LCN Article
"Take Up Your Cross and Follow Me..."

March / April 2014

As we prepare for the annual Passover observance, true Christians find themselves meditating in a special way on some of the words of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Among His most meaningful and challenging exhortations is the following famous command that He gave to His disciples: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it” (Luke 9:23–24).

What did Christ mean by this? And how should we apply His words in our Christian calling?

Jesus’ first-century audience knew well what a stauros (Greek for “stake,” often rendered in English as “cross”) represented in their day.  It was an instrument not only of agony, but of great suffering unto death. Those who had rebelled against Roman government, and others considered worthy of death for their criminal deeds, were nailed to the heavy timbers of a wooden beam, where they would spend hours or even days in extreme pain, gasping for air, bleeding from the wounds exposed by the heavy spikes or nails impaled through their flesh. This suffering was often preceded by another public humiliation—a condemned criminal might even be required to carry to his place of execution the very beam to which he would be nailed. The beam, in effect, was a symbol of the convicted individual’s sins, for which death would soon become the punishment.

When Christ, then, talked of taking up one’s cross, His statement had several meanings that are vital for us as Christians.

First, we must recognize that—without Christ’s sacrifice—we are all worthy of the death penalty. We carry with us our sins, and the consequences of those sins—sometimes as visible as a beam in our arms, sometimes as invisible as a sinful thought within our minds. In Jesus’ day, when a convicted criminal carried a beam to his place of execution, this served as a reminder to others of the results of sin. It is easy to look at others, and to see the consequences of sin in their lives. But do we have the Christian maturity to see not just the “speck” in another’s eye, but more importantly the plank—the veritable beam—in our own (Matthew 7:3–4)?

Yes, every one of us has some kind of cross to bear, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). But for those of us who have repented of our sins and been baptized, the consequence of our sins is even greater than for an ordinary criminal facing crucifixion. Unlike such a one—a criminal not yet called by the Father, and who will have his opportunity in the White Throne Judgment (Revelation 20)—what is the destiny of those who fail to “take up their cross” successfully as Christ instructed? “For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them. But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: “A dog returns to his own vomit,’ and, ‘a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire’” (2 Peter 2:19–22).

The Apostle Paul eloquently explained the fate of those who, after having once accepted the sacrifice of Christ for past law-breaking, knowingly and intentionally turn back to their old life of sin. “For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. And again, ‘The Lord will judge His people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:26–31).

Yes, we are responsible for our conduct as Christians. Jesus Christ, taking His own beam on His shoulders, literally and physically shouldered the responsibility given by His Father to die as the perfect sacrifice, that we could be forgiven of our sins. So, it is vital that we do not shirk our own responsibility and fall away. Despite those who mistakenly teach “once saved, always saved,” the Apostle Paul warns that it is possible for a once-converted Christian to become so callous about Christ’s sacrifice, and to forget the need for continual repentance, that eventually there remains no salvation available for such a one who falls away and, in effect, chooses to “crucify again” the Lord who died to save us (Hebrews 6:6).

The Young Nobleman

Consider one example, from Scripture, of a young man who was blind to his own sins and faults, and His need for a Savior. “Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, ‘Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ So Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not bear false witness,” “Honor your father and your mother.” And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich” (Luke 18:18–23).

Was the rich young ruler deceiving himself when he told Jesus that he had kept the commandments from his youth? Certainly none of us reading this article could honestly make such a claim. So, what was his problem? His wealth itself was not the problem; Christ had wealthy followers such as Joseph of Arimathea. It is not wrong for members of God’s Church to be wealthy. Rather, the problem was this young man’s attachment to wealth. Christ, the very Son of God in the flesh, knew the man’s heart, and sought to test him on one vital point: would he value his present riches more than his eternal destiny? Remember, Jesus had just offered this wealthy ruler a place among the 120 close disciples who followed Him. Yet, when given this opportunity, the young man chose his temporary physical riches.

As Christians, we recognize that the disciples were in fact rich beyond measure in the eternal spiritual things that matter most. “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith—the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:6–9).

Certainly, most members of God’s Church in the English-speaking nations are physically wealthy far beyond what billions of others around the world can imagine.  But there is a vast difference between being wealthy and being materialistic. Jesus taught His followers: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’ So he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.’” But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16–21).

The Word—who had been with God the Father forever, possessing the entire universe—was willing to give up His riches and come to the earth in the flesh, as a human being, in order to give human beings the opportunity to inherit the same riches with eternal life. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

A day will come, shortly before the return of Jesus Christ, when His followers will be forced to make a momentous decision. Those who are called to the Place of Safety will have to be ready to leave their physical riches behind.  As Christ taught, “In that day, he who is on the housetop, and his goods are in the house, let him not come down to take them away. And likewise the one who is in the field, let him not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife [Genesis 19:12–26]. Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” (Luke 17:31–33).

Jesus Christ’s sacrifice was far, far greater than what He asked of the rich young ruler. But what about us? Are we willing to lose everything we own, if that is what it takes to enter into the family of God? Have our possessions become a kind of cross—a burden—keeping us apart from God’s will? The Apostle Paul expressed an attitude we all need to have, if we are to achieve eternal life. “But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, [Here we find an explanation for the nobleman’s approach] but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:7–11).

Unhealthy Relationships?

If you have been in God’s Church for a while, you have no doubt heard many accounts of faithful brethren who had to give up a job, or even a career, in order to obey God’s command to keep the weekly and annual Sabbaths. You likely have heard about brethren who have become estranged from family members because of their commitment to God and His ways.

Christ explained the priority of true discipleship when He addressed a great multitude. “And He turned and said to them, ‘If anyone comes to Me and does not hate [love less] his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it—lest, after he has laid the 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 [enduring to the end].’… So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:25–33).

It is not enough to be “in the Church.” As Christians, we must shun worldly conduct, whether we find it in co-workers and neighbors and friends “in the world” or in those who are nominally “in the Church.” The rich young ruler would not part with his wealth in order to serve Christ. Are we holding on to relationships that keep us apart from the will of Christ? Yes, it may hurt to separate ourselves from friends and family whose conduct drags us down.  The Apostle Paul wrote powerfully about this. “Do not be deceived: ‘Evil company corrupts good habits. Awake to righteousness, and do not sin; for some do not have the knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame” (1 Corinthians 15:33–34).

Scripture does not promise that it will always be easy to abstain from sin. We may suffer ridicule, loss of position, persecution—and worse—from those who had once been our friends. “Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. For we have spent enough of our past lifetime in doing the will of the Gentiles—when we walked in lewdness, lusts, drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries. In regard to these, they think it strange that you do not run with them in the same flood of dissipation, speaking evil of you. They will give an account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead [spiritually], that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit” (1 Peter 4:1–6).

The Crosses of Addiction

Sometimes, what we need to separate ourselves from is a behavior or a situation, not just a person. Look around you, and you will see a world in which so many human indulgences are promoted despite leading to abuse, addiction and great suffering.  People may think they can indulge in “just a little” of some vice, yet soon they become addicted to a habit that brings suffering—emotional, physical and spiritual.  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines addiction as: 1: the quality or state of being addicted. 2: compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal; broadly: persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful.”

If a professing Christian is addicted to practices that harm his or her physical body, two spiritually dangerous paths are simultaneously being trod. First: we are placing the addiction ahead of our Creator, in direct conflict with the first commandment. “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3). Second: it is our duty to God to maintain our bodies as a clean dwelling place for His Holy Spirit. Jesus said: “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him” (John 14:23). Some people are addicted to the Internet, wasting an inordinate amount of time in front of a computer monitor. The misuse of this valuable tool—one that when rightly used can educate us and help us communicate—may rob us of our Bible study and prayer.

Is a habit helping to build God’s holy and righteous character in you? Or is it dragging you toward the Lake of Fire? Consider Paul’s words: “Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19–21).

As Christians, we all face temptations, but in order to overcome them we must first recognize them and then commit to overcoming, with Christ’s help. A tobacco addiction is easy to recognize. Alcohol addiction may be easier to “hide” in a society that promotes the use of alcohol. Other addictions can involve food, pornography or even overwork.  How many married men and women let their marriages suffer because they are “too busy” for their spouse or their children? “Workaholics” are bearing an unnecessary burden—a burden that Christ’s sacrifice will relieve upon repentance!

Our Common Problem

The Apostle Paul bore the same cross we all bear—that of being human. “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (Romans 7:18–23).

By revealing our common weakness, Paul has given us the answer: confess our sins to our Creator and Christ will help carry our cross by living in us, through the power of the Holy Spirit. “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin” (vv. 24–25).

Christ carried His cross, not as a sinner, but as our Savior, accepting His responsibility to endure to the end and die for sinful humanity. We, too, for as long as we remain in the flesh, have a Christian responsibility to endure. We must actively turn away from sin, just as a recovering alcoholic will turn away from an offered drink, lest we slip back into the conduct that would rob us of salvation. As we do so, we can have confidence, knowing that our Savior Himself took up His cross, for us, so that through Him we can take up our own cross and overcome, as we prepare to inherit the Kingdom that is being prepared for us. Let us take seriously His promise: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30).