Jesus is heading south to Jerusalem, down to the cross. But Matthew and Jesus tell us that He is going up to Jerusalem. Did Jesus miss His turn? No, Jerusalem is always up. Psalms 120-134 are “Songs of Ascents.” These would be sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for the feasts. Jesus and the disciples may have very well be singing them on their journey to Jerusalem for the Passover. Remember when the kingdom divided after Solomon into the northern kingdom of Israel and southern kingdom of Judah? This gives you the lay of the land. The majority of Israelites, before the split, would head south toward the Temple, singing Songs of Ascent. This is because Jerusalem was spiritually up. It was also up in elevation, drastically so from Jericho, which, being situated near the Dead Sea, the lowest spot on earth, is one of the lowest cities on earth at over 800 feet below sea level. Jerusalem in contrast is over 2500 feet above sea level.
So down (directionally) is up (in elevation). But up (in elevation) is down (humiliation). But ultimately down (humiliation) is up (glorification). This is true for Jesus, and that is why it is true for us. At the cross, Jesus sets the standard for greatness. He stoops to serve, and He stoops to the lowest depths.
There was no abasement ever so deep as Christ’s was, in a double regard. First, None ever went so low as he, for he suffered the wrath of God, and bore upon him the sins of us all; none was ever so low. And then in another respect his abasement was greatest because He descended from the highest top of glory; and for Him to be man, to be a servant, to be a curse, to suffer the wrath of God, to be the lowest of all – Lord, wither doest Thou descend? —Richard Sibbes
Jesus does just set the standard for us, He sets it for us. The cross is not only the standard, it is the source of all human greatness. He gave His life as a ransom. His death purchased us and delivered us from our bondage. Christ set an example for us, but His example empowers us to follow. The most important thing to know about following Jesus, are the steps you cannot take. We cannot go to the cross as He did. But because of His greater service, we can do lesser acts, empowered by His, that point others to the only one who is truly great.
Many today want to emphasize the cross only or mainly as a moral act to be replicated, an example to be followed, rather than an atonement in our place, but if there is no redemption, then the example is ludicrous. Tim Keller illustrates,
Imagine that you are walking along a river with a friend, and your friend suddenly says to you, ‘I want to show you how much I love you!’ and with that he throws himself into the river and drowns. Would you say in response, ‘How he loved me!’ No, of course not. You’d wonder about your friend’s mental state. But what if you were walking along a river with a friend and you fell into the river by accident, and you can’t swim. What if he dived in after you and pushed you to safety but was himself drawn under by the current and drowned. Then you would respond, ‘Behold, how he loved me!’ The example of Jesus is a bad example if it is only an example. If there was no peril to save us from—if we were not lost apart from the ransom of his death—then the model of his sacrificial love is not moving and life-changing; it is crazy. Unless Jesus died as our substitute, he can’t die as a moving example of sacrificial love.
Underlying Christus Exemplar is penal substitutionary atonement.
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. —1 Peter 2:21-24 (ESV)
Christ’s atoning service makes ours possible and makes it potent. The cross is the standard and the source; every lesser sacrifice points to the greatness of His.
[W]hoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. —1Peter 4:11 (ESV)