them before the Cross if Jesus had not spoken those words memorably before the Cross. I mean, if you're making an artistic choice, those are powerful, profound words to put somewhere in the Great Commission, right along with making disciples of all nations. They're great as parting words, just before Jesus goes away again. Not in chapter 10 when He's right in the middle of ministry and hasn't even had eyes on Golgotha yet. This kind of textual criticism, though popular, just raises more questions than it answers. This is one example of how it does that.
It's possible the disciples understood the reference to crucifixion and a criminal's death, even if they didn't connect it with Jesus. They were expecting a revolution from their Promised King, and that would make them rebels in the Roman Empire - men suited perfectly for crucifixion, especially if the revolution were at all bloody to start with. Maybe they were thinking that Jesus was talking about a revolution that was going to put them on the outs with the Romans and make them criminals and targets. Maybe they thought they were going to die and make a statement.
It's important to think about this kind of thing because I'm telling you, when the disciples heard these words, they did not hear them the way that we hear them. They did not hear them the way that we quote them. I've given a few possibilities for how they heard them, but there are certainly more. The point is that we have to consider it because we can't understand the heart of the Scriptures, especially when it comes to Jesus, if we don't put the words in their time first and know how they were spoken and how they were received. These words, like many others, meant something different to them.
If we can figure out what that was, we might find that they mean something different to us, too. Something that God may have been trying to tell us all along....