Sermon Discussion Questions:
1. What was most helpful to you from the sermon?
2. What feels most difficult in life right now?
3. What does Satan offer us? What does that look like for you?
4. What is the difference between "deny yourself" and "take up your cross"? When you apply this command to your life, what does it look like?
5. Is there anything you haven't been doing to "deny yourself and take up your cross" that you need to do?
6. How is Jesus' cross different from our own and how does that help us take up our own?
Life is hard. It is amazing the wild variety of experiences that different persons can have across the globe. A typical American has a far more comfortable, secure, and pleasant life than an Afghani living under the Taliban, or a Sudani living with a civil war—undoubtedly. And yet, despite our ease and affluence we have here in America, life still feels hard.
Life is hard physically. We have back aches, lingering coughs, cancer diagnoses, asthma attacks, bicycle accidents, ingrown toenails, failing memory, worn out cartilage. And we still need to do our responsibilities, keep up on the house, go to work, make enough money to take care of our families, get enough sleep, eat the right food, take care of our bodies, so we can do something meaningful before we hit our expiration date.
Life is hard emotionally. We are worried, frustrated, anxious, depressed, frantic, furious, or numb—and sometimes, we have no idea why. We crave a kind of stasis; security and stability, but often feel like we lack it—and if we have it, then we feel bored!
Life is hard relationally. Who here hasn’t had a relationship blow up in their face or felt like they seriously hurt or been hurt by someone they loved? Who here hasn’t had to say goodbye to someone, sometimes forever?
Life is hard in so many ways. And that is true, no matter who you are.
What about the Christian life? If life feels like riding down a cratered road with wooden wheels, does Christianity offer any shock absorbers? Any rubber tires and suspension kits that smooth the difficulty out, that keep our teeth from clattering? The answer is absolutely yes—there are more resources in Christianity for hope and refreshment and joy than anywhere else—but also, it doesn’t look like what you think it will look like. When you become a Christian your life gets both better and harder. Let me read off a few verses, and see if you can spot both the better and the harder of the Christian life.
“Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. 5 An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. 6 It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.” (2 Tim 2:3-6)
“Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name,” (Acts 5:41).
“…and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him,” (Rom 8:17).
“Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God,” (Acts 14:22).
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church,” (Col 1:24).
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.”
- Matt 16:24-27
Jesus touches into our innate desire for self-preservation. He speaks of those who wish to save their life, and those who gain the whole world. And we all are well familiar with that temptation. We don’t want life to be hard. We don’t want to be uncomfortable. We just want things to work. So much of life feels like you are pushing against a current, untangling a knot, fighting disorder—and we just want life to fall into place!
More than that, we want ease, luxury, and relaxation. Here is an excerpt from a well-known all-inclusive resort’s ad for one of their destinations: “With gorgeous white-sand beaches, savory dining experiences, opulent accommodations, unlimited refreshing beverages, exciting water sports and more, it’s no wonder why so many choose Sandals as their tropical escape.” Ah! That’s what we want!
Now, I don’t think Jesus is necessarily condemning taking vacations—maybe not even to resorts like that. We can enjoy God in the world He has created. Praise God for white-sand beaches! That was His idea! The problem we run into is when we think: my life should be like that. Gorgeous. Opulent. Unlimited. Exciting. Escape. Life should be an upward ascent to more comfort, more status, more money, more friends, more excitement. And subsequently, we should see (we think) less and less struggle, dullness, loneliness, discomfort, pain.
This was Peter’s mentality. Just before Jesus’ said these words, He explained to His disciples the truth of His own cross He would bear: “21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man,” (Matt 16:21-23).
Well, that is alarming. Peter is speaking for Satan, and doesn’t even know it. What does the voice of Satan sound like? You don’t need to suffer, you don’t need a cross—you’re the Messiah, you deserve better. Jesus smells sulfur. If Jesus doesn’t take up His cross, we are all doomed. Jesus must take up His cross, or we are left in our sins—Peter doesn’t see that yet because Peter has misunderstood the very mission of Jesus.
What was Satan’s entry point in influencing Peter? “For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” We tend to think that there are three categories we can set our mind on: the things of God, the things of man, and the things of Satan. And we feel comfortable with the things of man. But Jesus says, No, there are only actually two: God and man. And when you set your mind, when you think like the rest of the world does, you are doing Satan’s work.
I believe that Satan is behind every act of Christian suffering, Christian persecution—but the cudgel and AK-47 is not his only weapon. He also has opulent accommodations, exciting adventures, and feather-downy beds. You don’t need to struggle, you don’t need a cross!
In the 1960s, the Chinese government wrote in a secret “white paper” concerning faith in China: “The church in China has grown too large and too deep; we cannot kill it. We have determine d to give the church properties, buildings, seminaries, and denominational headquarters so as to make the church rich. Once we do that, we will be more successful in controlling the church.” (The Insanity of Obedience, p. 108).
Guys, what if Satan’s greatest scheme in our lives isn’t for us to be martyred, or impoverished, or despised, but to make us popular, wealthy, and secure. To knit our hearts so deeply into the comforts and pleasures of this world that we would choose the world over Jesus if given the choice? When Jesus invites us to forsake the custom of self-preservation, He is actually inviting us into freedom.
Christians around the world die for their faith, have paid for it in blood. Today, today, there are 215 million believers around the world who suffer persecution in the form of intimidation, prison, violence, and death. And do we expect that we are somehow owed something different? Isaac Watts, in 1721, wrote this hymn:
Must I be carried to the skies
On flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize
And sailed through bloody seas?
Share in suffering as a good solider of Jesus Christ.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” (Matt 16:24).
Jesus’ offer to become His disciple
“If anyone would come after me…follow me.” Jesus is opening the door to basic Christianity. He isn’t explaining what Navy SEAL Christianity is like, but elementary, basic, ground-floor, tutorial-beginning of being in a relationship with Him.
“Let him deny himself.” The world tells you to improve yourself, pamper yourself, indulge yourself. Our flesh tells us to love ourselves, hate ourselves, accept ourselves. But Jesus, tells us something very different—and that’s why we know Jesus isn’t some fake or some wish-fulfillment, because He is willing to tell us hard things. Jesus tells us, “Leave yourself behind—be okay with saying “no” to that inner craving to be folded up in the prison of self-indulgence, self-focus, and self-fascination. There is an assumption that we have desires that are familiar to us, well-worn paths of desire, thought, and deed that are wrong, that need to be repaired. Our insistence on being first, on getting the biggest cookie on the plate, our posture of “I’ll only do it if it makes sense to me, God”—let that die, Jesus says.
“This self-denial is very extensive, and implies that we ought to give up our natural inclinations, and part with all the affections of the flesh, and thus give our consent to be reduced to nothing, provided that God lives and reigns in us,” (John Calvin’s commentary on Matthew 16).
Take up your cross
“Take up his cross.”
A crucifix is, obviously a method of execution, but not only that, it was a method of humiliation and shame. Even more than that, it was a method of execution for the worst of the worst. What is Jesus making clear to His disciples? If “deny yourself” is aimed at the war within (the flesh), then “take up your cross” is aimed at the war without (the world).
To follow Him meant not only to die to your natural desires for “the things of man,” but it also meant that sometimes following Jesus would mean being humiliated, reproached, laughed at, despised, and seen as the bad guy. Maybe even die.
So, Jesus’ sales pitch for His movement: Follow me, you’ll be reduced to nothing, say ‘no’ to yourself, likely be considered a fool by the important people of the day, and maybe even killed by them.
That doesn’t sound like a great deal. Alright, let’s be honest guys, is following Jesus worth it? There are many other spiritual options out there. You can go take some mushrooms and meditate, do CrossFit and read Marcus Aurelius, or just binge, scroll, play and only do what happens to fall into your narrow band of comfort for the rest of your life. Are we wasting our lives?
The Blessing of Bearing a Cross
“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”(Matt 16:25-26).
Reason number one that following Jesus is worth it: self-preservation leads to destruction, and self-denial leads to life. If your life is aimed at saving your life, Jesus says you’ll actually lose it. But if you’re willing to die, you’ll find life.
This principle is self-evidently true in so many arenas of life. Real life involves risk and cost. To really live, you must be willing to die.
But Jesus wants to slide the scale of that paradox up to the highest limits, beyond the risk and reward of this life only, but of the life to come. The word for “life” and “soul” is the same word in verses 25 and 26—your soul is the immaterial part of you that continues to exist beyond death. Jesus puts to us this question: what if you got everything you possibly wanted, what if your wildest dreams came true and the world was handed over to you on a silver platter—but when you die you go to hell. Is that worth it? And what if your life was miserable and painful and heartbreaking—but when you die you go to heaven. Is that worth it?
When Jesus asks the question, “What shall a man give in return for his soul?” Here is what He is saying: A single soul is of greater value than anything in this material world. We have heard this saying of Jesus used so often, typically in a metaphorical sense of someone compromising their values for cheap gain. But Jesus isn’t speaking metaphorically here. To “lose your soul” isn’t just to fudge on your ideals. It is to lose your soul in an eternal sense. We know that because of what Jesus says right afterwards:
“For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done,” (Matt 16:27). The “for” at the beginning of the sentence links the previous statements to this verse. Jesus gives his bracing call to discipleship in verse 24: take up your cross. Then in verses 25-26 He explains why this is worth it—if you lose your life, you gain it, but if you save your life, you lose it. For Jesus is going to come again on the judgment day and repay each person for what they have done. And a life that is centered on self-preservation will become a life of self-destruction in hell. But a life that has been lived in self-denial, in taking up our crosses, in losing our lives for Jesus’ sake, will be a life that culminates in the eternal joy of heaven.
Heaven and hell bleed back into this life, but let’s not forget that our hope extends beyond this life: “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied,” (1 Cor 15:19)
Reason two: Jesus bears His cross before we bear ours. Remember, before Jesus summons His disciples to bear their cross, He promises to bear His own (Matt 16:21). In one sense, we could simply say: Hey, life is hard, the world is fallen, thorns and thistles, man. Quit whining about it. But Jesus doesn’t respond to us like that. Jesus knows what it feels like to sink under a splintered cross. He knows what you are going through, He can sympathize with our weaknesses.
But Jesus’ experience on the cross is fundamentally different than our own. Jesus’ death on the cross is a death that is for the punishment of our sins. Sometimes people refer to someone being “crucified” for something wrong they did—a CEO is found out to be embezzling money and is “crucified” in the press over it. That is a cultural artifact that has trickled down from Jesus’ crucifixion—except, Jesus has no sins of his own to be crucified for. Instead, He is crucified for our own, for the sins of all who put their faith in Him.
But that alters how we view our own cross we are to bear. If Jesus’ death on the cross paid the punishment my sins deserved, then that means that my cross isn’t like Jesus’. I am not atoning for my sins. I am not bearing my cross to be saved, but because I am saved. So why do we have to bear crosses then, why do we have to deny ourselves? Because it is the path to true life. You were not made to sin. You were not made to indulge. You were not made to be self-centered. You were made for glory. It is the path that Jesus has laid before you to walk.
The current of this world flows in one direction: self. The world, your flesh, and Satan all pull you, all demand from you: go this way, it will be so better, just relax, just give in. But Jesus invites us into lives of nobility, of courage, of beauty—so, we plant our feet, we push against the current, we bear our cross. And isn’t this the life we want to live? Who wants their eulogy to be: Marc really knew how to pamper himself. No, we want, Marc spent his life for others, even when it cost him dearly. In fact, his life reminds us a lot of Jesus.
Let me read you an example of the kind of life we want to lead. This is from Nik Ripken’s The Insanity of God, a series of stories from the persecuted church around the world:
“One [Russian] pastor was arrested and placed in prison, while his wife and children were sent to live (or die) in Siberia.
One wintry night in their remote, dilapidated wooden cabin which now served as their home, the three children divided their family’s last crust of bread, and drank the last cup of tea in the house before climbing into bed still hungry. Kneeling to say their prayers, they asked, “Where are we going to get some more food, Mama? We’re hungry! Do you think Papa even knows where we live now?” Their mother assured them their heavenly Father knew where they lived. For now, He was the one who would have to provide. They prayed and asked for God’s provision.
Thirty kilometers away, in the middle of the night, God woke up the deacon of a church and instructed him, “Get out of bed. Harness your horse, hitch the horse to the sled, load up all the extra vegetables that the church has harvested, the meat, and the other food that the congregation has collected, and take it to that pastor’s family living outside the village. They are hungry!”
The deacon said, “But, Lord, I can’t do that! It’s below zero outside. My horse might freeze and I might freeze!”
The Holy Spirit told him, “You must go! The pastor’s family is in trouble!”
The man argued, “Lord, you’ve got to know that there are wolves everywhere. They could eat my horse and if they do, they’ll then eat me! I’ll never make it back.”
But the deacon said the Holy Spirit told him, “You don’t have to come back. You just have to go.”
So he did.” (The Insanity of God, p. 166-67).
Now, I know, you’re tired. You’re exhausted. And the path of discipleship in front of you isn’t as dramatic and moving as that is. It looks more like unloading the dishwasher and reading the Bible when you don’t feel like it. I know.
But here is my simple exhortation to those in Christ: don’t quit. Soldier on. Look to Christ.