Jesus—His Life and Message: Discipleship (Part 5)
October 10, 2017
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: Discipleship (Part 5)
In the four previous articles about discipleship, we looked at how following Jesus calls for reorienting our lives to give Him priority in our loyalties, personal relationships, possessions, and desires. Now we will look at how Jesus has called His followers to place Him even above our own lives.
In each of the synoptic Gospels we read of Jesus’ challenge to His followers to take up their cross and follow Him.1 The Gospel of Matthew makes the point twice. The first time is in Matthew chapter 10, which tells of Jesus giving instructions to His disciples before He sends them out to proclaim the message: The kingdom of heaven is at hand.2 He said:
Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.3
The second time was when Jesus had told His disciples that He was going to suffer and be killed in Jerusalem.4
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 lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”5
Both Mark and Luke include the second instance in their Gospels.6
In this article, we’ll focus on this saying in the context of Matthew chapter 10. This chapter consists solely of Jesus’ instruction to His disciples. He told them that they were given authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction.7 They would heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.8 Their needs would be supplied: Do not acquire gold, or silver, or copper for your money belts, or a bag for your journey, or even two coats, or sandals, or a staff; for the worker is worthy of his support.9
He also spoke of the hardship they would suffer on His account:
Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.10
Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.11
When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next.12
If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.13
Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.14
After giving a clear message that His disciples would face persecution, suffering, and even death, He added:
Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.15
Christians today sometimes use the terminology of taking one’s cross metaphorically, in the sense of having a long-term challenge, problem, or burden that they have to live with. One hears the phrase, “That’s my cross to bear.” However, in the context of what Jesus was saying to His disciples, the challenge to “take up the cross and follow me” meant that His followers needed to be willing to follow Him even unto death.
Addressing taking up the cross, author Craig Keener wrote:
It meant marching on the way to someone’s execution, shamefully carrying a heavy horizontal beam (the patibulum) of one’s own death-instrument through the midst of a jeering mob … Jesus anticipated literal martyrdom for himself and many of his followers by the Romans’ standard means of executing lower-class criminals and slaves.16
The cruelty of the cross was that it was a slow and painful way to die.
The act itself damaged no vital organs, nor did it result in excessive bleeding. Hence, death came slowly, sometimes after several days, through shock or a painful process of asphyxiation as the muscles used in breathing suffered increasing fatigue. Crucifixion was a public affair. Naked and affixed to a stake, cross or tree, the victim was subjected to savage ridicule by frequent passersby.17
R. T. France wrote that crucifixion was not only the most cruel form of execution then in use, but it also carried the stigma of social disgrace when applied to a free person. To have a member of the family crucified was the ultimate shame. Crucifixion was an inescapably public fate, and drew universal scorn and mockery. And that public disgrace, as well as physical suffering, began not when the condemned man was fixed to the cross, but with the equally public procession through the streets in which the victim had to carry the heavy cross-piece of his own gibbet, among the jeers and insults of the crowd.18
When Jesus said that a disciple was to take up his cross and follow me, He was speaking of both martyrdom and public disgrace, and was saying that to believe in and follow Him meant making a choice which could lead to rejection and execution. While He was speaking to the disciples present with Him, He made the point that it wasn’t only they who would need to deny themselves and take up the cross, but “whoever” follows Him—meaning disciples at any time.
Jesus did not conceal the potential outcome of following Him, and indicated that disciples’ allegiance to God includes putting Him before even our own lives. This is what His original disciples did, and many of them were martyred. Though most of us aren’t in situations where we may have to die for our faith, Christians in some places do face that possibility.
While Jesus referred specifically to martyrdom in these verses, how should believers who don’t presently face death for our faith apply this saying to our lives? Granted, we should be willing to die for our faith, but there are other ways to place our loyalty to God above our own lives. We get some direction in this when we look at how Jesus expressed taking up the cross the second time in the Gospel of Matthew:
Jesus told his disciples, If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.19
Denying ourselves can be understood to mean setting aside our personal desires, ambitions, and goals, and being willing to seek God for His direction in our lives. This doesn’t mean that the Lord will never lead us to work toward our ambitions and goals. If we are constantly seeking God’s guidance, it’s very likely that our desires and His will be in alignment. The concept is that those who follow the Lord look to God for our direction, and our allegiance is to Him above self, so that if God’s direction leads in a way which doesn’t align with the direction we prefer, we are willing to “deny ourselves” in order to follow Him. Darrell Bock makes this point:
Disciples do not respond to their own personal wills, but to God’s. There is a fundamental recognition of allegiance that says, “God needs to direct me; I will not and cannot direct myself.” Disciples who follow Jesus will follow him in this attitude.20
We can also find some additional direction on this concept of denying ourselves in the writings of the apostle Paul. He spoke of “putting to death” our sins, stating that as Christians we are to put aside those things we may desire to do but which are wrong and sinful, and make the choice to do what is right in God’s eyes.
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you.21
If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.22
The call to be a follower of Jesus, a disciple, is a call to a whole way of life. It’s a call to rearrange one’s priorities so that God has primacy. This doesn’t mean that we won’t have other loyalties, but that our allegiance is to God first—above our own desires and will, our possessions, our loved ones, and even our own lives. This is not an easy path, but Jesus said it is the path which leads to life.
Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.23
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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1 Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
2 Matthew 10:7.
3 Matthew 10:38–39.
4 Matthew 16:21–25.
5 Matthew 16:24–25.
6 Mark 8:34–37, Luke 9:23–24, 14:27.
7 Matthew 10:1.
8 Matthew 10:8.
9 Matthew 10:9–10 NAU.
10 Matthew 10:17–18.
11 Matthew 10:21–22.
12 Matthew 10:23.
13 Matthew 10:25.
14 Matthew 10:28.
15 Matthew 10:38–39.
16 Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 434.
17 Green and McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 147.
18 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 410.
19 Matthew 16:24. Also Luke 9:23 and Mark 8:34.
20 Bock, Luke Volume 1: 1:1–9:50, 852.
21 Colossians 3:5.
22 Romans 8:13.
23 Matthew 7:13–14.