Cross Bearing: Losing Your Life to Make Disciples
Sermon on Matthew 16:21-27 and others by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Series: Disciples Making Disciples, Part 5 of 6
Delivered on July 12, 2015
We’re now in week five of our series on disciples making disciples, with one more message to go next week. To this point, we’ve looked at the Son of Man’s kingdom and his own mission to seek and save the lost. We then saw what our own role looks like in evangelism and the local church and teaching one another—all three of which are bound up with Jesus’ charge, “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19). But embedded within each of our previous messages has been a theme that I want to make more explicit today, and that theme is the cost of discipleship.
In particular, I want us to look at taking up our cross. Without taking up our cross, not only would we not be making followers of Jesus, but we wouldn’t be disciples of Jesus, period. Fundamental to being a follower of Jesus is taking up the cross with Jesus. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “The cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise godfearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die.” This will be our focus today.
And what I want to do is begin by reading from Matthew 16:21-27. And then as we go along, we’ll pick up a few other places in the New Testament to spell out the cost of discipleship and especially what it means to take up our cross. But I want to start here, because long before Jesus commands us, “Go and make disciples,” he explains what it will cost us. I’ll begin reading in verse 21:
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.”
Before Jesus commands us, “Go and make disciples,” he explains the cost of discipleship. Verse 24 summarizes the cost of discipleship quite well and in some sense gives us two sides to the same discipleship coin. Following Jesus involves denying yourself—we might call that the negative side—and following Jesus involves taking up your cross—we might call that the positive side. Both are necessary to following Jesus, and both are costly. We’ll spend the bulk of our time on taking up our cross, but first I’d like to give a few minutes to this negative side of denying ourselves. I think it’ll bring further clarity to what it means to take up our cross; and it’ll also keep us from evaluating our Christian life simply by what we’re not doing.
1. The Cost of Discipleship (-): Deny Yourself
So to begin, what does Jesus mean when he says that you must deny yourself? The context is quite helpful for us. Jesus rebuked Peter in verse 23 saying, “You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Simply put, “denying yourself” is denying that part of you that rejects God’s ways for man’s ways. It’s renouncing our rebel ways. It’s turning away from building our own kingdom and setting our mind on Christ’s kingdom.
We see this coming out in other places as well. For example, a disciple comes to Jesus in Luke 9:61—and he comes as if following Jesus is his new career path, and so he starts setting the conditions: “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” And Jesus says to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (9:62).
Or then again in Matthew 19, a rich young man comes to Jesus. He wants to know what deed he must do to gain eternal life (19:16). And after telling Jesus what a good law-keeper he is, Jesus says, “Go sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (19:21). When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had many possessions (19:22).
In other words, you can’t live with one foot in your kingdom and one foot in Jesus’ kingdom. It’s not possible to enter Christ’s kingdom while still clinging to your own. It’s not possible to say, “I’ll follow you, but only on these conditions.” Or like Peter to say, “I’ll follow you, but not if you’re going there.” Denying yourself is renouncing your sinful agenda to square your life with Christ’s agenda. Bonhoeffer said, “Only the man who is dead to his own will can truly follow Christ” (Cost, p. 90).
Other places in the New Testament call this putting off the old self (Eph 4:22). It’s that part of you that wants a love-affair with the world (1 John 2:15-17). That’s the self we must deny; that’s the life we must hate (John 12:27).
Now, I don’t want to minimize the importance of anything I just said, but how many of us stop the Christian life there? We reduce the Christian life to what we’re not doing anymore, what sins are not as prevalent anymore, what commands we’re not breaking. And praise God, you should give thanks every time he gives the grace to deny yourself in these ways. Yes, yes, yes, Give thanks! But we cannot reduce the Christian life to avoiding badness. In his book, Don’t Waste Your Life, John Piper writes,
Oh how many lives are wasted by people who believe that the Christian life means simply avoiding badness and providing for the family. So there is no adultery, no stealing, no killing, no embezzlement, no fraud—just lots of hard work during the day, and lots of TV and PG-13 [movies] in the evening…and lots of fun stuff on the weekend—woven around church mostly. This is life for millions of people. Wasted life. We were created for more, far more” (p. 119).
And that “far more” that Piper is talking about is gaining more of Jesus by taking up the cross. You see, I haven’t said anything positive about the cost of discipleship yet, which is the taking-up-your-cross side. We’ve only discussed denying yourself. So, check yourself right here to make sure that you’re not reducing the cross to mere sin management. Make sure that you’re not reducing the cross to self-denial, only to escape the radical call to suffering love that the cross actually is.
You see, we also need to be warned by Jesus’ rebuke of Peter. If we get the way of the cross wrong, then we get Jesus wrong. And if we get Jesus wrong, then our lives will serve the agenda of Satan, who is sure to perish in the end. Peter tried to keep Jesus from taking up his cross, and Jesus rebuked him, “Get behind me, Satan!” Any attempt to get around a crucified life is Satanic to the core, and sometimes that happens subtly when we live by only half the truth. Yes, we must deny ourselves, but we must also take up our cross.
2. The Cost of Discipleship (+): Take Up Your Cross
So, let’s move now to the positive side to the cost of discipleship, actually taking up our cross. What does Jesus mean by take up your cross? Now, I’m not going to cover all that we could about taking up our cross, but I’m hoping to hit at least the main things that it is. Again, the context is helpful, because in it at least three aspects stand out to Jesus’ call to take up our cross.
Single-minded obedience to Jesus
The first aspect is single-minded obedience to Jesus. Single-minded obedience characterized the cross that Jesus was called to bear. In verse 21, he says that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things. And then in verse 23 we see that is the will of God, which Peter didn’t want to accept. Of course, Jesus’ obedience to the Father plays out in other places as well, such as his prayer in the Gethsemane, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
When Jesus calls us to take up our cross, he’s calling us to the same single-minded obedience seen in his own cross-bearing—not as I will, but as you will, Lord. And it can’t be otherwise. He is the Christ. He has power over death. He’ll rise on the third day, and even the gates of Hades can’t stop him. He holds the keys of the kingdom of heaven. He unfolds the future with his death, resurrection, and return. He is the Son of Man, wrapped in his Father’s glory. Angels do his bidding, and he possesses authority to judge every person according to what he’s done.
When he says, “take up your cross,” he’s calling us to obey him at all costs. There’s no other King worthy of our absolute devotion. And we feel the challenge of this single-minded obedience when he starts calling people to follow him. For example, Peter and Andrew are right in the middle of their jobs as fishermen. James and John are helping dad with his fishing boat. And Jesus says to all of them, “Follow me.” And it says, immediately they left their nets, they left their boat, and they left their father, and followed Jesus. This is single-minded obedience. Mid-day-I-don’t-know-where-the-pay-check-is-coming-from-next-week-if-I-do-this-but-Christ-said-to-so-I’m-doing-it type of obedience.
Later on, another disciple comes up to Jesus and says, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus responds, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead” (8:21-22). Even the closest family ties can’t trump submission to Jesus. Obedience is without reservations.
Suffering in the path of love
But that obedience will then lead us to a second aspect of taking up our cross, namely, suffering in the path of love. In Matthew 16:21, Jesus says that he will suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed. So, when he says, “Take up your cross,” it’s clear what he has in mind—suffering, even when it means death. But all of this suffering and even death is part of giving up his life for the church that he mentions back in verse 18. In other words, Jesus doesn’t just suffer; he suffers to save others, he suffers to love his people.
When Jesus calls us, then, to take up our cross, he calls us to walk the same path of love that he did. That path will include suffering for the sake of others. Now, we need to be clear. Our suffering for the sake of others is different from Jesus’ suffering. We don’t suffer to atone for people’s sins. Only Jesus’ suffering and death can atone for our sins. He alone is God’s one and only Son; he alone humbled himself to take on our humanity; he alone is without sin; he alone drank the cup of God’s wrath in our place; and he alone can give us an alien righteousness to stand before God on judgment day without the fear of hell.
Not a single one of us could replicate Jesus’ atoning death. Rather, Jesus’ atoning death is what liberates and motivates us to imitate his love. The nature of his love was that he laid down his life for our eternal good with God the Father. 1 John 3:16 says, that “by this we know love, that he laid down his life for us.” The Bible says that we are to follow in Jesus’ steps. Christians are to lay down their lives for the eternal good of others in God; and that only comes with suffering and self-sacrifice.
Peter puts it this way in 1 Peter 2:21, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” This is cross-bearing. Jesus and the apostles assume the normal lifestyle of all Christians includes suffering in the path of love. The only church the New Testament knows is a suffering church, because there’s a cross that created that church.
When we live this way, we authenticate with our lives the message of Christ’s love we preach to others. This is much of what is behind Paul’s words in Colossians 1:24. Paul writes there, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” What could possibly be lacking in Christ’s afflictions? If we know his death is truly a saving death—it’s totally sufficient to forgive the sins of all who believe—then what could possibly be lacking?
What is lacking is the visible presentation of Christ’s afflictions to the world; and God intends for that visible presentation of Christ’s afflictions to be filled up through the afflictions of his own people—you and me as we love others. Nothing about our lives belongs to us; even our own bodies are set apart for God to do with them as he sees fit in helping the world see his love in Jesus Christ more clearly.
Which means that it’s impossible to follow Jesus without laying down your life for others. There’s no such thing as lone-ranger cross-bearing. Cross-bearing necessarily means you’re dying to bring others to God. You’re losing your life to spend it on others, for the glory of God (cf. 1 Cor 10:31-33).
Shameful rejection from the world
One other aspect we’ll cover today in taking up our cross: taking up our cross will also mean shameful rejection from the world. This is not something we often consider, because of the way our culture has over time candy-coated the cross. The cross wasn’t a piece of jewelry you wore, or a bumper-sticker, or wall-décor that let everybody who entered your house know you had some familiarity with Christianity. The cross meant you were the wall décor. It was an instrument of torture and public shame. Think electric chair or a sword from ISIS.
That is the cross Jesus calls us to take up in Matthew 16. Single-minded obedience to Jesus and suffering in the path of love will take you here. Your life will look so foreign to the world, because it doesn’t fit its value system; and they will hate you and shame you for it. They will revile you, Matthew 5:11 says, and utter all kinds of evil things about you falsely on Jesus’ account.
Taking up the cross is not just suffering from what’s common to this mortal life. It’s not just suffering as the result of our natural existence in a fallen world. It’s not just ordinary calamity and hardship with circumstances that all people suffer whether Christian or not. Taking up the cross means suffering rejection and shame wherever obedience to Christ and love for others demands it.
Jesus says in Mark 8:38, “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” That’s a hard word, folks—because we’re so vulnerable to feeling ashamed of the cross. We don’t like shameful rejection; we like the glory. We want discipleship to be more comfortable than shame. We don’t like the awkward stares from our coworkers, when we take a stand for Jesus. We don’t want to make the family get-together’s uncomfortable for the sake of truth. It’s not easy when the neighbors breed hatred for you, because we agreed with Jesus’ words over their own.
Or let’s try a different example. We fear what people might think of us if we associate with certain people. You remember the prostitute that crashed the Pharisee’s little party—in Luke 7? Jesus is reclining at the table with the Pharisees, and in comes this woman from the city. And she starts kissing his feet and washing his feet with her tears and wiping his feet with her hair and anointing him with ointment. And the Pharisees are appalled at Jesus: “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.”
In their eyes, what he’s allowing is shameful. And then Jesus rebukes them, saying they don’t understand a thing about his forgiveness, but she does. Sexual immorality is shameful, but that’s what Jesus carried to the cross for this woman. And he bore her shame on the cross, that she might be forgiven and clothed with honor. Are you willing to stand with Jesus and all the other prostitutes he forgives, or will you cower to the Pharisee? Bearing the shame of the cross may not always look like bleeding. It may also look like eating with the people that others despise.
When Pharisees wag their heads at you for reclining at the table with the same-sex couple across the street, will you bear the shame with Jesus? How could we not? He bore our shame on the cross, too. We were all despicable sinners, too. And how shameful it would be to have all our sins scrolling down the power point right now. But Jesus became shameful to wipe our sins clean. And now he calls us to identify with the shame bound up with his cross. Why? Because “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1:27).
3. The Cost of Discipleship in Relation to People, Possessions, & Vocation
Single-minded obedience to Jesus, suffering in the path of love, shameful rejection from the world—these are aspects of what it means to take up our cross. And when we embrace them, it shakes up our lives in radical ways. If you’re still living like you would have lived anyway without Jesus, you need to consider whether you’re mistaking the cross for something other than what it is.
Some of the most common things that get shaken up in the Gospels are people, possessions, and vocations. Taking up your cross transforms your relationship to people, to your possessions, and to your vocation.
In relation to people
To begin with—your relationship to people. For example, taking up your cross may mean family members hate you: Matthew 10:35, “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” Some of you have first-hand experience with this one. Jesus goes on, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
The cross affects how you relate even to your immediate family members. We see the same thing worded differently in Luke 14:26, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” You will have to make decisions in following Jesus that the world will call hatred to your family.
A most recent example of this can be found with Max and Laura’s decision to leave for South Asia. His dad was dying with cancer at the time he needed to leave, and he had to make the agonizing decision whether to go. His dad was being cared for, of course, but how do you choose to go if you’re likely never to see your daddy on earth again. Max loved Jesus more. What was even sweeter about this situation, though, is that Max’s dad loved Jesus more, too. He told Max to go. Looks crazy to the world.
Oh, the cross will lead us into hard choices with some of the dearest people we share life with. The cross may call us to leave those we’d rather not leave. It may call us to dissociate ourselves from professing believers who continue in sin. It may call us to not go to that wedding, even though we were invited. It may call us to stand on the truth when everybody else wants to compromise. The cross affects our relationship to people.
In relation to possessions
Or how about the relationship we have to our possessions? We talked about the rich young man earlier in Matthew 19. He was so attached to his possessions that Jesus told him to sell them all and give to the poor. In his case, the riches of this world were keeping him from following Christ—so cut ‘em off. But Luke 14:33 broadens the effects a bit more. Jesus gives us the kind of mind we all must have toward our riches: “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”
Now, that may not mean you sell everything. But it will mean that you steward everything with open hands. You recognize that it’s not yours to decide what you want to do with it—from the smallest of trinkets and grocery lists to something big as your house. It’s all at Jesus’ disposal for his kingdom. In fact, if it’s not being used to his kingdom’s advance or to make disciples or to love your neighbor, you may ask why you’re clinging on to it, or how can I use it to serve others. That’s the question the cross teaches us to ask—not, “Can I have it and still be Christian?” but, “How will this serve Christ’s kingdom to the glory of God?”
We see this playing out rather helpfully in the early church. Acts 2:45, “They were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Acts 4:34, “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.” Paul commends, Phoebe, because she apparently used her wealth to serve and bless others with it: “she was a patron of many” (Rom 16:2). Pricilla and Acquila didn’t sell their house, but kept it for the church to meet in regularly (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19).
There’s different ways to use our possessions or get rid of them. The point is that when we take up our cross, our possessions now serve Christ instead of our own appetites.
In relation to vocations
And then we have how the cross may affect our vocations. Clearly, when Jesus called Peter and Andrew and James and John, they left their vocations altogether. The same happened with Matthew a bit later. He left his tax-booth to travel with Jesus. So it could be that when Jesus tells you, “Take up your cross,” he’s calling you to drop what you’re doing now for something else.
There’s no question that’s the case if you’re working in a context right now where you can’t obey Jesus and do what you do. That is, your job situation is asking you to do things that are contrary to the will of Christ. If that’s you, you need to quit and come to the church for help and prayer till you find a different job.
But not many of you are in that place, and you’ll need more help with discerning whether changing your vocation is the right thing to do for Jesus’ sake. It’s true that some cling to their jobs for security, and vie for that higher position to serve their own kingdom. They fear letting go of that hefty paycheck every week, when Jesus is telling them to give it up for his sake among the nations. People like this may need encouragement to change vocations, to do what Christ is calling them to do.
But it’s just as true that others want out of their jobs, simply because they don’t want to follow Jesus in their jobs. Some people aren’t thankful for their job and so they grow bitter against it. Or, others don’t find contentment in Christ throughout their workday, and they think a different vocation will satisfy them when it won’t, no matter how “Christian” it may look on the outside. In these cases, it may not be the vocation that needs to change but the person in it. Not everybody should leave their current vocation, in order to follow Jesus. Taking up your cross may simply transform the way you think about your current vocation and how you serve others in it. Jesus’ didn’t tell everybody to give up their vocations to travel with him. He told one fella—the one from which he cast out a demon—that guy wanted to travel with Jesus, but Jesus tells him “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you” (Luke 8:38-39). Bonhoeffer noted that the disciples left their nets, but Luther left the monastery, both in order to follow Jesus.
So, how do you decide which one is you? Again, God has not only given you his word, but also a church family to help you discern your vocation. Talk to each other. Find mature believers and get their input. Pray and fast with one another about it, and just like he did with the early church, the Lord will give you discernment.
4. The Power of the Cross & the Promised Reward of Christ
Okay. That’s a lot take in this morning, and hardly any of it is very light to consider. But we don’t serve a God who gives us commands without also giving us the grace to obey them. You need to know that, if you’re a believer in Christ today, all the grace you need to embrace this cost of discipleship was secured when Jesus took up his cross for you. Here’s what I mean…
You can deny yourself—you can say No to that old self—because by faith you already stand crucified with Jesus. When he died, you died. And you made that known to all when you entered the waters of baptism. That means, your old self was crucified with Christ, in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin (Rom 6:6). Sin no longer has dominion over you (Rom 6:14). Christ has dominion over sin! He has won the battle with sin, so that you can live for him.
Even the world, Paul says, has been crucified to you and you to the world (Gal 6:14). The world has no ultimate sway in your life. So, make your boast in Christ every day. Tell the old self to shut his trap, and walk in the newness of Christ’s life. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Gal 5:24). The work is already done for you. Jesus’ death freed you from bondage to the world, so that you might risk everything for him (John 12:25-27). Now walk in it, by denying yourself, by renouncing your former ways.
And then, also remember that you can take up your cross, because Jesus took up his, and then he rose again. When he rose, you rose with him. You can take up your cross, because the one who took up the greatest cross in history lives within you by the Spirit. If he went through death and hell to reconcile you to God, while you were his enemy, he will enable you to carry your cross to magnify God, while you are his friend.
Trust him to give you everything you need in the cost of discipleship. He promised us, “there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30).
More than that, he promises to give us himself. That’s ultimately why giving up everything to follow Jesus in this life is worth it. It’s worth it, because he is worth it. Jesus is like that treasure hidden in a field which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field (Matt 13:44). Taking up your cross is just like this man. You give up everything you have to follow Jesus, and it may even hurt for a little while. But, in the end, you have the real treasure, Jesus.
If you don’t give up everything, you have all you’ll ever get right now and then you’re going to lose it on the last day. But if you give up everything for Christ’s sake, you’ll get more than you’ll ever be able to contain for eternity. You get Jesus, who is infinitely glorious. You have an eternity of riches. You have the kingdom of peace. You have the inheritance of the earth. What is eighty years of denying yourself and taking up your cross—suffering in the path of love—when you gain ten-bazillion in Jesus’ glorious presence?! Nothing else can compare.
And there are people who have walked this road before us, like the Christians in Hebrews 10:32-33. They joyfully accepted the plundering of their property, because they knew that they had a better possession in Christ and an abiding one. Or like the martyr Jim Elliot, who leaves us with words like, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Or like David Livingstone, after years of hardship in Africa says, “I never made a sacrifice.” In comparison to his reward in Jesus, “I never made a sacrifice.” Brothers and sisters, Jesus is worth it. Give yourself to him. Take up your cross daily. Lose your life to see others saved and bring glory to God.
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