follow Jesus to cross

The yoke and the burden of Christ are his cross. To go one’s way under the sign of the cross is not misery and desperation, but peace and refreshment for the soul, it is the highest joy. Then we do not walk under our self-made laws and burdens, but under the yoke of him who knows us and walks under the yoke with us. Under his yoke we are certain of his nearness and communion. It is he whom the disciple finds as he lifts up his cross. – Dietrich Bohnhoeffer


To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Matthew Part 56


Matthew #56 . Matthew 16:20-27

Last time we began to talk about the call of Jesus to take up the cross and follow him. Let’s review his words:

Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

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.

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.”

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.”

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 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?

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.

Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matt 16:20-28, ESV2011)

I admit, I was deliberately vague about what exactly it means to “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus.” Instead, last time we considered that this is indeed the call of Jesus, and in general it contradicts the values of the world around us. We also considered that the cross can bring us unexpected joy.

So this time I want to dwell on what, more specifically, is the call of the cross? What does it mean to follow Jesus by taking up our cross?

Before we do that, once again I want to thank you for listening, and remind you that we deeply appreciate your prayers for this ministry. I believe in the power of prayer, and I’m grateful for you asking our Father in heaven to use this ministry, to bless it, and to supply all our needs. I don’t want you think I’m requesting prayer as a covert way of asking for money. We really do value your prayers most of all. It is possible, of course, that as you pray, Lord leads you to give us some financial support. Obviously, if he does, please go ahead and do that. But if he doesn’t want you to give to us, that is absolutely fine. We don’t want you to feel bad about it. We want you to follow Jesus in this matter. But please do continue to pray for us, regardless.

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Now, back to the text. Let me start by clarifying what it does not mean. It is not ordinary human suffering. You may have heard the expression: “That’s just my own cross to bear.” That saying is almost always used wrongly, at least in the sense of what Jesus meant here. For instance, suppose someone with arthritis says, “This arthritis is my cross to bear.” That is not at all the kind of thing Jesus is talking about here. How do I know that Jesus didn’t mean things like arthritis? To put it bluntly, arthritis is painful and difficult, but is not a consequence of following Jesus. Jesus clearly tells us here that the cross is all about following him.

Not everyone has arthritis, but most people suffer in some way. This is true of people who follow Jesus and true of those who do not. Obviously, not all suffering is a consequence of being his disciple. Also it is important to realize Jesus doesn’t call us to have arthritis – sometimes things like that just happen because we live in a fallen world.

On the other hand, the cross is always about Jesus. So what does the call of the cross involve?

First, death to self. Jesus says we must deny ourselves and not seek to save our own lives, but lose our lives for his sake. This is not a call to suicide. But it is a call to make Jesus even more important than everything, including (perhaps especially) yourself. Ordinary flesh rebels at this thought. I mean, let’s be honest. For most us, the default “most important thing” is ourselves.

What could possibly motivate us to be willing to put the needs of someone else above our own? What could possibly induce us to be willing to even die for someone else? A few remarkable individuals might die for another for the sake of duty or honor. But I think for most of us the answer to those questions is: love. We can put the needs of another above our own needs as an act of love. We can die for another, say a spouse or child, motivated by love.

I think we need to understand the call of Jesus in this light. I think for most of us, the only way to do this is to love Jesus more than anything else.

Obviously, I am not talking about romantic/erotic love. I’m talking about making a choice and a commitment to value and honor Jesus above all else. The better we know him, the easier it is to do this. This is one reason it is so important for us to have regular habits of Bible reading, prayer, fellowship with other Christians, and regular, solid Bible teaching. These things help us to know Jesus better which help us also to love him better. They lay the only reasonable groundwork for being able to deny ourselves and follow him, even when it involves dying to our own desires, and perhaps even martyrdom. Matthew records that Jesus already said this once before:

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matt 10:37-39, ESV2011)

To sum up this point: the cross means that I love Jesus so much that I am truly willing to give up anything for his sake. This isn’t about feeling guilty when we fail to do so, but we need to live with an ongoing recognition that the focal point of the universe is Jesus, not ourselves, and not anyone else.

Another aspect of “taking up your cross” is that it means accepting shame and rejection and even sometimes persecution. It involves following in the footsteps of Jesus, who was (and is still) rejected and scorned by many people.

“If the world hates you, understand that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of it, the world hates you. Remember the word I spoke to you: ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will also keep yours. But they will do all these things to you on account of My name, because they don’t know the One who sent me. (John 15:18-21, HCSB)

This is part of the cross we take up to follow Jesus – that the people around will not understand, and in many cases will even hate us. I think sometimes it surprises us that Christians are considered by many to be hateful and bigoted. But if people slandered Jesus, why should we be surprised when we are slandered today?

For me, it has been a perplexing thing to have others who call themselves Christians speaking mockingly and hatefully about those of us who seem to be serious about following Jesus and believing the bible. However, it may be helpful for us to remember that those who first persecuted Jesus and his followers were religious people who claimed to be of the same faith as Jesus and the disciples. Saul (who later became Paul, the apostle) viciously persecuted the followers of Jesus in the name of God. I think today, more than ever for the past 500 years, we have a large number of people who are willing to call themselves Christian, but who also willfully ignore what the Bible teaches. It isn’t right, and it isn’t fair, but it is part of the cross of Jesus to be misunderstood, criticized, and ostracized even by others who claim to follow the same God.

Paul, who was both persecutor, and persecuted, notes this in many places. Here is a small sample:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but it is God’s power to us who are being saved. (1Cor 1:18, HCSB)

But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. (Gal 5:11, ESV2011)

But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom, because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1Cor 1:23-25, HCSB)

The cross of Christ means, among other things, that we will be considered foolish, dangerous, evil and offensive. This is happening more and more even in historically Christian-friendly societies. However, we in the West have not even begun to suffer when you consider how Christians are persecuted in other places around the world. Many countries have laws limiting the expression of Christian faith. Others include laws that make Christians “second class citizens.” From North Africa, east to Indonesia and north to China, there are Christians being imprisoned, physically assaulted and even killed for following Jesus. As far as I know, since Jesus was crucified and for two-thousand years since, at least some of his followers have been persecuted in at least some places in the world. Jesus said to expect it. This part of what it means to take up our crosses.

Not everything about taking up the cross is hard and negative. One thing that it means is that we are dead to sin. That should be positive and encouraging for us.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. (Rom 6:3-8, ESV2011)

Taking up our cross means that we recognize that in regard to sin, our flesh is as good as dead. The old sinner, Tom, has been killed with Jesus on the cross. I need to remember this, and trust that it is true, every day. I’m dead to sin. Sin has no relationship with a dead body, and sin has no relationship to me. Now, I am not claiming that I never commit sins, but the disease of sin has been killed in me, though some symptoms might linger. In the eyes of God, the sin problem is over. And so every day I need to take up my cross, and trust again that I am dead to sin, and live accordingly.

To sum it all up, when I take up my cross, I die to myself in order to live for Jesus. Paul says this so eloquently in Galatians 2:19-20

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Gal 2:19-20, HCSB)

I think it is important to understand that what many churches market as “Christianity” is really woefully lacking compared to what Jesus actually calls us to. Being a Christian is so much more than merely subscribing to a certain set of truths – though those truths are important. Instead, it is about selling out completely for Jesus Christ – loving Him with heart, mind, soul and strength, and dying to ourselves, dying to sin and being willing to undergo anything for His sake.

All this is not simply so that we can learn more about discipleship, instead, I want us to hear the invitation of the Lord here. All he needs from us is our willingness – he will take care of the rest. Martin Luther frames the call of Jesus to discipleship in this way:

Discipleship is not limited to what you can comprehend – it must transcend all comprehension. Plunge into the deep waters beyond your own comprehension, and I will help you to comprehend even as I do… You cannot find it yourself, so you must let me lead you as though you were blind men. Wherefore it is not you, no man, no living creature, but I myself, who instruct you by my Word and Spirit in the way you should go.

Now, I realize that all of this might sound a little bit “heavy.” But remember what we talked about last time: when we accept the cross we enter a life of joy. It is not the pleasure or comfort that the world seeks, but it is true joy. When we give up on ourselves, and accept the will of Jesus for our lives, we find a peace and grace and the joy that cannot be found any other way. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about this in his excellent book, The Cost of Discipleship. But Bonhoeffer did not just write about it, he lived it. Ultimately, he gave his life for the sake of Jesus; he was executed in Nazi Germany because his Christian faith was a threat to Hitler’s regime. When he speaks of the cross, and the cost of discipleship, he has authority, because he lived it. So, I think we can trust him when he shares about the strange joy that comes through accepting the cross of Jesus.

But Jesus invites all who travail and are heavy laden to throw off their own yoke and take his yoke upon them – and his yoke is easy, and his burden is light. The yoke and the burden of Christ are his cross. To go one’s way under the sign of the cross is not misery and desperation, but peace and refreshment for the soul, it is the highest joy. Then we do not walk under our self-made laws and burdens, but under the yoke of him who knows us and walks under the yoke with us. Under his yoke we are certain of his nearness and communion. It is he whom the disciple finds as he lifts up his cross.


self grave

We are not necessarily called to an life of increasing comfort and ease. We are not called specifically to get more and more financially secure. We aren’t even directly called to success, or even excellence. What we are definitely called to is the cross. A faith that says: “Yes I believe, but not so much that I would give up my life for him,” is not a faith that truly grasps who Jesus is.


To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Matthew Part 55



Matthew #55 . Matthew 16:20-27

I’m afraid that I’m going to have to take this section slowly also. Don’t blame me: blame Jesus, for saying such profound things. Let’s start with this:

And He gave the disciples orders to tell no one that He was the Messiah. (Matt 16:20, HCSB)

It is natural to read this, do a double take and then go “Say What?! Why wouldn’t he want people to know that he is the Messiah?” We have considered this briefly before, when Jesus told various people that he healed to keep silent about who healed them. In fact Jesus gives us a clue by what he says next:

From then on Jesus began to point out to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and scribes, be killed, and be raised the third day. (Matt 16:21, HCSB)

In fact, he says this partly as an explanation for why they should not tell people that he is the Messiah. As far as Jesus was concerned, there were three dangers with the disciples telling people he was the Messiah at this point. The first thing is that if enough people genuinely trusted him as Peter and the others did, no one would ever crucify him – and his crucifixion was a necessary part of his mission on earth. The other possibility is that his support among the people would grow so quickly that the authorities would have him killed before he was done training his apostles. Third, his work as the Messiah would not complete until the resurrection, the ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit. His disciples simply would not grasp the whole message until all that had happened. They really were not supposed to start evangelizing until Pentecost.

Next comes Peter’s misplaced rebuke:

Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, “Oh no, Lord! This will never happen to You! ”

But He turned and told Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me because you’re not thinking about God’s concerns, but man’s.” (Matt 16:22-23, HCSB)

Remember how just a few minutes earlier, Jesus was giving Peter the keys the kingdom? Here we discover that those keys can’t lock something that the Lord has already decided be opened, or unlock what the Lord has decided to close. I think this little exchange is extremely relevant in our world today. The essence of it this: Peter, thinking he has the authority of God to do so, is trying to bypass the cross. He is trying to assert man’s perspective, completely missing, and even possibly trying to reject, God’s view.

This is one of the reasons I find the prosperity gospel, with all its emphasis on success, so offensive. What is even worse is that many churches who do not preach “prosperity” still often (perhaps unwittingly) pick up on the “success mentality.” Bigger is always assumed to be better. More people, more followers, more money is assumed to mean more kingdom impact. For far too many people, externally measurable success must mean God’s approval.

Perhaps they forget that greatest impact ever had on earth for the kingdom of God was made by a single person who died alone, rejected and abandoned. Perhaps they forget that the Holy Spirit spread the gospel in the early days of Christianity by dismantling the Jerusalem mega-church and scattering its members all over the place (really. Read Acts 8). Perhaps they forget that Abraham was a nomad with no permanent home, or that the anointed king, David, wandered for years like a criminal in the wilderness, or that Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Daniel were rejected and persecuted, and very few people listened to them. The writer of Hebrews reminds of others who

experienced mockings and scourgings, as well as bonds and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they died by the sword, they wandered about in sheepskins, in goatskins, destitute, afflicted, and mistreated. The world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and on mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground. (Heb 11:36-38, HCSB)

The world was not worthy of them. Too often, we want to be worthy of the world, instead of realizing that the rejection of the world often is a sign that we are on the right path. Peter wanted to do things the world’s way. “We’ve got the Messiah. Now it’s on to glory! Come on, Jesus, no more of this nonsense about dying and being rejected – you’re the Messiah.” In the language of many Christians today, it might be something like this: “Your words have power. Don’t speak the negative. Speak only the good, and it will come to pass. Stop speaking about death and pain. This will never happen to you. Claim the victory!”

We want to go straight to the glory, and skip the pain. That’s understandable; it’s human nature. Even Jesus himself was tempted in that way. But we forget something that Jesus said right here: that the true path to glory always leads through the cross:

Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will find it. What will it benefit a man if he gains the whole world yet loses his life? Or what will a man give in exchange for his life? (Matt 16:24-26, HCSB)

Jesus never promised to enrich us in this life. He never said that everything would work out the way we want it to. He never said “Speak what you want and it will come into being.” He never said, “make it your goal to have a big church.” Instead, what he said was, “You want to follow me? Then deny yourself, your wants, and be ready to die to everything except me. If necessary, be ready to even physically die for me.”

Now, I am not trying to eliminate any hope you have for a better life now. We can find great joy, satisfaction, peace, love, grace and fulfillment in following Jesus, even in this life. But to follow Jesus in the first place, we have to deny ourselves and take up our cross. Joy in this life starts when we give up on the world’s way of doing things, and quit wanting what the world says we should want. To put it plainly, to get the joy that Jesus offers, we need to accept the cross.

Let’s look at the apostle Paul for an example. He did not live a life free from all trouble or hardship. He did not accumulate wealth, or have a nice house, or a great means of transportation (or anything equivalent to a nice car). For Jesus’ sake, he was beaten, imprisoned, slandered, and mocked. Even some of the people that he taught did not really respect him. He wasn’t considered an impressive public speaker. He started a number of churches, yet all of them were pretty small while he was in charge. Some of them apparently did not remain very spiritually healthy. A few them apparently didn’t last. He even had chronic health issues that were never cleared up (as far as we know). There is very little about Paul’s life that is attractive to the world. There are even very few Christians (at least in America) who aspire to be like Paul in these ways.

And yet, Paul, through his writing, records what he considers a good life. He was engaged in interesting, challenging and fulfilling work. He got to travel extensively. He found joy in his calling, and even in his daily experiences. From the outside, Paul’s life looks pretty tough. But from the inside, from his own perspective, he lived in joy.

And in this I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice because I know this will lead to my deliverance through your prayers and help from the Spirit of Jesus Christ. My eager expectation and hope is that I will not be ashamed about anything, but that now as always, with all boldness, Christ will be highly honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For me, living is Christ and dying is gain. (Philippian 1:18-21)

Paul wrote this while in prison, while other people were trying to take away his influence in the church! Even in these circumstances, he had joy. I don’t think it was a shallow happiness – it was an abiding sense that the life and power of Jesus in him were greater than the worst that the world could throw at him.

He wrote to the Corinthians:

We are pressured in every way but not crushed; we are perplexed but not in despair; we are persecuted but not abandoned; we are struck down but not destroyed. We always carry the death of Jesus in our body, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. (2Cor 4:8-10, HCSB)

He was not “living the dream life” at least, not as the world sees it, but he was living out the call of the cross: carrying the death of Jesus in his body so that the life of Jesus would also be revealed. He found great joy in living this way:

I have great confidence in you; I have great pride in you. I am filled with encouragement; I am overcome with joy in all our afflictions. (2Cor 7:4, HCSB)

The bible is very clear that we can have joy on the inside, regardless of what happens on the outside:

Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing. (Jas 1:2-4, HCSB)

Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have also obtained access through Him by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope. This hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Rom 5:1-5, HCSB)

Paul answered Jesus’ call to take up his cross daily and follow. He did find hardship in doing so. But he also found hope, peace and joy, time after time:

Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you believe in Him so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Rom 15:13, HCSB)

I wrote this very thing so that when I came I wouldn’t have pain from those who ought to give me joy, because I am confident about all of you that my joy will also be yours. (2Cor 2:3, HCSB)

I don’t say this out of need, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know both how to have a little, and I know how to have a lot. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content — whether well fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need. I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me. Still, you did well by sharing with me in my hardship. (Phil 4:11-14, HCSB)

We are not necessarily called to an life of increasing comfort and ease. We are not called specifically to get more and more financially secure. We aren’t even directly called to success, or even excellence. What we are definitely called to is the cross. It is true, the Lord promises glory – but that comes later. Jesus’ own life demonstrates that:

Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death — even to death on a cross. For this reason God highly exalted Him and gave Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow — of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth — and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:5-11, HCSB)

Yes, Jesus is now exalted, and he shall be even more exalted when every single soul confesses the truth of who he is, like Peter did. But before all that, he emptied himself in humility and obedience and suffered humiliation, rejection and death. We can’t skip the cross. The only path to glory is through it.

I want to take more time later and talk about specifically what it means to follow Jesus by taking up your cross. But for now, I think the first thing is to hear the call and respond to it. We need to understand that this foolishness in the eyes of the world. We need to give up our own ambitions and take Jesus on his terms, not our own.

It is a life involving sacrifice – what do “deny yourself” and “lose your own life” mean if not some sort of sacrifice? But Christians like Paul show us that when we take Jesus on his terms, when we give up our own, it is also a life of joy, wonder, fulfillment, peace and grace.

Too many Christians treat this as optional. We think, “I’ll agree that my sins need to be forgiven. I’ll gladly receive that forgiveness through Jesus. But this business about taking up my cross, denying myself, dying to self – that’s kind of extreme. That’s only for hard-core Christians.” And, God help us, too many of us pastors, fearing to lose church members, have let people continue to think this way. We’ve acted as if there is “Hard-core Christianity,” and “Christianity-lite.”

But listen again to Jesus:

Now great crowds were traveling with Him. So He turned and said to them: “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters — yes, and even his own life — he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. (Luke 14:25-27, HCSB)

Clear enough for you? There is no “Christianity-lite.” The call is let Him own your life.

You might say that this is the other side of the coin of belief. If we affirm Peter’s confession, with all that it means, then Jesus has the only claim on our ultimate allegiance. If we really believe Jesus is the Messiah, son of God, then we must believe that he has the right to ask everything of us; that nothing, not even our own desires, not even our own life on earth, should be more important to us than him. This is why there is no “Christianity-lite.” A faith that says: “Yes I believe, but not so much that I would give up my life for him,” is not a faith that truly grasps who Jesus is.

Imagine you are trapped in a burning building. Through the smoke and the flames a Firefighter emerges. He tells you that he has 15 years’ experience fighting fires; not only that, but the building you are in is owned by his Father and he knows it like the back of his hand. He says “Follow me, and I will lead you to safety. I may have to ask you to do some pretty scary things at certain points, and you’re going to have to trust me . But if you do what I say I promise you, you will be saved.”

So you follow the Firefighter as he leads you through smoky corridors and strange doorways. Suddenly you come to a place where the path in front of you is filled with flames and fallen debris. The Firefighter says, “the flames are not thick. Put this blanket over you, hold my hand, and I will take you through safely.” If you truly trust the Firefighter, you will do what he says.

But suppose, at this point, you balk and say, “No. I can’t do that, it’s too scary. I’m sure there must be some other way that you haven’t thought of.” The fact that you will not do what he asks reveals that, actually, you do not really believe that he knows the best way to save you. You can say that you believe he is a Firefighter with a lot of experience. You can say that you believe this is his Father’s building and he knows his way around. But if you won’t listen to him when things get tough, it shows that you only trust him as long as there is no risk involved. In fact, you don’t really believe what he has told you.

If Jesus is who he says he is, then he has the right to tell us to follow him through the cross. If he truly is “Messiah, son of God,” with all that it means (which we have studied these last few weeks) then when he says “take up your cross,” we can trust him. Believing that Jesus is Messiah, son of God means trusting him as calls us to the cross. They are one and the same thing. If he has the authority to call us to deny ourselves and even to die for him, then he must be the Messiah, the son of God. If he does not have the authority to do that, then he is not the Messiah, the son of God. The way we respond to this call of the cross reveals what we truly believe.

John records that many people, when confronted with these things, quit following Jesus:

After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:66-69, ESV2011)

Peter’s words here, as before, are words of faith. He truly believes that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, so what alternative does he have, but to follow him? There is no halfway-Christianity.

Now obviously, we struggle. There are days I whine and complain about having to deny myself. There are days I don’t deny myself. But I don’t think Jesus expects us to follow him perfectly. He knows that our minds and hearts are clouded by our battle with our own flesh, influenced by the sinful world and confused by the devil. What he wants is for us to be on the road of following him and not our own road. I am not just going along with him until his way diverges from what I want. I’m not walking with him only as long as the two of us are going the same direction. However imperfect and weak I am, I am his. I may fall down on the road while following him, I may sometimes have to stop and gather my courage, but I am not on some other road. I think that’s what he’s after.

Next time we will consider more thoroughly what it means to take up our crosses. But we don’t need to know any more than we do at the moment to say “yes” to Jesus.

Why don’t you ask the Holy Spirit right now to give you the strength to do that?

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At some point, anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian is faced with a call to daily deny himself or herself, die to self, be willing to actually die, and follow Jesus. This isn’t just theoretical. It will affect the way we relate to other people. It will affect what kind of jobs we take, and when and where we take them. It should make an impact on how much we indulge ourselves. It may even at some point cost us our lives.


To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Matthew Part 35



Matthew #35. Matthew 10:32-42

Remember, Matthew chapter 10 begins with Jesus sending his disciples out on a training mission. He gave them certain instructions, from which we can gain certain principles, and we looked at those already. Last time, we looked at the words of warning that Jesus gave his disciples. He told them to expect persecution and trouble. But he also gave them (and, by extension, us) many wonderful words of comfort and promise, words which we can hold on to in times of trouble.

After these comforting promises, Jesus begins with this: “Therefore…” One of my old Bible school teachers always used to say “What is that therefore there for?” It’s a useful little question. In this case, it is to remind us that what Jesus is going to say next is connected with what he has already said. In other words, because we have these warnings, and especially because we have these promises, Jesus says this:

“Therefore, everyone who will acknowledge Me before men, I will also acknowledge him before My Father in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father in heaven. (Matt 10:32-33, HCSB)

Jesus doesn’t simply say, “Acknowledge me before men.” He first gives us instructions, and a sure and beautiful promise of his presence and his grace to us in the middle of hard times. Considering those things, he now says, “All these promises are connected to me. To receive them, you must confess me. You must put me before all things.”

The Greek word that is here translated “acknowledge,” might also be “confess.” The two root words of the Greek term, put together, really mean “to say the same thing as,” or “to speak with.” Some translations make it “confess.” I like this better than “acknowledge.” We are to confess Jesus. Confession means not only to admit something, but also to agree with something or someone. We are to say the same things that Jesus says, to agree with him. Jesus makes it clear that we are to do so not only privately, but also in public.

Jesus goes on. He makes reference to a verse in the book of Micah, implying that it is a messianic verse and he is fulfilling it:

Surely a son considers his father a fool, a daughter opposes her mother, and a daughter-in-law is against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies are the men of his own household. But I will look to the LORD; I will wait for the God of my salvation. My God will hear me. Do not rejoice over me, my enemy! Though I have fallen, I will stand up; though I sit in darkness, the LORD will be my light. (Mic 7:6-8, HCSB)

He also says “Don’t assume that I came to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” This is one of those things Jesus said that many people don’t seem to know about. You don’t have to go far to hear Christians and non-Christians alike saying, “Why do conservative Christians have to stir up so much trouble? Christians are supposed to get along with everybody. It isn’t Christian to cause controversy.” In light of these verses, I guess maybe Jesus wasn’t a Christian. He is quite clear: He is a polarizing personality; those who follow him will find themselves at times embroiled in conflict, even within their own families. This isn’t an endorsement of violence in any way, shape or form. It isn’t a license to be rude, or to bully. But Jesus does want us to recognize that following him can lead to controversy and difficult relationships.

I don’t believe I’ve ever heard this preached by anyone else before. But obviously, it is right here in the text. If Jesus said anything at all, he said this as well. We can’t ignore it. These days, when we agree with (that is, confess) the things that Jesus said, or the things that his Holy Spirit inspired his apostles to write, it is easy to draw flak. If we agree with the Bible about what the Holy Spirit calls “sin,” we are called hatemongers. If we agree with what Jesus actually said about himself, we are called narrow-minded and intolerant. Following Jesus does indeed lead us to be peaceful and loving. But it does not mean that others will see us that way, or even that our lives will be free from conflict with those who do not follow Jesus or his word.

Now, Jesus ratchets it up a notch. Not only does he suggest that following him can lead us into conflict, but he demands that when there is a conflict, we choose him above anything and anybody else.

The person who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; the person who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. (Matt 10:37, HCSB)

It’s easy to breeze through these words of Jesus. But hold on a minute: we are supposed to choose Jesus even above our own children? That is what He says here. Now obviously, much of the time we are not faced with choices like this. Following Jesus is usually compatible with loving our children. But Jesus is saying, flat out, that we should always love him more than we love our own children, or anyone else for that matter.

Let’s step back a minute and look at this message. This is not merely a great moral teaching about loving other people. It is, in fact, a demand that we love Jesus, and that we do so at a higher level than we love anyone else. Unless Jesus is God, this teaching is either nonsense or pure evil. There is no sense in which Jesus is saying “Follow your own path to enlightenment.” He is not saying, “Follow me, follow Buddha, it makes no difference as long as you are sincere.” He is not saying, “Just love everybody else and you’ll be fine.” Instead, he is clearly saying: “Everything comes down to how you relate to me. I am the basis upon which you must prioritize your life and make your decisions.” To put it another way, the central teachings of Jesus are about himself. No wonder he was such a polarizing figure.

Next he says this:

And whoever doesn’t take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. Anyone finding his life will lose it, and anyone losing his life because of Me will find it. (Matt 10:38-39, HCSB)

Over the years, this little part of what Jesus said has morphed into this: “I have my own cross to bear.” But this is not at all the meaning that Jesus had in mind. It’s true, each person has their own unique struggles in life; I think it’s fine to recognize that. But when Jesus was talking about taking up our cross, he wasn’t talking about that. This was the period in history when the Romans used crucifixion as a method of execution. Typically, if the condemned person was healthy enough, he had to carry the instrument of his own death to the place of execution. In other words, condemned people could be seen from time to time carrying the crosses upon which they were to be killed. To carry a cross was to be on your way to death. So when Jesus tells us that we must pick up our crosses and follow him, he is saying that we must follow in his example of dying.

I think it is appropriate to understand that Jesus means, among other things, that we must die to our own ambitions, comforts, and goals. Jesus actually repeats this teaching again later on in his ministry. Luke records that the second time Jesus said it, it was “let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” I think this definitely captures the meaning. Taking up our cross means that we deny ourselves. We don’t deny ourselves just to show that we are self-disciplined, but we put Jesus’ goals and ambitions and desires for us ahead of our own. I think it’s useful that Luke says this needs to happen “daily.” But even more than dying to our own desires, right here, Jesus is telling us that in order to follow him we need to be willing to go as far as actual physical death. Throughout the past 2000 years, many Christians have been faced with the choice to either deny Jesus or give up their physical lives. I live in a time and a place where that is unlikely to happen, even so, Jesus wants my willingness. Not even continuing to live should be more important to me than Jesus Christ. As Jesus says, if you save your own life, by compromising your relationship with him, you have actually lost it.

In the next few verses Jesus’ claim is emphasized once more. He says that he is so central to everything, that when people offer respect, regard, or even a cup of water, to his followers, because they are his followers, they will be rewarded. The point here is not the reward, it is the fact of people recognizing who Jesus is and honoring that in the way they relate to his followers. It is about honoring Jesus.

I hope you understand that these words of Jesus are confrontational. He is presenting us with a choice: does he have the preeminent place in our lives? Do we love him more than we love anyone else? Is Jesus our number one priority? He is claiming here that he should be. This isn’t about following a moral code, it isn’t about living according to some sort of principle. It is about making Jesus Christ, the person, number one in our lives.

When controversy comes because you confess Jesus Christ, or you agree with what he says, what is your response? It isn’t wrong to seek peace with those with whom you disagree. But when peace is impossible, when agreement cannot be reached, Jesus unequivocally calls us to side with him.

At some point, anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian is faced with a call to daily deny himself or herself, die to self, be willing to actually die, and follow Jesus. This isn’t just theoretical. It will affect the way we relate to other people. It will affect what kind of jobs we take, and when and where we take them. It should make an impact on how much we indulge ourselves. It may even at some point cost us our lives.

Now of course, we can’t be perfect in putting Jesus first. I know I fail to do that in many ways. I believe Jesus offers me grace and forgiveness when I fail. But I do think he wants me to make the choice to put him above everything, even if at times I fail in following through. It is good to know, that my failures are not the final word.

Once again, we do not have the comfortable choice of viewing Jesus as a kind, harmless moral teacher. In some ways, he has been at the center of controversy for the past 2000 years. We can reject what he has said here, and call him a lunatic, or a megalomaniac. Or, we can receive him as our Lord, take up our crosses, and follow him.



To listen to the sermon, click the play button:


To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Living in Reverse Part 8


If Jesus is really going to live his life through us, it can’t be only on Sunday mornings. It can’t be just when you have your quiet time with God each day. It can’t be only Sunday mornings, quiet times and small group meetings. It can’t be only after work. It can’t be only on weekends or mission trips.

You see, in America especially, we tend to have our own goals and ambitions, and we try to wedge God into our life as one piece of a very full pie. We’d be quite happy to let Jesus have more of us, but we just don’t have the time. Our plates our full. Our time and energy is used up.

I want to challenge you to be honest with yourself for just a moment. What is it all for? What is your time used for? What do you spend your energy on? What is your busyness accomplishing? Jesus said:

“My kingdom is not of this world,” said Jesus. “If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. As it is, My kingdom does not have its origin here.” (John 18:36, HCSB)

Yet, we seem to be fighting and struggling to make ourselves and our loved ones a comfortable place in this world. We can’t have both our own agenda, and the agenda of Jesus.

When I graduated from High School, the senior class had an official all night party. To make things more fun (as the organizers said) we were given fake money. We could beg for more, play games for more, or make trades. At the end of the night we could use the fake money to bid in an auction for real things, like a $100 gasoline card or even a motor scooter.

A friend of mine set his heart on the motor scooter. He spent all night working like crazy to get more fake money, so he could bid on the scooter. He hardly saw his friends. He hated card games, but he played endlessly to get more fake money.

At the end of the night he had a nice little pile of fake money. Even so, a few other people pooled their fake money, and outbid everyone else, including my friend. When it was all over, he threw his fake money in the garbage, and walked away with nothing but the memory of a wasted night.

There are several key differences between my senior class party and life as we know it. One of them is that, at the end of it all, you cannot use this world’s money, goods or accomplishments to bid on anything real that lasts for eternity. What we “gain” on earth is worth even less than the fake money at that party was worth. Remember what we learned through this series on living in reverse: “Don’t work for food that perishes!” (John 6:27)

Many of us who are grown ups, and particularly Christians, have started living for our kids. We aren’t living selfishly, we are truly not. We are sacrificing our time and energy and possessions for our children. That can’t be a bad thing, can it?

I want to be compassionate and flexible here, but also bold and honest. Sometime we say we are sacrificing for our children, but we are simply using them as an excuse for why we need to work longer hours or make more money. A lot of kids would be happier with less stuff, fewer opportunities and activities and more time with their parents. Some kids know this consciously. Others don’t know they would be happier that way, because everyone else runs around busy too, and they’ve never known anything different.

Some of what we say we are doing for the sake of our children doesn’t make that much sense in the long run. When my son was nine years old, we got him involved in a local community baseball team. They practiced for two hours every Saturday. They played two evening games a week, each one usually lasting about 90 minutes. By the time we drove back and forth everywhere, we were spending about eight hours a week for a nine year old child to play a game that was he somewhat indifferent about. If we had done that for every child in our household at the same time, we would have spent almost the same amount of time as a full time job, just keeping our children in sports.

99.8% of people will never be professional sport players. The skills we encourage our kids spend countless hours developing are for playing games. I know sports teach things like hard work and teamwork and integrity. But do you honestly think that kids can’t learn those things from you, in your family at home? I guarantee you that as a child, Abraham Lincoln did not play on a school team, nor a traveling team for any sport. I am certain that the apostle Paul didn’t either, nor Jesus himself, nor Martin Luther or Florence Nightingale or any of the people who truly shaped the world in which we live today.

Sometimes sports may be a way to college scholarships, I understand that. I can’t say too much about that, since I have no idea how my kids will pay for college. But I do know this: If Jesus, living his life through them, wants to go to college, he’ll go. He’ll make a way for them. But if I haven’t taken the time to teach them about Jesus, to let them develop an life that comes from within, from His Spirit, then even if they get a fully paid scholarship to Yale, I’ve failed.

I want to say one more thing. It isn’t uncommon for a family to spend ten, twenty or even more hours per week on activities and sports. If that is you, let me ask you, what are teaching your kids, by focusing so much on external activities? Do you spend an equal amount of time teaching them to read the bible and pray and listen to the Lord? Do you teach them how to be content and to draw life from the Lord when there is nothing going on externally?

Sometimes the reason we are so busy is because we are trying to get life out of external things. David Wilcox has a great line in the song Hurricane. He writes: “When hope is gone, she confessed, that when you lay your dream to rest, you can get what’s second best, but it’s hard to get enough.”

When we try to get life externally, we need a lot of external activity, a lot of external things going on. It’s hard to get enough, because it isn’t real life. Our busyness is often a cover up, a way to avoid dealing with the fact that we are missing the internal life. And by our busyness, we often are teaching our children to seek life externally also.


Continue reading “THE WHOLE PIE”