"And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it." (Luke 9:23, 24)
Only one entrance may be found to the Kingdom of God. There is a narrow gate set at the head of the path of life. "Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it" (Matthew 7:14). No one with an inflated ego can squeeze through the door. There must be self-effacement, self-repudiation, self-denial even to become a disciple (a student) of Jesus Christ.
Our Saviour made his demand quite clear by explicitly requiring self-denial. He then re-emphasized the point by using a vivid illustration of renouncing one's self―an illustration he would soon seal with his blood, "Let him deny himself, and take up his cross". Six times in the Gospels our great Prophet refers to his followers' taking up a cross. It was one of his favourite illustrations of self-denial. At other times he would speak of selling all, or of losing one's life.
"Cross" is a word that first brings to our minds the picture of our Lord on Calvary. We think of him bleeding while fastened to an instrument designed to inflict an agonizing death. Then perhaps we expand the idea of taking up a cross by thinking of Stephen who was stoned to death, or of Peter and John, who were beaten and put into prison, and of other martyrs across the ages. In the light of such courageous physical suffering, the Christian at ease may say to himself, "I don't have any cross to bear". Perhaps this repeated demand of Christ even brings alarm to your consciences as you read it over and over in Scripture.
Some who call themselves "Christian" in fact have never taken up their crosses. Being ignorant of the experience of self-execution, of self-denial, they are of necessity strangers to Christ. Our Lord himself intended his illustration and his demand to deepen alarm in such individuals. If this is your condition, then there can be no relief to conviction but in taking up your cross and following him.
Others, however, are true servants of Christ but feel a sense of dismay through a misunderstanding of our Lord's demand. It is quite possible to have taken up your cross and not to know it. Careful examination of our Lord's meaning will then be an encouragement.
In either case, the subject is vital to you. Your Master's life was dominated by a cross. He has called you also to a life with a cross. This clear gospel note is so easy to forget in flabby Western society. With a great chorus of custom, advertisement and temptation this world is beckoning you to a life of self-indulgence. Your flesh is drawn to that appeal, and will fall in with the world's suggestions. But the Lord of glory has called you to a life of self-denial, to a cross.
The demand of bearing a cross is universal. It is made of all who follow Christ, without exception. Our Lord addressed these words "to all", not to a select few who walked nearer to Christ. Mark 8:34 indicates that this mandate was not issued to the twelve alone. It was spoken 'when he had called the people unto him with his disciples'. The cross is required for "any man" who will go after him. There are no peculiar cases released from this necessity. Repeatedly our Lord was emphatic that none could be considered his disciple in any sense unless he bore a cross. "And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me" (Matthew 10:38). Again in Luke 14:27 our Saviour turned to a multitude following him, to insist, "Whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple". It is an absolute impossibility to be a Christian without self-denial. Whether you live in a Christian land or in a culture hostile to God's Word, you must bear a cross. The only way to avoid the cross is to follow the world to hell. As verse 24 explains, "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it". The "for" indicates a connection with the preceding verse. Religion without self-denial will not endure the judgment.
It is this most obvious aspect of our Lord's teaching which has been forgotten or ignored by modern evangelism. Anxious to bring sinners to life, peace and Joy in the Lord, evangelists have failed even to mention that Christ insists upon denial of self at the outset. Having failed to pass on our Lord's requirement, and forgetting it themselves, evangelists have never questioned whether their "converts" with self-centred lives are true followers of Christ. Assuming that it is possible for a man to be self-indulgent and yet heaven-bound, Bible teachers look for some way to bring ego-centric men to a higher spiritual plane. Then self-denial is taught as the requirement for a second work of grace. But our text will show that unless a man lives a life of self-denial, he has not received a first work of grace.
Those who save texts demanding a cross for "the deeper life" have cheated their hearers in evangelism. Without a cross there is no following Christ! And without following Christ there is no life at all! An impression has been given that many enter life through a wide gate of believing on Jesus. Then a few go through the narrow gate of the cross for deeper spiritual service. On the contrary, the broad way without self-denial leads to destruction. All who are saved have entered the fraternity of the cross. Christ's summons to a cross is perpetual. Self-denial is not an initiation-fee, once paid and for ever forgotten. Old Christians as well as new converts must bear a cross. One's cross is not a disposable item of Christian experience but a life-long burden in this world.
This conversation apparently took place after Caesarea Philippi. It was near the end of our Lord's earthly ministry. Almost three years earlier, Jesus had called the disciples. We read a partial account of the call in Luke 5. When they began to follow the Messiah, there was a painful price of a cross to be weighed. For Peter it was leaving a beloved father and abandoning a good fishing business in a quiet village. For Matthew it was turning his back on the lucrative tax bureau he directed. Throughout more than two years there was the painful experience of poverty, tumult and disgrace in following the Master. Now, as they near the completion of their training, our Lord holds before them the expectation of a cross. Whether you have walked with Christ one year or forty, you must deny yourself still.
You will notice that the text uses the word "daily". For a true believer the cross is ubiquitous, lifelong, a daily weight. There is but one depository of the cross, that is the cemetery. We shall not carry the pain of self-denial into the celestial city. But our Lord holds out no hope that the cross will cease to afflict us in this life. It is "daily", for "any man". You must ask yourself, "Am I bearing a cross today?"
As has been suggested, the cross is painful. The term "cross" has lost all significance if the element of dreadful suffering is taken away. Our Lord endured the most cruel pangs ever inflicted upon a man. But we must recognize that the cross represented inward as well as outward pains. To our perfect Lord the inward torture of the cross was far greater than the outward.
Hebrews 12:2 teaches us that Jesus "endured the cross, despising the shame". The shame was much more painful to his noble dignity than were the nails and the bleeding to his body. Some have failed to estimate what the cross was to him: the confusion of being made sin before the Father, the embarrassment before his enemies of open judgment by a righteous God. The shame of nakedly identifying with filthy transgressions before men, angels and God, cut his sensitive soul to the quick.
Inward suffering must be the focus of our Lord's teaching in this passage. Our cross is not merely physical suffering. Stephen was not stoned "daily", yet the Saviour said we must bear a "daily" cross. Even in the worst of times apostles were not imprisoned "daily". There is a cross to bear on the best of days as well as on the worst. Peter carried a cross during civil peace as well as in times of strife. A failure to comprehend that inward pain is the worst part of the cross has led some believers to misunderstand our Lord's demand of a daily cross. It is this misunderstanding which may lead to unnecessary alarm and dismay when true saints read our Lord's demand. You may bear a cross unseen by all but your heavenly Father. How often a pastor is surprised to learn of the cross borne by members of the congregation, through trials never imagined by him. The deepest pains of the cross are not publicly visible.
Furthermore, taking up your cross is an intentional act. In every passage which records our Lord's mention of a cross for his disciples, he commands them to "take it up". The Lord does not force a cross upon any man against his will. He does not strap the cross to a man's back. There are great afflictions for God's people which are imposed by providence. Irresistible sufferings may be the hand of chastisement or of refining mercy. These are trials but not crosses. A cross must be taken up by the one whose self is to be denied painfully.
It was a voluntary submission on Christ's part which brought him to Calvary. "No man taketh my life from me, but I lay it down of myself" (John 10:18). Armed soldiers could not seize him. The Son of God delivered himself into their custody. just so is the daily cross of his disciples. It is the conscious choice of a painful alternative motivated by love for Christ. It may be preceded by an inward struggle similar to that which our Lord knew in Gethsemane. But it is a voluntary choice.
Lastly, the taking up of a cross is mortal. It is deadly. Death on the cross may be very slow, but a cross has one objective―it ruthlessly intends to bring death to self. Two parallel ideas in verses 23 and 24 show us that our Lord has this in mind. "Let him deny himself". Put to death self-importance, self-satisfaction, self-absorption, self-advancement, self-dependence. And "whosoever will lose his life for my sake". That's it! Death to self-interest because you serve Christ's honour! Even capitulation of those things which men call legitimate interests, for God's glory!
It is now apparent that Jesus' figure of bearing a cross is an elaboration of his demand for self-denial. Bearing a cross is every Christian's daily, conscious selection of those options which will please Christ, pain self, and aim at putting self to death. It is a teaching for the recruit, not merely for the seasoned warrior. It is a requirement for entering the army of God, not merely a call to an elite corps of super-saints with a deeper life. Yet it does hold the clue as well to deepening maturity in Christ. At each stage of growth, more self-denial is required, more painful blows to self, more reckless decision to serve the Lord Christ with consequent abandonment of one's own life.
The shadow of the cross falls upon all those vital aspects of Christian experience which perplex true hearts. If only the cross were understood, many complaints would be silenced which murmur against God's providence. Many a counseling session in the pastor's study would be cut short by applying the meaning of the cross. It answers so many questions, not easily but profoundly.
If you have struggled to worship the Almighty, you will have learned that there is no satisfying communion with the Most High without a cross. Our Saviour arose a great while before it was day to draw near to his Father. Having no central heating, it is no stretch of the imagination to think that he shivered while his metabolism was still sluggish in early morning hours. Perhaps he felt the pain of prying his eyes open, for he was a true man who had spent long days and nights instructing the ignorant, convincing the gainsayers and healing the sick. He did not have a good night of sleep before his secret hours of worship. Perhaps he had to stand lest he fall asleep. Perhaps these struggles led to his sympathy for his disciples in the Garden. When they slept spirit is instead of praying, he gently said, "The willing but the flesh is weak". Oh, he had felt the weakness of human flesh!
A cross greets the Christian who is determined to rise early to meet his God. It begins with the alarm clock. Self desires another hour of sleep. It is only reasonable to remain in bed since the baby woke up twice last night. But if the love of Christ burns in your soul, you would rather inflict pain on yourself than plunge into the demands of business at home and office, and end the day with the sad realization that you had not been with him in quiet at all. Furthermore, to rise early in the day you must deny self of pleasant social evenings which tend to last into late hours.
And when you have managed to bring yourself to your devotions, stubborn self intrudes still. Thoughts of your affairs demand attention from your mind so that honest contemplation of the glory of God is crowded out. A thousand selfish interests prevent true prayer from ever beginning. Our Lord taught us that prayer begins when the heart cries "Hallowed be thy Name". It cannot be uttered until self-interest is ruthlessly yanked from the soul as a tooth is from your jaw. This is painful and pinching.
Preachers meet sad-eyed saints who would like them to recommend a good book on devotions, I something to pick up my drooping spirits'. The place of private retirement has grown dull or unrewarding. Often behind the request is a desire to find a new secret to approaching God's courts, a little device or an easy step back to the place of joyful fellowship with God and the Lamb. There are no such books or devices. You must bear a cross! Take aim on self. Set your sights on putting self to death. Deny self! Fast! Rise earlier! Cry with a fresh uniting of all your energies for the one purpose of knowing the Lord. And tomorrow? The cross will be there again. And if you do not choose to inflict pain on self, you will relapse once more into coldness. You will withdraw to a distance from the Lord.
Some poor creatures have stopped seeking the joys of God's presence. Perhaps you have assumed that God will not show you his glory. On the contrary, he delights to make himself known. But there is a cross at the threshold of the secret place of the Most High. To come under the shadow of the Almighty you must put self to a slow, agonizing death.
The long shadow of the cross will follow you from your home to your field of service for the Lord. Faithful witnesses to Christ face dreadful pains. When you arrive at your shop, fellow workers may be gathered in a corner laughing and slapping shoulders. You know you dare not approach to join in. The subject of the good humour is filthy. During the day, as serious opinions are discussed, there is an opportunity to give the biblical view on issues of sin and righteousness or the purpose of life. But each time you speak, you have seen rejection of yourself with your views. Each testimony for truth makes you more unwelcome. Will you be bold for truth today?
Christians are sensitive. We want to be liked and accepted. It is pleasant to be agreeable and peaceful. It is our longing to become more intimate with fellow men. Some brutes witness with an attitude of "I don't care what anyone thinks of me". That is to be callous, not gracious. As God's grace quickens in us love for men, a sense of courtesy is heightened, a longing for gentleness and peace is increased. But with all of this our Lord's honour is at issue in the discussion. The eternal welfare of men's souls hangs in the balance with their understanding of truth.
What must the Christian do if he is to witness? He must consciously choose words that pain his own social consciousness and love of peace. He must purposely drive the wedge between self and fellow workers deeper! There are no easy steps to witnessing! No painless, unembarrassing methods! You must bring men to see that they are filthy sinners under the wrath of God who must flee to Christ for mercy. That is offensive. And there is no way to coat it with honey.
When a young woman explains the gospel to her mother, she may almost anticipate the cool reception. Whichever way the truth is presented, implied is the life-long error of mother. It is all a denial of her religion, her views, her life-style from a daughter. It cuts her heart like a knife. Yes, but when the sword of the Word cuts mother's heart, a sensitive daughter has at the same time chosen to drive spikes into her own flesh. Self has had to be crucified. Two hearts are broken, not merely one.
As the cross casts a shadow over worship arid witnessing, its shades also fall upon all service to God. Questions like, "Will you teach a Sunday School class?" become, "Will you relinquish tranquil and amusing evenings which follow frenzied days in the office? Will you sacrifice relaxation seriously to study God's Word in preparation for the class? Will you spend scarce time to pray for your students?" Each duty assumed for the good of the Church imposes restrictions elsewhere.
An image of the cross is discernible everywhere in the Christian life. Our Lord was not speaking in hyperbole when he set before us a daily cross. To turn from it is to revert to the broad way which leads to destruction.
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