“Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you want to be my follower you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.”-Matthew 16: 24-25
For any newcomer to their faith in Christ the words at the end of Matthew 16 are terrifying, and quite possibly a deal breaker. What? You want me to get crucified? God, you want me to die for you? Nah, I think I’m good. Wait! If you are reading this I want to take a moment and say this is what context is for. Now, indeed people have certainly died in the name of Christ, and this could have been a very grim foreshadowing that Jesus was giving to his soon to be apostles. But I think we need to take a step back and see what this very grim message is saying in context to the times, and in our daily application today.
I sometimes get the feeling that Jesus was not always the easiest guy to be around. Everyone is intently listening to every word he is speaking. Eyes wide with wonder and mouths slightly agape as their focus is completely on Jesus’ lesson of the day. The twelve I assume were sitting close by to him, either beside him or maybe just behind him (I’m not sure what the classroom structure looked like.) and then he drops a bomb of a parable. Heads shake in disbelief, people blink a few times and reel back a bit from what they just heard, and the disciples look at each other wide eyed as if to say, “oh boy, here we go again.” Jesus was not a fan of saying the popular thing. He was not interested in telling people how to apply what he said to their daily lives. He was telling people that their daily lives were being lived completely wrong, and they needed to change. Keep in mind these people had been living a specific way, passed down through the generations, since laws had been written, or so they thought.
The truth of it, however, is that they were living life the right way about as effectively as a game of “telephone” correctly gets a message through a room full of people. They were misguided from the top (priests and pharisees) down. That being said it was their “way of life” and he was asking them to check it at the door because he’s got a new way for them to live. It didn’t always go over very well. People don’t like others telling them they have to change, even when its the Son of God, and we can see that even today. We try to ask ourselves, “How can this be applied to my daily life.” Jesus is answering resoundingly in these verses, “It can’t,” or with a slightly more positive spin, “…by making it my daily life.” The fact of the matter – to put it bluntly – is that Jesus doesn’t really care if you want to listen to his message. He doesn’t care if you don’t really like what it says. He doesn’t care if the church numbers drop because of the words that come out of his mouth. He spoke what needed to be said. He spoke the truth, out of love, and if you aren’t interested hes not changing it to fit your needs.
Wow, that got heavy way faster than I anticipated. Anyone still with me? Cool.
Now lets try to pull this back to the verse a bit. What does Jesus mean when he says we must, “…turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me.” I think I already hit the first of the three commands there in the paragraph above. Stop asking how Jesus can make your life better. Stop asking God to make sure he sees your plans come true. Instead, it’s time to start asking God to make sure he sees His plans for you come true. Time and time again Jesus talks about not worrying about what is going on in your basic day to day. We are told not to worry about what we will eat, where we will sleep, what cloths we will wear. Jesus is quite literally trying to tell us that whatever our daily plan is from the moment we wake up and open the pantry we should give the day to God and let Him do His work. But go ahead and choose your breakfast food also, I don’t think Jesus cares too much if you pick cheerios or fruit loops. Though I would say he probably has an affinity to toast with grape jelly. Anyway, the point is stop worrying so much about your selfish goals and anxieties for the day ahead, and start listening for the things that God wants to accomplish in you each day. Super easy, right? No, it’s not, but like everything else we will talk about here, it’s not like Jesus hits you with 12,000 volts of the holy spirit, and you are charged and ready to go for all of eternity. We have to take one day at a time, one step at a time doing everything we can to try to grow in our relationship and understanding of God.
What about the second one though? What does it mean to take up your cross? I’ll be honest, this one is a bit harder to chew on and savor. I am sure his disciples felt the same way. The whole process of crucifixion is gruesome, but what I have learned about the process of actually taking ones own cross up was that this was the time of humiliation in the process. It was the point where you were publicly ridiculed and paraded for what you had done. That doesn’t make it any easier does it? I want to take a moment and just say that I am trying to (probably horribly) briefly explain 4 words that have had entire books written about them. That being said though this was another one of those moments, I think, where Jesus was telling his disciples, “Listen guys, you’re not going to be winning any popularity contests on this journey.” It can absolutely feel like a heavy burden to be willing to follow Jesus to the point of humiliation of others, but it is a very real thing. I will fully admit that on this I could be completely missing the mark, so if I did feel free to let me know and please do.
As far as the follow me part goes, there isn’t a very big mystery in those words. Follow Him. Really, this can stand alone, but its also what brings everything together in this verses. It’s time to give up the concern for your selfish motivations in life, and start seeking God. Pick up that cross, be willing to endure whatever humiliation may come, and just keep following Jesus.
See, its not that complicated. Piece of cake. No? You’re right, and I think that’s why Jesus wasn’t done either. He wanted to make sure he got the point across with verse 25. In case you thought that wasn’t the toughest jerky you could chew, Jesus throws some full blown leather down. Verse 25 paraphrased (in-case you don’t want to scroll back up to the quote) is “….save your life and die, give up your life and live.” That’s a real feel good, sense-able thing to say. I’m sure confidence shot through the roof with that one. This is actually one of the hardest things for us as Christians to wrap our heads around. We try desperately to say, “Well I am sure God wont mind if I keep doing this one thing. It’s always what got me through the day.” “Surely, God doesn’t mean give up my whole life, people will think I’m weird if I start acting different.” “Why would God try to take away things that make me happy?” First of all, there is really no telling what God wants to do with your life. If you are a skilled and talented computer programmer and you have a passion for it, I’m pretty sure God isn’t going to ask you to give it all up and go be a monk in a remote chapel somewhere. But what if you are an addict? If you are giving up that life to follow Christ you’re not going to be able to have a few drinks every now and then and follow Him. He is going to ask you to bury that life; die to that life, and let him give you a new life. If you’re addicted to pornography God isn’t asking you to make the switch from video back to magazines. He’s asking you to bury that life. He’s asking you to let Him make a new life all together without anything to do with your old ways. This list can get quite extensive as there are so many ways that we all choose to live in sin. Jesus is saying, “Hey, whatever your sinful life was before, its time to give it up. Lets go for a walk together, and I’ll show you the right way to live.”
Like I said before. The message that comes out of this is not for the faint of heart. It isn’t for the people who want to go to church on Sunday and live life the way they want the rest of the week. Jesus made it quite clear. God is asking for your whole life, and if you have to ask, “haven’t I given enough?” The answer is probably no. God is not seeking your favor, He isn’t seeking a happy medium between Him and you. He is seeking you, so that you will in return seek Him, and Him alone.