What Does it Mean to “Deny Ourselves” and “Take Up Our Cross”? (Mark 8:34-9:1)

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GOM 34 - Take Up Your Cross

The Bali Nine

This week in Indonesia, a group of eight convicted drug traffickers who were caught, arrested, and tried, finally met their end at their execution. I can’t imagine there is much sympathy out there for a group of drug smugglers, and there aren’t too many people in the world who would have a problem with them being removed from the planet.

They were called “The Bali Nine” and were bad guys who did bad things. One, named Andrew Chan, was the mob boss and mastermind, the other, Myuran Sukumaran, was his brutal enforcer – the rest the cronies who smuggle heroin and other illegal substances across borders. They were arrested in 2005 and during their trial cast as terrible villains who were clearly lying on the stand, unrepentant for their crimes, and bizarrely insistent of their innocence.

As the truth started come out it was found that their case was full of holes, especially about Chan and Sukumaran. The “mastermind” wasn’t a mob boss or drug cartel kingpin – actually, he lived with his parent and drove a 1991 Hyundai! The “enforcer” worked in a mail room, was an art lover, and had only taken a few martial arts classes. These were just fools who thought they could make a quick buck selling some drugs. In 2006, their case was taken to the Supreme Court – who returned the surprising outcome of upgrading their sentence to the death penalty! These men were to be made an example of to the rest of the world: This is what happens to drug traffickers in our country! From that moment their lives would be lived in prison, awaiting their execution.

Chan and Sukumaran were Australians and gave their first interview to an Australian news program in 2010. “By the time [they] gave their first in-depth media interview… they were noticeably changed men. Gone were the hard expressions, the denials.” They were introduced to the world as repentant, gentle young men, who didn’t deserve to die. Chan had become a Christian, was ordained as a Christian priest, and his faith was taking hold of the rest of the members of the group. “…He declined to speak [much] about his faith, [and] he now spent much of his day in prayer or religious study, and led mass for other prisoners.”

The interview changed the world’s opinion of these men and petitions started to flood in to have the Australians brought back home, or at least to have the execution stayed. But the president of Indonesia promised that there would be “no forgiveness” for these men. He considered the drug trade to be a “national emergency” and planned on executing as many people as he could. He actually said, “This crime warrants no forgiveness.”

On March 3rd, shackled and escorted by soldiers, Chan and his friends were sent to a prison island off the coast to await their execution. Less than two weeks ago, on April 24th, Andrew Chan, full of hope that his life would be miraculously spared, got married, in a ceremony in his prison.

Then, at 12:30am on April 29, just three days ago, as hundreds of people, including their family members begging the president for mercy, gathered on the ports to support them, Andrew Chan was tied to a wood stake with 8 other prisoners, had crosses laid over their hearts, and were executed by firing squad.

But what made this execution different than all of the others that had happened in that place, was that these men were singing. These prisoners were singing praises to God. “It was breathtaking,” said Pastor Karina de Vega. “This was the first time I witnessed someone so excited to meet their God.” The men refused to wear blindfolds so they could look their executioners in the eye. The pastor said they sang Amazing Grace, in unison. “They bonded together. Brotherhood. They sang one song after another. Praising God. They sang a few songs together, like in a choir.”

After singing Amazing Grace they moved on to the song “10,000 Reasons” which begins, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, Worship His holy name. Sing like never before, O my soul. I’ll worship Your holy name. The sun comes up, it’s a new day dawning, it’s time to sing Your song again. Whatever may pass, and whatever lies before me, let me be singing when the evening comes. You’re rich in love, and You’re slow to anger. Your name is great, and Your heart is kind. For all Your goodness I will keep on singing. Ten thousand reasons for my heart to find. And on that day when my strength is failing. The end draws near and my time has come. Still my soul will sing Your praise unending. Ten thousand years and then forevermore.”

The order was given to fire before they finished the song. (Sources 1  2  3)

A Christian Death

“And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, ‘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 and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ And he said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.’” (Mark 8:34-9:1)

Andrew Chan started his life wanting to “gain the whole world and forfeit his soul”, but ended it by “denying himself and taking up his cross and following [Jesus].” He did not die as a martyr for the faith, but as a Christian should die – having repented of his sins and asked Jesus for forgiveness, having lived a life of spiritual service and self-improvement, having shared his faith with all around him, and having faced death eyes wide open, unashamedly praising His God, trusting Him for the deliverance of his immortal soul. May we all meet Jesus that way.

Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ

Our salvation is a free gift from Jesus. We are all sinners condemned to hell, and Jesus chose to take God’s wrath and the punishment for our sin in our place on the cross. He died and rose again on the third day to show that He won the victory over death, and was the way for all people to come back into a right relationship with God. Anyone who believes this is saved from their sins and can be called a Christian. That’s how one begins a relationship with Jesus Christ – but that is not the end of the story.

There’s a reason that Christians use the phrase “Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” It has two very specific words – “Saviour”, which means the one who saves us, and “Lord”, which means our Commander, our Boss, our Leader, the one who has the ultimate power, authority and influence – our Master and Ruler.

The first part of our call from Jesus Christ is that He wants to be our Saviour. He wants us to be free from sin and with Him forever. The second part of His call is to be our Lord. This is a call to discipleship. These calls are not to be separated, but are indelibly intertwined. We cannot have Jesus only as our Saviour and not as our Lord. Jesus’ call to follow Him is a call to be saved – and a call to be His disciple. If we refuse to call Him Lord, then we are refusing to be saved.

Most people are good with a Jesus who is willing to save them from their sin – but they struggle with the Jesus who demands their full submission and total commitment. But Jesus is abundantly clear that we don’t have a choice in the matter.

In the passage we have just read we see Jesus hinging our salvation on two important things: something we need to put down and something else we need to up. First, we need to be willing to put down – or “deny” ourselves. Second, we need to be willing to “take up our cross”.

Denying Ourselves

What does it mean to deny ourselves? Jesus defines it in the passage. It means to “lose our life” for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the Gospel. It means to forfeit the world for the sake of our souls. It means to surrender our immediate, material gratifications because we believe that God’s spiritual blessings are more valuable. We deny ourselves the pursuit of good in this world because we believe the good of the next world is better – and that we can’t have both.

Jesus said in Matthew 6:19-21:

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

When we “come after” Jesus, we choose to be His disciple, to live His way, by His priorities. Now let me be clear. I’m not talking about asceticism. Asceticism is the practice of extremely strict self-denial as a mean of seeking a higher spiritual plane. This is common in Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Islam. For the ascetic, everything physical is evil and therefore should be removed from our life. The perfect life is the one lived in the spiritual realm, detached from everything material. This means fasting for long periods of time, and purposefully making oneself suffer through heat or cold, sleep depravation, self flagellation (which means beating and flogging yourself), and even self-mutilation as a way to train yourself to overcome, and prove how terrible, the physical world is.

That’s not what Jesus is saying. To deny oneself is not to do without things. It doesn’t mean that you reject your physical self, or hate material things. What it means is to renounce yourself as the most important part in your life. It means replacing your love of yourself with a love for God-in-Christ. His interests come before yours.

Paul addressed asceticism when he wrote to the Colossians. They were confused about what they were allowed to do, eat, drink, have, and not have. People were trying to convince them that they needed to give up everything physical so they could be closer to God. He said to them:

“Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:16-23)

Jesus isn’t calling people to asceticism, but to self-denial. Can a follower of Jesus be wealthy? Sure! But if they live in fear of losing their wealth and put their faith in their wealth, then they have a problem. Can a Christian have nice things? Sure! But if they prefer their things to people, and refuse to part with their things if Jesus asks them to, then they have a problem.

To follow Jesus is to surrender our self-identity and discover God’s identity for us. We no longer decide who we are, but we find who we are based on the word of God and the Holy Spirit within us. In other words, we no longer find our identity as a father, mother, child, carpenter, farmer man, or woman – but as a servant of God. We drop all of our self-appointed labels – pastor, wise-man, helper, arguer, peacemaker – and take up the identity that Jesus gives us. It means we drop our expectations of ourselves. Our life is lived seeking to discover who God has created us to be, and helping others become what God created them to be too. God even gets to tell us what our children are going to be – we don’t get to tell Him.

Denying yourself means dropping your selfish desires and picking up God’s desires for you. It means letting go of earthly security and trusting God’s plan – even if that means discomfort, danger and uncertainty. It’s no longer your money, it’s Jesus’ money, and He can do whatever He wants with it. Your body is no longer your body, it’s Jesus’ body, and He gets to tell you what to do with it. Your plans no longer plan your life, Jesus gets to plan it for you. Your church is no longer your church, it’s Jesus’ church, and He gets to design it whatever way He thinks is best. Your job, your school, your children, your position, your house, your car, your everything is no longer yours – it all belongs to Jesus to do with it whatever He will.

Taking Up Our Cross

Along with denying ourselves, which is the putting down of our self, we also must “take up the cross”. Asceticism leaves a person empty – it is emptying of the self. God doesn’t want us empty. Instead, He wants us full of Himself. Not removal, replacement.

Taking up the cross is an incredibly vivid picture of what followers of Jesus might expected to face. Many around the world today are facing persecution, and no doubt our day is coming soon. The Romans, who were Mark’s original audience, certainly knew what Jesus meant. Going to the cross was a one-way trip.

The cross is a place of death where one is in full submission to whoever put you there. Following Jesus meant identifying with Him and His followers, and that meant being willing to go where Jesus and his followers would go – and that meant suffering. It meant social and political oppression and ostracism. The loss of job and family. It meant putting down one life and picking up one was completely different – no turning back. For some, following Jesus cost them their financial security, it cost others their life. Jesus knew that His followers needed to be prepared to face the consequences of living life in His name, and for the sake of His Gospel.

In Luke 14:25-34 Jesus speaks clearly about counting the cost:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”

Jesus says that we must count the cost of being His disciple, and then He says something very interesting about people who start out as disciples, but give up after the cost is too much.

“Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

What Jesus is describing at the end there are “Christians who blend into the world and avoid the cost of standing up for Christ.” They refuse to deny themselves. They want the best of both worlds – salvation and worldly living. They want to follow Jesus to a point, but be their own lord when it suits them. “But Jesus says that if Christians lose their distinctive saltiness, they become worthless. Just as salt flavour and preserves food, Christ’s disciples are to preserve the good in the world, help keep it from spoiling, and bring new flavour to life…. Being ‘salty’ is not easy, but if Christians failing this function, they fail to represent Christ in the world.” (Life Application Bible Commentary: Luke; Pg 365)

John Stott wisely reminds us, “We should not ask, ‘What is wrong with the world?’ for that diagnosis has already been given. Rather, we should ask, ‘What has happened to the salt and light?’”

Paul called this kind of life a “living sacrifice” in Romans 12:1, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

I once asked someone about their relationship with Jesus and they answered me, “I’d be willing to die for Him, if that tells you something.” The question isn’t just whether we’d be willing to die for our faith – the question is whether we are willing to be a living sacrifice, dying to self every day, picking up our crosses every day, and following Jesus, every day.

Conclusion: Model & Compromise

Jesus isn’t asking us to do anything He didn’t do Himself. Philippians 2:5b-8 says, “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

It says Jesus “emptied Himself”, which means He gave up the status and privileges that were rightly His – as a Member of the Triune God, worthy of worship and praise, perfect in all ways, the same essence as God the Father – and took on the form of a servant, a member of His own creation, humbled to the extreme. And then He picked up our cross, for us, and died in our place.

Using the words of our passage today, He lost his life for our sake, gained the world and saved our souls by forfeiting His body, returned his sold for ours, and took our shame upon Himself so we would never have to feel shame again. He became an adulterer and a sinner for our sakes, and God turned His back on Jesus – so that He wouldn’t have to do it to us. Jesus made it possible for us to see the glory of His father with the holy angels. He asks us to follow Him – which means denying ourselves and taking up our cross.

My challenge to each of us today is to examine ourselves, asking God in prayer and asking our brothers and sisters around us, where they see us compromising our “saltiness”. In what areas of our life have we decided that the cost of following Christ is too much? In what ways are we unwilling to follow Jesus? What has Jesus asked us to do (or stop doing) that we have said “No, Lord” (which is an oxymoron)? In what ways have we tried to profit by gaining the world, at the expense of our souls? What worldly, sinful pleasures, have we exchanged for the presence of Jesus?

And finally, and perhaps most seriously, have we ever denied Jesus and His word? Have we ever been so afraid of the world that we have chosen comfort (not even our lives, but merely comfort) over proclaiming the name of Jesus and His gospel? In what ways have we made ourselves part of this adulterous and sinful generation, and been ashamed of Jesus, ashamed of standing up and being numbered as one of His followers?

I encourage you to pray about that, and to ask your brothers and sisters where they see compromise in your life. And I invite you to do the same for me.