How many important lessons can a person learn at one time? Not many, probably. But on this occasion Jesus seized the moment and immediately went on to teach His disciples that not only did He have to go to the cross but in a sense, they had to go to the cross too, dying to themselves and their own plans.
This was so important to Jesus that He repeated it again and again in His teaching, almost as often as He spoke about the necessity of His personal suffering. He never suggested that His followers could die for sin, either their own or others’ sins, as He would do, but He insisted that following Him meant self-denial, suffering, rejection, and perhaps even physical death. The way of the cross is not only for Jesus but for us. Or to put it another way: Christ’s death is of value only to those who are willing to die to themselves and follow Him.
A great deficiency exists in today’s evangelical church. In a book titled Christ’s Call to Discipleship, Pastor JM Boice began by noting this fact: “There is a defect, even a fatal defect, in the life of the church of Christ in the twentieth century: a lack of true discipleship. For the genuine Christian, discipleship means forsaking everything to follow Christ. But for many of today’s supposed Christians – perhaps the majority – it is the case that while there is much talk about Christ and even much furious activity that is supposed to be done in His name, there is actually very little following of Christ Himself. And that means that in some circles at least there is very little genuine Christianity. Many who fervently call Him ‘Lord, Lord’ are not Christians (Mt.7.21).”
Written thirty-five years ago, the situation is no better today. In fact, it is probably worse. What is the problem? We do not like this kind of teaching. Prosperity? Yes. Victory? Yes. But suffering? Death? The cross? We do not like those things. Yet there is no genuine Christianity without them.
When Jesus tells His followers to deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow Him, He is saying that those items belong together as a composite picture of what being a disciple is all about. All three are necessary.
First is self-denial. When we think about what it means to deny oneself, we are at once brought to the radical distinction between a God-oriented life and a life of unrepentant self-seeking or sin. Self-seeking is the opposite of self-denial, and the problem with self-seeking is that it has been the essence of sin from the beginning.
Self-seeking is what caused the fall of Satan. Satan said, “I want my way. I am going to displace God. I am going to rule the universe.” God replied that Satan would actually be brought low (Isaiah 14.12-15). By contrast, Jesus said, “I will go down in self-denial. I will abase myself in order that those I love might be lifted from sin to glory.” As a result, God promised that Jesus Christ would be exalted. He would be given that name which is above every name, so that every tongue would confess that “Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2.11).
Secondly, we must take up the cross. Not only are we to say no to self, we are also to say yes to God, which is what taking up our cross involves. Some refer to cross-bearing as if it means enduring what is inevitable, but that is not the case at all. Several kinds of things we cannot avoid: a physical handicap, a deficient academic background, an alcoholic spouse, an unfaithful or abusive spouse. People sometimes refer to such inevitable limitations as “my cross,” but they are not crosses. Real crosses involve the will. They involve saying yes to something difficult for Jesus’ sake.
Cross-bearing involves prayer and Bible study. These necessary means of grace take time and must be voluntarily chosen and pursued, rather than other pastimes we might humanly prefer.
Cross-bearing involves the items Jesus lists in Matthew 25: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, receiving the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the one who is in prison (vv. 31–46). These actions are not easy. They involve denying one’s self, time, money, and convenience. At times these actions seem pointless, because the gifts are abused or the one giving them is slighted by the one he helps. But we are to continue living in this way, because doing so means we are saying yes to Jesus. We are taking up our crosses in his service.
Taking up our cross involves witnessing. It means putting oneself out for the sake of those God sends into our lives.
Essentially, taking up our cross means accepting whatever God has given us and then offering it back to him. Romans 12 describes us as God’s priests making sacrifices that are “holy and pleasing” to Him. Priests offer only what they have first received. They take the gifts of the worshiper and then offer them to God. We are in that position. The gifts we have are from God. We take these gifts – whatever they may be – and offer them back to God with thanksgiving.
Finally, we must follow Jesus. Discipleship is not simply a door to be entered but a path to be followed, and the disciple proves that his discipleship is genuine by following that path to the end. David wrote about it in Psalm 119. The section of the psalm that begins “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path,” ends, “My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end.” That is it! The true disciple is one who follows Christ to the very end.
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org