In order to properly interpret the cost of discipleship addressed in Matthew 16:24-28, a look into the literary context of the passage is a must. All three synoptic Gospels contain this similar passage. The differences in the synoptics will be discussed briefly to identify the purpose of including this passage in each context. Also, the surrounding context of the book of Matthew will be provided so as to correctly exegete the passage.
First, who does Jesus address while saying these things? In Matthew, Jesus is speaking to his disciples as stated in 16:24. In Luke, the narrative opens with Jesus speaking ‘to all.’ Glancing back will show that Jesus was talking to his disciples from 9:18. Mark’s Gospel suggests the presence of a crowd along with Jesus’ disciples in 8:34. There is a significant difference between Jesus addressing a crowd versus merely his disciples. Each of the three Gospels articulates the Messianic secret. In each one, Jesus has just finished commanding his disciples to tell no one of him being the Christ. It is unclear why Mark would have Jesus also talking to a crowd. This passage is not a parable – the method Jesus used to communicate with the people. This passage is one consistent with Jesus explaining a concept to his disciples. The context suggests this saying of Jesus as being ‘insider information.’ It is not that the people did not deserve this information, but they would not appreciate or understand it.
The synoptics open this saying of Jesus practically verbatim. Only Luke has Jesus’ command to “take up his cross ‘daily.’” Mark holds the most complete saying of the three accounts, comprised of nearly everything in Matthew and Luke. Yet, only Matthew’s account contains statement that ...
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... to the loss of earthly life because there is an ultimate judgment to come, and on the outcome of that judgment the enjoyment of true life will depend.”
The second half of the verse holds the question of works-based salvation to the unskilled exegete. If this phrase is interpreted out of context, one could easily confuse Jesus’ meaning here. This could simply be interpreted as Jesus judging people based on the good and evil they have done. This interpretation is out of context and not true to the scripture. William Davies from the International Critical Commentary points out the fact that this phrase is not contained in any of the other synoptics. He shows other comparisons to several OT passages, Ps. 62:12 and Prov. 24:12. Similar phrases are also found in the NT (Rom. 2:6 and 2 Tim. 4:14). This shows the Bible’s consistency along with this phrase’s importance.