Summary: This article was written and published May, ’17. This third article on Christian discipleship is a no-nonsense direct teaching about being and living like a genuine Christian. There is a lot of false profession in Christendom, where many say they are Christians, yet live and act like the world. But also many true believers are enfeebled in their Christian walk, not understanding the truths of their redemption, and never finding the power of their deliverance from the dominion of sin (Rom. 6:1-14). This article doesn’t deal with understanding the truths of our redemption. But if you think about it, neither did Jesus directly speak of them either, because His work of redemption had to be accomplished first before the Spirit could be sent, by whom believers are taught to comprehend these truths (John 16:25). However, Jesus does draw a clear and specific picture for us of what a Christian disciple will look like, even when none existed until after the day of Pentecost and the grace, life, and power, by the instrumentality of the Spirit, were not yet available to them. This clear picture is what this article attempts to bring out, concentrating mostly on the words of Christ He directly spoke in the gospels.
There are a few passages in the gospels which present this discipleship idea. All four have one or more passages that are similar in their content and thought presentation, but not exactly the same in their wording. I first quote the three passages in the synoptic gospels that took place shortly after Peter’s personal confession of Jesus as both the Messiah and Son of the living God – this confession is not found in John. If you examine the record of this incident in Matthew (Matt. 16:13-27), Mark (Mark 8:27-38), and Luke (Luke 9:18-26), we see the subtle differences the Spirit of God brings to each gospel in order to further establish the specific divine purpose for writing each. For example, only Matthew quotes Jesus referring to His building of the church and the gates of Hades not being able to prevail against it, or His giving keys to the kingdom of heaven. And only Matthew adds to Peter’s confession the critical phrase, “Son of the living God.” All these differences specific to Matthew’s account further one of the main divine purposes of his gospel – showing the transition from the Jewish to the Christian dispensation. However, when it comes to the parts of these three passages concerning discipleship, they are fairly similar to each other.
Luke 9:23-26 (NKJV)
Then He said to them all, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it. For what advantage is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, of him, the Son of Man will be ashamed when He comes in His own glory, and in His Father’s, and of the holy angels.” (see also Matt. 16:24-27, Mark 8:34-38)
When the Lord answers the rich young ruler in Mark’s gospel, we see this same thought repeated of a follower of Jesus bearing his cross, although it is not found in the other two (Matthew and Luke).
Mark 10:21 (NKJV)
Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “one thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up your cross, and follow Me.”
For Christian discipleship, what does it really mean to take up your cross? First, you cannot be a disciple without a cross. If you are going to follow Jesus, He has a cross to give you. And you cannot leave it behind. There is no following Him without it. Whatever it means, you cannot be a disciple without bearing your cross – it characterizes Christianity, and what it means to live like a disciple in the present Christian dispensation.
But what does this specifically mean? Certainly, it implies rejection by this world. Jesus was given a cross and sentenced to death by a world that hated and rejected Him (John 15:22-25). Although He came into the world which He created, still they failed to recognize and receive Him. He also came to His own, the Jews, and they rejected Him (John 1:10-11). There isn’t a greater symbol of this rejection by the world than the Christian disciple bearing his cross. Of course we know we cannot bear our sins and make atonement for them – only Jesus could do this, and He accomplished the work of redemption. But God desires that we be like Jesus and bear the cross of rejection by this world. If they hated Him, the world will hate the true Christian disciple (John 15:18-20, Matt. 5:10-12, Luke 6:22-23).
Closely related to these thoughts of the believer’s rejection is the Lord’s teaching that Christians are not of the world. Jesus said He was not of the world, and that we, as believers, would be like Him – not of this world (John 17:13-17, 15:17-19). Scripture speaks of Christians being strangers and pilgrims down here (Heb. 11:13-16, I Pet. 1:17-19). We have a citizenship above, in heaven (Phil. 3:20). God is our Father in heaven (Matt. 6:9), and the Father’s house is located there (John 14:1-3). Our future is that we will be taken out of this world and from this earth (I Thess. 4:13-18), to go there in the heavens, and to live there eternally as sons of the Father (Eph. 2:4-7). As our heavenly Father, God has given us, in Christ, a heavenly calling – this means heaven is our destiny, and we will go there, not for a moment in time or for a seven-year period, but permanently as our eternal abode. So then, during all the time we spend as disciples in this world, we truly belong to heaven, and we are being prepared to go there. We are strangers and pilgrims in this world.
Therefore, all must be forsaken in this world. Every link with this world must be broken. The nearer the world and its cares are to our hearts, the more dangerous they are, and the more they should be loathed by us. It is not that affections are evil things; but Jesus being rejected by this world, everything which binds us to this earth and world must be sacrificed for Him. No matter what it may cost the believer, Jesus is to be followed, and this can only be done by bearing your cross. We must discover what it means to hate our own life (John 12:25), even to the point of losing it, rather than compromising with the world and growing careless in following Christ.
Christian disciples must take the cross. This is a good thing for us, for it draws us away from the world. If we bear our cross it will break our will. It serves to deliver us from self and the flesh. Bearing our cross leads us to the place of complete dependence on God. This is the singular path of obedience to the will of God, for obedience to another means you have no will of your own – “…deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me.” Jesus is the perfect example of dependence on God and obedience to God (Phil. 2:5-8, Heb. 10:5-10). He learned obedience by the things that He suffered (Heb. 5:8-9). His obedience to God’s will resulted in His crucifixion and death. For us the cross has this necessary, but unpleasant power – it separates us from the world and delivers us from ourselves.
For the believer, bearing his cross is the only proper path in this world and in this present Christian dispensation. At this time, it is all Christ has to give you. Our portion now is to suffer with Him (Rom. 8:17-18). Is our path to be that different from His? Redemption work aside, we are to be like Him and follow His path of obedience. The world that hated Him and persecuted Him is the same world we have been left in (John 17:11, 15). If we are truly His disciples, the world will hate and persecute us just the same (John 15:18-20, 16:33). The world that crucified Him is the same world His disciples are instructed to bear their crosses in – we are to be like Him in this, suffering with Him.
Have you ever heard the phrase, “the offence of the cross?” Bearing a cross gives the individual a certain measure of distain and humiliation. You cannot look to maintain worldly reputation and status while you bear a cross. Your place and position in the world is forfeited if you take up the cross. As a Christian disciple, I cannot be looked upon lovingly by the world as if I was one of theirs. All that leads you to be agreeable and accepted by the world, to be amenable to the customs of men, wipes away the offence of the cross. This type of behavior puts us at a distance from Christ.
But I am sure of this: bearing our cross as a Christian is the only path to glory. And again, we have Jesus Christ as our example to follow:
Phil. 2:5-11 (NKJV)
“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore, God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Hebrews 12:2 (NKJV)
“…looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
John 13:31-32 (NKJV)
“Now the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in Him. If God is glorified in Him, God will also glorify Him in Himself, and glorify Him immediately.”
Coming from heaven, Jesus obeyed the will of God and became a sacrifice for our sins. On the cross, He was made to be sin by God, so that believers would be made the righteousness of God in Him (II Cor. 5:21). The will of God was to have a perfect sinless sacrifice, and this glorified the holiness of God concerning man. Jesus remained obedient to death on the cross, despising the shame and humiliation of the entire event, in order to accomplish the work of redemption. What did God do in response? He raised Jesus from the dead, exalting and glorifying Him to His right hand in heaven (Eph. 1:19-23). But the scriptures tell us that every Christian is “in Christ” and will follow Him there, our forerunner, behind the veil and into the very presence of God (Heb. 6:17-20). In the meantime, we are left in this world where we take up the cross and follow Christ. Similar thoughts to this are found in a passage in John, except for the allusion of disciples bearing a cross:
John 12:25-26 (NKJV)
“He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there my servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor.”
If we bear the cross in this life, serving and following Him, then we will end up where He is – exalted and glorified in the heavens. We will be with Him and He will share His glory with us (John 17:22). Our Father will raise us in a similar way and with the same exceedingly great power in which He raised Christ (Eph. 1:17-20). Jesus is now at the right hand of God – this is where He is, and where we will be.
This is what true faith is – being able to see what is now unseen, to know and be convinced of what the Christian disciple’s true and sure hope is, to understand that our hopes are always future and beyond the Christian dispensation. The Christian disciple has a true walk by faith. There is nothing easy or comforting about bearing a cross – by it we begin to look like Jesus, and this can only result in rejection and persecution by the world. But that’s alright! If with the eye of faith we can see Jesus in heaven, and are convinced of all our future hopes, we will be more prone to accept “suffering with Him” as our present portion in this world. Seeing with the eye of faith and walking by faith are the most difficult things for the Christian. The things of the world, the cares of the world, money, riches, clothes, homes, cars, family, pride, reputation, status, power and authority – are the things we readily see or feel the emotional connection with. It is so difficult not to look at such things and to be constantly concerned about them. But our affections must only be for Christ and our Father. With the eye of faith, the disciple sees the things which are unseen and eternal (II Cor. 4:18, 5:7), so that his walk and life reflects such vision. And seeing all that is unseen to us now, even Jesus Christ at the right hand of God (Col. 3:1-3), strengthens us at this present time to be able to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him – for we now know the cross is the pathway to glory (Col. 3:4).
Luke 14:25-33 (NKJV)
Now great multitudes went with Him. And He turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate 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’? Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace. So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple.
There is an extreme commitment involved in being Christ’s disciple – it is not meant to be a lax, careless, and indifferent lifestyle, nor is it an on-again, off-again type of thing. You must count the cost to be His disciple, otherwise you end up looking very foolish and vacillating to others. Every example He gives above can be easily applied to one’s life in this world. What kind of life will you have as a Christian? Will all your life down here be a continual commitment of denying yourself, taking-up your cross, and following only Him? Will you truly count the cost and be willing to pay the price? Can we be genuine in portraying this type of discipleship lifestyle before our families and the world?
If we follow Christ we must count the cost. We must forsake everything in this world. Every link or connection with this world must be broken; every string of attachment this world has on the disciple has to be systematically removed. The closer anything is to the heart (except Christ Himself), the greater danger it poses, and the more it must be, in this sense, set aside and abhorred (hated). It is not that natural affections are evil things and must be hated for that reason; but the context of this chapter which gives us this difficult passage is one in which Jesus is being rejected by the leadership of the Jews, He is being rejected by the world. If our Lord and Master is being rejected by this world, then everything that binds the Christian disciple to this earth must be sacrificed for Him. No matter what it will cost us, Jesus is to be followed; and one must know what it is to hate his own life, and come to terms (not a balanced compromise justifying ourselves and a shallow level of commitment, but a genuine reality based on an honest understanding of what He is saying) with His words. Not only hating one’s own life, but also even willing to lose one’s life for His sake (Rev. 12:11, Luke 12:4-5, Matt. 5:11-12). All, in a sense, is lost as regarding natural life in this world. Salvation, eternal life, our Savior Jesus Christ – these are the things in question here.
Therefore, to take up one’s cross and follow Him was the only way to be His disciple. Without this faith, without this commitment, it was better not to begin building. True Christian discipleship leads to rejection by the world around you. If you are not comfortable with this, if you cannot come to terms with this, it is better if you did not start. The Christian’s enemy is outwardly stronger than we are – therefore, we must ascertain whether we dare to meet him by faith in Jesus Christ. If our faith has no settled purpose and commitment we look foolish. Our faith and commitment to following Christ alone must be steady and firm, regardless of worldly cost to us personally or what the enemy may bring against us. Everything connected with the flesh and world must be broken with – this world is not our home; its god is not our master; sin in the flesh will not have dominion over us (Rom. 6:14).
Moreover, the Christian disciple is called to bear a peculiar testimony – to witness to the character of God Himself, as He was rejected by the world in Christ. Of this the cross is the true measure. If we, as Christian disciples, refuse to bear the cross, then we are worth nothing. We are disciples in this world for no other purpose but to follow Christ and represent God to a world which already rejected Him. Have we maintained this character, and has Christendom maintain such?
Luke 14:34-35 (NKJV)
“Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is neither fit for the land, nor for the dunghill, but men throw it out. He who has ears to hear, let him hear”
What remains for us, then? In this life and in this dispensation, the Christian’s portion is to bear the cross! The glory for the believer is beyond – beyond this life and this present dispensation. On our way to glory we take up the cross – these two things the word of God connects together as concerning the teachings of Christianity (Rom. 8:17-18, II Cor. 4:17, John 12:26, 14:3, 17:22-26); and rough as the path may be, it is alone the path where the glory shines.
Let’s consider again the example of Peter after God’s revelation to him, and his confession of this (Matt. 16:13-28). As we said at the beginning of the article, Matthew’s gospel has the divine purpose of showing the dispensational transition (from Judaism to Christianity), and therefore his account is uniquely different from that of Mark and Luke. But setting these important differences aside, the passage is a good example of what we’re considering in the paragraph above – the cross (Matt. 16:24-26) is the disciple’s pathway to glory (Matt. 16:27-28). And another truth comes out in the example of Peter – the flesh of man doesn’t understand this path and principle, and therefore becomes the greatest hindrance and opposition for the Christian disciple following this path (Matt. 16:20-23). God the Father reveals a blessed, important truth to Peter, which he has the courage to confess; yet it did not follow that his heart was, practically, ready to live at the height of the revelation given to it. Peter’s flesh was far from being mortified on the side where the revelation applies to his earthly walk as a disciple.
In truth, the revelation given to Peter implies the rejection of Christ by this world and on the earth – the Jews would not have Him as their Messiah, and this led to His humiliation and death. This was the point, especially of the whole passage. The revelation of Jesus as “Son of the living God” (v.16), and Jesus soon to build His church (v. 18), and the establishment of a heavenly kingdom in the earth (v. 19), were, in the dispensational transition, the substitute for the manifestation of a Jewish Messiah on earth. In the counsels of God, what else could this lead to other than Jesus being delivered up to the Gentiles to be crucified, and necessarily rising again? But morally Peter fell short of this, and his carnal flesh acted in the sphere of self-exaltation – he saw personal glory without apprehending the practical moral consequences. He begins to rebuke the Lord himself, and seeks to turn Him aside from the path of obedience and submission to God (Matt. 16:22). How about us today? How often do we enjoy some truth, even sincerely embrace it, and yet fail in the practical consequences that it must lead to in our walk as Christian disciples in this world! A heavenly glorified Savior, who builds the assembly, implies we take up the cross on earth. Yet our flesh, if not mortified, resists this. It does not want to share in such humiliation as bearing a cross. The question remains – can you follow Christ without taking up the cross? A Christian who is not dead to the world is but a stumbling-stone to everyone who seeks to follow Christ.
God has “called us by glory and virtue.” (I Pet. 5:10, II Pet. 1:3) “Virtue” here is the courage needed for the difficulties of the way. We are “strengthened with all might, according to the power of His glory, unto all patience and long-suffering with joyfulness; giving thanks unto the Father who hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light.” (Col. 1:11-12) Israel’s desert pilgrimage is the figure of our walk of faith in this world – we walk over a soil where nothing naturally grows for us and is dry and barren; our bread – our sustenance – has to come from heaven (John 6:32-33, 35); the track to glory is traced on barren sands. Down here it is an enemy’s country; circumstances are against us; the world is against us. We can barter a truce only through unfaithfulness. As Christian disciples, we follow in the line of martyrs and confessors. We are the followers of Jesus Christ, whom the world crucified, and who has left us an example that we should follow His steps in the midst of those inwardly as hostile as ever, they being found in the midst of Christianity and Christendom itself. The Lord’s own words warn us: “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated Me before it hated you. If ye were of the world the world would love its own; but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore doth the world hate you (John 7:7, 15:18-19, 17:14). Remember the word that I said unto you, “The servant is not greater than his Lord. If they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept My saying, they will keep yours also.” (John 15:20, also see John 12:25)
Has new light in the present century dispelled these things as archaic and outdated? Or are these things really true of us? Would it not be well to ask ourselves, “What cross do I carry? – do I carry any?” We have taken a compromised position by justifying ourselves, saying “We have to still live in this world.” We may even reason we are taking up the cross in dealing with the everyday cares and difficulties of life. But if that is not our thought, yet how far do we apprehend that there is a cross at all? The common trials which come upon us as men, as in the flesh still, are not the cross we bear as disciples. The cross is what is ours, and belongs to us as Christians. It still is ours today, so far as we are committed and genuine in our Christianity.