It is with a deep sense of inadequacy and unworthiness that we turn our attention this month to some of the most challenging words ever spoken by our Lord Jesus. They are recorded in each of the synoptic gospels (Mt 16.24-26; Mk 8.34-37; Lk 9.23-25).1
It is essential always to consider any passage of Scripture in its context, and the setting of these verses is most significant. The Lord has been revealing to his disciples that from henceforth his pathway is going to be marked by four things: rejection, suffering, death, and subsequent resurrection. Simon Peter, in his impetuousness, found this impossible to comprehend, and "began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord" (Mt 16.22). However, the disciples must come to understand that if they are to be his followers, they too must learn the truth of individual cross-bearing. Not only that, but if we in turn are to follow Him, we must enter into it also.
One of the most remarkable and gracious things about these passages is that the Lord Jesus does not impose the cross on anyone - notice that He says, "If any man will come after me". The word for "will"2 really means to decide, to determine, to choose: God has left it to my own individual will to decide whether or not I wish to be a follower of His Son. How gracious, too, of God to remind us that as we follow we are not alone - we "come after" One who trod a path of sorrow, and who ultimately bore a cross that none of us will ever have to face. Notice that the choice is primarily given to "his disciples" (Mt 16.24); this is an issue that is not necessarily settled once for all at conversion, but confronts us day by day. We often tell the lost of the importance of their individual decision in regard to salvation, but here is a decision for believers that is of equal importance: "Am I determined to follow Him, day by day, bearing my cross?". It is a decision that is open to every one of us: "if any man will come after me". How tragic if any child of God were to make the wrong choice!
This challenge presented to us has three aspects: self-denial, cross-bearing, and following Christ. Let us consider them in that order.
"Let him deny himself". We live in a world where self-denial is foreign to the thinking of men and women; "self-fulfilment", or "doing whats right for me" is the guiding principle. In seeking to obey the words (and meet the challenge) of our Lord the believer thus sets himself on a course that is diametrically opposed to the spirit of the age, but the Saviour insists that there is no other way if we are to be His followers. As believers, we need to be wary of unconsciously becoming influenced by worldly thought patterns. As we saw in a previous article, the life of a follower of Christ is one of self sacrifice, not of "ease, or worldly pleasure".
"And take up his cross". When a man in the first century was seen carrying a cross, it meant several things. Firstly, it meant that he had lost control of his own destiny, he was going to a violent death at the hands of others. It meant that his will, his ambitions, his plans no longer counted for anything, he was at the mercy of those who would crucify him. It meant that his life was over. For the Christian, the cross is still exactly the same. To take up the cross means that I willingly surrender control of my destiny, that I subjugate my will to the will of God, and that I die to myself, my ambitions, my interests.3 As A.W. Tozer has said, "The cross is a symbol of death. It stands for the abrupt violent end of a human being. The man in Roman times who took up his cross and started down the road had already said goodbye to his friends. He was not coming back The cross made no compromise, modified nothing, spared nothing. It slew all the man, completely and for good when it had finished its work, the man was no more...God offers life, but not an improved old life. The life he offers stands always on the far side of the cross".4 We must, however, remember that our Lord did not say, "Let him take up My cross". It would be the grossest arrogance to suggest that we could in some way share the sufferings of the cross that He bore. Instead, we are each to take up our own cross as individuals.5 The decision to deny myself and take up the cross represents a specific point in my experience,6 but note that Luke (9.23) adds the word "daily", it is something that must affect my life every single day. Jim Elliot wrote, "That which is lifelong can only be surrendered in a lifetime".7 Am I daily surrendering my life to Him, dying to self, and allowing Him to use me for His own glory?
"And follow me". How blessed it is to know that when we take up our cross it is not to follow some brutal Roman centurion to the place of execution, but to follow the One who said, "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Mt 11.30). The life of a believer, although a life of self-denial and cross-bearing, is not a life of constant struggle and unhappiness; it is a life of nearness to the One who knew not only the rejection, suffering, and death of the cross, but also the life of resurrection on the third day. What could be more glorious than to know the fellowship of One like this? May God help us to rise to the challenge of these verses in our own experience!
In our gospel preaching we often emphasise the eternal consequences of decisions that are made in regard to the claims of the Lord Jesus, but in the verses before us we learn that this can be the case for believers as well. First, the Lord reminds us that he who seeks ("determines" - it is the same word as He used previously) to save his life will lose it. The word for "losing" carries the idea of ruin: the thought seems to be that if I refuse to take up the cross and seek to keep my life for myself, I will become a spiritual desert (not in the sense of losing my salvation, but in the sense that my life will bear no fruit for God).
If, however, I die to self and take up the cross to follow the Lord, I fulfil the purpose for which I have been given eternal life - what earthly profit could compete with this? The Lord then goes on to remind His hearers that not only are there consequences in this life, but also in eternity. For those who are ashamed of the Lord and his words there is the terrible prospect that He will be ashamed of them in a coming day (Mk 8.38; Lk 9.26). How awful for a man or woman to be in this situation! Notice, too, the emphasis on the threefold glory of that day ("his own glory, and his Fathers, and of the holy angels", Lk 9.26); it will more than eclipse all the cost of self-denial on earth.
In light of these things, what will our response be to the challenge of our Saviour? To quote Tozer again: "We must do something about the cross, and one of two things only we can do - flee it, or die upon it If we are wise we will do what Jesus did: endure the cross and despise its shame for the joy that it sets before us only then can we rise in fullness of life".8 May God give us the grace to do so.
To be continued.
1 The similar passage in John (12.25-26) relates to a a different incident.
2 thelo, Strong 2309.
3 We must of course distinguish between my death to sin, which happened when I was saved, and my death to self, which is a daily, practical thing.
4 The Old Cross and the New, Christian Publications, 1995, pp3-4.
5 We must not get the idea that the Christians cross is some problem or secret sorrow in life that must be endured ("Thats just a cross I have to bear"): it represents rather my death to myself, and all that I am in Adam.
6 The verbs "deny" and "take up" are in the aorist tense, representing an action complete in itself.
7 Shadow of the Almighty, 1967, p92.
8 The Old Cross and the New, p12.