Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
A Moment of Decision
Jesus and the disciples pull away from His public following to pray. During their private time together, Jesus asks, “Who do the crowds say I am?” The disciples report various things they’ve heard. Some people confuse Him for John the Baptist. Others think He’s Elijah, the Old Testament hero transported directly to Heaven without dying. He’s also rumored to be the reincarnation of one of several ancient prophets. When Jesus poses His next question—“What about you? Who do you say I am?”—only Peter speaks up. “You’re the Christ,” he says. Jesus warns them not to repeat Peter’s confession; publicizing His Messianic claim will trigger outrage and trouble from the religious authorities. He suggests His true identity will eventually surface anyway, predicting He’ll “suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law,” which will lead to His execution and resurrection.
Jesus pauses for the disciples to absorb what He’s said. Until now, they’ve seen Him as one of several itinerant prophets and healers in Palestine. And they’ve viewed themselves as His handpicked entourage, an honor and privilege to be sure, but basically no more or less than any other disciple band trailing a preacher. Learning Who Jesus really is and what’s in store for Him changes everything. Aware they’re too stunned to consider the implications this information holds for them, Jesus spells things out. The truth of the moment segues into a moment of decision. “If you stay with Me, daily you’ll have to deny yourself and take personal ownership for choosing to follow Me.”
Speaking to His disciples today, Christ might say, “The popularity and excitement we’ve enjoyed so far are about to end. We’re headed for tough times, as crowds turn on us and critics marshal forces against us. Either you’re all-in or you’re out. If you can’t forget what you want to shoulder responsibility for sticking with Me day in and day out, there’s no use hanging around.” As modern believers, we need to hear Jesus loud and clear, because Who He truly is and what His death and resurrection truly mean are no less problematic or upsetting to the masses and authorities in 2009 than when He walked the Earth.
Churches are packed with people eager to be seen with Christ, many of them hoping to benefit from His presence in some shape or form. Yet while they clamor for His mercy, healing, protection, and so on, their belief in His Lordship is so shaky they abandon Him the instant His principles prove too inconvenient or unpopular to practice. They kowtow to influential leaders, including religious figures, whose bondage to legal and cultural tradition straps their capacity to embrace Jesus as Christ—God Incarnate, Who loves and accepts all, died and rose for all, and holds exclusive title as Judge of all. Consequently, following Jesus remains for us an all-in or out proposition based on daily denying the comfort of what pleases us to take up the cross of what pleases Him.
Obedience, Not Sacrifice
Always, and especially during the Lenten season, it’s essential to remember self-denial is an act of obedience, not sacrifice. By definition, sacrifice is voluntarily exchanging a valuable we possess for a valuable we need, the classic example being animal offerings given to receive forgiveness of sin in return. Self-denial, on the other hand, is submission to Christ’s authority—the “higher power” so many claim to believe in, yet so few actually obey. We make a daily habit of setting aside attitudes, actions, and desires contrary to Christ’s example and teaching because of Who He is. And we assume personal responsibility for reflecting His identity to the world.
Romans 8.29 says after calling us to fulfill His purpose, God “predestined [us] to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” You and I are whom Jesus referred to by saying, “If anyone would come after me.” We’re among the many brothers and sisters that follow Him, an unbroken succession of Christian facsimiles lining the corridor of time. Each of us comes into the world perfectly created in God’s image for His purpose. How well we retain His likeness and realize His intention, however, are left to us. If we genuinely desire to stand in the line of Christ’s true followers, daily denial of traits and tendencies that distort His image is the cross we must bear.
Self-denial maintains our reflection of Christ’s image and secures our place in the long line of His followers.
(Tomorrow: In Mouth and Heart)