If you are not willing to die for something, there is a question of whether you believe it. (Steve Lawson)
In this passage, Luke records Jesus setting the conditions for becoming his followers. He said one must do three things: (1) deny him or herself, (2) take up his or her cross daily, and (3) follow him.
What does it mean to deny yourself? It means, first of all, to renounce your selfish ambitions and desires. It is a strong word in Greek. It means, in this context, forgetting oneself entirely, rejecting any thought of doing what will please ourselves rather than God.
This is a problem. This is counter-cultural. In America, we are taught to have selfish ambitions. We are taught we are special. We are taught we need to pamper ourselves. We deserve a break today. We deserve to have it our way. We deserve a safe place. We are worth it. Those are the tenets of our culture.
We encourage children to be ambitious, to seek wealth, fame and glory. We have a show called American Idol. The “idol” is supposed to be there person who wins and is looked up to. But the idol is really revealed to be fame, glory and wealth.
The apostles, however, did the very thing Jesus demanded. Levi walked away from his lucrative tax collection business to follow Jesus in poverty. (Matthew 9:9) He denied himself wealth and comfort to follow Jesus.
Simon (Peter) and Andrew abandoned the family fishing business to follow Jesus. (Matthew 4:18-20) James and John did the same thing. (Matthew 4:21-22)
Lottie Moon left a life of affluence and education to become a missionary to China. She later broke off her engagement with a seminary professor to stay in China and because of his drifting theologically.
These are examples for us.
Jesus may not call you to quit your job and follow him into ministry. He may not call you to die on the mission field. But he does call you to put him above your work and your career, to live for his glory and not your own.
Jesus also said to take up our cross daily. So many people treat this as a metaphor and cheapen the message. They will speak of any inconvenience as their “cross to bear”. But the disciples would have understood Jesus was calling them to risk death every day for him. He had just told them that he himself would be rejected and killed.
The cross was an implement of capital punishment. It was both public and painful. Bodies were often left on the cross for days after death as a warning to others.
The words “take up” are important here. Those disciples had seen criminals carrying the cross beam through town on the way to execution. To “take up your cross” meant to go out and die. Jesus is speaking of suffering for his sake. It means a willingness to accept whatever Jesus calls you to do, including suffering and death.
You can also imagine that, after seeing Jesus on the cross, the disciples would remember this saying of Jesus and feel the weight of it. Most of the Twelve were killed for their confession of Jesus as Lord.
But even if Jesus does not call you to physical death, he calls everyone to die to the self-oriented way of life. Instead of pursuing every ambition and desire of the self, we pursue Jesus and live for him. Instead of nurturing that one special sin you enjoy, you give it up for Jesus. And, we are to do these things daily.
Paul told Timothy: “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.” (1 Timothy 2:3-5)
Paul wrote metaphorically here. He meant that Timothy should not get entangled in the affairs of the world, but instead concentrate on the work that pleases Jesus and furthers his kingdom. Granted, Timothy was called to be a minister of the word. He was not a “layman” as we call it. But the principle is still valid: Christ before all things.
In denying ourselves and taking up our cross, we follow the example of Jesus. He denied himself his glory. Philippians 2:6-7 says Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not county equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men”.
Jesus denied himself the pleasures of sin. He fulfilled the law. He suffered all the temptations we do, but without sin. (Hebrews 4:15) He even denied himself the comforts and joys of humanity: he had no wife, children or home.
Not only did Jesus give the conditions of following him, he told of the consequences of following him and the consequences of rejecting him. In verse 24, he said the one who would save his life by not following Jesus will lose it. Following Jesus will likely result in your loss of some worldly things. But not following him will result in an eternal loss. In contrast, those who lose their lives for the sake of Jesus will save it. They will enjoy eternal life.
In verse 25 he repeated this message when he asked the rhetorical question: “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” You can have everything this world has to offer and lose your eternal life to reside in hell.
In verse 26, Jesus said it a third way. If you are ashamed of Jesus and his words, He will be ashamed of you when he returns in glory. “Ashamed” here means to reject or deny Jesus.
All of those theologians and their followers who have been, and are, ashamed of the Jesus of the Bible, redefining him, denying his deity, explaining away his miracles and devaluing his substitutionary death on the cross will one day face a Jesus who is “ashamed” of them. They saved their life on earth, becoming acceptable to non-believers, and will lose their life for all eternity.
Even among conservatives, there is temptation to water down the word of Jesus. We sell conversion more than discipleship. We ask people to fill out cards and do not require their baptism, we have people raise their hands if they believe in Jesus, but ignore their apathy toward all things to do with the church. Sometimes this is to boost numbers. Sometimes it is just because people have been taught to do it this way. But, Jesus said, and says, subordinate those ambitions and follow me. Put me first. Obey my commands, immerse yourself in my Word and teach others about me.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book we know as “The Cost of Discipleship”. He wrote the book as the Nazis began to control everything in German life. Bonhoeffer moved to New York to study, but returned to Germany, knowing it was dangerous, because he believed he was called to preach there. He denied himself in this and followed Christ. He was killed by the Nazis.
This book was popular among growing Christians when I was in college. Bonhoeffer said you could preach about cheap grace or costly grace. He wrote: ”cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”
Costly grace, however, "confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: 'My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
This passage is somewhat shocking if you have grown up in church in the last 20 years. But it was also shocking to the disciples. Peter had declared that Jesus was the Christ. They had to wonder if this meant that Jesus would now become the warrior king of Israel. Instead he told them he would suffer and die. Then, to make matters worse, he told them they had to be willing to suffer and die to follow him.
My prayer is that you will not abstract this or simply lock it away. Rather, my prayer is that you will think about it and pray on it. Follow Christ wherever he leads.
B. B. McKinney wrote a hymn based on this passage. The first verse and chorus are:
"Take up thy cross and follow Me,"
I heard my Master say;
"I gave My life to ransom thee,
Surrender your all today."
▪ Wherever He leads I'll go,
▪ Wherever He leads I'll go,
▪ I'll follow my Christ who loves me so,
▪ Wherever He leads I'll go.
After praying about this, sing the hymn. It will reinforce your commitment beautifully