For Sunday’s sermon, I put Isaiah aside for a week and instead preached on Luke 9:23-27. Here we read some of the most challenging words in all of Scripture: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (v.23). No one can be a disciple of Jesus, and so be saved, unless he daily bears the cross of Jesus.
We’re so familiar with the image of a cross that we don’t feel the visceral impact these words must have had on Jesus’ original audience. The cross was an instrument of execution, designed to inflict upon its victims maximum pain and humiliation. To die by crucifixion was so horrific, and the spectacle so revolting, that the word “cross” was avoided in polite conversation.
The cross meant nothing less than death. Imagine seeing a person wearing a necklace adorned not with a cross, but with the figure of an electric chair or guillotine. Your shocked reaction to such a symbol of death would approximate how Jesus’ hearers would have felt when he told them they must take up their cross daily. What they heard was, “To be my disciples, you must die daily.”
As I new Christian I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship. I remember being jarred by the words, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” But what kind of death is it to which Jesus bids us? Physical death? For many Christians, following Christ has meant just that – losing one’s life for the sake of the gospel. But even those of us not called to martyrdom must die “daily”. This means we must die to ourselves: we die to self-sovereignty by submitting to Christ as Lord, we die to our natural self-centeredness, we die to our selfish, sinful desires, we die to every ambition and plan not in conformity to the will of Christ. To take up the cross daily means willingly to become a servant of Christ, and a servant of others for the sake of Christ.
But if Christ bids us come and die, he also bids us come and live. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (v.24). Jesus promises that whoever takes up his cross will gain everlasting life. The way to true life is through the cross of Christ. When by God’s grace you come to him in faith and die to yourself, the life you gain in Christ is immortal and indestructible, and full of joy and peace.
The missionary Jim Elliot, who in 1956 was speared to death by the very people he was seeking to reach with the gospel, said it well when he wrote in his journal: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
On another topic, I was much encouraged by reading this article by Kevin DeYoung, “It’s Okay to Be a Pastor.” In the midst of the political and social storms raging all around us, it is good to be reminded that the church and world still need the simple, steadfast ministry of the Word of God.
Soli Deo Gloria!