What Does It Really Mean to Take Up Your Cross and Follow Jesus?

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It doesn’t require a very critical reading of the four Gospels to notice that the twelve disciples often missed the mark when it came to understanding what it means to follow Jesus. Even though they were bold enough to confess that Jesus was the Messiah (Luke 9:20), they still had little grasp of what that truly meant. Indeed, they seemed to mistakenly think that Jesus’ anointing would lead to the kind of worldly power that people have always sought after (Luke 9:46). But Jesus taught that a key part of being the Messiah was self-denial, death, and ultimately resurrection—and that to follow Him would mean the same for all of His disciples.

What does it mean to follow Jesus? As one continues in faith, it will mean a radical renunciation of self and an ensuing embrace of identifying with Christ and His suffering.

Jesus calls those who follow Him to become like Him in His suffering and self-denial. And this is not some kind of “next-level” Christian living that’s designed for those who want to be especially zealous. No, conformity with the Lord Jesus Christ is the only standard of Christian living. In Luke 9:23–26, Jesus tells the crowds surrounding Him in no uncertain terms that to follow Him means both to deny ourselves and to suffer for the sake of the Gospel—just as He did.

The Path Jesus Forges

He said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

When Jesus told the crowd what it would mean to follow Him, He articulated it in two ways.

First, He said of the one who wishes to follow Him, “Let him deny himself.” In other words, the follower of Jesus is to say, “My life is no longer all about me. It’s no longer all about the identity or reputation I’ve been establishing. It’s no longer all about my agenda.” We are instead to lose ourselves in Christ. That doesn’t mean that our DNA is irrelevant or that our personality is obscured—for it is only in Christ that our true self begins to shine. But when you follow Jesus, your life is given over into His custody.

What Jesus describes is the radical denunciation of all self-idolatry. Our natural inclination is to worship and serve ourselves—even if those aren’t always the words we use to describe our way of life. By thoughts, words, and deeds, we say, “I will fulfill my dreams, I will achieve my desires, I will meet my needs, and I will not tolerate anything or anyone that stands in the way.” But our God-given calling is to worship and serve our Creator. As the apostle Paul says, we’re meant to present our bodies as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1). We’re called to recognize that “you are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:19–20).

Our walk with Jesus is not an uneventful afternoon stroll. It is a march into rejection, danger, and death. That is one of the defining features of what it means to be a Christian.

Second, Jesus said, “Let him … take up his cross daily.” While Jesus is speaking metaphorically, this is a radical metaphor. His audience—full of people living under oppressive Roman rule—were very familiar with the scene of a condemned man walking to the place of his execution, carrying the means of his execution across his own shoulders. Jesus is telling people that to follow Him means following Him even to Calvary. He is saying, “If you follow Me, it will mean your death.”

Our walk with Jesus is not an uneventful afternoon stroll. It is a march into rejection, danger, and death. That is one of the defining features of what it means to be a Christian, as Jesus told His disciples on another occasion: “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). No one who follows Christ will escape the world’s hostility, at least to some degree. And even though many Christians do not die by martyrdom as Christ and many of His apostles did, the words of Paul to the Galatians are true for anyone who is in Christ: “The world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). To follow Christ as Paul did and as He commands is to know that this passing world and its empty desires are forfeit and that God is all in all.

The Reason to Follow

“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” (Luke 9:24–26)

Following Jesus in self-denial and suffering means a change in the way a believer views life. Instead of doing everything we can to preserve our lives, we must be ready to let our lives go so that we can grasp onto eternal life. As we weigh the benefits of this world against the benefits of eternity with God, we must ask ourselves, “Do I want honor now with the world and shame when Christ returns? Or am I prepared to accept shame now and honor then?” And those who follow Christ will answer as Paul did: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8).

We live existential lives. Everything seems like it’s in the now. We’re tempted not to believe in eternity at all. Our world suggests to us, “You don’t have to worry about anything out there. You were born without reason, you prolong yourself by chance, and death is the great equalizer.” But written into the psyche of every man and woman is the awareness that things will one day be settled and made right. And on that occasion, those of us who have said, “I’m ashamed of Jesus, I’m not going to be a follower of Jesus,” will find ourselves ashamed to have done so.

To follow Christ as Paul did and as He commands is to know that this passing world and its empty desires are forfeit and that God is all in all.

In a way, He is asking us to take out our profit and loss sheet and consider what following Him will mean for our lives. And the problem, He says, is not that we’re seeking to come out in the black. The problem is that apart from following Christ on the path of self-denial and suffering, there is no way to come out in the black. We can do the figures in all sorts of creative ways, but when Christ returns and the bill comes due, only those who have walked the path to Calvary with Christ will find that their lives have been profitable. All of this world’s apparent treasures will come out to nothing. All of the riches will be found in Christ.

Who Can Follow?

When Jesus challenged the rich young ruler in Luke 18 to leave all and follow Him, the man turned away, unwilling to lose the worldly goods that made up his earthly life. In response, Jesus told His disciples, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” The shocked disciples asked, “Then who can be saved?” They must have thought, If the rich cannot earn their way into God’s kingdom, then what hope do the poor have? And so Jesus responded, “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:25–27).

When Christ returns and the bill comes due, only those who have walked the path to Calvary with Christ will find that their lives have been profitable.

As we seek to follow Jesus in perseverance, we would do well to remind ourselves, “The strength to follow Your command could never come from me.”1 We’re tempted to believe that to be a Christian primarily means that you have to do something: If I do this work, I will be like Jesus. And then, if I just hang in there, I’ll be secure for eternity. That is completely upside down! We trust in Jesus as a response to His initiative and grace in our lives. The same grace which brings us to faith in Him then sustains us and makes it possible—and enjoyable!—for us to follow Him. The strength both to believe and to follow are found in the grace of God alone.

As we hear Jesus’ most challenging commands, we must remember not only that obedience always follows faith but also that obedience always follows faith. The kind of transformation that Jesus calls us to is not a transformation which says, “Here are a few principles that I’m going to try and stick to myself,” or “Here are some concepts that I’m going to hang on the Christmas tree of my life.” No, the power to follow Jesus in the way of the cross emerges from a life that, by grace, through faith, has been united with the Lord Jesus Christ. It is in our union with Christ that the glory of the world begins to pale while the glory of God grows brighter. With God, it is possible to persevere in obedient faith as we renounce self-idolatry and embrace the suffering of Christ

This article was adapted from the sermons “If Anyone Would Come after Me, He Must... Take Up His Cross” and “Discipleship: The Conditions” by Alistair Begg.

Journey to the Cross: Listen Now

  1. Jordan Kauflin, “All I Have Is Christ”(2008).↩︎

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