These two ideas were totally incompatible in their minds. They expected a conquering Messiah; a suffering, dying Messiah was unthinkable. They had not understood that the Messiah would come first as a Suffering Servant. If their faith were to withstand the events just ahead, they would have to recognize that they were disciples of a Messiah whose devotion to God meant denying himself and embracing death for a lost and dying world, with all that that implied for their own lives. Ironically, many true Christians are in that same situation today; we find it hard to grasp that we are disciples of the Suffering Servant, whom to follow requires a costly obedience.
What, then, did Jesus mean when he said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me”? The phrase “come after me” was commonly used to refer to following someone as a disciple. But what about “denying” oneself? Today we often use this expression to mean refusing oneself a legitimate pleasure of some sort, for example, giving up sweets during Lent. However, this is not what Jesus meant.
Professor F.F. Bruce, one of the greatest evangelical New Testament scholars of the twentieth century, explains, “Denying oneself is not a matter of giving up something, whether for Lent or the whole of life; it is a decisive saying ‘No’ to oneself, to one’s hopes and plans and ambitions, to one’s likes and dislikes, to one’s nearest and dearest, for the sake of Christ.”3 Another noted New Testament scholar, Professor C.E.B. Cranfield, says it this way, “to deny oneself is to disown, not just one’s sins but one’s self, to turn away from the idolatry of self-centeredness.”4 Denying self, then, is not giving up something, it is giving up someone. It is renouncing and turning from one’s old self as the center of life and embracing Christ as the new center of one’s life. It describes the fundamental shift of allegiance and reorientation of life that occurs at conversion. “This is not self-denial in the current sense of the word, but true conversion, the very first essential of the Christian life,” says R.C.H. Lenski.5 Likewise, William Hendrickson says, we “must once for all say farewell to the old self, the self as it is apart from regenerating grace.”6 One must say a decisive “no” to everything that stands in the way of saying a radical “yes” to Christ. In the Greek text, the aorist imperative verb here speaks of this action as a definitive event in one’s life. Yet how many people in today’s church are even aware that a wholehearted renouncing of self and commitment to Christ lies at the heart of true conversion and daily discipleship? How may have made such a decisive renunciation? Is this perhaps one of the reasons why we see so much self-indulgent, worldly living among believers today and so little authentic Christianity? Only those who have crossed this Rubicon will be able to proceed to the next requirement for following Jesus.
“Taking up one’s cross” is another expression we use today to mean something very different from what Jesus intended his hearers to understand. When we speak of having to “bear a cross,” we are usually referring to some unpleasant or difficult circumstance with which we have to live. But what Jesus meant was far more demanding. Again, Professor Bruce:
The sight of a man being taken to the place of public execution was not unfamiliar in the Roman world of that day. Such a man was commonly made to carry the crossbeam, the patibulum, of his cross as he went to his death. That is the picture which Jesus’s words would conjure up in the minds of his hearers. If they were not prepared for that outcome to their discipleship, let them change their minds while there was time—but let them first weigh the options in the balances of the kingdom of God: “for whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”7
Jesus was clearly asking those who would follow him to count the cost and commit themselves in advance to give up their very lives if faithfulness to him should require it. Once again, the text has an aorist imperative, speaking of this as a definite event. But how many of us have done this?
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