Deny Myself, Take Up My Cross, and Follow Jesus?
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Before I begin this devotional, I want to point out a fact: Matthew 16:24 has happened, for every believer, and it came to pass in the spiritual realm by faith. New Testament letters, which were written subsequently to this quote by Christ, are riddled with this truth. Here’s a couple explanations from Paul:
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (See Galatians 2:20)
The I in this sentence is referring to Paul’s old, sinful spirit. It died, and he received a new, sinless spirit, who is now combined with Jesus’ Spirit.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
So let’s continue, knowing that we have been crucified with Christ so that we can become one with Him as a new creation! Christian, that is what you currently are!
In the 1990’s a popular phrase came out, “WWJD,” which meant “What Would Jesus Do?” Most of us know this, but some of the younger people do not. It was everywhere. Merchandise flooded the market with WWJD on it–shirts, hats, bracelets–even celebrities were sporting these four letters.
“What would Jesus do?” was used in sermons and sarcasm, it sounded really neat. But doing what Jesus did is literally a death sentence if we are wanting to be exactly like Him in our actions. Ultimately, what did Jesus do? He sacrificed His perfect life for the sin of the world. We can’t do that–and we aren’t supposed to try. Further, God doesn’t grade us on a curve as we try.
We cannot do what Jesus did. As much as those six words will upset the Type A temperament, this is reality. I understand this as true because I’m more Type A than anyone I know: driven, competitive, sitting still isn’t easy, if you’re going to do something do it in the most excellent way possible no matter the time or energy it takes. Always be learning. Always be busy.
When this personality type isn’t balanced by way of the Holy Spirit’s guidance, life can be miserable. We never find rest in our minds. But when we are allowing ourselves to be led by Him, He teaches us how to be well-balanced; how to enjoy not just the big accomplishments but the little things. Life is then very enjoyable and fulfilling, after we enter this rest in Him, in our thinking.
The enemy wants us to have thoughts that we can do what Jesus did. Why? Because he wants us to believe we’re doing a great job at it–or a terrible job–either way, as long as we don’t have rest. Denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Jesus is fair game to this demonic dingleberry and his crew of nitwits. Mastery or martyr, it is when we become obsessed with our “own sacrifices” we’ve veered off the path of grace in our thought life. Bad things happen in this ditch, and we got there because we were taught we can do what Jesus did–yet we can’t. Even God isn’t expecting us to.
We are branches, not the vine. Branches don’t say, “What would the vine do?” nor do they try to be vines. They don’t even try to be branches, they simply live their lives by way of the vine (see John 15:5).
Friend, our job as Christians is not to imitate a historical Jewish teacher. Our job is to allow His Spirit to live through us. Rather than WWJD, a better phrase would be WIJDTM–“What Is Jesus Doing Through Me?”
Truth be told, if we are to copy-cat Jesus, some bad stuff will happen because He came to straighten out lots of legalistic people’s theology–in very harsh ways. I’ve never been successful at doing this. Not once.
He flipped the tables of those who were cashing in on the Law of Moses (see Matthew 21:12). He blatantly overrode everything the Jews taught (see Matthew 5:21-48). The people who believed their wonderful behavior was causing them to be right in God’s eyes? Jesus destroyed them, verbally. Here’s some of what He said:
“You snakes! You brood of vipers!” (See Matthew 23:33)
“You belong to your father, the devil” (See John 8:44)
“You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (See Matthew 23:27)
“It would be better if you were never born” (See Matthew 26:24)
Keep in mind, Jesus is not chastising those who were caught in what the modern church would say is, “Nasty sinnin’!” oh no. This stuff is being shouted toward devout religious people; self-centered men and women who refused to find their identity in Christ alone. They hated Him for calling them out, so much so, they killed Him. Religion was more important than the very Messiah spoken about in their religion, who was meant to set them free from religion (John 5:37-40, 11:53). This continues today in churches across the world.
So are we supposed to call people snakes? Should we say they are dead on the inside, or that they should’ve never been born?…No. That’s what Jesus would have done. He’s not expecting us to do the same, despite what an angry, slobbery preacher is shouting.
While Jesus was convicting religious people of their sin on that side of the Cross, we are supposed to allow His Spirit to exude His loving character on this side (see Galatians 5:22,23, 1 Corinthians 13:4-8). We are supposed to be ready to give an account for the hope of the gospel, expressing this truth with gentleness and respect (see 1 Peter 3:15). This takes time to learn, especially when we’ve been hurt by self-righteous people, but it is possible.
How do we pull this off? By simply being ourselves–not by denying ourselves, but by being ourselves. We are not supposed to do everything Jesus did–especially denying ourselves.
An inquisitive person might retort, “Okay, Matt. I like what you have to say here, it makes sense. But what about that verse you mentioned? The one where Jesus talks about denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Him?”
I love this particular Bible verse because Christ is teaching an impossible task which is always meant to bring relief. For most of my Christian life I didn’t understand anytime He taught an impossibility, Jesus was attempting to guide the listeners toward grace. Rule of thumb: if we can’t do it perfectly, literally, then don’t even try. Instead, believe in His ability to do it on our behalf.
Unfortunately, this passage has been used for centuries by uber-religious, behavior-focused people who believe they are actually doing this. They’re not, and that was Jesus’ whole point.
Let’s lay out the Scripture in question and unfold the truth:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)
Just like any Bible verse which is taken out of context, this too can be deceiving if we don’t read around it. The grace-confused folk don’t want to do this because out-of-context Scripture fits their sanctimonious lifestyle perfectly. But let’s overlook that and start back up at verse 21:
“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the Law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
It’s easy to see that Jesus is explaining the severity of what is about to happen. This is not a call for the disciples to do the same thing. Instead, it’s meant to point out that they can’t do this. Think about it, if they could do this–suffer, be killed, and raised on the third day to pay for sins–and Jesus was instructing them, “Follow me with your cross so you can be sacrificed too,” then there would have been a total of 13 crucifixions. Actually, 12, because Judas wouldn’t have done it. Satan was in his heart (see Luke 22:3).
Do you see it, friend? Christ is telling them what they can’t do. They can’t deny themselves, they can’t take up their crosses, and they can’t follow Him. So 2,000 years later He’s not telling you to do this either. Just look at what Peter said to Him in verse 22; he had no interest in anyone being crucified, especially Jesus:
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
Jesus followed up Peter’s plea with a pretty bad burn:
Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” (Matthew 16:23)
Peter wasn’t Satan, obviously. But Christ knew who was influencing such a thought–the devil. This is another reason why we shouldn’t do what Jesus did, that is, calling people the devil. I’ve tried that one and did not get a favorable result.
In the next verse–when Jesus said they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Him–He is explaining what it would take for them to do what only He can do. He’s expressing the impossibility of anyone being able to pay off the sins of the world. Who could do such a thing? Only the Messiah, only one Cross, only one Sacrifice…only one Person denying Himself…Jesus.
He had to deny Himself because He didn’t deserve to die. He was perfect in every way and only imperfect people deserve death (see Romans 6:23). This passage is not for us, but for Himself. Jesus never sinned and He knew that, so He was denying Himself of not having to paying for our sins. If Jesus Christ didn’t deny Himself, none of us would have a chance to become one with God (see 2 Corinthians 5:21, Hebrews 12:2).
Therefore, on this side of the Cross–as New Covenant believers, with new, perfect hearts–we don’t need to deny ourselves because Jesus already did this for us. He denied Himself so we wouldn’t have to. To be clear, I’m speaking to Christians, those who have a new spirit with Christ indwelling them. You can become a Christian this very moment by believing He’s forgiven you of your sins (see John 1:12, 3:16-18).
On this side of Calvary, we are not denying ourselves! We are supposed to be living life to the fullest! We are supposed to be expressing our true nature as holy people! Children of God! Saints! There is no cross to take up! It was already taken up! Everything’s been finished by Christ denying Himself of never tasting death due to sin! (See 2 Peter 1:4, Ephesians 2:10, John 10:10, 19:30, Colossians 1:22, 2:10, Philippians 2:8).
So today, my friends, know this: If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, never deny yourself. Instead, be yourself! You have no cross to take up, Jesus already took it up! You are not following Jesus, either. That’s what the disciples did physically and literally. You have something so much better! You are united with Him forever! (See 1 Corinthians 6:17, Colossians 3:3, Romans 6:5).
A prayer for you: Heavenly Father, thank you for opening up my eyes to the context of Jesus’ words in the gospels. For so long, I didn’t understand that if He was teaching an impossible task it was to help us realize that only HE could complete that task FOR us–by way of faith. He set people up all the time with hopeless assignments, attempting to funnel their belief toward grace. Thank you SO much for helping me discern this! He really did come to give us rest! Right now, I lift up all who are reading this, directly to you. So many of these dear readers have been taught they need to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Jesus–but this was NOT instructions for Christians. We could never pay for the sins of the world by doing such a thing, only He could! We are grateful to be able to express His Spirit within us! Amen!
This devotional is from my upcoming book, The Christian Identity, Volume 1. Check out my other bestselling books here!