October 2, 2016
Recently, I noticed a couple had quit coming to Alliance, so I called to follow up. The wife answered the phone and I said, just wanted to check in and see if everything was okay. She said, well, since you asked, I’ll tell you. A few years ago, the tone of your sermons changed – you started talking a lot about suffering and persecution, and I found myself leaving the service in tears with no hope. So we’re looking for something else. I wanted say, you do know I teach verse by verse through the Bible – I’m not making this stuff up. But I didn’t – I just encouraged them to find a good church where they could learn and grow and serve.
But it got me curious – so I looked up our sermons – our book studies – over the past few years. And you know what? She’s right. You see, it was almost exactly four years ago that we began the Prison Epistles – the letters Paul wrote while he was suffering in prison for the gospel. Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon. In those books, we found verses like:
In Ephesians, Paul ended by encouraging us to put on the full armor of God, because we are in a war, battling against the schemes of the devil.
In Philippians, he actually wrote as he faced potential martyrdom, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain….But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is very much better…” Paul actually saw martyrdom for the sake of Christ – which he eventually endured – as gain. But then he goes on in Philippians to write these words, “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.” He finished that book by encouraging us to be content no matter what the circumstances – in suffering or not – why, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
Then we went to the next book – Colossians, where he wrote something similar, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” We saw that verse meant, not that there was something lacking in Christ’s atoning death – but that the church as the body of Christ, too, was assigned a certain amount of suffering.
In Philemon, Paul talked about being imprisoned – suffering – for the gospel. I could go on – we went to the Pastoral Epistles – namely I and II Timothy – and in II Timothy, Paul encouraged Timothy to suffer hardship with him as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. Then he said this in chapter 3, “Now you followed my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, perseverance, persecutions, sufferings, etc…Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” The truth is, Paul talks about suffering for the cause of Christ in almost every one of his letters. And the further truth is, Jesus promised it over and over to His followers. And as I look at the global political and religious landscape, I have warned of suffering, because it is rising, even here.
Somewhere in that time, we took a little break to study the life of Joseph in book of Genesis, to see how God used Joseph’s suffering in Egypt to preserve the chosen family. We were reminded that God does work all things together for our good – all things aren’t good, in fact, quite the opposite – but God works all things for our good.
Then, we jumped into the gospel of Mark, and one of Mark’s themes has been in the midst of rising popularity, there has been rising opposition. As early as chapter 3, the religious and political leadership began plotting together to kill Jesus. We’ve also seen, this was all according to God’s sovereign plan. Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen Jesus and His disciples travel north to Caesarea Philippi. Jesus asked the disciples who the people thought He was. They had all kinds of guesses – John the Baptist raised from the dead. Oh yeah, that’s right – John, the forerunner of Jesus as promised in Malachi – had been beheaded for his work. Still others said Jesus was Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.
And Jesus looked at them squarely in the eyes and said, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter, ever the spokesman for the disciples, got it right. You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Finally, someone in Mark’s gospel – that is, a human – had figured it out. So, Jesus said, now that you know who I am, you need to understand what I came to do. From that time Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must go to Jerusalem, suffer many things, be rejected by elders, chief priests and scribes, be killed and be raised again the third day. This was the first of what will be three passion predictions – I’m going to Jerusalem to suffer and die. And today, we call that the good news, the gospel. We like that Jesus suffered, because it gained me eternal life.
But for Peter and the disciples, that was bad news. Peter thought the same way everyone else does, even today – the way of Christ can’t include suffering, a cross, can it? Certainly not. He pulled Jesus aside and rebuked Him. God forbid it, Lord! No way – not while I’m alive – that will never happen to you! That’s not supposed to happen to the Messiah – that’s bad news, Jesus – you’re mistaken.
Get behind Me, Satan – that’s exactly what I came to do. You’re setting your mind on man’s interests, not God’s. And we’ve had that problem ever since – setting our minds on man’s interests, our own selfish, self-serving, self interests, and not God’s. Isn’t it interesting – they saw the gospel, the good news, as bad news.
But Jesus wasn’t finished. You see, not only did He come to suffer, so also would His disciples. A faithful reading through the NT finds followers of Jesus are promised suffering. We do go verse by verse through the Bible – which clearly declares suffering for followers. And you preach this message in most places of the world, and they say yep, that’s what we’ve experienced. But here – we think something’s amiss. The truth is, we’ll find today there is actually hope in the promise of suffering for Jesus. It’s what He promised, and by our suffering, we bring Him glory, and we prove we’re truly followers. Jesus said, get behind Me, Satan. Not only will I suffer, so will you. The text is found in Mark 8:34-38. Read it with me.
Does that sound like bad news? A lot of people think so – that’s why they preach a health, wealth and prosperity theology. I’m not convinced the relative peace and prosperity we’ve enjoyed under the sovereign hand of God in this country has been altogether good for the church. Oh, it was for our good and the good of the gospel – but as people often do, we’ve taken God’s good gifts for His purposes of spreading the gospel around the world, and we’ve perverted it. We’ve made it a spiritual birthright. And we now not only avoid suffering, we think somehow we’re exempt from it. And if we suffer, something’s wrong. I’m going to suggest today, that when we suffer, something is actually right. Let me assure you, this is not bad news. Two weeks ago, we saw the Call to Christ’s Cross in verses 31-33. This week, we see the Call to the Disciple’s Cross. Let me outline the passage:
- The Cost of Discipleship (34)
- The Paradox of Discipleship (35-37)
- The Warning of Rejecting Discipleship (38)
Let’s begin with that first one – the Cost of following Christ. Jesus outlines the cost for us in verse 34. Anyone wishing to come after Me – to follow Me – that is, be a disciple, must do the following three things: he must deny himself, he must bear his cross and he must follow Christ.
Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? From there, Jesus gives a compelling argument for His demands in the rest of the passage. In fact, notice how the next four verses all begin with the word, “For.” He builds His case – a case which leads to a sober warning of not following Jesus. In other words, this is not bad news – this is good news today. The bad news is choosing not to follow.
We live in a country and a church that avoids pain at all costs. That sees suffering as evil. As I said a moment ago, we have those who teach a health, wealth and prosperity – that if you choose to follow Jesus, you’ll be healthy, wealthy, prosperous. No problems, Jesus will take care of all of that. In fact, if you’re facing problems, if you’re facing sickness, if you’re facing financial difficulties, if you’re facing suffering of any kind, then it’s because you don’t have enough faith.
That is not what Jesus says here. Following Christ is cross-bearing. The truth of the passage is there will be a cross before a crown, suffering before glory, sacrifice before reward, giving before gaining, losing before winning. But, those rewards will come. That’s good news. Three things Jesus says to the would-be disciple:
First, you must deny yourself. The word deny means to completely disown, to utterly separate yourself from someone. Here, you are to completely disown, utterly separate yourself from…yourself. The one who would be a disciple of Jesus must completely disown himself. What is Jesus talking about? There’s been lots of discussion. Everyone agrees Jesus is talking about self-denial – that’s not too difficult – deny yourself is self-denial – but what do we deny? To what end do we deny ourselves?
Some have taught to deny oneself is to abase yourself, to live an ascetic life – where you forsake all life’s comforts, and maybe even necessities, like food, clothing, and shelter. For centuries after the life of Christ, hermits and monks observed lives of self-denial where they lived in caves or on top of poles or out in the desert or in a monastery. They wore, intentionally, rough, animal hair clothing to make themselves uncomfortable and slept on the floor or wooden pallets. They allowed themselves to eat only the bare necessities – maybe a little bread and water to stay alive. They took vows of poverty or silence or celebacy. Some went so far as to disfigure themselves, flog themselves, supposedly inflicting on themselves the sufferings of Christ. Those people walk through life thinking, “I feel miserable, I must be spiritual.”
Is that how we deny ourselves? No comfortable homes, no soft beds or pillows, no fashionable clothing, no pizza? I don’t think so. Paul dealt decisively with that in Colossians 2:20-23, “If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’ (which all refer to things destined to perish with use) — in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.” So self denial has nothing necessarily to do with denying yourself food or clothing – of giving up chocolate for Lent. It is not the denial of something to yourself – it is the denial of self itself.
So what is it? The paradox of salvation is that it costs us nothing, yet costs us everything. Yes, salvation comes by grace through faith alone, apart from any works that we can do. Yet, to depend on Christ for salvation also means giving up your old life, with its pride, conceit, pursuits and ambition. You must renounce any claim to your own life and live wholly for God. This is the pursuit of the Christian life – growing in Christlikeness. Seeing more of Him and less of you. He must increase – we must decrease.
It is to say no to your fleshly desires, and yes to the will of God for your life. It is to recognize we still live in a broken world, with the vestiges of the sinful nature, and that our flesh battles against our spirit. It is to allow God through His Holy Spirit to take control of your life day by day, to be filled with the Spirit of God such that His desires become your desires. There are lots of passages that talk about putting off the old self, and putting on the new self, of putting to death the deeds of the flesh, of walking in the Spirit and not walking according to the flesh, of being renewed in your mind, on and on. Let me show you one, Ephesians 4:
17 So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind,
18 being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart;
19 and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness.
20 But you did not learn Christ in this way,
21 if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus,
22 that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit,
23 and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind,
24 and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.
That’s what it means to deny yourself day by day in the power of the Holy Spirit, so that you don’t fulfill the desires of the flesh. Does that sound like bad news? It isn’t. The life Christ has for you is more fulfilling, more satisfying, more abundant than anything this life has to offer. Denying yourself, that is, putting to death the flesh and living according to the Spirit of God, is the best life you can possibly live.
Secondly, in addition to denying ourselves, Jesus takes it a step further: you must also take up your cross. There have been lots of explanations as to what Jesus meant by this as well. We’ve minimized the statement by saying things like, “well, we all have our crosses to bear.” Some look at certain difficulties in their lives as their crosses to bear – a difficult husband, a difficult wife, a difficult child, a difficult mother-in-law. A difficult job, a difficult set of circumstances, a flat tire. It may be something more serious – a birth defect, a serious illness, the premature death of a loved one. Listen, none of those are crosses. There would have been no confusion for the disciples as to what Jesus meant. They understood the cross meant one thing and one thing only: death.
Now, by application, we can say, you must be willing to die to yourself – to put yourself to death and live the newness of life that is available in the life of Christ. It is a day by day, moment by moment decision when we say, the old life is dead in Christ – the new life now lives to God. Paul said it this way, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” To take up your cross is simply to be willing to pay any price for Christ’s sake. It is the willingness to endure shame, embarrassment, reproach, rejection, persecution, and even martyrdom, if necessary. This, I believe, is what Jesus meant. You see, He’d just talked about His own coming death – now He says, My followers must be willing to give up their lives – physically – if necessary.
Some in the early church took this too far. They actually sought martyrdom. (Origen). But that’s not necessarily what Jesus is saying. We don’t run to martyrdom – but nor do we run from it. We can actually face death the way the early Christians did – rejoicing that we are counted worthy to suffer for His name.
When Jesus spoke of taking up the cross, there was nothing mystical in the idea to them. They would have immediately pictured a poor, condemned soul, walking along, carrying the cross-beam, the instrument of his execution on his back. A man who took up his cross began a death march, carrying the very beam on which he would die. For a disciple to take up his cross is to begin the death march – to be willing, in His service, to suffer whatever lies in our path as we follow Him.
Third, don’t miss this one – if anyone wishes to come after Me, he must follow Me. I find that interesting. Basically, Jesus says, if anyone would follow Me – he must follow. You can’t say you’re a follower of Jesus if you don’t follow. My sheep hear my voice, and they follow Me. That speaks of obedience. To follow Jesus, very simply, is to be obedient to the Shepherd. In John 14, Jesus said, “If you love Me, you’ll keep my commandments.” It’s that simple. The disciple of Christ must say no to himself, take up his cross, and he must obey Christ.
Jesus now goes on to explain the necessity of those actions – notice again, each of the next four verses begin with the word, “For” – they explain what He said in verse 34. He starts with verse 35 where He speaks of the paradox of Christian discipleship. If you focus on yourself, trying to save your own life, pursuing all this life has to offer, you will lose your life. It is only as you deny yourself, recognizing your own inabilities, only as you willingly face death to self, and literal, physical death, if necessary, it is only as you follow Christ, that you lose your life. And by doing so, it is only then you to find it. In this life, and the life to come. There is a cross before a crown, suffering before glory, sacrifice before reward, giving before gaining, losing before winning.
Now, it is true, eternal life, the abundant life, begins now. Yes, it includes denying yourself, yes, it includes a death march, yes, it includes following Christ. But it is the most fulfilling, satisfying life of joy available on the planet. God doesn’t expect us to be miserable – He just understands our greatest joy is found when our greatest satisfaction isn’t in ourselves and what this world has to offer – it’s when we find our greatest satisfaction in Him.
Everything we’ve ever heard, everything we’ve ever been taught, everything the world would have us believe, everything we’ve ever tried to do – none of that will work. Our world tells us, the only thing you’ll ever get is what you grab for yourself. If you don’t go for it, you’ll never get it, because no one is ever going to hand it to you. Strive, push yourself, be all that you can be – look out for number one – you’re the only one who will. And Jesus says – doing that will result in loss of life.
Oh, you may get what this world has to offer. Which leads to the second “for” in verse 36. You may gain the whole world. But Jesus says, what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? If you live for yourself, if you don’t deny yourself, if you don’t take up a cross, if you don’t follow Christ, you will lose. And that which you lose is priceless and eternal – for, what will a man give in exchange for something as valuable as his own soul? Nothing. You will lose it all if you don’t seek to gain it by giving it all up to Christ. Does that sound like bad news? It isn’t. It’s the only way to eternal life. The good news is, Jesus came to bear a cross. The good news is, Jesus came to bring us a cross. And by bearing it, we find life.
But Jesus isn’t finished. We see the fourth “for,” in verse 38 – and by the way, this is where the bad news is really found. Yes, disciples, you’re not completely mistaken about the Messiah. While it sounds like bad news – that I’ve come to bear a cross; while it sounds like bad news that I’ve come to bring you a cross – you’re right about one thing. There is coming a day when I will come to earth in great glory with My angels to judge the world. And if you’ve been ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation; that is, if you’ve not been willing to deny yourself, bear your cross, and follow Me – then I will be ashamed of you. Don’t be mistake, this is not works righteousness – it is rather proof of true salvation.
And the good news is this – we can, by His grace, by the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit, deny ourselves. We can bear our crosses, dying to self, spiritually and physically, if necessary. And we can follow Christ. Only as we surrender everything to Him.