Jesus, the Christ of the triune God, the Savior and Lord of the church, left His bride and body with what to expect in this world as she takes heed to her Master’s call to follow him, namely, suffering. At one point, Jesus told His disciples, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). We understand that the cross mentioned above is not the same wooden cross used in Jesus’ crucifixion. Nor does it refer to the one atoning sacrifice of Christ made at Calvary. Jesus is not telling us that whosoever does not pay for his sin and satisfy God’s justice…cannot be My disciple. Jesus did that, and we have no part in it whatsoever. In that sense, Christ’s death on the cross can never be repeated, “for this he did once, when he offered up himself” (Heb. 7:27). But the cross in the words of Jesus here mean, suffering. It points to the fact that suffering (cross bearing) is inevitable for God’s people who desire not only to follow Christ in this life but more so in living out one’s faith that Jesus is “…the way, the truth, and the life: (that) no man cometh unto the Father but by me” (John 14:6). In following Christ, one must be ready “to take up his cross” (to bear the cross of Christ), that is, he must be willing and ready to suffer for Him, and with Him, for His sake!
This is exactly what Jesus clearly testified of to all His followers. In pursuing Christ, one must understand that cross bearing is an inescapable reality in the life of every disciple of His!
Therefore, Jesus confronted the multitude that went with Him that they must count the cost first. And He went on to explain to them what it means to follow Him, using the analogy of building a tower (14:28). Christianity is like building a huge tower. It is very costly. One must reckon to himself that once he has made that confession of faith, or once a candidate for the ministry of the gospel has been ordained, he is also making a pronouncement of his death to self! He is prepared to be hated by his own household, and thus willing to sever his tie with them for the sake of following Christ. A young man or a young woman marries in the Lord! And if married, they stay married and they face together every difficulty God may in His sovereign pleasure bring upon them.
Jesus goes on to say that Christianity is also like a king going to a war (14:31). Following Christ is like a gigantic war campaign against the enemies of the cross of Christ! It is a war against the Devil and his hosts. It is a war against the world of darkness. It is a war against the flesh, and in that sense, war against yourself! You will have to wage war in your mind, heart, and soul if it gets to the point of leaving father and mother, or forsaking wife and or husband, of turning away from your children and brothers and sisters in the flesh with resentment and indignation for Christ’s sake! Of course, we do not hate them in the absolute sense of the word, but as far as they are the enemies of Christ, we hate them with a holy indignation, hoping that they turn from sin and trust in Christ as their Lord and Savior. It is in that sense that we show our love for them. We love them and, therefore, we pray for their salvation. We ask God daily and continually to look upon them in His mercy in Christ. But the point of the matter is not them but you! You who are a member of His body, you are called to bear the cross of Christ for God’s glory and for Jesus’ sake.
The same truth is expressed by Paul to Timothy when he said that indeed, “all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12). The word “shall” is vital in understanding the place of suffering in the lives of God’s people on earth. It means first of all, that in the future we will experience persecution. But in the second place, and more importantly, it means certainty. It is certain those who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution, tribulations, heavy burdens, unbearable afflictions and, at times, even martyrdom.
This is also what we discover in the experience of the saints to whom Peter writes his first general epistle. They were in the midst of suffering. They were enduring many trials of various kinds. They suffered for being believers in Jesus Christ. They were mocked for their witness of Jesus as the Lord and Savior of God’s people. They were maligned, spoken evil of, and ill-treated by the enemies of the gospel of Christ. They were astonished to experience pain and misery in their pursuit of holiness. Instead of drawing people closer to Christ as they lived out God’s gift of faith, believers found the people of the world becoming more hostile against them. And though they answered every man that asked for a reason of the hope that was in them “with meekness and fear,” still, the unbelievers found fault with them and labeled them even as “evil doers” (3:15–16).
Think of the saints in the Old Testament who experienced persecutions and great trials. Hebrews 11 records the difficult times in the lives of God’s people as some of them, “…had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented…they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (Heb. 11:36–38).
And what of the tribulations of our forefathers before and during the time of the Reformation movement of Martin Luther and John Calvin? And likewise, the great testing of the faith of the saints today as we grapple with the abounding apostasy in the whole of Christendom, the growing coldness and indifference within the churches all over the world. We suffer as we hear the news of the rapid growth of immorality in every fiber of our society. There are Christian schools that have already succumbed to the pressure of the world, and are thus fashioning the minds of the children and the young people according to the philosophy of the unbelieving world. For some saints, bearing the cross means caring for their loved ones with debilitating illness. Some parents’ cross is dealing with rebellious teenagers, while for other saints it may be an unbelieving spouse. Some of the brethren and sisters in the Lord might be struggling with utter poverty. And the list goes on and on.
Perhaps you might be wondering, why do we need to go through such difficulty in following our Lord Jesus Christ in this life? The answer lies in the word “disciple.” We will experience pain and misery in this life precisely because we belong to Christ, because we are His disciples! The idea of a disciple here is that one associates himself with Jesus. In other words, not a mere follower with no attachment whatsoever but a disciple, one who binds himself closely to Jesus—to the extent that he shares all of Jesus’ life. Hence, he desires nothing but to gain Christ, even if it means suffering to death! The bearing of the cross of Christ is a necessary part of being in the body of Christ. Christ in me, and I in Him. I share not only in His glory but also in His sufferings because I am a part of Him. This is true of all the saints then, today, and tomorrow, and therefore we bear the cross with and for Christ! Peter explained this as well in his letter that it is the will of God for us as believers in Christ (or disciples of Christ) to suffer for His sake. “For even hereunto were ye called.” (2:21). We understand this to mean that God called us not only “out of darkness into his marvelous light” (2:9b), and not only “unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus” (5:10a), but also to be “partakers of Christ’s sufferings” (4:13). In other words, as stated by Paul in Philippians 1:29, “For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake.”
This is a hard doctrine for many people today. The Reformed perspective of bearing the cross for Christ’s sake in this life is for many too narrow and negative. The churches that teach this doctrine are endangered! It is only by the sovereign grace of God that you can find one here and there that faithfully and boldly preaches this doctrine. Most churches in our generation teach exactly the opposite. These churches proclaim a pseudo-gospel. They proclaim a Christianity that has a freedom from troubles, persecution, affliction, trials, and great difficulties. Nothing out there but joy and peace and prosperity. That’s a lie! Therefore, it is not from God but from the Devil himself.
But is it really possible for us to bear the cross of Christ and deny ourselves and follow Him? Who would want to suffer anyway? Who would raise their hands to volunteer to bear the cross for Christ’s sake even for just a minute or two? We know the answer, don’t we? None will. None will ever do such. For by nature we are all inclined to hate God and His Christ! In and of ourselves, we cannot, that is, we do not have the ability or power to deny self, bear the cross of Christ, and follow Him. The apostles of Christ, the prophets of old, our forefathers in the faith, all of the saints who lived and are still living were and are efficaciously called by God unto Himself through His gift of faith alone in Christ! It is only the power of the Holy Spirit, who has begotten us unto the lively hope in the resurrection of Christ from the dead, that can cause us to bear the cross of Christ. He must work in us and through us, for otherwise we would even detest to be labeled followers of Christ! Followers of Christ we are. We bear His cross daily and continually, but only because He is in us and by His power we are able to endure the pain and sorrow of suffering for His sake.
Needless to say, we will suffer as long as we live. Nevertheless, we do so with great joy and delight! Because we know the end for which God ordained our suffering in this life. Yes, in faith and with that confession, we “greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations: that the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:6–7). Our loved ones with debilitating illness might not recover and be healed, but may die. A rebellious teenager might never come home again. You might not be delivered from poverty all your life. Yet, we know and are assured, that God purposed all these things in order to fashion us in the image and likeness of Christ more and more. And that even in our afflictions and cross bearing, God is magnified and Christ is exalted!
Therefore, do not dwell on what you are going through right now, no matter how painful and aggravating the circumstance is, but by faith “hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:13b). Be of good cheer, for Christ has overcome the world!