“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matt 16:24, emphasis added).
A Paradoxical Existence
The central characteristic of discipleship is to live as though you were already dead. Too often we read the call to self-denial as a call to an ascetic or disciplined life. We read this as an exhortation to life a more simplistic lifestyle or to take a vow of poverty. Cross-bearing can easily be spiritualized or sentimentalized. A careful reading of the context of Matthew’s Gospel however betrays a more radical agenda for Jesus.
Why do I say this?
First, the only other context is which the word translated “deny oneself” is used in Matthew is chapter 26. There Peter denies Jesus three times. In this context, Peter is clearly trying to save his own skin by denying any relationship with Jesus. This suggests then that to deny oneself in Matt 16:24 is to renounce one’s claim to life. This need not be interpreted as a call for suicidal martyrdom or to live recklessly. But it does mean that the ultimate call in life is to follow Jesus. It is a call to renounce self-preservation as one’s modus operandi for living.
Second, “take up one’s cross” is found in two other contexts - Matt 10:38 and 27:32. The first is parallel to 16:24. 27:32 is illuminating. In it, Simon of Cyrene is commissioned to “take up” Jesus’ cross and bear it to the place of Jesus’ execution. This is profoundly important as this context shows the literal meaning of the phrase. To “take up one’s cross” is to live as though you were on the final journey of your life. To use a modern phrase, it is to live as a “dead man walking.” Jesus is thus calling his followers to a radical life in which they die to themselves up front and by doing this paradoxically find life: Matt 16:25 “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life on account of me will find it.”
Why does Jesus call for this radical sort of existence? I think that it is simple: God’s mission in the world requires that disciples be willing to enter the darkest places in the world - places where only dead women and men can go.
Remember the movie Braveheart‘s tagline: Ever man dies; not every man truly lives.
We truly find lives of meaning and significance when we die up front and then follow Jesus moment by moment in order to create an unbelievable future. It all starts with the Cross. Have I found my place on Jesus’ cross? Tim McGraw’s hit song from 2005 had the great line “Someday I hope you will live like you were dying.” This summarizes aptly Jesus’ call.
A Secure Future
Jesus is not calling persons merely to die for a lost cause. Discipleship is not an invitation to a pointless martyrdom. Jesus’ call is radical, but it is also rational in light of the future. Remember Jesus’ words in 16:21 “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life“ (emphasis added). Jesus was already pointing to a victorious future when he talked about the “mustness” of his journey to Jerusalem. Resurrection would follow suffering and death. Notice also how our passages ends:
NIV Matthew 16:27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. 28 I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
These two verses also point to the victorious future. In other words, Jesus’ call to a radical, sold-out discipleship in which we live as though we were already dead needs to be read in light of God’s future. The future is secure. The way of Jesus Christ is not merely about this life - it is about life in the age of salvation (present and future). This sort of hope ought to unleash us in the now of our existence to live fully for God.
A Way Forward
How do we live into the radical standard that Jesus establishes for his disciples? The issue is that Jesus is looking for to lead us into places that only dead women and dead men can go. The mission is to “make disciples of all nations” (28:19). The Risen Jesus continues to go before us calling us to follow him moment by moment.
As I reflect on Jesus’ call for discipleship, I realize that Jesus is calling for me to die to myself so that I can truly live. I am to live as one who is carrying his or her own cross - as a person with nothing left to lose. There is great freedom in this. But first I need to recognize that all of my gifts and talents are not enough…That being smart is not enough…¦That the walls that we build based on past experience (good or bad) are not high enough…that we are not courageous enough. In other words, the focus can no longer be on self, but on Jesus Christ. And when we focus on Jesus Christ, we must inevitably face the Cross. At the cross, we find the essence of discipleship. There God invites us to live as a community of the Cross. There we are shaped into a Mosaic of broken pieces that are renewed and transformed by the Cross so that we can offer wholeness, hope, and salvation to a broken world.
If anyone would come after me, let him or her take up his or her cross, deny him or herself, and continually follow me.
1) Am I living "all in" as a follower of Jesus Christ?
2) What is holding me back from a full commitment?
3) Am I seeking to secure the future on my own terms or do I trust God with my future?
4) Have I found my place on the Cross of Jesus Christ?