“If anyone desires to come after Me…”

Matthew 16:24-26
24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.
25 “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.
26 “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”

It’s a cliché that I never got in the habit of using, but we have all heard it often enough: “We all have our crosses to bear.” People use that pronouncement as if to say, “We’ve all got troubles in this life.” Even before I came to Christ, I was never comfortable with that saying, because somewhere deep inside me I understood that there really was no comparison between our petty troubles and the Cross of Christ. If people really want to see what it’s like to have a cross to bear, they ought to grab a huge crossbeam and carry it several miles to the top of a hill and allow themselves to be nailed to it. THAT ought to cure them of that cliché! We all have our crosses to bear? Poppycock!

When Jesus said that if we desire to follow Him then we are to take up our own crosses and follow Him, He certainly wasn’t talking about everyday trials in everyday life. If it were that simple, He would not have said the next thing about losing our life for His sake. Notice that Jesus says we are to “take up” our crosses. It’s not as simple as bearing the burdens we have every day. We are to pick up something that we have not already been carrying. And in order to pick up that cross, we must lay down something else: our very lives.

Matthew 18:8-9
8 “If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire.
9 “And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire.”

What are we willing to give up in order to follow Jesus? What will we give in exchange for our own souls? Our bodies and our minds cause us to sin, following our own fleshly desires or the leadings of the deceiver Satan. It seems sometimes as if we are more obedient to Satan than we ever are to God! But if Jesus came to you today and said, “Cut off your right hand, because it is causing you to sin,” would you do it? Would you cut off some part of your physical body in order to better serve the Lord? I think there are precious few who WOULD act on such a request from our Lord, despite the fact that He told us our souls are far more important than our bodies.

Was Jesus just using a figure of speech when He said we are to take up our crosses to follow Him? Was he Himself starting a new cliché? I rather think not. If He meant to say we are to just bear a few earthly burdens in order to follow Him, He would have said so. Instead, He speaks of the cross–“the emblem of suffering and shame,” as the old song says. For the Jews in Roman-ruled Galilee and Judea, the cross was not simply a burden to bear, it was a symbol of their oppressors’ power over their lives, a tangible mark of the fate that awaited those who opposed the rule of Rome and its puppet kings and governors. Besides the usual thieves and murderers, the Jews had seen rebel leaders hung upon crosses to die agonizing deaths. Over the previous century, a half-dozen men who had rebelled against Rome and styled themselves as “messiahs” had died upon crosses erected by Roman rulers. Saying we are to carry our own crosses is tantamount to saying, “Carry the method of your own execution with you every day.” That is a bit different than simply bearing life’s normal burdens, wouldn’t you say?

1 Corinthians 1:18
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Saying we are to bear the instrument of our destruction sure does sound foolish to the world. The world sees the cross as the Romans did: a terrible way to die, a way to frighten the people into submission, a warning to those who would oppose worldly rule. But to us who understand the power of God to overcome even so ignominious a death, the cross is a symbol of obedience, a mark of truly following our Lord who Himself bore such a cross to Calvary’s hill. Jesus was telling us that God’s enemies may crucify us for our obedience to God at any time, so we ought to be prepared and carry our crosses every day. We are to be ready to die in His name, be ready to face worldly shame for His sake. We are to carry our crosses just as He did, and love and forgive just as He did, and overcome death just as He did.

Hebrews 12:1-3
1 Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,
2 looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
3 For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.

There is joy in store for us who bear our crosses for Christ. There is joy to be found right now in the hope we have in Jesus Christ our Lord and the resurrection He has bought for us. There is joy in the fellowship of believers. There is joy in knowing that someone else, Jesus Christ, has laid down His life in exchange for our own souls. There is joy in our adoption as sons and daughters of God. And no cross we may bear unto death in His name will ever separate us from the love of God. (Romans 8:38-39) There is joy in that love!

Matthew 11:28-30
28 “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
29 “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
30 “For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

If it were as simple as bearing our daily burdens, then Jesus would not have told us to lay down our burdens. Did He not tell us to take up His yoke? In the common idiom of His day, Jesus was telling us to take up His teachings, His wisdom, His guidance as our Master and Teacher. But in a very literal sense, He was telling us that the burden of the cross laid across our shoulders would be far easier to bear than all the troubles of the world. Why? Because it is HIS cross as well, and He will always be with us to help us bear it. The burden of the cross is love and forgiveness and mercy and grace and salvation. Oh, salvation! Obedience to God is much easier to bear than we may think, because it does not mean we must separate ourselves from the whole world but that we must separate our hearts from the world and live in the love of Christ. We must enter into His rest and His humility, and find that the Holy Spirit of God is always with us to guide us and strengthen us. Jesus could say that His burden is light because everything else in the world seeks to drag us down but the Cross lifts us up!

Matthew 5:11-12
11 “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.
12 “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Having our own cross to bear is something that the world seeks to make into a petty thing, an everyday burden that is born by every person, believers and unbelievers alike. But to truly bear the cross of Christ means to deny the power of those other burdens on our lives, to instead take up the burden that really matters: obedience in the love of God. It is in obedience to God that we find our greatest joy, because we know that, although the world may revile and persecute us, in heaven we have greater treasures than any might know on earth.

I carry a small metal cross in my pocket every day, and when I get to thinking about a prayer request or the need of a friend, then I pull it out and carry it in my hand for the day. It’s a small thing, but it reminds me that my own burdens are of no comparison to that cross our Lord carried through Jerusalem that day. My little cross is just a shadow of that cross, a pale reflection of my obedience when compared with the obedience of the Son of God.

Brothers and sisters, having our own crosses to bear does not mean simply coping with the everyday troubles of our lives. If we are to truly bear our own cross, then we must deny ourselves and the sin and oppression that threaten to drag us down. We must lay aside our own burdens and take up the yoke that Jesus has offered to help us bear. Just as Isaac carried the wood toward his own sacrifice (Genesis 22:6), so did Jesus carry His cross to Golgotha, the Hill of Skulls. And just as Isaac was saved by God Who Provides, we are saved from death by Jesus who is the very Lamb of God provided to redeem us from our sins. Therefore, let us deny the worldliness of our lives and take up the cross of obedience to God, knowing that the very Son of God has already given Himself in exchange for our souls.

Lord God in heaven, as a recent song has said, “I’ll never know how much it cost to see my sin upon that Cross.” I’ll never know that cost because Jesus has already borne that burden, has already paid that price, has already shown me what I must do to follow Him. Teach me, O Lord, the yoke of Your wisdom. Guide me in obedience, and help me to bear the cross of my own humility and service to You. No price I may pay in this world is anywhere close to what You deserve, and yet no matter the price I am willing to pay it. Search my heart, Lord, and show me how I may bear my cross and serve You today. Amen.

About Glenn Pettit

I am a deacon at The Well of Iowa, and a father and grandfather. Called to teach and to preach, I write fresh messages about the Bible every now and then.
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