Sunday, January 03, 2010

Three Imperatives: Deny Ourselves, Take Up the Cross and Follow Him

The Scripture verse that has been with me in the past few months was this:

Mark 8:34 And he called to him the crowd with his disciples and said to them, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

I have been focusing on "deny himself" for quite awhile now - trying to figure out what it means in practical terms and living it out. But it has not been easy and when I checked the Greek text of the verse, I then realise that not only is it in the imperative, it is followed by two more imperatives: "take up the cross" and "follow me". This means that it will not to do just to deny ourselves, we must take up the cross and follow Jesus.

I found this sermon published here, which I find most helpful in understanding what Christ expects of us if we are to come after him, that is if we want to be called Christians, be his disciples, be children of God. I learnt this from reading the article:

What does it mean to deny ourselves? It is more than giving up on stuff we love, or giving up time to serve God, to pray, to read his Word - yes, these are things we ought to do, but to deny ourselves is more than these. To understand what denying ourselves is, try to imagine what it means when your parents, God forbid, denies you as their son or their daughter. This is the extent of denying ourselves. It is renouncing our right to ourselves, and the right we have to ourselves.

Craig Giannini got it when he said, "If when you are good, evil is spoken, and when your wishes are crossed and your advice is disregarded, and your opinions are ridiculed and you refuse to let anger rise in your heart, and even defend yourself but you take it patiently in loving silence, then you are dying to self. And when you lovingly and patiently bear any disgrace, any irregularity, any annoyance, when you stand face to face with extravagance and folly and spiritual insensitivity and endure it, as Jesus did, that is dying to self. And when you are content with any food, any money, any clothing, any society, any solitude or interruption by the will of God, that is dying to self. And when you never care to refer to yourself in conversation or record your own good works, or itch after commendation from others, and when you truly love to be unknown, that is dying to self. When you see your brother prosper, see his needs wondrously met, and can honestly rejoice with him [with his big house, with big car, with his big pool – whatever it may be] without feeling envy, and never question God though your needs are greater and still unmet, that is dying to self. Now when you can receive correction and reproof from someone of less stature, and admit that he is right and find no resentment or rebellion in your heart, that is dying to self."

Fred Craddock, in an address to ministers, caught the practical implications of consecration. "To give my life for Christ appears glorious," he said. "To pour myself out for others. . . to pay the ultimate price of martyrdom—I’ll do it. I’m ready, Lord, to go out in a blaze of glory. We think giving our all to the Lord is like taking $1,000 bill and laying it on the table—'Here’s my life, Lord. I’m giving it all.' But the reality for most of us is that he sends us to the bank and has us cash in the $1,000 for quarters. We go through life putting out 25 cents here and 50 cents there. Listen to the neighbor kid’s troubles instead of saying, 'Get lost.' Go to a committee meeting. Give a cup of water to a shaky old man in a nursing home. Usually giving our life to Christ isn’t glorious. It’s done in all those little acts of love, 25 cents at a time. It would be easy to go out in a flash of glory; it’s harder to live the Christian life little by little over the long haul."

Denying of ourselves is not easy, it is hard, but it is an imperative - essential and urgent.

What does it mean to take up the cross? I think most of us would interpret that as suffering for Christ. But that is not quite right - I mean, we are to suffer for Christ but to take up the cross is more than just suffering. We may be living or working or existing in appalling and horrifying places and circumstances - that is suffering but not quite "taking up the cross" so to speak. By no way can we refer our suffering as "my cross". That is not what is meant - the cross is not just a place of suffering, it is a place of death! The cross to the Roman world in Jesus' time meant only one thing - to die in the most shameful way.

John MacArthur writes: “…the cross was a very concrete and vivid reality. It was the instrument of execution reserved for Rome’s worst enemies. It was a symbol of the torture and death that awaited those who dared raise a hand against Roman authority. Not many years before Jesus and the disciples came to Caesarea Philippi, 100 men had been crucified in the area. A century earlier, Alexander Janneus had crucified 800 Jewish rebels at Jerusalem, and after the revolt that followed the death of Herod the Great, 2,000 Jews were crucified by the Roman proconsul Varus. Crucifixions on a smaller scale were a common sight, and it has been estimated that perhaps some 30,000 occurred under Roman authority during the lifetime of Christ.”

So when Jesus says we are to take up the cross, we are to live as dead. We are to be dead to sin and alive only to God in Christ Jesus (Rom 6:11).

And finally, what does it mean by following Christ? It is a way of life, a pattern for living. It is his gospel. Mark continues from v.34 with v.35, "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it." The gospel is our reason and purpose to live and we are dead to everything else. We live in Christ Jesus with the gospel - to live out his love, his hope and his truth.

Now, that is Christian living - being dead to self and being alive to God in Christ Jesus. Nobody said it will be easy, but Mark says it very clearly in v.38: "If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels."

It is hard, but it is essential and urgent.


John MacArthur. “The MacArthur New Testament Comentary.” Matthew 16-23. (Moody: Chicago, 1988) p. 49