Imagine with me if your life were pain free; no sleepless nights, no blurred vision, no aching joints, no interrelational conflicts, no sicknesses. Imagine living in your perfect home, the place you’ve always dreamed of. Imagine the struggle with sin completed and fellowship with God at its optimal level. Imagine being able to see your departed loved ones and the holy angels and the living God Himself. Imagine the realization and fulfillment of your deepest ambitions; greatest joy, greatest peace, every tear wiped away from your eyes.
I am only aware of two people who have given us the promise of these fulfilled desires. One is the health and wealth prosperity preacher who says we can have it all now, and the other is God who says there will be suffering now, but for those who love Jesus, a place called heaven to follow.
Heaven is the glorious home for God’s departed people. Heaven is an assured guarantee for those in Christ. Heaven will be experienced immediately upon death and enjoyed for eternity future. But my friends, the Bible is clear and experience confirms that we are not in heaven yet. Therefore as we tarry in this world, we will not be absolved from trials and suffering as we await our future home. Acts 14:22, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”
What is it about people that expects this world to be painless? Why are Christians so surprised when they experience difficulty? Is it out of context biblical application? Is it coming in through distorted Gospel presentations that wrongly interpret: “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life”? Is it the desire of the flesh that edges out the leading of the Spirit? It is our fascination to fulfill the “American Dream?”
What does Jesus have to say on the matter? The passage we have before us outlines possibly the clearest expectation for a follower of Christ. And within these verses God makes it abundantly clear that His plan for us will involve suffering. Not suffering in vain, but suffering as a tool to accomplish His good purposes in our lives. We need to be prepared. We need to understand why.
1. A CROSS FOR JESUS (REVIEW)
By way of review, two weeks ago we looked at verses 21-23. Specifically verse 21, “From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day.” I called that point “A Cross for Jesus.”
The apostle Peter was shocked when he was informed that Jesus would be killed. There was no place in his plan for a suffering Messiah. We learned he even had the audacity to rebuke Jesus for considering such things. Before he confessed Jesus as the Christ (Mt. 16:16). Now six verses later (Mt. 16:22) he thought himself wiser than the Christ. In verse 22 He called Jesus “Lord,” but obviously knew very little about submission to that lordship.
It is fascinating how adverse these Apostles were to Jesus’ suffering. They rejected His comments in 16:21-23. Look for a moment at 17:22-23. We see the pattern repeated again. “And while they were gathering together in Galilee, Jesus said to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men; and they will kill Him, and He will be raised on the third day.’ And they were deeply grieved.” And again in chapter 20, verses 17-19. “As Jesus was about to go up to Jerusalem, He took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and on the way He said to them, ‘Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, and will hand Him over to the Gentiles to mock and scourge and crucify Him, and on the third day He will be raised up.’” The immediate response beginning in verse 20: “Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Jesus with her sons, bowing down and making a request of Him. And He said to her, ‘What do you wish?’ She said to Him, ‘Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit one on Your right and one on Your left.’”
All of these folks needed to realize that suffering was part of God’s plan. For even God’s Son was not exempt. And if God’s Son was not except from suffering, neither will God’s sons and daughters. In God’s economy the way up is down. There is always pain before triumph and opposition before majesty and a cross before a crown.
2. A CROSS FOR JESUS’ FOLLOWERS
Let’s go to the second point. From a cross for Jesus to a cross for Jesus’ followers.
I am reading in verse 24 of chapter 16: “Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.’”
Let’s not get too fancy with this verse. Let’s allow the language to stay in its most basic sense. Even a young child can read this verse and clearly understand the author’s intent.
Jesus is outlining the demands for “anyone [who] wishes to come after [Him].” In other words, all are welcome, but don’t fool yourself in thinking you are a follower of Christ unless you are practicing His three-fold requirement for discipleship. Look at them carefully in verse 24! Number one, you must deny yourself. Number two, you must take up your cross. And number three, you must follow Him.
Since these aspects are so essential to being a Christian, let’s break them down individually.
First, we are called to deny ourselves. The command is all over the Bible. Second Corinthians 5:15, “And He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf” (cf. Lk. 1:74; Rom. 6:13; 12:1; 14:7-9; 1 Cor. 6:20; Gal. 2:19; Phil. 1:21; Col 3:17; Tit. 2:14; Heb. 13:21).
The moment we come to Christ is the moment we exchange all that we are for all that He is. We submit fully to His instruction as it is found in the Bible. We live no longer for our glory, but for His glory (1 Cor. 10:31). We become trophies of His grace. We function as His ambassadors whereby our words and actions reflect Him.
Yet even as Christians we have a little problem, and it is called the flesh. Fully crucified yet it has the tremendous capability to reap destruction on our spiritual lives and resist us in doing what is right (Rom. 7:19-20). There is a lot of talk about Satan nowadays, but few are talking about this enemy within (Rom. 7:18).
The flesh is basically our selfish desires that still want to be in control of our lives. When the Spirit may be saying, “Go help that person,” the flesh may say, “You have work to do on your own house.” When the Spirit may be saying, “Time to step up your offerings to God,” the flesh may say, “But you’ll deprive yourself of personal happiness.” When the Spirit may be saying, “Go to the prayer meeting tonight,” the flesh may say, “It’s been a long day and you need a break.” When the Spirit may be saying, “Why don’t you encourage that sibling in Christ,” the flesh may say, “What has she ever done for you?” When the Spirit may be saying, “Read your Bible,” the flesh may say, “There are more important things to do with your time.” I think you get the point.
Galatians 5, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please” (Gal. 5:16-17). Romans 8, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8).
I don’t know where we ever got the notion that we can be a Christian and still do whatever we want. For true believers, Jesus becomes not only Savior, but also Lord of our lives. There is a battle but true believers are marked by their ability to overcome the flesh.
So first we must deny ourselves. Second we must “take up [our] cross.”
Much confusion on this one. A loud neighbor, bad back, over-demanding teaching, dysfunctional car, sleepless night and cranky mother-in-law are not what this verse is referring to. Vance Havner gets it right when he said, “We are not bearing our crosses every time we have a headache; an aspirin tablet will take care of that. What is meant is the trouble we would not have if we were not Christians.”
When Jesus told His disciples to “take up their cross” there is only one thing in the original context that would have entered their minds. The only cross they would have thought of was that of crucifixion.
They witnessed the Romans as they brutally nailed criminals to the wooden plank and allowed them to suffocate their way to a painful death. One historian estimates 30,000 crucifixions occurred around the time of Jesus Christ. And prior to one’s execution, the victim was forced to carry all or part of the instrument of torture to his place of execution (cf. Mt. 27:32). The cross meant one thing and one thing alone – suffering. Therefore when Jesus calls us to “take up our cross,” He is calling us in the clearest and most graphic way possible to be willing to suffer for Him if necessary.
In 10:38 we heard Jesus say, “And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.”
Jesus had His cross. We have ours as well.
Must Jesus bear the cross alone?
And all the world go free?
No, there’s a cross for everyone,
There’ a cross for me.
The consecrated cross I’ll bear,
till death shall set me free.
And then go home,
my crown to wear,
for there’s a crown for me.
We carry our crosses every time we bear reproach for the name of Christ. And if we seek to live as lights in a world of darkness (as we should), you can only imagine a conflict will arise. We do not have to look for trouble. There will always be hostility when godliness invades ungodliness. Just ask Tim Tebow and his mother! Unless we act as cowards and blend in the world, persecution is an inevitable outcome of being a follower of Christ. “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). Jesus promised it. “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (Jn. 15:20).
And that leads us to our third point of discipleship. True Christians are known by their unceasing desire to (verse 24) “follow [Him].”
I believe this needs little explanation. Naturally the most defining mark of a true Christian is his or her desire and ability to follow Christ. If we are following anything or anybody before Jesus, we are naturally a disciple of that object or individual. Following Jesus simply means obeying His expectations as He has revealed them to us in the Scriptures. That is basically what Jesus said in John 8:31: “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine.”
So the marks of a true disciple: First, self denial. Second, cross bearing. Third, total fidelity.
Now I have a question for you. We cannot deny these qualities are necessary marks of salvation. But can we deny that these qualities are necessary for our joy? In other words, “Am I only doing this stuff to get saved, but in the process creating for myself a miserable life?” Or again, “Sure I’ll be happy in heaven, but I’ll lose all happiness now.” Must we choose between a life of joy now and a life of joy in the future? What do you think?
I intentionally bring that up because I believe our pursuit of joy and our pursuit of God’s glory are not two tracks going in the opposite direction. I believe our greatest joy is found in God. And I believe God is most glorified when we are most delighted with Him. All people pursue their joy. And the pursuit of joy in God should be encouraged in our Christian lives.
And I bring it up because today’s verses are the ones that are brought up from among those who disagree with that belief. “Pursue joy? We are to deny self! We are to suffer for Christ! We are to follow Him in rigid obedience! There is no self-interest pursuit of joy in any of those!” say the objectors.
So we are to deny ourselves. As I said before, this means putting off the flesh. So I ask you, will I be happier if I live according to the flesh or happier if I live according to the Spirit? Isn’t the fruit of the Spirit, joy (Gal. 5:22)? Isn’t it in my best interests of optimal happiness to do it God’s way and not my own? Don’t we know from experience that the deepest joy our hearts’ desire are not worldly highs, but spiritual ones?
You see, as we continually deny ourselves, we unlock a whole new set of dormant desires that find their needs met in God and God alone. Bottom line: Self denial will increase my happiness! The best thing I can do for myself is to deny my “self.”
Well, how about taking up your cross. How can I possibly find joy in suffering for Jesus? We’ll start with Jesus. Why did He take up His cross? Hebrews 12:2 tells us, “For the joy set before Him.” We take up our crosses for the same reason. The Scriptures teach that suffering: helps us share in God’s holiness (Heb. 12:10), produces a harvest of righteousness and peace (Heb. 12:11), assists us in our battle with sin (1 Pet. 4:1-2), develops perseverance, which leads to maturity (James 1:2-4; Rom. 5:3-4), fosters dependence upon God (2 Cor. 1:8-9), reveals the true from the false believers (Mk. 4:16-17) and magnifies the worth of Christ in our desire to bear His reproach (Rev. 12:11). I would say all of that can make you happy! Remember the response of the Apostles in Acts 5? “[After being flogged] they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Ac. 5:41).
Suffering is never pleasant. But when it comes (and God promises it will come) it is used by God in a unique way to strip off the old self (like pealing an onion) and conform us more into the image of Christ. Could anything be greater? As followers of Christ is there anybody you would rather be like more than Jesus? I hope not!
How about following Him? How does that increase my joy? Kind of a foolish question because we all know we are the happiest when we are walking in the center of His will. If I am not following Christ, I really have no business calling myself a Christian. And if I’m not following Christ, I am following Satan. Where is the joy in that?
Following Christ for my greatest joy? It is if you have the right faith, biblical faith. Faith is believing that your heavenly Father loves you, cares for you, desires your joy and knows what is for your greatest good. Good early fathers to the best of their ability treat their children this way. Don’t we tell our kids to trust us and eat their peas and stay off of the street, even when they don’t understand why we are ruining their fun? Why should it be any different for our heavenly Father? We must trust God when He permits suffering that He wants our very best even when our instincts are pulling us in a different direction. We must trust God as we will learn next week when He says, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!” (Mt. 17:5). God the Father put His stamp of approval on God the Son. Should we not trust the Father and listen to the Son when He tells us to follow Him?
We should pursue our desire for joy. This universal pursuit is what Jesus targets. And the greatest joy in that pursuit is found in obeying Christ in His demands for discipleship. C.S. Lewis put it like this, “The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire” (The Weight of Glory, p. 25).
I can also prove that the three-fold requirement for discipleship is for your greatest joy by using the following verses. Look at verses 25 and 26 “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose 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? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”
In other words, you can do it your way and pursue your little trinkets and man-centered philosophies and sinful tendencies as you seek to achieve a second-rate joy, but you will never experience true life in this world or eternal life in the world to come. After all, says Jesus, even if you were able to gain everything in the world, but it came at the expense of your soul, what is there to your profit? It would be a foolish decision. It would not be in the greatest interest of pursuing your happiness. Or you can do it God’s way. You can be given the promise of eternal life with Him and have the greatest joys, true joy in this life, thrown in as well. The choice is yours? Which do you think will make you the happiest?
The disciples were appalled when Jesus said He would “suffer” in verse 21. Yet in that same verse He also said He would “be raised up on the third day.” Glory would come, but only after a time of suffering. No doubt the disciples were shocked when Jesus told them what it meant to be a follower of His. Where is the glory? It is found in verse 27, “For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds.”
It seems like everyone is getting off the hook, but this verse says there will be a time of reckoning. Those who have rejected Christ evidenced by their deeds in an unwillingness to follow Him, will be given their due – hell and agony. And those who have received Christ evidenced by their deeds in a willingness to follow Him will receive their gift – heaven and glory. How can we not wish to pursue that?
Today’s lesson was about suffering. Next week’s lesson will be about the glory that follows.
But for now remember this. Everything without God is pathetically inferior to God without everything. And contrary to the belief of most, following Christ is not a sour and depressing attempt to suppress delight in life. On the contrary, Christianity forbids us no pleasures except those that lead to temporal misery and eternal woe. God loves us too much. That is why pursuing joy in what will ultimately bring disillusionment and emptiness is sin. Yet spiritual hunger for God is not sin. It is for His glory and our joy. So do not be deceived like our original parents. Pursuing God is always in your best interest. He has withheld nothing from your ultimate satisfaction and ultimate delight. Nothing! Christianity is not the death of desires, but it is the resurrection of true desires that find their satisfaction met in obedience to God (see Sam Storms, One Thing, chapter 2).