Matthew 16:24 - 26
NKJV - 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.
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Hi, great question. Honestly, I believe this to be a question many Christians struggle with. The kingdom of heaven is, by earthly standards, quite opposite. Things Jesus has said to this effect is but not limited to: "The last shall be the first and the first shall be the last." Matthew 20:16 "For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it." (Matthew 16:25) These are just two examples, but I know there are many more to this effect. Matthew 5, about the sermon on the mount, is a great chapter to understand the kingdom of heaven. But my point in this: That Jesus is telling us that anyone who wants to follow him must express a kingdom mindset. So he is calling for true repentance in his followers. What did the cross mean for Jesus? I believe it meant complete surrender to the will of the father. He humbled himself, came down from earth, laid aside his heavenly attributes, and took on human form. He bore the sin of mankind and nailed it to the cross. He conquered death and sin. So when he is calling his followers to pick up their cross, he is simply asking us to humble ourselves, surrender to his perfect will, repent of our sins by nailing our sin to the cross and follow him. But this is only possible through what he has already done on the cross. We do not carry our sin on our cross, we simply surrender it to the one who defeated death and sin by his blood. I hope this made sense, and I am more than happy to hear others’ perspectives on this, as well.
This saying by Jesus is liberating and freeing. However, religion has turned these exciting proclamations by Jesus into some type of performance quest to earn salvation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus didn’t come to give us a new set of rules and laws to follow. He came to bring us the truth that sets us free. What does Jesus mean by “deny yourself”? Much of Judaism in Jesus’ day had been hi-jacked by the Pharisees and similar religious beliefs that salvation/righteousness had to be worked for. This required self-effort and is the precise reason Jesus said, “If a man desires to come after me, he will have to deny himself.” Jesus is simply saying, “My way and access to me is by grace and faith.” You can’t follow Jesus and still trust in dead religious works and traditions that equal spiritual death (Hebrews 6:1). Some religious people see Jesus’ commands to “deny yourself” as a call to crucify their flesh and live holy to self-qualify to follow the Lord. This isn’t what Jesus is talking about at all. If He was, He might as well join with the Pharisees, because that is the lifestyle they were promoting. Jesus called many to follow Him in His earthly ministry. Some were hated tax collectors considered as vile sinners; yet, Jesus still invited them to “follow Him.” None of the people Jesus asked to follow Him were known for their deep religious devotion to God. They were rough and hard living fishermen, tax collectors, and ordinary people in society. None had to prequalify to follow Jesus, the only condition to follow Jesus was by faith. They followed Him because they trusted Him. Truth is today, like the Pharisees, many people have been programmed to believe in performance-based Christianity. They believe any blessing they get from God is a reward for their goodness or holiness, instead of trusting in God’s goodness toward them. This type of deception leads to pride, which leads to rejecting the grace of God. “And he gives grace generously. As the Scriptures say, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). You can see that Jesus wouldn’t promote self-righteousness by teaching people to “deny themselves.” Rather, He is teaching them that access to Him and the ability to follow Him is possible only through His grace. The cross we carry as believers isn’t symbolic of the sacrifices we have made for the Lord, but one that signifies our trust in all He accomplished for us in His death, burial, and resurrection. Our cross is His cross, it is why we can “deny ourselves” because the cross of Christ reminds us all of the price Jesus paid for us. His sacrifice was more than sufficient to provide me everything I will ever need in life to follow Him. “According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue” (2 Peter 1:3).
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