Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
What does it mean to take up your cross daily? I’m going to give you two interpretations and you can choose.
Interpretation #1: Jesus is preaching self-denial
“Following Christ is all about self-denial and going without. If you are not in the daily habit of denying your appetites and desires, you are not a real Christian. The more you deny your needs and wants, the holier you’ll be. So fast everyday and you’ll be just like Jesus.”
Heard this one?
It’s a common interpretation but it has a big flaw. Abstaining from food, Facebook, or fun won’t make you righteous and holy. Not even a little bit. (It might make you religious.)
This message of self-denial is nothing more than the ancient practice of asceticism dressed up in religious jargon. It is a message that promotes Pharisaical self-righteousness and DIY religiosity.
Another problem with this interpretation is it will leave you anxious and insecure.
“Have I denied myself enough?”
You can never know. So you’d better deny yourself some more, just to be safe.
“Don’t touch, don’t handle, don’t taste.”
Pretty soon you’ll be whipping yourself and asking your friends to crucify you for the Easter parade.
Jesus did not suffer and die on the cross so you could join him in suffering. That’s not good news. Jesus died so that we might be free from this sort of dead and useless religion.
Interpretation #2: Jesus is showing us the way to salvation
And who is the way? Jesus is. When Jesus says, “Follow me,” he’s saying the way to salvation is through him and his cross.
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me… (Gal 2:20a)
The reason most Christians struggle to live the Christian life is they do not know they have died with Christ. Yet Paul says so again and again.
“You died with Christ” (Col 2:20).
“We died with Christ” (Rom 6:8).
“We died” (2 Cor 5:14).
When you were baptized or placed into Christ, you were baptized into his death (Rom 6:3). This may be the single most important thing that ever happened to you, yet many Christians are unaware of it. And since they don’t know that they died with Christ, they are constantly trying to die.
One more time for emphasis: The gospel declares, “You died.”
You have been crucified with Christ. The person you used to be – dead in sins and alienated from the life of God – no longer lives, but Christ lives in you.
“But if I died with Christ already, why does Jesus say we must take up our cross daily?”
Note that the word daily is only found once in the three accounts of Jesus’ words. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and…
…take up his cross and follow me. (Matt 16:24)
…take up his cross and follow me. (Mark 8:34)
…take up his cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:23)
Why does Luke say daily while Matthew and Mark do not? “Luke is wrong,” says Adam Clarke. “Or at least our English translations of Luke are wrong, for the word ‘daily’ is not in some of the original manuscripts.”
Adam Clarke may be right. I wouldn’t know. I don’t have the original manuscripts. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume Mr. Clarke is wrong and our English Bibles are correct. What then?
Why does Luke say daily?
My view is that Luke isn’t contradicting Matthew and Mark; he’s saying the same thing with gusto. He’s saying we ought to appreciate the finished work of the cross every day.
When I get out of bed in the morning and put my feet on the floor, my left foot says, “Thank you, Jesus,” and my right foot says, “For the cross.”
It’s because you have died with Christ that you live in union with him. This is a great treasure and not something to take for granted.
“Paul, are you saying that if I stop valuing the cross I’ll lose my salvation?”
Not at all. I’m saying if you have been born of the spirit, learn to walk by the spirit.
We don’t die daily – once will do the trick – and we don’t get born again every day. But every day we get to choose whether we walk after the flesh or the spirit.
Say you hear a message that says you need to fast and pray to become spiritually mature. You decide to fast and pray. Bam! You are no longer walking by the spirit. You are no longer trusting in the grace of God. You are trusting in your own fasting and praying to make you mature.
Where does the Lord fit in this picture? He doesn’t, and that’s the problem. Dead religion is a faithless way to live.
“Walking after the flesh” doesn’t necessarily mean running around getting drunk and doing bad stuff. For the Christian, the flesh takes on the subtler guise of good works, duty, and self-improvement.
What does it mean to die to self?
The phrase “die to self” is not in the Bible. Jesus spoking of denying self which is different.
When we hear that we have to die to self we think, “I have to stop being who God made me to be. I have to pretend I’m somebody else – someone who doesn’t enjoy wine, one woman, and song.” That’s a dehumanizing doctrine of demons.
God made you unique. He gave you good dreams and desires that no one else has. When you suppress your God-given dreams and desires, the world is impoverished.
To deny yourself means “Trust Jesus instead of yourself.”
It means live each and every day out of the glorious relationship you have with the Lord. Don’t fall back to the inferior ways of the flesh that you walked in when you were an unbeliever, but stand firm in the freedom of Christ.
This is the point Luke was trying to make. The trusting life is an adventure and it’s good to daily remind yourself that “God is for me. How can I fail?”
Conscious of your loving Father’s acceptance and approval, you will soar on eagles’ wings. And when you apprehend, by faith, the inexhaustible riches of his grace, the whole world benefits.
Why would you want to waste one single day living any other way?
Why crawl when you can fly?
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