Noah J. Greer Pastor Matt Round

Noah Greer & Pastor Matt Round

February 10th, 2023

Episode 17

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How can I deny myself and carry my cross?

The Context

So back in episode six, we talked about what it meant to follow after Christ. And today, we look more specifically at a piece of that. As you said, it's taken from Matthew 16:24. And I want to look at that context for a second because it will be critical as we talk about a couple of things later.

So the broader context there is that Jesus had taken his disciples away. They had spent some time together, and he asked them who people said that he was. And there are several answers to that. The disciples said: "some people say John the Baptist, some say Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets." So there are all kinds of opinions and thoughts about who Jesus is and why he's doing what he is doing.

And then Jesus asks a pointed question: "But who do you say that I am?" And Peter gives that famous response, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And, of course, that's exactly right. That's exactly who Jesus is. And Jesus is quick to say, blessed are you, Simon Barjona, flesh and blood didn't reveal this to you.

This kind of wisdom came from God. So this didn't come because Peter is smart or because Peter is somehow quicker than the other disciples. It's that God revealed this truth to Peter about who the Messiah is, about who Jesus Christ is. And from that point, especially in Matthew's gospel, we see a really critical change take place. And that is, from that point on, Jesus starts to tell His disciples not just about who He is and why he's there, but not just about what he's doing.

But from that point on, we're told that Jesus begins to tell His disciples that He's going to go to Jerusalem, that He's going to be handed over by the scribes, by the religious leaders, by the Pharisees to the Gentiles, and that he's going to be killed. And what we have introduced there is a really big piece of tension because Peter says, you're the Christ, you're the Messiah, you are the chosen one, the anointed one, the one that the prophets talked about. You are the prophesied one, you're the Christ, the Son of the living God. And at the very same time, while that is absolutely true, now we hear that Jesus is going to die. They don't have a way to wrap their minds around that. It just doesn't fit in with their expectations. And it's in that context that he gives that command that he does. In Matthew 16:24, Jesus told his disciples:

"Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wants to come after Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me."
Matthew 16:24; NASB

That context is important because when we start to see it in that context, we can unwrap not only what it does mean to take up your cross, but we can understand what it doesn't mean.

The Purpose of the Cross

There's a tendency to take this idea of taking up or bearing my cross and kind of misuse it. Because sometimes we talk about the difficulties in our life as the cross we bear. You know, it might be poor health, an illness, it might be a difficult relationship, it might be a tough environment at work or school.

And people say, well, "this is just my cross to bear". And somehow that's kind of I, I think Christians in general when they say that, are well-meaning, but it's basically saying to take up my cross is just a difficult situation that I have to bear up under and trudge through. And in saying that that's our cross to bear, we take these situations that are difficult, real difficulties, and we make them somehow equal to suffering with Christ or suffering for Christ.

We have to understand that when Jesus is talking about taking up His cross, everybody in that context knows what it means to us. The cross is all kinds of different things. On one end of the scale, it's kind of the cross is on jewelry, the cross is on bumper stickers, and the cross is on our clothing. It's this common symbol.

On the other hand, the cross is kind of the meaningful symbol of satisfying God's wrath of the atonement of all of those very necessary things. When Jesus says, take up your cross, none of those disciples who heard that are thinking in terms of symbolism. They're not thinking of any kind of spiritual allegory or deeper meaning. They know what a cross does.

A cross is used for one purpose, and that's death. Nobody comes off of a cross alive. The cross is a one-way road to death. And to take up your cross kind of reflects that idea that especially the Romans had in that practice of you bearing at least a part of your cross to the place where you were going to be crucified.

There's this understanding that it's taking the instrument of your death to the place of your death and enduring all the ridicule and all the scorn and all the mocking that would go along with that. So when Jesus says, Take up your cross and follow me, he doesn't mean to kind of begrudgingly deal with whatever abstract difficulty you come to face in your life.

When Jesus says, "Take up your cross and follow me," it's a very real invitation to come and die. To say, Take up your cross and follow me cannot be seen as anything other than an invitation to come and die. And now, occasionally for people in various cultures and circumstances, and even now that that is literally to follow after Christ costs your life, there are several different cultures and contexts where being a Christian might very well require your physical life. In our Western context that's very, very often not the case, by a huge margin.

So then, what does it mean for us who are not often called to lay down our lives, our physical lives, for the sake of Christ? What does it mean then to take up our cross? If the cross is still an instrument of death, well, then that's where we talk about it.

Becoming a Living Sacrifice

And that sense of dying to, or self-denying: self. Taking up our cross means to die to self. And I think maybe looking at a passage from Romans 12 helps us make sense of that. Paul, I think, picked up on this same theme in Romans 12:1.

"Therefore I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship."
Romans 12:1; NASB

So that idea of a living sacrifice, it's this complete devotion, this complete surrender of sacrifice was wholly offered again, like a cross. A sacrifice didn't get off the altar alive. A sacrifice was wholly consumed as an offering to God. And so Paul is really kind of pleading with the believers to have this same kind of surrender and devotion. Only it's not a laying down necessarily of your physical life and a one-time "this is your death. It's this idea of this continual living sacrifice, the ongoing sacrifice, that is constant but that is still all-consuming.

And so then, what does it mean to die to self? Well, it means seeing something is a greater priority than me. If I'm going to die to self, if I'm going to take up my cross and follow Christ, it means that I have to see something as more important than myself. But what is that? I think we can spell it out pretty clearly.

The Death of Selfishness

When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, what did he say?

"And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Upon these two commandments hang the whole Law and the Prophets.”"
Matthew 22:37-40; NASB

What is it going to look like for me to take up my cross, to deny myself, to die to myself, and to follow Christ? Essentially, it looks like pursuing those two commandments and everything that I do as a believer, I can filter my entire life through those two things. Every thought, every action, every reaction. I can actually run through the filter of Does this demonstrate love for God and or love for others? Because to deny myself is going to mean that I direct my energy toward pursuing something. If I am choosing not to pursue self, if I'm going to die to self, then it means that I have to pursue something else because we're creatures with a heart desire to follow after something.

Rerouting our Worship

We crave the worship of something. And if it's not self, then something else has to take that place. And so that commandment helps me to see that; obviously God needs to be that first priority. To deny myself is going to mean, first of all, that God has to come first. And that's why, again, we go back to that original concept:

Why is it that the disciples had such a hard time coming to grips with what Jesus was saying? Why is it that the crowds had such a hard time accepting what Jesus had come to do? Because when they think of Messiah, when they think of Christ, their initial thought is someone to come and free them politically in their context.

Of course, the first consideration is Rome. They wanted someone to throw off the political sanctions and shackles of Rome. But Jesus didn't come to cast off Rome. He didn't come to restore Israel to this national or international place of prominence. He came with the idea that there was a greater enemy than Rome. He came with the idea that there was a greater threat than being under the thumb of Rome and that that was that you are under bondage and slavery to sin.

And so he came to deal with the greater enemy, and that slavery, the sin and death, and the people missed that. And as they miss that, they reject him as the Messiah. It's where you see, as people realize that he didn't come to deal with Rome, they begin to abandon him. They begin to forsake him. There's no place for a dead messiah in the traditional Jewish way of thinking.

And so what happened was they couldn't take up their cross. They couldn't deny themselves and follow Christ because they couldn't worship rightly. They had a disordered view of who God was and what he was doing. And, you know, often we do the same thing we have in our minds this idea of what God must or can and must not do, how he has to react to respond to our situation, and we say things like: "If God really loved me, then He would start to ______". If God really cared about me, then He would ______. Or maybe He would never make me do this particular thing.

And in those moments, we failed the worship. We failed to die to self because we have now, maybe inadvertently, maybe really subtly, we've put ourselves in God's place. We've decided that God has to act the way I would based on what I know about the situation. And there are a thousand different ways, of course, that that looks.

But to deny myself, take up my cross, and follow Jesus is going to demand that the priority in my life is worship. So worship involves what God has called me to do. So if you want to die to self and talk about what it looks like for me to die to self, it means, I think, first and foremost, wholeheartedly pursuing what God has called me to do.

Letting God Control & The Death of Self

What has God called me to be obedient in? And as we seek to ask that, then we are, I think, taking those first steps in, denying self and taking up our cross, and that changes it reorders how we see things that it changes how I see worship something as simple as worship in church. To deny myself means that when I worship in church, I don't think about what it did for me first and foremost.

Did I like the song? Did I like the key? Did I feel moved? Did I get an emotional response? First and foremost our real response should be: did I respond to this in a way that honored God? Did the words that we sing honor God? Did my effort and attention to the song Honor God? It changes how I see something like love, not just how I love God, but how I think about love broadly and generally.

Do I define love based on how I feel? How I respond, how this person interacts with me, how they fulfill me, how this feeling makes me feel? Or do I begin to define love the way that God defines and orders love? So to die to self might very well mean that I surrender my idea of what love looks like and instead pursue what God defines love as.

And then, of course, that kind of bleeds into the considerable part of loving God is loving, not our neighbor. That's the second great commandment: to love others. Because the reality is you and I are hardwired in our sin to pursue self above everything else. I want what I want when I want it; I demand to be treated a certain way, to have specific opportunities, to get certain advantages; whatever it might be doing to self means thinking rightly, thinking biblically about myself. It doesn't mean that I help myself. It doesn't mean that I feel like I'm worthless. The gospel fights hard against that. The gospel says that I'm made in the image of God.

The Gospel says that we have sinned, that we have fallen, and that we are alienated from God because of that sin. But the Gospel tells me that. But the Gospel says that God loves us and sent His son to pay the penalty for sin to die the death that should have been mine. And so the Gospel says I have a living hope in this knowledge that I'll be with God for all eternity.

So there's no self-loathing there, but the gospel in denying myself also frees me up to see others as more important than myself. That's what Paul says in Philippians 2:3-4:

"Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility consider one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others."
Philippians 2:3-4; NASB

Reorienting Desires

So how do you die to self? Not only do you pursue obedience and loving God, but a huge part of that is you love others. You love others at the expense of your own ambition. You love others when it costs you something; you love others, whether it's your own preference or your own agenda, or your own resources that have to put to death for that.

You love others at the expense of self. Today to self means that I radically change my perspective on the world. Naturally, my perspective is: me first. Usually, if I'm honest, my perspective is me first and me only. But in this kind of again, a radical reorientation of the biblically informed mind and the Gospel-transformed heart now becomes God first and foremost, and above all, and then love for others and self never really figures into that.

Loving others means that I'm going to be generous. Loving others means that I'm going to be patient and kind. Loving others means that I'm going to pursue peace loving others means that I deal with sin even when other people sin against me. But it changes how I deal with that means I deal with it humbly and gently. And again, there are a thousand ways that that begins to work itself out.

Loving others means that I will serve with those gifts that God has entrusted to me because that's how God designed things like the Body of Christ to work. And as we take a step back from this, as we think about what it means to die to self, sometimes we forget why that is so good because it's hard.

Christ Commands us to Deny Ourselves

It takes a lot of work to die to self. It's not natural, it doesn't come out of anything who we naturally or normally are. It's a work of God in our lives that makes us want to do this. But why do we die to self? We'll go back to what Jesus said and what Matthew wrote:

"Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wants to come after Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me."
Matthew 16:24; NASB

So that's that call we've been talking about. That's that command. If you want to follow Jesus, this is what it will look like. In other words, there's no discipleship without taking up your cross. There is no discipleship without dying to self. But why do we do that? If it's going to be hard and cost us something, and it will, why would we do that? Because of what he goes on to say:

"For whoever wants to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what good will it do a person if he gains the whole world, but forfeits his soul? Or what will a person give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will then repay every person according to his deeds."
Matthew 16:25-27; NASB

The Infinite Reward

See, the beautiful reality is that we don't give up anything that has any eternal value, and we gain everything that has eternal value in the grand scheme of things. What it costs us pales in comparison to what we wind up gaining. What if you did get the whole world? But what if you did get everything you thought you deserved? What if you did have every financial resource that you could imagine? What if you did have easy relationships? What if you did have all the authority that you know your heart craves? How long does that last? Usually, the answer is not long, but even in the best-case scenario, how long does all of that last? The answer is: exactly as long as you do, and not a minute longer.

All your money, all your wealth, all your relationships, all your power, all of whatever only lasts until you take your last breath. And then that's it. And life is short, it's fleeting, it's a vapor. But eternity is a long time. And the reality is you and I have the opportunity to surrender things that don't last to gain something that lasts for far longer and is infinitely more beautiful, infinitely more valuable.

So the problem is that we lose perspective because I think if it was right in front of us all the time, then denying myself makes sense. If you told me, you know, don't eat the cookie and I'll give you 100 bucks, it's easy for me not to eat the cookie; but if you tell me, don't eat the cookie for the next two months and you might lose 10 lbs, that's a little harder because the goal and the outcome are so much farther away.

The problem with us so often is that our circumstances and everything are so pressing and so present in the world, and what it offers is so in our faces and ever-present. And it looks so big that we forget that it's all so short, and our sight gets cloudy, really shortsighted.

When we think rightly, it not only becomes apparent but then denying self becomes the only thing that makes sense. So that's a long answer. That could be a lot longer to a difficult question that has 10,000 different ways that it works itself out. But how do we deny ourselves? How do we take up our cross? And I like what Luke says in his gospel, that we are to take up our cross daily:

"And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wants to come after Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me."
Luke 9:23; NASB

This is a willful day-by-day act on the part of the believer, and I think it's wrapped around those two things that in every thought, every word, every action, every attention, every intention we choose with everything in us to love God and to love others rather than self.