"Come Along - and Don't Forget Your Cross!"
(Delivered Sunday, July 8, 2007 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
We've been studying together from a very important portion of Matthew's Gospel—a truly pivotal point in the story of our Savior's earthly ministry.
Peter had just made that important confession about Jesus—"You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16); and Jesus had just affirmed that confession as authoritative; saying that it was a word of truth given to Peter from the heavenly Father Himself. And it's then that we read this shocking piece of news from that very same Christ, the Son of the living God:
From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day (Matthew 16:21).
The cross was a divine necessity. As Jesus Himself said, He "must" go to the cross. It was the Father's set purpose for Him; because it was there that the Son of God would lay down His life on behalf of sinners, and die for their sins. The disciples struggled to grasp this. Peter even found the idea so repulsive that he dared to pull the Savior aside to rebuke Him for His words. But Jesus made it clear that He would not be turned away from the Father's purpose. He would set Himself to mind the things of God—and not the things of men (v. 23).
And it's in this remarkable context that we come to our passage this morning. Immediately after Jesus had asserted that it was the Father's purpose for Him to go to the cross and lay down His life for His friends—and that He Himself was absolutely determined to go forward and fulfill the Father's purpose for Him—He then turns to His disciples and calls them to do as He was now going to do for them. If they wanted to follow Him, they also would need to go the way of the cross.
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works" (Matthew 16:20-27).
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I had a chance, not long ago, to visit with an unbelieving friend. We sipped coffee together, and talked for a while about the Christian faith. One of the things that I love about my friend is that he is very honest and open with me. And so, in the course of our conversation, I asked him about what it was that was keeping him from turning his life over to Christ and trusting Him fully as Savior and Lord.
He talked with me about some of the doubts and intellectual questions he had about the Christian faith; and I tried my best to answer them. And near the end of the conversation, I believe we got to the bottom-line on the matter. He told me plainly that the ultimate reason he didn't want to give his life to Christ is because he knew where following Christ would lead him in life; and he quite frankly didn't want to go there. He knew the demands that Christ would make of him; and he didn't want to give up the things in life that Christ would require him to surrender.
Though I appreciated by my friend's honesty, I was saddened his choice. And I'm still praying for him. But one thing that strikes me about my friend is that he recognizes something that very few people—even some professing Christians—seem to recognize. He recognizes that there is a tremendous cost involved in following Jesus. My friend recognizes that Jesus demands nothing less than a total commitment from those who choose to follow Him; and that whoever follows Him must be prepared to give Him everything that they are and have.
This shouldn't come as a surprise. Jesus taught this clearly. Luke, in his Gospel account, tells us,
Now great multitudes went with Him. And He turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it—lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’? Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace. So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple" (Luke 14:25-33).
Think of that! Jesus didn't just say that, unless we forsake all that we have, we would find it 'hard' or 'difficult' to be His disciple. He lays it on the line: Unless we forsake all that we have, we "cannot" be His disciple. He said so three times in that passage alone; that unless the commitment is total, we “cannot” be His disciple.
It seems to me that Jesus often said this to weed-out many of His "would-be" followers. Many began to follow Him. But then, in the midst of their following, He would turn to them and remind them of what "following" Him would really require of them. And as a result, many of them left Him and followed Him no further. They had counted the cost and decided that they didn't want to pay it.
I believe Jesus does the same thing to many of us today—even to those of us in church, and who already claim to be His followers. We may sincerely believe that we are following Jesus, and believe that we have done so for most of our lives. And suddenly, there comes a crisis moment when Jesus turns to us and says what He says in this morning's passage. Suddenly, we come face to face—in a fresh way—with the real cost of following Jesus. Suddenly, we have to make a decision: Will we genuinely count the cost and continue to follow Him? Or will we stop dead in our tracks, cling to our own life as the most precious thing to us, and decide that we will follow Him no further?
I'm not sure but that there may even be several times in our lives in which the Lord finds it necessary to confronts us with the cost of following Him. Because He loves us so much, and is so jealous for our complete devotion, I suspect that He is willing to do this again and again in our lives; until He fully weans us of the vain things of this world, and truly has full possession of our hearts.
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In this morning's passage, our Savior once again confronts us with the cost of being His disciple. Jesus reminds us that those who wish to follow Him must follow Him by way of the cross. And I suggest that we welcome this reminder. I suggest that we remember that it comes from Someone who loves us so much that He willingly laid down His life for us, and who desires, above all else, our eternal joy with Him in glory. Let's allow the Holy Spirit to use this reminder to move us to the place in following Jesus that He wants us to be.
First, let's pay particular attention to . . .
1. THE COMMITTMENT JESUS DEMANDS OF THOSE WHO DESIRE TO COME AFTER HIM (v. 24).
In our passage, Jesus turned to His twelve disciples and spoke. But His words were clearly meant for a larger audience than just the twelve alone. He gives an invitation that is wide-open to all of humanity. He says, "If anyone desires to come after Me . . ."
We often have discussions in our church family about the doctrine of election—that God sovereignly chooses beforehand those whom He would redeem. I believe in that doctrine. I believe that we must accept it, because it's clearly taught in the Bible. But I often maintain that it's only half the story; and here, in Jesus' introductory words, is the other half. If anyone—whoever they may be—genuinely desires to come after Jesus, they're welcomed to do so. Both doctrines are true. Jesus Himself has affirmed both in just one verse. He said, "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out" (John 6:37). No one has to fret or worry about whether or not they are one of 'the elect' before they come to Jesus. If they want to come to Him, they are welcomed to come and follow. He invites all to come; and He rejects no one who accepts the invitation.
But take very careful note of that important word "if" that we find at the beginning of that wonderful invitation. It highlights the essential condition of "coming after" Him. "If anyone desires to come after Me," He says, then let that person fulfill the three crucial requirements that Jesus demands of all who would come after Him: ". . . [L]et him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me."
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First, Jesus tells us that we must deny ourselves.
Jesus isn't simply speaking here of a minor little act of denying ourselves something that we want—like a bowl of ice-cream after dinner. Nor is He speaking of the more extreme forms of self-denial that we see in many of the religions of the world. Many have denied themselves many things, and thought that they were being very spiritual in the process. And yet, they were actually focusing in on themselves the whole time. Jesus isn't merely speaking of “denying” ourselves something. He is speaking of nothing less than a full denial and renunciation of our very "selves".
And in the original language, the word that is used is a very strong one. It means to “deny utterly”; to completely “renounce” and “disown” our natural focus toward “self” entirely. It's the same word that Jesus used of Peter when He said, “Assuredly, I say to you that this night, before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times” (Matthew 26:34).
Now; Jesus here calls us to do something that is antithetical to everything we are told by the culture and by our own fallen inclinations. Everything in us and around us is geared toward gratifying and glorifying the principle of “self”. We're told that we can't really love anyone else until we love ourselves first. We're encouraged to be our own “cause”. Even the concept of “spirituality”, in our day, has come to refer to the process of fully realizing and actualizing the “self”. And yet, Jesus calls us to do the very opposite that all of society and all our inner compulsions are telling us to do.
Jesus tells us—as a first step in His call—to dethrone “self”. We must lay aside our “agenda”, and the pursuit of our “rights”, and the satisfaction and accomplishment of our "ambitions" as the chief object of our life.
In short, unless we decidedly step out of the 'driver's seat' of our own lives, and allow Jesus to sit there in His proper place, then we cannot even begin to truly follow Him.
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Second, Jesus tells us that we must take up our cross.
Sadly, many people—and even many Bible teachers—have misunderstood what Jesus means by “taking up the cross”. Many have interpreted this to mean taking up that particular thing in our lives that particularly burdens us—the “cross” we must “bear”. For some, this may be an illness that plagues us in life; and that's “the cross we must bear”. For others, it's a person who is driving us nuts at the time—our boss, or our mother-in-law, or a noisy neighbor; and that's “the cross we must bear”. You get the idea.
Well; the fact is that we wouldn't have any such “crosses to bear” if the first thing Jesus demands was true of us—that we had utterly and completely denied “self”. That pretty much takes care of everything else that might burden us. But that isn't what Jesus is talking about anyway. What Jesus is speaking of is something that everyone who lived in that day, and under the rule of the cruel Roman empire, would have probably seen more than once in life—that is, a condemned criminal being forced, as an act of public humiliation, to carry the instrument of his own death up the street and to the place of his execution.
To "take up the cross” puts practical action to the idea of "denying the 'self'". It means to embrace a complete readiness—at all times and in all situations—to consider that we have no more rights than a condemned man would have on his way to execution. It would mean that we deny ourselves even to the point of death—just as Jesus did for us. It would mean that we consider, as Paul has said, “the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 5:15). It would mean that we testify, as Paul was able to testify of himself, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
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And finally, He says that we must follow Him. This means that we must imitate Him. We must go where He goes, and act as He acts, and walk as He walked. It means that we must obey His commands, and keep faithful to His instructions. It means that we must set Him apart as Lord.
When I think of this, I often have a picture in my mind of Jesus walking along a path—with me walking along behind Him. Sometimes, as I follow behind Him, I might get detracted—looking around at the scenery, or thinking about my own concerns and wishes. And then, when I eventually look up, I find that we had come to a fork in the road—and that I'm on one path, and Jesus is on another.
At such times, I look down the path that I'm on and see that the way is smooth and comfortable. There are flower gardens and shady trees along the way. But when I look ahead and see that the path that Jesus is on, I see that the road is a hard one. The way He has chosen is rough and narrow; and I can't see what's ahead. And then, I see Jesus stopping and waiting for me on the other path—calling out to me, and saying, “Greg; I'm on this path. Come. Follow Me.” And it's then that I must make the decision to leave the path I'm on, cross over to the path He's on, and follow Him.
That is what I believe it means, in a practical sense, to follow Jesus. And if I may, I believe that there's a definite order of events involved in the things that Jesus says. We cannot follow Him, unless we have taken up the cross—the instrument of our own death. And we cannot take up that dreadful cross, unless we have absolutely and completely denied “self”. Unless we have denied ourselves, and have taken up the cross, we will only be kidding ourselves if we think we're really following Jesus!
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So you see; Jesus doesn't demand “much” from His followers. He demands “all”. The level of commitment He demands is total. It's good to know this before we begin to follow; isn't it?
Jesus goes on to explain the implications of what He has just said. This leads us to . . .
2. THE REQUIREMENTS THAT THIS LEVEL OF COMMITMENT PLACES ON US (vv. 25-27).
First, we see that the level of commitment Jesus asks of us requires that we relinquish our hold on our life. He says, “For whoever desires to save his life will loose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (v. 25).
When I was a little boy, I was told in elementary school how they used to catch wild monkeys for the zoo. I really don't remember what it was supposed to teach me; but whatever the reason for it, the story stuck in my mind.
You see; the animal catcher would put a peanut inside a soda-pop bottle, and leave it out in the open. Then, he would hide in the bushes and wait. Eventually, a monkey would sneak up, reach his paw into the bottle, and grab the peanut. Then, the animal catcher would stroll out of the bush and get the monkey; because once it had its greedy little paw around the peanut, it would make a fist that was too big to pass through the neck of the heavy pop bottle. The animal catcher would easily pick up the monkey—bottle and all—and haul it to the cage. The monkey couldn't get away; because no matter what, it was too greedy to let go of the peanut.
In our passage this morning, Jesus is telling us that “life” is not something that we can "save" by holding on to it. If we want to come after Him, then we can't cling to “life” during this short stay on earth—as if it were the only thing that there really is, and as if it were were true happiness and fulfillment was found. If we refuse to let go of our hold on this short, temporal life, and say “no” to Jesus' call to deny “self”, take up the cross, and follow Him; then we will prove to have made a very foolish decision. The life that we think we will have “saved” will prove to be only a momentary “vapor”. And in the process, we will have lost that real, vital, principle of life that we were meant by our Creator to experience in an eternal relationship with Himself.
But by contrast, if we let go of this temporal life for Christ's sake—if we "lose" it for His sake—then our life will be kept in His safe-keeping; and will eventually be ours for all eternally. As the apostle John tells us, “And this is the testimony; that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:11-12).
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Second, the level of commitment that Jesus asks of us requires that we value our souls above this world. He asks, “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”(v. 26).
Jesus, here, speaks of the immeasurable value of the soul. The people of this world value someone in terms of what he or she has externally—that is, in terms of income, or possessions, or reputation, or looks. The attitude of this world is that the more someone has, the more someone is. Yet, Jesus says that "one's life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses" (Luke 12:15).
Jesus told a parable that illustrates this. He said,
“The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, 'What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?' So he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink and be merry.”' But God said to him, 'Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?' So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16-21).
The rich man in Jesus' parable sought to protect and preserve life only during this short time on earth. Advancing his earthly life was his only agenda. He sought to save what, as it turns out, he could never keep. He built his empire on that which was scheduled for demolition. And in the process, he lost that which was of infinitely greater value—his own soul. And what, then, will a man give in exchange for his own soul?
How tragic, then, to lose our souls in the pursuit of that which will not last! How horrible to stand in the judgment and see that you gained the perishing world—and lost everything of eternal value in the process! How much better to lose this whole world and follow Jesus instead!
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And finally, we see that the level of commitment Jesus asks of us requires that we invest ourselves totally in His return. He says, "For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works" (v. 27).
The apostle Paul lived his life on earth in the confident expectation of the day of Christ's return. He was even willing to lay down his life for Christ because of his hope in that day. Just before he was executed for his Savior, Paul wrote,
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing (2 Timothy 4:7-8).
And what's more, he encouraged his fellow-believers to also put all their hopes in that day. He wrote,
If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory (Col. 3:1-4).
If you truly have your hope in the day of Christ's return, and in your resurrection unto glory in His presence, then you will be willing to invest yourself fully in following Him now—no matter what the cost. You will count it your greatest joy to stand before Him on that great day and hear Him say, "Well done, good and faithful servant!"
Jesus is telling us that, because that day is certain, following Jesus with total commitment is the wisest investment anyone could ever make.
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It costs us everything to follow Jesus. But I hasten to add that it's a price we can safely pay. He demands everything from us; but He never takes from us without also promising to give us infinitely more than He takes in return! He makes a promise to us—a promise that He intends for us to genuinely believe in, and trust Him fully to keep—that "everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life" (Matthew 19:29).
Let's respond to Jesus' invitation, then, by asking the Spirit of God to reveal to us what may be standing in the way of our fully following Him. Let's allow the Spirit to remove the things from us that keep us from a whole-hearted devotion to Christ.
Let's allow Him to teach us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him.
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