The disciples were revulsed at the idea of a suffering Messiah because it made no sense; humanly speaking. Crucifixion was a repugnant, demeaning form of execution for the rabble of society. The idea that anybody who died on the cross was in any sense an exceptional, elevated, noble, important person was absurd. The cross was reserved only for the scum, the most humiliated, the lowest of the low. This is why Peter initially responded as he did, because death on a cross was not only reprehensible but it was dishonorable to the minds of people in Jesus’ day.
Today is no different.
The message of the cross is scandalous to many folks. They view it as absurd, obscene or obscenely absurd. The preaching of the cross is a stumbling block to some and foolishness to others. How could the Messiah, the Son of God be so powerless as to be crucified like a common criminal? And what does the death of a Jewish man on a Roman cross two millennia ago have to do with my life now and the afterlife to come?
Yes, humanly speaking the cross is foolishness, now just as it was then, but the foolishness of God is wiser than men! To those of us who are being saved it is the power of God! Christ died as our substitute in order to satisfy the righteous wrath of a holy God. As Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For he hath made him [to be] sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”
And to knowingly or unknowingly oppose the cross is to follow the world’s pattern instead of the Godly pattern. Unlike Satan, however, Peter had the best of intentions. He meant well, but zeal and earnestness are no excuse for error. One may mean well and yet fall into tremendous mistakes.
The Twelve needed to learn this lesson, as do we. They needed to understand exactly what it meant to confess Jesus as the Christ. Because of the suffering Savior’s finished work on the cross salvation is all of grace and freely offered to all sinners, but those who receive so great a salvation must prove the reality of their faith by carrying their cross after Christ. He who will not carry his cross will not wear a crown.
The Way of the Cross
And when he had called the people [unto him] with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it. (Mark 8:34-35)
The Lord Jesus taught His disciples, and instructs us, that to confess Christ is not just to say words but to follow Him. The core of Christian discipleship, as defined by Jesus Christ, is:
take up your cross,
This is the crucified life. These three elements cannot be divorced from each other, nor should they be seen as progressive steps of the Christian life. He didn’t start with follow me, and then tack on self-denial and cross-bearing along the way. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a call to self-denial, self-sacrifice, and surrender; not self-love, self-esteem, and self-fulfillment.
Deny Yourself – Saying “No!” to self
To deny yourself is not to “be in denial”; in other words, it is not to check your brain at the door in order to become a Christian. To deny yourself is not to forfeit your unique personality and become some kind of clone. The self to which Jesus refers is not your distinct identity; rather it is saying “No!” to the natural, sinful, unredeemed self that is at the center of us all. To deny yourself is to be convicted of your sin; to recognize that there is nothing in yourself that is commendable to God. Therefore you turn to Christ in repentance and faith, because only through Christ will you be made acceptable before God. To “deny yourself” is subjecting yourself to the lordship and resources of Jesus Christ alone.
Take Up Your Cross – Saying “Yes!” to God
You would be wrong to think of normal hardships and difficulties as crosses. An unreasonable boss, an annoying neighbor, a pesky mother-in-law do not qualify as crosses to bear. Not every uncomfortable, unjust, or unhelpful incident in life qualifies as a cross to bear. Real crosses involve the surrender of the will. They mean saying “Yes!” to God for Jesus’ sake.
To take up your cross means to walk in Christ’s steps, to embrace His life; it means to endure disdain because of the Gospel. To take up your cross is simply to be willing to pay any price for Christ’s sake; it is the willingness to suffer shame, criticism, rejection, persecution, and even death – the cross is a symbol of death after all – for the sake of Christ. To take up your cross is to say yes to prayer, Bible study, evangelism, service, to love the lovely and the unlovely; accepting what God has given us or made us and then offering it back to Him as “our reasonable service” (Romans 12:1). Difficulties are not an indication of cross-bearing; difficulties for Christ’s sake are.
The purpose of any cross was to put to death the crucified person. Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Follow Christ – Keeping your eyes on Jesus
So why would anyone deny self and take up his cross, or if someone wanted to do it, how can he stay on such a hard path? The only way is by following Christ; by keeping your eyes on Jesus, who said:
Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. (John 12:24-25)
The only way to deny self, take up your cross, and follow Christ to have your eyes fixed on Jesus and what He has done for us, coming to love Him as a result of what He has done for us, and thus wanting to be with Him both now and always. It is for love of Him and a desire to be like Him that we willingly deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Jesus. Devotion to Him whose love has conquered sin, death, and the grave is what moves a person to live the crucified life.
The first time Peter heard this message he said, “Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee” (Matthew 16:22). But that same Peter would later write:
For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 1:21 emphasis added)
Those who have been won by that extreme love will not allow anything to keep them from continuing on the way of the cross – the way of the crucified life. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus. We are called to give all that we have because on The Cross Jesus gave all that He had for us. Isaac Watts wrote:
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.