Then Jesus told his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. for whoever would save his life will loose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. for what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?" (Matthew 16:24-26, Mark 8:34-35)
In this passage two things are happening. Jesus is referencing his own death, unbeknownst to the disciples. At the same time He is giving them and us a sobering definition of what it means to be a believer and one of His disciples. Christ gave us death on the cross so that we could live out death through the cross.
The Glory of Martyrdom
Have you ever talked through the scenario in which you have a gun pointed at your head, or maybe that of your family, and you are told to deny Jesus or they will pull the trigger? I have had many of those conversations with other believers and overheard the same kind of conversations without being a part of them. It sounds horrifyingly noble right? There is something morbidly glamorous sometimes about the idea of being a martyr. It happens all over the world in our day and it has been happening ever since the New Testament church was born.
It is so easy to act as if martyrdom had some glory attached to it that makes it easier because we are "paying the ultimate price". Besides, "to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord right?"
(2 Corinthians 5:8)
There are many testimonies of the genuine faith and hope that resides with those whom live in countries where Christians are killed for their faith However, most of those believers come to genuine faith and repentance with a solid understanding that it may cost them their life or the life of their family in a very short period of time. I would wager that many a professing "Christian" in America would crumble and fold in their profession of faith if they were faced with such a horrifying fate. That is because in America the "cost of discipleship" is not at the center of the message, if it exists at all.
Christianity is tied to the American Dream in this country and church goers are fed a man-centered gospel that makes salvation all about them and promises them "Their Best Life Now". Many pastors messages are laden with pop-psychology designed to affirm positive self-esteem, rather than calling sinners to repentance and reminding them of the cost and self-sacrifice that should be expected of anyone who would call themselves a follower of Jesus.
Satan's Master Plan for America
I, along with others, believe that this positive-thinking, prosperity message is Satan's master plan for America. You see, we are an affluent nation. Most of us have never known the kind of poverty, sickness, and despair that people in third-world countries live daily. So rather than threatening our lives, it is more effective to numb us to the effects of sin by relativizing truth and then give us a gospel that costs us almost nothing. In fact, it promises us health, wealth, and happiness. It tells us that what we want is what we should have and what God wants us to have. The gospel becomes all about what we can get out of professing Christ, rather than making clear the command to proclaim Christ and the cost that is associated with that. The former is a lie. Can there be benefits to the Christian walk. Certainly, at times. But this should NEVER be the motivation for obedience.
The promises of abundance and perfect health etc. that are in scripture are primarily designated for the life that is to come for every genuine believer, NOT this life. If you look at the early 1st century church you will recognize that. There's was one of persecution and suffering. They may have had their basic needs met but few were living an affluent life. In fact, their were very specific instructions and warnings given to believers who were "rich". While people were healed at times, the message that was preached was not, God wants to heal you. It was repent and believe the Gospel, and sometimes people got healed.
The first century church understood something. They knew that Jesus said in John 16:33, "In this life you will have tribulation, but take heart, I have overcome the world." Paul taught us how to view tribulation in his second letter to the Corinthians, "So we do not loose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary afflictions is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal"(2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
We must not be seduced into a pursuit of self-fulfillment in this life in the name of Jesus. Certainly he intends our needs to be met and he absolutely blesses some more richly than others. There is nothing wrong with making a living and making the most of this life with the skills, talents, and gifts that God has provided however, that should not be the central message or purpose of our lives.
NO, He would have us die to ourselves and spend our energies and the overflow of those energies spreading the good news that apart from Christ we are damned sinners; but that because of Christ death, burial, and resurrection we can have eternal life with him in the new heavens and the new earth. We must tell them that THERE is where the majority of the promises will be fulfilled and that it is but a heartbeat away. This life is but a blip on the line of eternity.
Take Up Your Cross!
When Jesus used this metaphor of taking up your cross, it was not a call to be willing to die physically for the cause of Christ. At least that was not it's only purpose. In a manner of speaking that would be easier. If your faith is real and you die for Christ then you are with Him. End of story. It's a wonderful ending and while He calls many to that end, those are still the minority. I would argue that the primary intent of the statement "take up your cross" was like that of the disciples most of whom did die for their faith eventually but actually lived many years and died as older men. Yet they died to themselves in the spirit long before they died to themselves in the flesh.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer's most famous quote is found on page 99 of his book The Cost of Discipleship. In it he says:
"When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther's, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time, death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call."
This was the primary focus of Christ's demands upon our lives as His disciples. Luke, author of the gospel by the same name, adds the word "daily" to the command to take up our cross(Luke 9:23). I think anyone who reads these words of Christ in the other gospels honestly will recognize that the idea of daily sacrifice through obedient discipleship is understood.
This is much harder in a sense than dying once. As I said before, Jesus died ON the cross so that we could live to die daily THROUGH the cross. To die daily means actually exercising the spiritual fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control(Galatians 5:20). We will actually have to learn to walk by the Spirit and crucify the flesh. We have to learn to overcome fear of man by God's grace and the power of the Holy Spirit in order to share the Good News of the gospel.
Taking Up My Cross
I for one, struggle though I may, would rather take this route. While there is more time to mess things up, there is also more time for God to glorify himself in my sanctification. The more I become like Him and learn who He is, the better witness I can be to the world. In addition, their is a joy that comes from learning to trust Him in obedience. Though I am worlds away I, like Paul, want to be able to say that:
"Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith. That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead." (Philippians 3:8-11)
I hope you are both challenged and encouraged at the same time by this post. If you were uncomfortable or offended by the challenges to the "health and wealth" teaching as part of Satan's plan of deception, I hope you will at least investigate and consider the dangers that are there. If you have lived in fear of death or persecution or you have struggled with unresolved illness or financial challenges I hope that you have found some encouragement here. This is NOT your best life. IT is yet to come and that should encourage you. Faithfully follow Christ now in whatever capacity he allows, trust in His finished work on the cross, and show forth the fruit of repentance and obedience by serving HIS best interest rather than your own, and you will enjoy an eternity of no guilt, pain or sadness.(Revelation 21:1-4) I leave you with one of my favorite doxologies.
"Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen" (Jude 1:24-25)
Coram Deo,(Living before the face of God)