Luke 9:23&24 “Then Jesus said to them all: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.’”
These words have a certain grand austerity; and so they can easily intimidate us when we read them and think about them. I have to deal with them carefully or I could drive away the little lambs of the flock of God while some of you old rams will continue to come right up and sniff at them without blinking an eye. Yet these words dare not be ignored because we are told that Jesus spoke them openly to everyone present, that is, to all of his disciples, to Peter, Andrew, James, John, Judas and Thomas, yes, but also to the lesser known ones whose names don’t come to mind readily. They were not addressed exclusively to the inner core of ‘super-apostles.’ Jesus did not set a lower entrance standard for younger or more immature disciples. One standard of discipleship exists for the world.
You will notice immediately that most of these words are of a single syllable, and they are very understandable. The three or four requirements that Christ lays down here are demanding morally and spiritually, but they are not incomprehensible. In fact one of the key features of these words is their simplicity. Imagine if our Lord had set some philosophical or intellectual test that was required of any person deciding to become a disciple – like joining Mensa, a society for bright people, the only qualification for membership being to possess a high I.Q. – then following Jesus would be the preserve of academics, the ‘grand masters’ of the religious world. Where would be waitresses or ticket collectors as regards the kingdom of God? Where would be tyre changers or bin men? Where would be the peasants, rice farmers or labourers? Some of them would be excluded on grounds of deficient I.Q. But here none is ruled out of discipleship because of academic failure. We are simple people, and we are very grateful that there are neither enigmas nor high intellectual attainments given to us in Jesus’ terms of discipleship.
Then I want you to notice something else that it was Jesus himself who spelled out these requirements for following him. He did it; “Then he said to them . . .” It was not that when you come to read the letters of the apostles written forty years later that by that time they finally make it clear, in words like our text’s, what it means to become a Christian disciple. The demands were all spelled out from the very beginning by the Lord Christ. Why am I saying this? This is the reason; you occasionally come across attempts to make Jesus of Nazareth an ordinary bloke, a nice guy, unusual certainly, and very able, but definitely no Messiah, no divine being. He is like Brian in the Monty Python film, a man trying to run away and escape from people who are attempting to make him larger than life. The argument you meet goes like this, that the church has spoiled the simple teacher, Jesus, by elevating him, making a god of him and inventing stories about him. How he would have hated that, they claim, because he himself was a plain unsophisticated man, one with us, who said many true things. That was John Lennon’s view.
Yet here we are told that in the first year of Jesus beginning his public ministry he accepts from Peter the title, “the Christ of God” (v.20). He doesn’t rebuke Peter; “Don’t be silly! That is blasphemous. I am just like you, another human being, a seeker after truth.” No. He actually blesses Peter for making that confession. It was spot on, and Jesus tells him that in fact God himself had given this understanding to Peter that Jesus was in fact the promised Messiah. Then our Lord goes further in referring to himself as the ‘Son of Man’ (v.21); he uses the title of the majestic figure in the book of Daniel. Jesus goes even further; he tells them that he is to be killed, but on the third day he will rise from the dead (v.22). There is nothing ordinary about a man who claims that divine title ‘Son of Man’ or who says that he will rise again from the dead. I was talking at our front door to a so-called Jehovah’s Witness about the Lord Jesus. She said she admired him but then turned to me and said, “We don’t want to put him on a pedestal, do we?” I said, “I worship him!”
So in this chapter we have the self-disclosure of Jesus. Here he is encouraging his disciples to have the grandest possible views of himself. He himself is telling us who he is in the most magnificent way, and then it is that he lays down the terms of following him, and again he does so utterly magisterially; “If anyone would come after me . . .” (v.23) – “after me” he says, and he is encouraging all men to become his personal followers. He invites, and he expects people to follow him, in fact he tells them that their lives will be ruined if they fail to follow him, but on the other hand, “whoever loses his life for me will save it” (v.24). You detect the urgency in Jesus’ words. This is a life or death decision – following Christ or not, because becoming his disciple will mean your whole life will be saved. That is his stupendous claim. Only someone who can raise the dead, or feed 5,000 men with five loaves and two fishes could make a claim like that. You understand that the humanist Christ, or the comic ‘life of Brian’ Christ, with his crushing sense of incompetence and alienation from any kind of adoration, is nothing at all like this Jesus who is in the deepest earnestness about people becoming his own followers and no one else’s and living a certain kind of life; he is inviting and urging them to do that very thing.
Now if Jesus is the only God there is, who wants people to become his disciples, what implications does that have for our reaching men and women around us? One thing immediately comes to the fore, that before anyone can become a real disciple of Jesus (in terms of the words of our text) he must understand who Jesus is. It has to be an informed and educated commitment, hasn’t it? If I stood on a street corner on a Friday night and talked to a bunch of lads and finally said to them that they must deny themselves and take up their crosses and follow Jesus they wouldn’t know what I was talking about would they? For them the word ‘Jesus’ is just a swear word. They must know first of all who Jesus is, and the more they know the better, and then they will understand why they need to follow him.
So these words of our text are not the actual gospel. There is no good news in this text. They are a demand, a divine imperative. Good news is always in the indicative mood. It is about what God has done for sinners, freely and in grace. These words of Jesus in our text describe the consequences and repercussions of believing the gospel. This verse is not where we begin when we reach out to the world. We begin with the fact that this world is God’s creation. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. We begin with our fallen state, that we all have a bias to sin and unbelief, that our hearts are wicked, and that we need mercy and forgiveness from God. We begin with what God has done in sending his Son into the world to live the life we should live, denying himself, taking up his cross and following God to the very end, dealing with our guilt and shame by becoming the Lamb of God on Golgotha, rising on the third day to be the King of kings, the Shepherd and Saviour of all who trust in him. That is the gospel. But the gospel may never be separated from the requirements of receiving it into your life. In the New Testament the first half of many of the letters explains the gospel, and then the second half of the letters explains the implications for individuals and parents, husbands and wives and children, servants and masters, preachers of the word – all that follows from believing this gospel of grace. There must be a change of life commensurate with the wonder of God’s love for us in saving us through the shed blood of Christ. The words of the text are a summary of basic Christian living in believing the gospel. This is the kind of life you will henceforth be living, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” These are the fruit of God’s gift of eternal life. Do you understand? They are not the means of obtaining eternal life. The means of obtaining it is to believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ; cast yourself on him, the dying and rising Lord; entrust yourself on him. But if you say you have done that, by God’s grace, then realise how you, a disciple of Christ, must now live. That is what we are looking at in these words of the Lord Jesus. These twelve apostles have confessed that Jesus is the divine Christ, and so how should they live? What are Jesus’ qualifications?
1. 1. HE MUST DENY HIMSELF.
I am going to use the words of Jesus here. I am not going to repeat through this sermon, “or she must deny herself.” You and I will take that fact for granted. It is perfectly clear that this is the generic ‘he’ that embraces men and women. It is both clumsier and more wearying to say each time ‘he or she.’ I will not become a slave to the politically correct movement so that gospel sharpness is blunted. No one did more to raise the lot of women than the Lord Jesus. How the women of Afghanistan need the good news of Jesus Christ to deliver them from their second class status.
What does this phrase, “he must deny himself” (v.23) mean? Let me clear away some of the clutter that surrounds these words. It does not mean that you cease to be the individual you are with your own distinctive and unique personality. In Psalm 139 David is meditating on the wonder of God making him: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body” (vv.13-16). God gave you your gender, the colour of your skin and eyes and hair, your height and weight, your intelligence, the rich tapestry of your emotional life and your physical dexterity. Perhaps he made your sister more shy while you are more confident. God made you the special person you are with a conscience and a sense of the Divine which you share with everyone else. Denying self does not mean than you eradicate your personality and its gifts and attainments. Becoming religious does not mean you get absorbed into some monolithic cult. Christians are not an undiversified, characterless, featureless, faceless, standardized, stereotyped, mass-produced religious product. There is no typical member of this church. We all believe historic Christian teaching, and we are all living by the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, and that is what unites us as followers of Jesus Christ, but we are all diverse people.
It was my birthday this past week and I was combing the Times, checking up on famous anniversaries on that day, but then my eye caught a picture and a heading, “40,000 Moonies marry in global ceremony.” Ten thousand brides dressed in flowing Korean national costume or white wedding dresses married grooms in black suits, red ties and white scarves in Korea. 10,000 more did the same in Brazil, 10,000 more in Australia and 10,000 more in the USA. These are the followers of 89 year old Sun Myung Moon infamous for brainwashing and separating children from their parents. You can understand parents reading that account and saying, “I don’t mind my daughter becoming religious as long as she doesn’t become fanatical.” Any loving, sensible parent here would say the same thing. I don’t want my children to become fanatical, but a coordinated international ceremony of 40,000 young people getting married, some of whom hardly know their spouses, is fanaticism. True religion – truly following Jesus Christ, does not drive a wedge between you and your family, and make you a zombie. That is not what Jesus is saying when he requires us to deny ourselves; he is not asking us to deny our individual identities and do everything some heavy shepherd tells us.
Of course all sinful traits of character are to be changed by grace. We may have a very lazy temperament, we may be melancholic, we may be worriers, we may be insensitive to others, we may be a bit of a bully. We may be boastful, we may be always late, we may be greedy. You don’t accept that. You don’t say with a smile, “Well, that’s just little old me.” It is you, but you do not accept it. You change it by the grace of God.
What denying ourselves means is that we have to end our egotistical self-righteousness and self-dependence. It means we are consumed by the greatness of God more than anything else. A man has never seen himself until he has really looked at himself as God sees him. Such a man is conscious of living day by day in God’s presence, moving steadily towards an encounter with him, standing terribly exposed with God’s eyes upon him. When that happens there can’t be any preening of ourselves like the Pharisee had gone to the Temple ostensibly to pray, but was so thankful that he wasn’t like other men. Jesus was watching him. The man prayed standing up so that as many as possible could see and hear him, head erect, speaking aloud, his voice carrying across the Temple courts. His act deserved an Oscar, the way he had chosen to dress for the occasion, the manner in which he carried himself, the way he took the most suitable position, where the light fell on him and the acoustics helped his voice to sound forth, the way he held himself so religiously before his audience. Then he started his great intonation. He knew that one should always begin a proper prayer with words of thanksgiving. Maybe his rabbi had told him always to do that, and so he properly thanked God, but what did he thank him for? That he was not like other men, so sinful compared to himself. “Thank you that I am not an adulterer. Thank you that I fast. Thank you that I tithe. Thank you that I am not like this publican who is bad mannered, who is getting into my space and spoiling my performance, distracting people from focusing on me. Thank you that I am better than him and other people. Thank you that I can see the faults of others.” There is no religion that is more popular than one that points out the failings of other people, and the Pharisee showed it right through his prayer. And do you know what we do? Do you know? We read this incident, and we go away saying, “I thank you God that I am not like that Pharisee.” We are doing exactly the same thing. We are comparing ourselves horizontally with another pathetic religious sinner. We think of inconsistent church goers and we believe that their failings excuse ours. That spirit has to die. It is a spirit that is self-justifying.
Jesus scorned it. “Let a man deny himself,” he said. Once you know God, how great and holy he is, the God who is light, in whom is no darkness at all, then how other people are better than you, worse than you, doesn’t matter at all. You know that you are a falling man, a collapsed man, a nobody. None of us can stand up in God’s presence. There we have no prayer other than the prayer of the poor sinner in the Temple, the man who’d been thoughtless enough to distract other people from looking at the Pharisee. That man didn’t look around; he looked down to the dust and he beat his breast crying, “God . . . be merciful . . . to me . . . a sinner.” He is the man who left the Temple justified. That is why self-denial is necessary. What is the heart of the Christian gospel? We cannot save ourselves, but God in his love has sent his Son to live and die in our stead. Self denial says, “I am a great sinner but Christ is a great Saviour.” That is the spirit of self-denial.
1. 2. HE MUST TAKE UP HIS CROSS
The phrase has passed into the English language. “It’s a cross I must bear,” people say about all kinds of troubles they have to endure, and, yes, many bear them heroically. They made marriage vows and now their husbands or wives have dementia, or the child God gave them is handicapped, or they lost a member of their family through a drunken driver. What burdens some people have to bear. How dare we complain about our little troubles! But the cross that Christ is referring to in our text has a more specialized focus than the general troubles which Christians share with everybody in the world. God has made no promise that Christians will all avoid the illnesses and losses that all sinners know. God has promised to supply what we need, but we share with the whole groaning creation the suffering that sin and death have brought into the world. So the cross we take up does not refer to the general sufferings of mankind.
The cross refers to the consequences for us of denying ourselves and following Christ, the painful things that can happen to us once we have become true Christians. I am talking abut the things that have happened simply through our serving the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, they would not have happened to us if we were not Christians. Let me give you some examples. Here is a girl raised in a Muslim home who becomes a Christian and then her life is one of constant abuse and threats from her parents and brothers and sisters because she is following Christ. How long before one of them kills her? Or again last week the papers reported that the Rector of St. Mary’s Church in Great Baddow in Essex, Alan Comfort, has had to resign from his church. He used to be a professional soccer player and currently he is chaplain of Leyton Orient. This man has certain views about sex and marriage. He has said this, “If you are a committed follower of Jesus, and want to continue doing what the Bible says, then I believe that means sexual relationships are only appropriate within a married situation between a man and a woman.” That is what he believes and teaches. Good for him! Those views are hardly earth shattering, but in our culture they have resulted in his being elbowed out of his pulpit and left without a salary, or a house to live in, or a job. That loss is the cross he has had to take up for following Christ.
Or again last month Pastor Vanamali Parishudham was returning from Sunday worship in Yellareddygudam village in Andhra Pradesh state when a group of Hindu men came up to him with iron bars and beat him up and left him unconscious and bleeding profusely on the road. That is the cross he has taken up in following Christ.
We heard recently in a mid-week meeting about a Christian working for the BBC and the hostility his boss has been showing him in his refusal to work on the Lord’s Day. We know of university staff which have had to wait a very long time to get tenure or a chair. They have published papers and brought money into their departments, but their open Christian convictions have drawn hostility. We are going to have a lecture on the creation of man in ten days’ time by a professor at a prestigious English University. He has suffered persistent hostility with scientists at that university striving to get him dismissed because he believes in creation and a historical fall. That is the cross that these men have to carry. If they did not hold those views, or kept them secret then that suffering would not come into their lives.
Our children may be mocked because they say in a class in school that they believe the Bible. A young woman becomes a Christian and goes to church on Sundays and the man she lives with demeans her faith in Christ. There are constant rows about her leaving him for 90 minutes on a Sunday morning, though he’ll go down the pub for hours on many nights with his mates, even though he is unemployed. That is the new cross she has to carry because of confessing Christ. I am saying that the cross Jesus is referring to in our text is any trouble that comes into our lives because of following the Lord.
The Christian is called to take up his own cross. My cross is not like the converted Muslim girl’s or the Indian pastor’s or the professor’s, but if I am denying myself and following the Saviour then I too will have my cross, and every Christian must have his. How unpopular that teaching is in Christian churches. Let me remind you of those famous words on that fact by A.W.Tozer; All unannounced and mostly undetected there has come a new cross into popular evangelical circles. It is like the old cross, but different: the likenesses are superficial; the differences, fundamental.
From this new cross has sprung a new philosophy of the Christian life, and from that new philosophy has come a new evangelical technique – a new type of meeting and a new kind of preaching. This new evangelism employs the same language as the old, but its content is not the same and its emphasis is not as before.
The old cross would have no truck with the world. For Adam’s proud flesh it meant the end of the journey. It carried into effect the sentence imposed by the law of Sinai. The new cross is not opposed to the human race; rather, it is a friendly pal and, if understood aright, it is the source of oceans of good clean fun and innocent enjoyment. It lets Adam live without interference. His life motivation is unchanged; he still lives for his own pleasure, only now he takes delight in singing choruses and clapping his hands instead of singing bawdy songs and drinking hard liquor. The accent is still on enjoyment, though the fun is now on a higher plane morally if not intellectually.
The new cross encourages a new and entirely different evangelistic approach. The evangelist does not demand abnegation of the old life before a new life can be received. He preaches not contrasts but similarities. He seeks to key into public interest by showing that Christianity makes no unpleasant demands; rather, it offers the same thing the world does, only on a higher level. Whatever the sin-mad world happens to be clamouring after at the moment is cleverly shown to be the very thing the gospel offers, only the religious product is better.
The new cross does not slay the sinner, it redirects him. It gears him into a cleaner and jollier way of living and saves his self-respect. To the self-assertive it says, “Come and assert yourself for Christ.” To the egotist it says, “Come and do your boasting in the Lord.” To the thrill seeker it says, “Come and enjoy the thrill of Christian fellowship.” The Christian message is slanted in the direction of the current vogue in order to make it acceptable to the public.
The old cross is a symbol of death. It stands for the abrupt, violent end of a human being. The man in Roman times who took up his cross and started down the road had already said good-by to his friends. He was not going fishing; he was not going off for a ride on his horse; he was not coming back. He was going out to have his life ended. The cross made no compromise, modified nothing, spared nothing; it slew all of the man, completely and for good. It did not try to keep on good terms with its victim. It struck cruel and hard, and when it had finished its work, the man was no more.
We who preach the gospel must not think of ourselves as public relations agents sent to establish good will between Christ and the world. We must not imagine ourselves commissioned to make Christ acceptable to big business, the press, the world of sports or modern education. We are not diplomats but prophets, and our message is not a compromise but an ultimatum.
God offers life; it is not an improved old life. The life he offers is life out of death. It stands always on the far side of the cross. Whoever would possess it must pass under the rod. He must repudiate himself and concur in God’s just sentence against him. (A. W. Tozer, Man, the Dwelling Place of God, 1966). So we deny ourselves and take up our crosses . . .
1. 3. HE MUST FOLLOW CHRIST.
We follow Christ’s beliefs. For us he can say nothing wrong. If he believes and teaches something we also believe and teach it. Jesus believed the Bible. He believed our first parents existed. He believed in the fall. He believed in the flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. He believed that Jonah was in the fish’s belly for three days and nights. If it was in the Bible then he said, “It is written,” and that was sufficient for him. I follow his answers to all the great questions in life. Where did the world come from? What is the purpose of life? What is wrong with men and women? Where does their wickedness come from? How can things be put right? Who is God? What happens after death? What must I do to inherit eternal life? Is there a heaven? Is there a hell? I learn the answers to all those questions from the Lord Jesus. He pronounces on all those things. He tells me that I must be born again. He speaks of the place where the fires are not quenched and the worm does not die. Many are on the broad road leading there, he said. I follow Christ in everything. I am not selective and choose only the warm evangelical truths that I like but everything he says shapes my thinking. Every thought of mine is bound in captivity to him, for in him dwells all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. What he says God says because he came into the world to declare the mind of God. “God and I are one,” he says. In him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge and so I follow him
We follow his daily living. He is the proper man; God’s great definition of a man; the archetypal man. There is no compromise in his life because of the pressures of others. He’s not been bought by men’s smiles or frightened by their scowls. I follow his example with his family, and with his friends, with children, and with women. He obeys his father and his mother. He sees the need of the dirty feet of his friends to be washed and he promptly picks up the jug of water and the towel and washes them. He prays for his enemies; when they nail him to the cross he prays for those crucifying him, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” He also is filled with indignation and holy anger when he sees the way the temple is taken over by crooks who are charging sky-high prices for sacrificial animals. He makes a whip and drives these robbers out of the temple courts. He is no religious wimp. He refers to Herod as a ‘fox’ and to the Pharisees as ‘whitewashed graves.’ He is a real man. He forgives those who have let him down and sends them out again to work for him. He spends time in prayer; on a couple of occasions a whole night. He prays in Gethsemane that he might not to have to drink the cup. We follow his daily living.
We follow his emotional life. He was filled with compassion as he saw people wandering through life without any purpose, like sheep without a shepherd. He was also filled with joy and wanted his joy to be in his disciples. He wept over a city that rejected him. He cried with friends when a dear brother had died. He chose disciples because he wanted them to be with him. He looked forward to eating a feast with them. He wasn’t a loner. He went to weddings and to parties. He had special friends among the twelve whom he took with him on intimate occasions. He was quite astonished when he saw strong faith in a Roman army officer. He gives me every encouragement to be moved to joy, sadness and surprise during my earthly pilgrimage. The Lord Jesus was no stoic. We follow his rich emotional life, his daily living, and his beliefs.
1. 4. THIS IS THE WAY HE SAVES HIS LIFE, BY LOSING IT FOR JESUS.
“For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” (v.24). All around us are people who want to save their lives. They are trying to save them from the ten commandments and from conviction of guilt and sin; they are saving their lives from being redeemed by the grace of God; they are saving their lives from the Bible’s teaching; they are saving their lives from Sunday worship; they are saving their lives from Jesus Christ’s influence; most of all they are saving their lives from God. “My idea of God is this . . .” they say. They are intent on saving their lives from any divine and godly interference. They are saying, “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul,” and what is the result? They have lost their lives. They have no idea who they are; they are lost. They have no idea of the purpose of life; they are lost men. They have lost the knowledge of the living God; they have lost a loving relationship with Jesus Christ; they have lost the Good Shepherd; they have lost the indwelling Spirit; they have lost comfort in suffering, and peace in dying and a living hope. They have lost it all because they wanted to save their lives from what they called ‘religion.’
Yet there are those who have not tried by their own efforts to save their lives. They have said, “I cannot possibly discover for myself what my purpose in life is, what I must do to be saved, how can I know God. So I give up all my self-confidence and I trust entirely in the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount, the one who rose from the dead, the holy, harmless, sinless Son of God. He is all my hope, my Lord, my Saviour and my friend. I am trusting in him to put my life together and save my life. I turn away from all my good works, and all my striving to live a perfect life. I lose all that and I take Jesus Christ to be my Saviour, the one I can trust, who said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.”
18th October 2009 GEOFF THOMAS