In verses 18-20 Jesus asks the disciples the question “who do you say I am?” And Peter responds by saying you are “The Christ of God.” The Messiah. And then in verses 21-22 Jesus reveals what is going to happen to him. He says that he is going to suffer, die, and be raised on the third day. We have these two key foundational truths about the gospel, Christ and him crucified. The disciples were getting a crash course in some profound truths.
It can be easy to come to a passage like this one and think that we understand it because it’s familiar. But let me give you a friendly warning. Sometimes being familiar with a text could discourage curiosity, harden your heart, and deafen your ears. Instead of thinking of this verse as familiar use it as a reminder. Jesus is saying that in order to be his disciple you need to deny yourself not only deny yourself of things but also it requires a daily death to self.
The thing that I would love for you get from this passage is that the cross Jesus commands you to take up requires his death and yours.
In verse 23 Luke writes “And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Jesus is saying to all who were around him, if you are going to be someone who comes after me or follows after me. If you are truly one of my disciples then these three things will be evident in your life. A disciple denies himself, takes up his cross daily, and follows Jesus.
Let him deny himself.
Jesus looked into the eyes of all who were listening especially into the eyes of his disciples and says, “If anyone is going to follow after me. If anyone is going to be a disciple of mine, let him deny himself.” Let him deny himself.
At this moment the disciples are still having a hard time trying to digest the words just spoken to them about how Jesus was going to suffer and then die. They were expecting Jesus to set up an earthly kingdom where they would have high status and rewards. And so imagine what it was like to be Peter or John hearing the Christ say to them if you are going to truly follow after me you must forget high status and stop trying to figure out who is the greatest ... you need to deny yourself. This is not what they had bargained for. What does this mean? What is Jesus asking of those who were to come after him?
To deny self means to forget oneself entirely, to reject any thought of doing what will please ourselves rather than God. Self is no longer in charge. God is. We need to be reminded of how much we are like the disciples here as well. We set our minds on the things of man. We focus on ourselves. Jesus is saying in denying ourselves we must give up our longing to possess things, our desire for power, our desire for the favor of men.
The Heidelberg Catechism, a rich confession of faith from the 1500s asks the question:
Q. What is your only comfort in life and death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil.
In this helpful church document we are reminded that when we trust in Christ for the forgiveness of our sins, we give up ourselves to him. This answer from the Heidelberg comes from God’s Word in Romans 14:7-8 it says
We are not our own. We have been bought with the blood of Christ. This idea of self denial should not be foreign to a Christian since that is what it took to become a Christian. When we turned our back at any attempt to please God through our own works and instead received by faith what God has done through Christ for our salvation that was denying ourselves. This is how our Christian life started and this is how is should continue. But it's so easy to forget and start living our lives by other standards.
The radical nature of Jesus words here expose a deep problem. Our sin. We don’t deny ourselves, we indulge and self promote. We want and expect an easy life and are willing to pay for it. We have bought into the lie that Christianity exists to enhance our lives, marriage, bank accounts, and status. This was a hard word for the disciples and it is a hard word for us today.
Are you willing to surrender your hopes and your dreams in order to be a disciple of Christ? To deny your self-trust, deny your self-sufficiency?
Take up your cross daily.
Jesus also says in this text that those who want to be his disciple must take up their cross daily. To all those gathered listening to Jesus, this statement would’ve been so shocking.The word cross would immediately trigger the thought of a Roman execution where a person would essentially carry a cross to their humiliation and death. The meaning of this saying was probably understood that death was to be expected for someone who were to follow after Jesus. Following him may actually make one’s situation on earth worse. Taking up the cross would’ve meant hatred from the world, sacrifice, suffering, and even death.
To take up one’s cross was to go out and die.
We often use the phrase “this is my cross to bear” for things such as hardships, sickness, difficult co workers, troubles with friends or family. This is not what Christ meant when he said that those who come after him must take up their crosses daily. Your cross is not your undisciplined child, taxes, unemployment, inability to have children. In Jesus’ day the cross was a symbol of death, a means of execution. Crosses were not burdens, they were instruments of death. Jesus is calling his disciples to the death of themselves the most radical form of self denial.
It’s important for us to focus on the words Jesus is using here. He doesn’t say that the cross is going to be laid on them, but it’s a command to take up the cross. Jesus says that those who come after him take up the cross. They don’t avoid it but they accept it and take it up. Jesus doesn’t say that the cross be taken up once, or sometimes, but it is to be taken up daily. This is not something we do only at the beginning of the Christian life, or an occasional sacrifice made along the way, but it's an everyday thing.
What Jesus is calling us to do here is take on the name Christian, openly identify ourselves with Christ, and be ready to bear the suffering that life brings from that. To share in Christ’s suffering. If Christ was hated then we must be willing to be hated for identifying with him as well. Everyday we must live in a way that it shows that we have died to ourselves and live for God.
Like Christ, all his followers, will experience a cross. Some followers of Christ will suffer martyrdom, but not all. But all followers of Christ will experience some consequences for following Jesus. This is not an isolated truth we find this all throughout Scripture. This is the Christian life. What it means to be a follower of Christ. In Luke 14 Jesus repeats himself when he says,
And a couple verses later:
So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
Christ is telling the disciples to count the cost. He says that you cannot be his disciple unless he comes first. You cannot be his disciple if you don’t bear your own cross. You cannot be his disciple unless you renounce all. You must deny yourself and take up your cross. Renouncing all privileges, all sins, all earthly possessions that would take away their allegiance to him. Anything less is superficial.
Does your Christianity cost you anything? Is it costing you your life?
Jesus said to all, “the one who is a disciple of mine will deny themself, take up their cross daily, and follow me.” To follow him means to follow him in his obedience to the Father’s will and in his example of self denial and taking up the cross. It means walking the same road of self-denial and self-sacrifice.
Jesus isn’t saying: “Deny yourselves and I will save you.” He isn’t saying “I will love you because you have denied yourself.” He is saying because I have saved you by grace, deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow me.” He is talking about the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts by grace. This charge wasn’t just for the disciples. It is for every single one of us.
Why Should We Deny Ourselves?
In verses 24-26, Jesus gives three arguments to the disciples about the importance of dying to self.
Argument #1: His first argument in verse 24 is, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
He says those who “would save” their lives - meaning to self-preserve and live their lives for themselves. People who believe that satisfaction and security are in their hands. Those that organize their lives around their own entertainment and pleasure. Who are not willing to suffer for Christ’s sake. Who are focused on the present and temporal will lose their lives. Jesus isn’t talking about our physical lives, but our spiritual lives. Those who seek their own interests will never find satisfaction. They won't receive eternal life and will suffer judgement in hell.
R.C. Sproul the late founder of Ligonier Ministries wrote, “Yet that price is paid, day in and day out, by countless multitudes of people, who will exchange their birthright of heaven, for a moment’s pleasure, or for more status, more power, more money, or whatever. I am not opposed to money or the things that money can buy, but if that is the main pursuit of my life and it costs me my soul, that’s foolish business.”
But Jesus says whoever loses his life for Christ meaning whoever gives up their self-centered life for the sake of Jesus and denies themselves, and takes up their cross daily. They will save their lives. Jesus is making the point that the only way to gain true lasting life is to lose it for Jesus to die to self.
Argument #2: Jesus second argument is in verse 25 where he asks the rhetorical question, “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?”
Jesus takes the person who wanted to self preserve and save their life from verse 24 and placed them in the best possible situation.
Assume for the sake of argument that you could possess the whole world—all that your passions hunger for, your eyes desire. What would that profit you if you forfeited your eternal soul?” The obvious answer is “nothing.” Nothing in the world can compare to the value of a person’s eternal soul.
If you want total independence, the acceptance of the world, all the fleeting pleasures then your life will be lost because you refuse to submit to God’s way.
This reminds me of Ecclesiastes 2:9-11 in which Solomon says,
Solomon had it all. He had greatness, fame, recognition, pleasure, great accomplishments, whatever his eyes desired and as he looked back on all of it all he could say was that it was all vanity. It's like a vapor here today and gone tomorrow. It’s temporary. The scary reality for the disciples and us is that life’s comforts and the threat of losing them might keep someone from coming to Jesus. Many people are willing to turn away from Christ in order to stay in a relationship, hold onto a sin, or stay in a career path.
What is it you are trying so hard to gain or accomplish? Is it truly important, or merely something to satisfy yourself or impress others?
Experiencing the judgement of God is far too great a price to pay for possessing the whole world. It’s interesting that the idea that the meaning of life is found in possessions, trophies, and money loses its credibility in the emergency room and funeral parlor.
Jesus is emphasizing that the giving up of ourselves to him and following him is most important because that is where true life is found. Think of Moses as he is described in Hebrews 11:24-26,
“By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.”
Moses understood self denial and to take up his cross.
And Jesus in Luke 4:5-8
Satan tempted Jesus with gaining the whole world, but Jesus refused. Again Jesus is saying the only way to gain true lasting life is to deny yourself.
Argument #3: Jesus’ third argument in verse 26 says, “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.”
Those who are ashamed of Christ and his words are those who refuse to deny themselves and take up their cross. And they will suffer great loss. The Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes to judge. Those who deny themselves, follow Christ, and are not ashamed of him and his words will be acknowledged. Instead of facing judgement they will receive glory. There is an eternal reward for those who come after Christ and deny themselves, take up their crosses daily, and follow him.
In light of all we’ve heard we have to admit that these things that Jesus is saying are hard and difficult. We have to be honest that we fail at self denial. We fail at taking up our cross daily. We fail at following Christ. J.C. Ryle a preacher from the 1800s wrote,
Ryle hits the nail on the head we don't get it. We don’t deny ourselves, we indulge and only make room for God when we have the time. We hesitate to let people know we’re Christian, we are timid to defend the faith, we are afraid to read our Bibles and pray in public. Christ says that anyone who is ashamed of him and his words the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes. Do you even read his word? There’s no way you can deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow Christ if you are not in his word.
This is not the Christian life. Disciples are not to use their lives on earth for their own pleasure but they should spend their lives serving God and people.
As Jesus went to his cross, unashamed to die for our sins, the disciples were ashamed. Judas, one of the disciple, who was there listening to Christ give this command, didn’t deny himself but instead denied and betrayed Christ. The others fled. Rather than denying themselves, Peter denied Jesus three times. Rather than taking up their crosses, they left Jesus to take up his cross alone. And if it were up to us, we would do the same.
Even though we are imperfect disciples. We do not deny ourselves like we should, we don’t die to self we love self and promote self, we focus on the temporal rather than the eternal, and we often are ashamed of Christ and his word. But he still meets us with grace.
Self denial does not save you, Jesus does!
Jesus is aware of our brokenness and sin. That is why this passage comes after Jesus foretelling his death. He suffered, was rejected, and killed in order to accomplish salvation for us. So that we would receive grace and mercy in the midst of our failures to follow him. There is nothing that we could do to save ourselves. Lives lived as disciples of Christ - lives lived in obedience to him are to flow not out of trying to earn anything but in response to what he has done. He is our great Savior and our great Example.
I hope now you have an understanding of how The cross Jesus commands you to take up requires his death and yours. He needed to die in order to save you from your sins but also so that you would be enabled to die to self.
SO WHAT? WHAT SHOULD WE DO?
In light of all that Christ has done. We should be motivated to Deny ourselves, to take up our crosses daily, to lose our lives for his sake, and to not being ashamed of him and his words.
Sinclair Ferguson says, “The thing about Jesus, the glorious thing about Him…is you can never find what He gives until you’re prepared to lose what you most want to keep.”
Jesus is worth following. There is a cost to being a follower of Christ, but if you count the cost, it's worth it.
To the unbeliever:
See the heart of Jesus in this difficult saying. Yes it is hard to hear that you need to deny yourself. But don’t miss the grace. Jesus isn’t saying sorry you have no hope and are left out. Remember Jesus’ word here: if anyone would come after me. If anyone. And in verse 25 for whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. There is still time to come to Christ and deny yourself and experience the joy that it is to be a follower of God.
To the believer:
Day by day, moment by moment, you are going to be faced with choices. The natural tendency is that I want to gratify myself. And God's call is to die to those desires and follow Him.
This passage should bring us to a more desperate dependence on God. Christ requires but also enables his disciples to deny themselves.
I want to give you three helpful points of application as you trust in God to help you take up your cross and die to self.
1) Confess your sin and disobedience of not denying yourself.
2) Spend Time in God’s Word
You are not magically just going to know what needs to change in your life, you’re going to need help. Spend time in His Word. Deepen your understanding! To learn to obey, follow, and not be ashamed of Christ and his word.
3) Look to Christ
How do we learn to deny and put to death our own plans and self interest? Hebrews 12:2 tells us to look to Jesus who is founder and perfecter of our faith. He is the supreme example of self-denial. Philippians 2:5-8 says,
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in 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.”
The things he asks of us are things that he has done himself and done perfectly. Jesus denied himself. When he became a man, he denied himself the glories of heaven. When he fulfilled the law, he denied himself the pleasures of sin. When he died on the cross, he denied himself the protection from pain both physical and spiritual. He experience excruciating pain by being nailed to a cross and stabbed with a spear. He also experienced being forsaken by the Father. Jesus truly denied himself. He freely gave up his life to save you.