24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?
Dead to sin is an important starting point for the followers of Christ. We do not acquire its realization right away even though we are cosmically have been made dead to sin through the death of Christ on the cross. As soon as we believe in Christ’s redemptive work, we are immediately entering into an eternal relationship with Jesus Christ. And this eternal relationship with Christ is signified with what Paul called as being baptized into Christ’s death (Romans 6:3). The implication is that we then are dead to sin, which means that sin has no eternal effect on us anymore,which means also that we are spiritually and eventually ought not be responsive to sin any longer. But in the course of this temporal life on earth, we are struggling with the gradual process of our self being irresponsive to sin. This means that as we are in the process of dying to sin, at one time or another we are responding to sin favorably. In a way, the dead old self is still wiggling as it is dying. And when it is wiggling, we are affected, in which our newborn self is constantly being pounded by the dying old self. Until one day, the old self has truly died in us, even when the old body is still living. This process must be understood by Christians, and particularly Christian leaders. If not understood properly we will run into a big mistake of judging others with a heavy judgment that devastates the poor struggling souls. This process is usually known in the theological jargon as the sanctifying process. But sanctifying process contains a lot of struggles. The key to check the genuine sanctifying process, even when the struggle looks ugly to the eyes of many, is to check whether someone is truly repentant or not.
Now, repentance can also be faked. Someone can put a show of being repentant just to get away with the more severe punishment. In the case of Jimmy Swaggart, he pretended to repent from his sin after he was confronted with a recording of his having sex with a prostitute. He confessed and he promised not to repeat. Then he was suspended from being a pastor in his own church. But as soon as the pressure on him was lightened, he wiggled and left his church that disciplined him, and founded his own church. His repentance was fake. True repentance can be seen in David when God punished him for committing adultery with Bathsheba and for murdering Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband. David did not wiggle. He accepted. Even when the punishment was very severe, which for example were when the king had to be greatly embarrassed by leaving his palace, walking a very long distance being mocked by many people, and when his own son Absalom raped his concubines in broad daylight in view of all people. Swaggart wiggled because he could not stand the punishment of him being put under church discipline. When repentance is true, the sanctification process must be honored, and the person undergoing the process respected and empathized. We all go through similar situations at one time or another as sinful humans. We might commit different kind of sins, but the struggle is the same. Some sins are more socially acceptable, but those sins that are more socially tolerated are not permissible in the eyes of the Lord. Sin is sin, socially tolerable or not. The punishment of sin is still death.
The struggle of the newborn self under the oppression of the old dying self produces repentance. With every bit of repentance the new self is realizing its dying to sin. Soon sin has no mastery in him anymore. But before he gets there, the new self goes through tremendous suffering, because the true self – which in this case is the old self – is in the process of dying. This old self is the self that responds to sin favorably. With the true self being unmasked, that it actually is the dying old self, it is panicking, and when it is panicking, it is kicking and screaming hitting so hard at the replacement. The true old self must be replaced with the true new self. The true new self must deny the true old self that still attempts to sit on the throne of the human heart. The denial of the true old self robs it of its power and glory. The dying process is heightened. The intensity of its death grows higher as the true new self humbly repents. When the true old self truly dies in us, we would be like Peter who would courageously and voluntarily die for his Master. Peter followed the footsteps of his Master, who died courageously and voluntarily for the sake of obeying His Father and for His great love for us. The second step to attain the higher intensity of the dying process of the true old self is the taking up of our cross daily.
Obviously what Jesus meant was not taking up the cross in the literal sense. If Jesus meant literally then we all will need to die in the same manner, on the cross. In the Greco-Roman world cross is meant for death sentence. Cross is reserved for the worst of criminals. But in the Greco-Roman world people were not equal. They were discriminated based on their citizenships and status. Roman citizens would not be sentenced by crucifixion. Because crucifixion is cruel. Roman citizens must be treated humanely. If death sentence is to be given to a Roman citizen, then beheading is the one to choose. Because beheading is fast and therefore it does not inflict terrible suffering one must go through before death like crucifixion does. Cross is for first of all non-Roman citizens, then their status such as slaves, and then their crimes such as murderers, rebels, and the likes. Jesus was crucified because of the request of the crowd. Pilate himself did not see that death sentence fit Jesus’ situation. Pilate was actually convinced that Jesus was innocent. That out of envy the chief priests and the religious leaders of the Jews brought Jesus to him. Matthew 27:15-18 recorded:
15 Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted. 16 And they had then a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. 17 So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” 18 For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up.
Yet, the crowd yelled for Jesus to be crucified. Pilate, wanting to please the crowd because he did not wish for any uproar to start in his area under his watch, gave in. Pilate washed his hands in a ritual to declare that he was not responsible, but yet consciously sent Jesus, a completely innocent man, to be crucified. The motivation to eliminate Jesus because of His great works, the betrayal by Judas one of Jesus’ disciples, the false accusations and unreasonable decision by the High Priest to condemn Jesus for blasphemy, the envious allegation of the leaders, the insane demand of the ignorant crowds, and the unjust decision by the governor of Judea whose concern was only his performance before the Caesar, all worked together to send Jesus to the cross. Therefore the cross that Jesus took up was no ordinary cross. It’s a special cross. It’s not cross because He committed a horrible political or moral crime. But it is cross in which the bearer is innocent. The suffering of the cross is inflicted upon the bearer not as a punishment, but because of the evil motivation to eliminate the bearer without just reasons. This is the deeper meaning of the cross. And this meaning is metaphorical rather than literal. Although we must draw from the historical event of Jesus’ crucifixion in order to understand fully the meaning of His cross. Jesus’ cross carries with it the meaning that spans from the unreasonable hate the Jewish leaders had toward Him until the crucifixion itself. This metaphorical and deeper meaning of the cross is what Jesus had in mind when He instructed the second step of following Him.
With that metaphorical and deeper meaning of the cross that we have to take up if we are to follow Jesus, we now have a better understanding of the second step. It makes more sense now the connection between the first and the second steps. Denying self as the first step does not connect well to the second step if cross is taken literally. But when cross is understood metaphorically the connection between the two steps emerges very clearly. It is only reasonable that one would not proceed to take up his cross unless he first denies himself. No one in this world can cope with being hated without reasons if he cannot deny himself. Following Jesus truly means being like Jesus in every way possible. There must be similar qualities spiritually between Jesus and His followers. This is what is reported by John:
18 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. 21 But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. 23 Whoever hates me hates my Father also. 24 If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. 25 But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without a cause.’ (John 15:18-25)
The works that Jesus did testified that He was sent from heaven by the Father Himself. But yet the Jews did not believe. They persecuted Jesus even more. It is unreasonable, and tends to be illogical, and even irrational whatever it was they did to Jesus given what Jesus had done. Jesus never committed any crime. He never actually broke the Law. He, instead, fulfilled and completed the Law. All the clues were pointing to Him as the Messiah. Yet they just dismissed Him because He did not fit the category of Messiah they wanted. And so they hated Jesus without a cause. Thence Jesus followers too will suffer the same ordeal. The world would hate His disciples unreasonably, illogically, irrationally, and without a cause.
Normally, the way of the world dictates us to defend ourselves vigorously. The way of the world dictates that we prove our innocence. The way of the world dictates that we defend ourselves at all cost, even if it means committing unethical actions. But precisely at this point that Jesus set a very unpopular example. Jesus never defended Himself at all cost. He did not even attempt to prove His innocence. Jesus did not commit any unethical action. His followers too are called to do the same. This is the way of the cross. The way of being hated without reason. The way of being betrayed by friend. The way of being accused falsely. The way of being judged unfairly. The way of being demolished publicly through the hands of the authority. And the way of being punished as innocent, even the death punishment. This is the way of the cross. The way to accept the special cross as shown by Jesus. For sure we can’t take up Jesus’ cross. The cross of Jesus is THE special cross. Because in it was the true meaning of death. Death that includes physical and spiritual deaths. This cross is when the Father pours out all His wrath to Jesus because He bore the sins of the world. This cross is when the Father looked the other way, and for that moment the Father had to forsake His Son. This we can’t carry. This special meaning of Jesus’ cross we will never be able to take up. But the other meanings we can and we must, for we are followers of Christ.
As Jesus’ followers, the world will hate us just as it has hated Jesus without a cause. We too will be persecuted as it has persecuted Jesus. Our death might be desired by some envious people as we do all the good works God sets for us. Our friends, closest friends even, would betray us for the comfort of their life or for their security even though they know we are innocent. We might be accused falsely with many slanders and false accusations in order to assassin our character. We might even be judged unfairly because they want to save their interest instead of guarding the truth. We might be brought to court for our belief. And the world might punish us for our innocence. When we take all those up with courage and faith in Jesus without following the way of the world, it means we take up our cross. It means we are following Jesus’ footsteps. This is the hardest part. Hardest because as humans at one point or another we might experience any of those things like betrayal, unfair judgment, and so on, but the requirement here is handling them the way Jesus handled them. If we are to handle them the way the world handles them, then it wouldn’t be difficult. Handling them the way Jesus handled them makes it extremely difficult. We can’t say we follow Jesus if we handle those things the way the world does.
Our true old self would opt for the way of the world. The way of the world is the way of comfort. The way of the world is the way of safety. The way of saving one’s life. The way of defending oneself at all cost, even if it means harming others. Our true old self will battle our true new self within us in order to regain its throne. We have ousted the true old self once we deny it. But the true old self continues to lurk in the dark as it slowly dies. It seeks the most opportune time to sneak back into its old position. The “cross” moment that we go through provides opportunity for the true old self to attack the true new self. All the true new self has to do is to obey and to bear patiently in faith. But doing such things is very difficult during the “cross” moment. Much prayer is needed. Submission to God is required. Immersing oneself in the word of God is a must. Such path is what Jesus Himself undertook. We all know the story of Jesus praying at the garden of Gethsemane prior to His arrest. He prayed there so fervently. Matthew 26:44 records: “44 So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again.” This was His coping mechanism to the disequilibrium of the “cross” moment. He did not resort to entertainment. He did not do drugs to get His mind to escape the agony. He did not also seek the best lawyer in town in order to get Him out of this situation. He also did not run away and seclude Himself in an unreached area. He also did not seek a political ally who would vouch for Him and defend Him. Jesus, did not then compromise with the authorities in order to avoid suffering and death. Instead, Jesus prayed three times to His Father. And in all things He submitted to God. The prayer He spoke three times to the Father was found in verse 39: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Jesus’ submission to the Father was superb. He had every right to say no. He had every right to opt out of this “cross.” He didn’t have to do it. But He submitted. And thirdly, Jesus immersed Himself in the Scripture. Matthew 26:51-56 revealed to us:
51 And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” 55 At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. 56 But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left him and fled.
The Scripture is the guidance. Jesus did not modify the Scripture for His own gain. Instead He fulfilled it. He was the LOGOS, and He fulfilled the written logos. How much more are we supposed to follow the written logos, the Holy Scripture? Doing what the Scripture says is what we must do. Jesus has set the example. The “cross” moment cannot be handled sloppily. It must be handled with these threefold action of prayer, submission to God, and immersion in the Scripture, just like what Jesus Himself did. Jesus did not choose the way of the world. He did not choose the wide road. He chose the narrow road. In Max Lucado’s word: “He Chose the Nails.”
These threefold action is combined into the ultimate weapon to deal with the “cross” moment. Without these three, no one would be able to take up his cross. The true old self wants to deny the cross. It desperately attempts to persuade the true new self to deny the cross. It tries to corrupt the new self. But it won’t succeed since the Holy Spirit is there to protect the followers of Christ. However, it might inflict heavy pain to the new self. The goal is for the new self to give in. Jesus warned His disciples in Matthew 26:41: “41 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” The true old self is the flesh. The true new self is the spirit. The true old self has been denied, and thus it must not be admitted back. It is denied for good. The “cross” path is the way the world kills the followers of Jesus. The world did it to Jesus. The world also will do it to us. Our flesh would not want suffering. It only wants comfort. But the spirit is willing. The new self in Christ can only be sustained by prayer, by submission to God, and by the word of God. The first temptation of Christ was about this basic need of the flesh. But Jesus turned it around by pointing to the basic need of the spirit, for the spirit is more important than the flesh. So Jesus said in Matthew 4:4:
“It is written,
“‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Thus Jesus redeemed what Adam and Eve could not do. The path has been cleared by Jesus. The threefold action is our weapon to resist the attack, the persuasion, and the temptation of the world. The world aims to take control of us by appealing to our true old self-the flesh. The “cross” moment is being replicated by the world with the purpose to destroy the followers of Jesus. The pattern is the same. Many people who profess following Jesus actually fall away and abandon their faith during the “cross” moment. Among the ranks of those who fall away were the apostle Peter before he was reinstated by Jesus. His denial of Christ was when his flesh took over and his fear overwhelmed him. After his reinstatement, Peter too followed the footsteps of His Master. Peter denied himself and took up his cross. He died a martyr, being crucified with his head at the bottom. It was very well depicted by the great painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio in 1601”The Crucifixion of Saint Peter” or “Crocifissione di san Pietro” painted for the Cerasi Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. All the other disciples too fell away as soon as Jesus was arrested. They all came back to their old way of life. Until Jesus appeared to them and strengthened their faith. We too might fall away at one point or another. But as true followers of Christ, we must and we will always come back to Christ.
Another great example of taking up one’s cross was set by Polycarp the bishop of Smyrna, who was confirmed by Irenaeus and Tertullian, two great church fathers, to be the direct disciple of the apostle John. Polycarp was seduced to apostate right at the stake before the fire was lit. The temptation was freedom, freedom of pain, freedom of living without threats. But Polycarp denied his true old self, and he took up his cross faithfully. He refused to apostate by saying his most elegant statement of faith:
Eighty and six years have I served Christ, nor has He ever done me any harm. How, then, could I blaspheme my King who saved Me? .... I bless Thee for deigning me worthy of this day and this hour that I may be among Thy martyrs and drink the cup of my Lord Jesus Christ.
Then the fire was lit and he was consumed by the raging fire in an instant. Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, died a martyr.
Being treated unjustly, persecuted inhumanely, accused falsely, conspired against, punished for being innocent, are all the life course of the followers of Christ. And that’s the imagination of taking up the cross. It’s not the actual taking up of the cross. But it is taking up the persecution, the injustice, the hate, the death sentence and handling it the way Jesus handled His cross, which is by obeying God completely and following His teaching without any reservation. It is very hard to love our enemies. It is very hard for someone to be nailed on the cross unjustly and still prays for those who treat him inhumanely. The first words of the cross that Jesus uttered:
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
This is the goal for all Christians, to be like Jesus Christ. The restoration of the imago dei within must be following the true pattern, which is Jesus Christ Himself. In Ephesians 4:11-13 Paul said:
11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ
Now, some Christians handled persecution by retaliation, by persecuting back. That’s not how Jesus was. Thus that’s not Christian. The Crusades in the 11th century is a very important lesson from history that Christians all over the world in all ages must not repeat. For the Crusades is not Christian at all. Christians will most definitely suffer under injustice but never Jesus instructed His disciples to take up sword to fight it. He even told Peter to sheathe his sword and rebuked Him that He actually could call twelve legions of angels if He wanted to in order to defend Him from being arrested. But Jesus refrained from doing so. He controlled Himself in such a way so that He would not harm others back. This is most difficult.
Most difficult because if one has no power and under oppression, thus he cannot retaliate. His non-retaliation could very well be caused by his inability, not because he does not want to. Not retaliating in that condition is due to him unable to do so. But if one has power, infinite power even, and under oppression, not retaliating would be strange by the standard of the world. Because the norm in the world we live in is the law of the jungle, that is the strong overcomes the weak. Now, Jesus came into the world, and He had infinite power, He even controlled the elements of nature, yet when He was arrested, He did not fight back. He could demolish the whole world with a flick of His finger, but He did not. That’s extremely difficult to do. Often, when sinful humans have power, they cannot master it. Instead power masters them. And when it is, power only leads to the craving of more power. Besides, power always tends to show what it can do. So it must manifest. It must be put into reality. When there is opportunity, power would just seize it and manifest itself in its fullness. Being oppressed while holding power, sinful humans would just fight back fiercely with all their power in order to stop the oppression and more. The ability to manifest power while wielding power is not real power. The real power is when one can control himself not to unleash his power even when provoked and when justified to do so. Jesus exhibited real power. And this is the highest level. We are to imitate Him. We are to imitate His self-control, even in the face of brutal persecution, of unjust judgment, and so on. This is taking up the cross as instructed by the Master Himself.
Truly following Jesus can only be done by denying our self and taking up our cross. Without these two in place, whatever we claim to be following Christ is a lie. Sometimes people want to follow Jesus because of fear of hell. If one is to choose between heaven and hell, a normal person would choose heaven. And often that is the main reason one believes in Christ, to gain heaven. He might not care about Jesus or God. He only cares about himself going to heaven. In his imagination heaven is a place of comfort. It all comes down to self-comfort again. And Jesus only becomes the means to attain the comfort they crave. This is not true faith. This is not following Jesus. We do not follow Jesus because we are told that we will be rich if believing in Him. Doing so would treat Jesus the same way the people of the world treat other gods, which do not even have life in itself. We also do not follow Jesus because some preachers tell us that if we believe in Jesus anything we ask will be given us. Doing so would treat Jesus like He is a vending machine. To get what we want we just need to insert the right amount of money. In this case the right amount of money is to believe in Jesus. All these are self-centered. Following Jesus is never about indulging our sinful desire. It is about losing our soul for the sake of Jesus Christ, the very thing the world refuses to do. The world is about claiming our soul even to the point of sacrificing God. Following Jesus is about sacrificing our own self for the sake of Christ. It is about our love to Him. Not because we love Him purely, but because He loves us first.
The big question now is: “Will you follow Jesus?” If you answer “Yes,” then try answering these: “Will you deny yourself?” And “Will you take up your cross?” If you can’t answer these last two questions with yes, both verbally and in practical life, then you might not be following Jesus. You might just be following your version of Jesus. Or you might just be following your own desire that you force it to be the desire of God. Following Jesus is to imitate His life. Think about this passage in John 13:13-17:
13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
Not just in washing one another’s feet, but also in every way Jesus lived. If we truly call Jesus as our Lord and Teacher, consequently it is imperative for us to do what He did. More than washing one another’s feet is total obedience to the Father. Just like what Paul described excellently in Philippians 2:5-8:
Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
These things we have discussed so far, we, who express desire to follow Jesus must know. Jesus said one time:
27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33 So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:27-33)
Jesus never forced people to follow Him. But if we desire to follow Him, there are things we must know. If we are to follow Him, we are to really consider whether we would finish the race or not. This is the call for total commitment. Following Jesus is not a tryout. It is a complete faithfulness. Denying self and taking up cross is not a small matter. It is a huge thing in our life. It is losing our soul. Are we ready to do so? Are we truly ready to follow Jesus? Blessed are you if you are ready. May our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen us to follow Him all the days of our life. Let the word of the apostle Peter close this discussion:
21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. (1 Peter 2:21-24)