“Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 6: 34,35 NIV).
The first thing to mention here is that there are still “crowds” that are following Jesus. Perhaps quite a bit less. Perhaps some of them haven’t heard of his difficult teaching about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Whatever the reason, the crowds are still there, following, asking questions, wanting to be healed and the disciples are still there as well, following Jesus….on the road to Jerusalem.
But the words that Jesus speaks are not so clear. He is talking about the cost of discipleship. Beyond the twelve, perhaps it is the 70 who were sent out to do ministry in the cities and villages of Israel (Luke 10) that are listening or the 500 who would later be witnesses of his resurrection for forty days and forty nights. Whether the crowd was large or small, Jesus is now getting serious. In all of the gospels, his teachings on the cost of discipleship never become more intense, or more focused than on the road to Jerusalem.
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” You can imagine the consternation, the concern, the fear his words must have evoked. They were no doubt taken quite literally since Jesus, himself, not only predicted his death but the manner of his death by crucifixion. And they would no doubt be included.
Today, on the other side of the cross and the resurrection, we are quick to make a metaphor out of his words and, to an extent, we are correct in doing so if we understand it correctly. We did not have the privilege of walking the dusty roads of Palestine with him, or sharing a meal over an open fire, or dying on a cross beside him, a thief, a scoundrel, saved by grace.
Jesus, himself, prayed for his disciples after the Last Supper saying, “Father, protect them by the power of your name… While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe…. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled….my prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17: 11b, 12, 15 NIV).
Jesus had hinted a couple of times before that he would not lose a single one of his disciples but it was in the context of being “raised up on the last day” (John 6:39). Not all that comforting for those who are headed to Jerusalem to die with Jesus. It helps, certainly, but they probably still half-hoped for a miracle while suspecting that they would probably die too and weren’t all that sure they could stay the course. Here in this High Priestly prayer, Jesus makes it clear that they would be spared. Whether or not they quite understood what he was saying at the time is up for debate. Matthew, Mark and Luke report further conversations along this line where Jesus tells them that the shepherd will be struck and the flock will be scattered, that Peter would deny him three times, and that they would all desert him at his crucial hour. All indications that they would not die (at least not yet). They had work to do. They would be his witnesses.
The point is that this was no metaphor to the disciples. It was real. And for hundreds of years afterward, through the persecution of the early church, discipleship could most certainly end in death (and, for many, that is still true today). Why are we so quick to trivialize the cost of following Jesus? Why do we make it nothing but a metaphor as if it isn’t real or doesn’t hurt or can’t get you killed, rejected, in trouble, misunderstood, hurt? The cross is more than a metaphor. It is a sign and a symbol of spiritual (and very true) realities.
It can even be considered a sacrament (a Spirit inspired event) that we celebrate at every Lord’s Supper that can transform our lives (if we rightly discern the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ). For Christ, the cross was a physical and real-life symbol and sign of the spiritual (and therefore really real) wrath of God poured out on the sins of man. There was spiritual truth behind the physical event. It meant something more than what was seen by the naked eye. It was more than just another rebel crucified by the Romans as a warning to others.
It would be easy to leave the cross out of Jesus’ words. “”If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself …. and follow me.” To deny yourself is to deny your own selfish desires, your own ambitions and to follow Christ instead. To obey him rather than to obey yourself. To be moral. To do what is right in God’s eyes rather than merely your own. Beautiful sentiment but not what Jesus is talking about here. The words “take up your cross” gives purpose and meaning to the idea of “following Christ.” It isn’t just a following in terms of morality (as most people would read it). It isn’t just a following in terms of identification (letting people know that you are a follower of Christ). Both of those meanings are correct but not enough. You cannot take the key words, “take up your cross,” out of the sentence.
The moment you insert the concept of the cross into the act of discipleship (ie. following), you give it purpose, direction, meaning. There is a job to be done, a fight to be won, a point to the suffering, the pain, the persecution, the death. And without that purpose (that eternal, God-filled, more-important-than-life-itself, purpose) none of the suffering and rejection and dying makes any sense at all.
Jesus wouldn’t have died (and he doesn’t call us to die) unless it was absolutely necessary and there was no other way. While the disciples worried about things from a temporal perspective, Jesus always had the eternal in mind. He did not pray that they would be protected from harm but from the evil one. His battle was for the lives and eternal souls of those who would be lost for all eternity not for the arrogant pretensions of loyalists and zealots who wanted to overthrow the Romans.
The cross was God’s solution to our sin and our sin has eternal consequences (as well as temporal ones). There is a bigger issue, a larger battle, a far more important purpose at stake that we as disciples must participate in. Yes, we must deny ourselves so that we can take up our cross and follow him in that great battle against evil so rooted in the hearts of men.
To take up the cross, then, means to take up the purpose of the cross, the way of the cross and to incorporate its power into our lives through confession, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation every day with everyone we come into contact with.
To take up the cross means to nail “self” and all of our sin (which is not merely missing the mark but also rebellion against the purpose and will of God) to the cross of Christ daily. And in that very act, testify that the power of the cross is real in my life and then go out and tell others about that saving, transforming power.
It is a symbol and a sign because it is not “our” cross but rather Christ’s cross. It is “our” cross only in the sense that it is “our” sin and it is “our” decision to crucify the flesh and live in the Spirit daily.
You can’t help but remember Simon, the Cyrene, who was conscripted by the Roman soldiers to help Jesus by carrying his cross, walking behind him on the painful path to Golgotha. Simon would not die on that cross (although he was no doubt quite fearful of is since the Romans were known for doing things like that indiscriminately). Jesus would die for him on his behalf.
Jesus “bore our sins in his body” (I Peter 2: 21 NIV) at that moment and bore the full burden of the wrath of God as my substitute. We do not have to die on the cross for our sins but we do have to pick up our cross, deny ourselves and follow him on that Via Dolorosa. Why? For the sake of the gospel. For his sake. To identify with him and his purpose for the world. To take the power of the cross, the power of the gospel to the far reaches of the world (and to the far reaches, the difficult, the aloof in our churches) and to testify to its truth and power in our lives and there is no way to do that without denying ourselves and following him, without taking the cross and applying it to our own lives through confession, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Jesus, himself, makes clear what he means in the words that follow. He said, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” The cross demands that we (just like him) lose our life for him and for the gospel (which is the same thing). He sacrificed his life for the gospel, to make people right with God. We can do no less. That is what biblical discipleship will cost us.
There is no justification for building our own kingdom, our own careers, our own ambitions when we are simply called to build the kingdom of God. “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness,” Jesus said, “and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6: 33 NIV). We are quick to justify ourselves and claim that we seek his kingdom “first” but a cursory review of our stewardship will show the truth – how we spend our money, our time, our talents. Whether or not our lives have true purpose with respect to the cross and to the gospel. Whether or not we speak the words or live them with transparent confession, the faith walk of repentance, the power of forgiveness and the joy of reconciliation. It is simple but not easy and we need each other to stay the course.
I cannot help but remember Peter and his three denials on that fateful night. I can’t blame him, personally. I would have been just as bad, or worse. I prove it every day of my life. I deny him, too, every time I ignore an opportunity to minister to someone, to help someone in Jesus’ name, to confess my sins, to press for reconciliation, to forgive, to pray with my brother or sister, to participate in the spiritual battle for reconciliation which is at the heart of the gospel. That is not the kind of denial that Jesus is talking about here. We can either deny ourselves or deny Christ. We can either pick up the cross, give testimony to its power in our lives through our words and deeds or deny Christ. We can either follow him on that painful road or we can deny that we even know him, quietly of course, to ourselves, thinking that nobody will notice, slinking back into the crowd, hiding in the bushes.
What will you do this Lenten Season? Will you deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow him? Or will you fade into the background, stay morally upright but spiritually dead. A pillar of the community, involved in many things, but denying the power of healed relationships through the power of the cross. Is there someone you aren’t right with that you need to talk to? Talk to God first. Make it right there, first. Then with his help, go and talk to your brother or sister and confess or forgive as the case may be – make things right. That’s what Lent is all about and that is what “fasting” and “sacrifice” is all about. That is what the cross is all about. The question is whether or not you will do it. That is seeking Jerusalem.
The Desert Warrior
P.S. Talk to him right now and pick up your cross from the side of the road where you have thrown it so many times. Pick it up, put it on your shoulder, and start walking…
Lord, the cross is heavy and it hurts and I’m not sure I can do it alone. Please help me. Forgive me for my sin against…and help me to reconcile with… I’m not sure how to do it except to do it. This is the heart of the gospel and I know that it is a spiritual battle I must win. Give me prayer warriors who will help me win this battle. Help me to share the load with a small band of brothers and/or sisters. This is what matters, I know and I want to lose my life, my ambitions, my priorities, my money, my time, my ego, my shame, my self for the sake of the gospel and the power of the gospel in my life. My children, my friends, my family desperately need my life testimony to show them the way, to prove that it works, to demonstrate the difference, the transformation, the power of a new creation. Thank you, Lord for making me a significant part of your purpose and vision for my family, my church, my country. In your name I pray. Amen.
Lucifer brooded over what he had heard. The reports on Jesus’ activity concerned him more than what his own forces had been doing. They could do nothing! Nothing! His frustration threatened to strangle him with its passion.
He arose from his throne in the palace and the captains and princes attending him stood at attention, not daring to ruffle even one dark feather as Lucifer glared at them, evaluating their readiness for the battle that lay ahead. He had his best troops with him and they would have to be ready for the worst. (Read more…)