Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Cross of Christ, The Cross of the Believer

"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Matthew 16:24).

As we examine this passage, the key question that stands before us is what, exactly, is the cross that the follower of Jesus is called to carry? In the plan of God what does the cross of the believer accomplish? We know what the cross of Christ achieved; the propitiation of our sins. What do our crosses accomplish, however, in the plan of God? Note that Jesus does not call us to carry His cross. He calls us to bend over and pick up our own cross and follow Him. But shouldn't we know the meaning of our own cross?

It is worth noting is that Jesus' call here is not simply an exhortation for the disciple to be willing to die by crucifixion. Cross-bearing is held up as being indicative of the level of life-commitment that will be necessary to be a follower of Jesus in the first place.

Every first century person knew what a cross was; a Roman instrument of torture and execution for convicted criminals. Unfortunately, I suspect the sense that the early church had of this saying is largely lost on us today. The "cross" of the believer has been trivialized into meaning pretty much anything that is unpleasant.

But this is not the meaning that Jesus had when He said these words! The "cross" is not ordinary human troubles and sorrows such as disappointments, disease, death, poverty and the like. Nor on the other hand, is the phrase "taking up the cross" to be completely spiritualized, like too many have done. Having never had to suffer persecution, we take the phrase and give it some mystical, existential meaning that is totally removed from the reality of first century Christianity (and that faced by persecuted Christians around the world. Such examples of this would be referring to carrying the cross as "dying to self", "self-denial," or "giving everything to God," as important as these concepts are. The important thing for us to understand in this study is, what did Jesus mean and how would the disciples have understood it?

We need to note that in the context of this passage, Jesus declared that, in order to accomplish the purposes of God, He would need to go to Jerusalem and die. Finding that the disciples (Peter in particular) resisted that concept, Jesus turned to them and said that this is how God's purposes will be accomplished through them as well.

If they are going to follow Him, Jesus told them, the disciples must deny themselves, renouncing their right to life, take up their cross and follow Him on the same path to death. They must be prepared every day to face death in their allegiance to their Master and after His example. Even more that that, they throw themselves into the purposes of God to such an extent that sacrifice at any level becomes the accepted norm. This is the kind of serious commitment that all disciples are called to. This is what you and I are called to; a readiness to face whatever consequences and costs that there may be to following Jesus. This is the criterion for following Jesus in the first place.

We need to take Jesus' words very literally. The demand of Jesus is to tread the path of martyrdom. He was about to send His disciples out a sheep among wolves into a hostile world and He had already told them that they would likely die in the process of carrying out their ministry.

In order to build His Church (16:18), His death was necessary. He points this out in 16:21. This is the foundation. Without Christ's death there is no redeemed community. But just as Christ's cross was needed to establish His church, our crosses are needed to build His church. In order to accomplish Jesus' plan to build His Church, both crosses are needed. Perhaps it can be best stated as Christ's cross was for propitiation; our cross is for propagation.

Christ's cross gives us the message that He has redeemed us and offers new life to all that trust in Him. Our cross is necessary if we are to take this message out into a hostile world that rejects Him and His message. But by our deaths, the message is spread. This is the cause for which Jesus calls us to suffer and sacrifice ourselves for. This is the meaning of the cross of the disciple.

It is sometimes suggested that it might be good for Canadian Christians to face some sort of persecution. I agree. But for this to become a reality, we need to be more involved in sharing the gospel with those around us. If more Canadian Christians were actively witnessing to the life-changing power of God through the cross of Jesus Christ, the reality of carrying our own cross would undoubtedly be more real to us. In that light, let me encourage you to purchase Mark Cahill's book, One Thing You Can't Do in Heaven (available for order online). I know of no other book that has so motivated me to witness to those around me as I am reminded to carry my cross to bring life to others.

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