“Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”
Then said Jesus!
Indeed, it was the proper moment that He should speak!
It was a moment of conflict! Of conflict between the Spirit and the flesh, between the kingdom of heaven and that of this world, between the praise of God and the honor of men, between light and darkness, between Christ and Belial. It was a moment when light must judge the darkness, rebuke it, overcome it, and put it to shame. A moment it was when the Light must point out the way to them that are called to walk in it.
And what was it that brought about this conflict? What was it that moved the Lord to speak as He does in the words of our text?
It was the total misconception which the disciples had of His mission and their own relationship to Him. They had only lately professed a good confession through the mouth of Peter, the implications of which they themselves did not even comprehend. When the Lord had asked them: Whom say ye that I am? then Peter answered and said: Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. But this was a confession which flesh and blood had not revealed unto him. This was completely the work of the Father. But the disciples understood not the implications of their own confession. The name “Christ” was to them synonymous with glory, honor and power. And discipleship for them was considered from the viewpoint of the question: Who shall be the greatest? When the Lord began to reveal to them how He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day—this prophetic pronouncement militated diametrically against their conception of Him. And when Peter began to rebuke Him by saying: Be it far from thee, Lord, this shall not be unto thee; Jesus could not let this go. Not only does Jesus identify the speech of Peter with that of Satan, but he also informs him that he is a stumbling block to Jesus, and was not mindful of the things of God, but those that be of men, Christ’s declaration concerning His suffering and death clashed with their earthly conception of Him. Such false notions Jesus must sharply correct. First, by rebuking the evil of it. Secondly, by instructing in the right conception not only of His mission, but also of the requirements of those who would still follow Him unto the end.
If any man will come after me!
To come after Jesus is to be His disciple!
To be Jesus’ disciple you must, first of all, hear and receive His word. Not merely that part of His word which may appear acceptable to you, but all of it.
That word of Jesus which condemns all your own righteousness, which closes the kingdom of heaven against all whose righteousness does not exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. That word which insists that all your righteousnesses are as filthy rags before God. That word which reaches down to us to declare in our natural and hopeless condition that there is a righteousness which God Himself prepares and gives to you of mere grace—a righteousness which is merited for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and imputed to us as an eternal gift of grace, and wrought in our hearts by the Spirit of His Son, and which reckons us to be in perfect harmony with God’s will as if we had never committed one sin and had always obeyed all His commandments. It is that word which justifies us freely and sanctifies us wholly, that makes you to become a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, and demands that you stand in the battle of faith and fight the good fight of faith even to the end. It insists that you mortify the flesh, put on the new man, and live as those who are of the party of the living God in the midst of the world, and in every phase and department of life.
To be Jesus’ disciple one must not only hear, but also receive the word. It must be a controlling principle in your life. So that you cannot walk without it. It must guide you, shed light on your pathway. It must take such strong influence upon you that you are impelled by it to walk in the light, and are opposed to all that is of darkness.
Moreover, to be Jesus’ disciple one must also will to come after Him!
It should be quite evident to us that no man can will to do this as he is by nature. And strange as it may seem, he who wills to come after Jesus is already after Him. To will to come after Him is the result of His efficacious call. He irresistibly says: Follow Me; and the disciple says: I come.
And you follow the Jesus of the Scriptures—not a Jesus of your imagination. It is possible, you know, to make an illusion of Him. And many today, no doubt are doing exactly that. Who prate about their discipleship, their following after a noble leader, a beautiful example; but who find it revolting when you remind them that the Jesus of the Scriptures is the One who traveled the way of the cross, where He suffered the reproaches of the world of evil men while He stood under the vials of God’s holy wrath because of our sin, in order to remove that wrath, and to give unto us also a cross to bear after Him. They sing a different tune when it is made plain to them what true discipleship requires of us.
To be Jesus’ disciple requires complete denial of self!
Let him deny himself, Jesus said!
This is, of course, the very opposite of maintaining oneself, looking after your own interests. Self denial is that act whereby one becomes nothing in his own eyes. It is that will that does not insist on one’s name and position, one’s own honor and glory, that is willing to lose all his possessions, yea, his very life for Jesus’ sake. We ought to take special note that Jesus does not say here: let him deny himself something. If the Lord had said that, it would be comparatively easy to be one of Jesus’ disciples. That kind of self denial one finds even in the world. Men will deny themselves food and drink when their health is at stake. They are willing to deny themselves certain pleasures when their ambition in life is threatened. And many would-be disciples of Jesus are quite ready to deny themselves many things in order that they may boast that they are Jesus’ disciples. But this is not what Jesus said.
The disciple must deny himself!
The requirement is absolute! To deny oneself before God is not to insist on your own righteousness, but to confess that you are utterly lost in sin, that you have no worth or merit as you stand before His holy face; and that you find all your righteousness only in Jesus Christ and grounded in His perfect sacrifice on the cross. To deny oneself before men means that you never seek the praise and adoration of men, but are willing and ready to suffer reproach, persecution, even death if necessary for Christ’s sake. It is the very opposite of and contrary to the spirit of the world. The world wants men that have ambition, who desire to make for themselves a name, and who use every means energetically to gain their objective; while it offers riches, fame, and pleasure to all who will follow her. Christ demands the very opposite. He offers no inducement to self ambition, but condemns it. He requires complete banishment of self, shall we be His disciples.
And take up his cross!
To take up one’s cross implies that one is willing to bear that cross and to suffer its reproach. And the cross here is related to the cross of Christ. Indeed there is a sense in which the cross in uniquely Christ’s. As such it is the emblem as well as the means of our atonement. In this sense Christ only could take up the cross and bear it; in order that we would never have to bear it. But as the emblem and expression of the hatred of the world against God and His anointed the cross is also to be ours—to be taken up and to be borne. In this respect also the servant is not greater than his Lord. If they hated Him, they will also hate them that will bear their cross. His cross is reflected in the crosses they bear who follow Him.
And follow Me!
This means, first of all, that Jesus leads. Never is the order to be reversed. He must speak and we must listen. He must command and we must obey. He must tell us first of His cross before there can ever be a cross for us to bear. It means then that we follow. Never are we to speak as Peter did: Lord, be it far from thee. But listening to His word of the cross we understand the necessity of His cross. And denying our own selves, being humbled by His word, we see the need of taking up our own and following after Him, sharing His reproach.
Be not hasty to take upon your lips the refrain of the hymn writer!
Where He leads me I will follow,
I’ll go with Him, with Him all the way.
If Jesus leads, and we follow, where will the way end? and what will you experience on that way?
The answer is simply: His way, and His end! His way is the way of reproach and shame, the way of suffering and death. Make no mistake about it, as far as the world is concerned, the end of following Jesus is His end. All those who partake of His anointing must partake of His suffering. “For unto you it is given in behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake.” Would you come after Him, therefore, you must expect to bear the cross and with it the shame, reproach, suffering that are related to the cross, and ultimately death. Knowing all this are you ready to follow where He leads? Do you dare to take the refrain upon your lips: I’ll go with Him, with Him all the way? Then you need not say morbidly with Thomas: Let us go with Him that we may die with Him. But with implicit trust in Him that He knows the way you must go, you will follow obediently in the confidence that in that way you with Him shall also attain unto the victory.
When you follow in the way He leads, you may be of good cheer!
His faithful followers shall exchange their cross for a crown! These two are inseparably connected. No cross—no crown. But the cross-bearers are relieved of that burden at last, and receive for it the crown of life and glory that fadeth not away.
He who died on the cross, rose again, and ascended into the highest glory. And His glory shall be yours. If you deny Him He will also deny you. If you deny yourself and follow Him, He will lead you by His grace into eternal glory.
Be faithful, then, ye cross-bearers!
And you shall receive in due time your crown!