A phrase which makes a lot of people uneasy, is when Jesus said to “Take up your cross”. It makes people uneasy because the cross is an instrument of torturous suffering, terrible pain and an agonizing death. It is certainly not a pleasant image to have in our mind, and it generally doesn’t fill us with peace or confidence to have this image imprinted on us either. This situation is exasperated further when religious teachers use this phrase as a way to hammer legalistic, performance-driven ideas into our brain either; as is often the case in many churches today.
So today in this study, we will be examining this phrase from the perspective of the finished work of Jesus Christ, and what this statement means for us today. Jesus obviously said it for a reason, and it wasn’t to frighten or intimidate people – He knew what He was doing and He knew what He would do for us. As we see the truth of Christ in this area, it will free us from the irrational fear that this statement causes due to lack of understanding of what Jesus truly said.
Alright, let’s not waste any time and jump right into the scripture of Matthew 16:24:
“Then said Jesus to his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”
This verse has often been used by preachers to spurn on their congregations to what they consider to be holy or righteous living. “Do this and avoid that! You have to take up your cross! You need to suffer for Christ!” I have certainly endured preaching like that in the past, and I know that a lot of people think that is right – however as we examine the totality of what Jesus is saying here, we see a different picture emerge. Look at verses 21 to 23:
“From that time forth began Jesus to show to his disciples, how that 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.
Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from you, Lord: this shall not be to you.
But he turned, and said to Peter, Get you behind me, Satan: you are an offense to me: for you mind not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.”
So what was Jesus doing here? He was showing His disciples how He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things. Then Peter began to rebuke Jesus! Why? Because Peter was the one who generally had the mentality of “I need to serve Jesus”. Peter was the one who wanted to build three temples for Jesus, Moses and Elijah in Matthew 17, and was rebuked by the Father with a thunderous voice from Heaven. Peter was the one who said, that Jesus should never wash his feet in John 13, and Peter was the one who cut off the high priests’ servants’ ear in John 18. Peter did these things because he had a particular view of Jesus, and a particular view of himself as well. Peter saw a Jesus that needed to be served and protected – and Peter saw himself as the one able to serve and protect Jesus, assuming that was what Jesus needed and desired as well. Peter was the one who at the last supper, boasted in himself that even if all of the other disciples betray Jesus, he never would. It was only after Peter denied Jesus three times with cursing and swearing, realizing that he was incapable to fulfill what he boasted, and having Jesus later restore him, that he realized the true nature of God, and the character and role which Jesus willingly offers, that Jesus did not come to be served, but to serve. (Matthew 20:28)
You see, Peter needed Jesus to serve and protect and strengthen him! However Peter was so busy trying to serve God that he never gave God a chance to serve him. And we see the same scenario being played out by millions of professing Christians every single day. Far be it from you to serve me LORD! Let me serve you instead! I wouldn’t dare ask God for help, I should be helping Him!
The Bible warns against this mindset over and over again. Peter wanted to serve and protect Jesus, even to the point here of trying to stop Him from going to the cross. How does Jesus respond to this? In verse 23, He calls this thought Satanic. Now Satan did not possess Peter here, the scripture is clear Jesus turned and said to Peter, not to Satan. Satan gave Peter the thought, but Peter agreed with the Satanic thought and proceeded to speak the words. This idea that we should be serving and helping God instead of letting Him serve and help us, which is why Jesus came and what He wants to do, is purely Satanic and ends up hurting us. This is why Jesus says what He says in verse 23. The notion that we have to serve and protect God, and honor Jesus in such a way that stops Him from serving us would’ve prevented Him from going to the cross and would have resulted in the destruction of all of humanity!
Now Jesus’ words in verse 23 are very detailed and descriptive and they will help us make sense of verse 24 as well.
Jesus says: …you are an offense to me: for you mind not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.
Do you really want to know what offends Jesus? He tells us right here in this verse; not minding the things of God, but the things of man. And notice the details of what He said here… this is not “things about God, or things for God” being spoken of here… but the things that are of God versus the things that are of men. What are the things that are “of God”? Jesus, His Grace, and His Truth and His Mercy, The Holy Spirit which He gave, which testifies of the truth of what He has done for us. All of these things are of God; they come from Him and are His gifts to us.
What are the things “of men”? All of the pride and self-effort of man and his own flesh. Basically the rejection of Jesus’ gifts in favor of us doing it ourselves. The attitude of Let me serve God instead of receiving His service in my place and for me. That is what comes from man and his flesh nature.
So Jesus says in verse 23, it is an offense to Him, and it is flat-out Satanic to mind the things of man, man’s work, man’s effort, rather-than the things of God, which is Christ and His finished work for you. Then Jesus goes right from this straight into verse 24:
“Then said Jesus to his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”
Does reading this in the context of the previous verses help with your seeing what Jesus is really saying? Many people even in Christian circles who read this saying of Jesus, read it with the lenses of eastern philosophies – denying appetites or pleasures. I have to deny myself food, or TV or music to be a “real” follower of Jesus! And without even realizing what they are doing, they are actually missing the point entirely! The word for “deny” here in the Greek text, is aparneomai, which means to disown; to refuse to acknowledge or have any connection with yourself, your own works, efforts or abilities. Or in-other-words in the light of the previous verses, to stop minding the things of ourselves. Then what? Take up his cross, and follow me. This language has caused some confusion because it says “his cross” instead of “Jesus’ cross” and that has caused people to think that they must suffer like Jesus suffered in order to follow Him… however that is not what this is saying at all. Along with the preceding verses which we have read, let’s examine now the following verses of 25-27:
“For whoever will save his life shall lose it: and whoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.
For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.”
The important thing to remember about these verses is that they are still in the context of salvation and they are still speaking of minding the things of men (works, self-effort) versus the things of God (Christ and His finished work). This is all still in the context of Jesus telling His disciples about His suffering and death which is coming on the cross and Peter trying to stop Him from going.
So here in verse 25, Jesus says whoever will save his life shall lose it: and whoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. Now Jesus is not saying go commit suicide here. The word “life” used in this verse is actually your “soul”, your old way of thinking and believing. Just like Peter, we have this idea that God needs or even demands things from us – there is something we have to do. However Jesus says here, that mindset needs to go, stop focusing on what you can do for God and let Him do for you what only He can do. We often try to save our own souls by our efforts… if I do this for God, He will be pleased. If I’m engaged in service for Him or I sacrifice for Him then I will get His attention – and this is precisely why verse 26 exists in your Bible.
Then of-course this proceeds right into verse 27, and verse 27 is where a lot of people get confused because after all of this talk about not trying to work for the favor of God, this verse on its surface seems to say the opposite – and there are a lot of people who think that this verse is referring to rewards for good works, however we must again remember the context of all of this. It is still about salvation. The conversation has not changed from verse 26 to verse 27.
So what is Jesus saying here? Well, hopefully you know that Jesus is not promoting a works-based salvation, or a merit-based rewards system based on performance. God told Abram all the way back in Genesis 15:1, to not be afraid, that He (God) was Abram’s shield, and exceedingly great reward. That was good enough for Abram, and I can assure you that it is good enough for us as well. The trouble is (and remember that this entire discourse by Jesus is about our belief and salvation) that most of us do not believe that God is truly our exceedingly great reward. We say that we believe, but we really don’t, because if we did believe, we wouldn’t always be trying to earn our own rewards by our performance.
What Jesus is really doing here is referencing two scriptures Psalms 62:12 and Jeremiah 17:10. Now Psalm 62 is one of the shorter Psalms, and I would encourage you to read it for yourself, and when you do, you will notice something very interesting. The entire Psalm is about rest and security in God. It’s not a Psalm of works or effort or striving in any way. And the final verse, 12, ends with what Jesus quotes here in Matthew 27.
Jeremiah 17:10 has basically the same thing to say, except that it describes both the blessed and the cursed man. In verse 5 it describes the cursed man by saying cursed is the man that trusts in man, and makes his own flesh (strength, self-effort) his arm, whose heart departs from the Lord. When you start looking to yourself and your own efforts, make no mistake, your heart is departing from the Lord and going squarely back to yourself.
Now in verse 7 of Jeremiah 10, we see the blessed man: blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose hope He is. Which then leads into verse 10, the Lord looks at your “heart” (your mind and will) and rewards each man…” so again just as with Psalms, the “works” being referred to here, is all in the context of belief. And indeed with our main scripture as well. The reward that Christ gives, is Himself! We who believe on Him, we already have Him, and we cannot lose Him. The works being mentioned in this verse is just a poor English translation of saying what we believe, in all three instances.
So putting this all together… when Jesus says to take up your cross, He is not saying that we must endure torture for Him, or sing for our supper, work for our salvation or any of those things. In other areas of scripture it does speak of the persecutions that believers will suffer because of the Name of Jesus, but that is not what this is referring to here.
What He is actually trying to teach His disciples here, is precisely what Paul mentions over and over again. Start seeing the truth of what Christ has done for you. When Jesus suffered and died on the cross, you died with Him. We have done previous studies on Romans 7, where Paul makes a distinction between who he used to be, in contrast with the new creation that he now is is Christ Jesus. This amazing reality for Paul is also your new reality in Christ. We like to use buzz-words such as being born-again, but the sad truth is that most believers have no idea what that phrase even means for them personally – or at all!
When Jesus suffered the full punishment for sin, He suffered and died on that cross as you. All of that suffering, all of that pain and even His death, was in your place and as you, and it was forever set to your account. This is why you can confidently say that your sins are once and for all paid in full! (Romans 6:4-8, 2nd Timothy 2:11, 2nd Corinthians 4:10)
And when He was raised again, likewise you were raised with Him, and your spiritual position in Christ now is seated with Him at the right hand of God the Father! (Ephesians 2:6)
Simply speaking, Jesus Christ died as you, so that today you can live as Him!
So when Jesus says take up your cross and follow Him, what He is saying is make His work for you personal. It is “your cross” because what He did is for you. This is not just some ethereal feel-good sentiment, this is your personal reality in Christ. Take it! You are not who you once were! You are a new creation in Christ.
Taking up your cross is not a work for you to do, it’s a reality for you to abide in. The original Greek work used when Jesus says “follow” me, means “to side with” or “be in union with”. It’s not even speaking of following His example or His footsteps here – it is speaking of something much closer and more personal. It is more of a reference to John 17: to be one with Christ. His death is your death and His life is your life. This is the wonderful meaning of taking up your cross. It is not something to fear, but something to rejoice over. It is all because of Christ.
Give Jesus the praise!