FOLLOW ME II: “FOLLOWING JESUS”
Luke 9:21-23, Key verse: 9:23
“Then he said to them all, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’”
Through last Sunday’s lesson, we learned the way to be victors even through suffering. It seems contradictory to our human nature that there is great reward through suffering for Christ and his kingdom. How many times? 100 times as much, not only in the present age but in the age to come. Moreover, our present suffering is not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed. As disciples of Jesus, may God help us to learn to enjoy suffering for Christ and experience victory in our lives, especially during our final exam period.
As we read the whole Bible, we find that a few important teachings are repeated again and again. Repetition is the way to emphasize an important teaching. Today, we are going to touch the same part again, meditating in depth on the three primary commands of Jesus calling his disciples: deny yourself and take up your cross and follow Jesus.
Look at Luke 9 verses 20-21. “’But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Peter answered, “God’s Messiah.” Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone.” Peter confessed that Jesus is God’s Messiah. His confession was based on his personal experience about Jesus. He experienced the miraculous catch of fish when he obeyed Jesus though he had not caught any fish all night. When Jesus called him, he left his nets and boat to follow Jesus. He ate and slept with him, listening to his revolutionary teaching, “Love your enemy, do good to them!” He saw Jesus’ healing and driving out demons. He experienced how the wind and the waves calmed down at the command of Jesus, “Be quiet!” Moreover, Jesus raised a dead girl, saying, “My child, get up!” and one dead young man, saying, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” When Jesus asked, “What about you? Who do you say I am?” he took no time to answer, “You are God’s Messiah!” God sent Jesus as the promised Messiah to save all sinners from their sin.
But Jesus told his disciples not to tell anyone about this. At the beginning of Luke 9, Jesus sent 12 disciples to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. It seems strange that Jesus told his disciples not to tell anyone that he is God’s Messiah. When we know how the people of Israel had their own concept of the Messiah, we may be able to find the reason. They believed that the Messiah would come and liberate the people of Israel from the bondage of Rome, just as Moses delivered them from slavery in Egypt. Even though they saw Jesus and heard his message, some said of Jesus that he was John the Baptist; others Elijah, and still others, one of the prophets of long ago came back to life. It was because they did not have personal experience or relationship with Jesus. Without this personal confession that Jesus is God’s Messiah, no one can be a true disciple. Jesus did not come to save them from Rome but from their sins. Jesus did not come to save us from terrible job or make a better situation but save us from the bondage of the devil and bring us back to the kingdom of God. Amen!
Therefore, Jesus was teaching them the reason why he came to this world; what the Messiah came to do. Look at verse 22. “And he said, ‘The son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” The Messiah came to suffer many things, be killed and raised to life. In order to be God’s Messiah, Jesus had to go through suffering, death and resurrection. In this way, Jesus prepared his disciples’ hearts for that time, even though they could not understand his teaching right away. This is also the way the disciples of Jesus should follow. A life of suffering for Christ is the way of receiving the rewards of Christ.
According to verse 18, Jesus is telling his disciples three prerequisites. They need to listen to this in order to be a disciple. Look at verse 23. “Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’” Based on verses 10 and 18, Jesus said this to all the disciples, including the 12 apostles. “Whoever” means anyone and everyone, so these three teachings are basics for anyone or everyone who wants to be a disciple of Jesus.
I. Must deny oneself
What should they deny? In the Old Testament, there is one thing God told the people of Israel to deny themselves again and again. For example, in Leviticus 16:31, God said, “It is a day of sabbath rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance.” In Genesis 2:3, God created the Sabbath day, made it holy and rested from all his work. It was the day God told his people not to work but come to God and find rest in him through being forgiven and worshiping God as God, who brought them out of the bondage of Egypt into the Promised Land, and remind them God’s great hope for them to be a kingdom of priests and holy nation. In order to teach them not to worry but to rest on the Sabbath day, God trained them in the wilderness for 40 years. Here we learn that true rest starts from denying our natural desire to work due to worrying about our food but obeying God through trusting Him who provides. Amen!
In the New Testament there are two main things to deny. Romans 6:6 says, “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.” First, deny our old self. Our old self is our old way of life. We feel comfortable to live in our old way of life. It is often called our comfort zone. We do not want to come out of the comfort zone and we resist the change. But unless we come out of our old self, we cannot experience the new way of life. If we want to be a disciple of Jesus, we must come out of our old way of life. As we struggle to come out of our old self, we may have to face our sinful habits. In Christ, we may be free from the slavery to sin and learn to trust in God and grow in the holiness of God.
This is the reason why God called Abram to leave his country, his people and his father’s household. Abram’s country and his people were not necessarily bad and sinful people he had to leave. Rather, his family was the people whom he could depend on for protection and provision. But God asked him to leave them so that Abram could depend solely on God for every step of the way. It is like the new wine that should be poured into the new wineskins, and the old wineskins should be broken. What is your old self you must come out of in order to follow Jesus? Whatever hinders us not to depend on God may be our old self we must deny. It can be our old bad habits, as we used to follow the pattern of this world, which may lead us to sin. May God bless each one of us to come out of our old self, starting from one thing, and live a new life. This may be done not only once but in continuum, constantly renewing ourselves in Christ.
Secondly, deny our natural desires and thoughts. Ephesians 2:3 says, “All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.” We used to gratify our flesh desires and follow natural thoughts. It seems natural to eat when we are hungry and sleep when we are tired. But our desires and thoughts go beyond our limitations, craving what others have until we become a slave of envy and covetousness. When the desires grow in one’s heart and mind, one commit sins and even crimes, such as giving false testimony or stealing, or even murder. Therefore, when we live according to our natural desires without God, we cannot but accumulate God’s wrath. This is the reason why God gave the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel before they entered into the Promised Land, so that they could repent and live as people of God.
What are the consequences of living according to our natural and sinful desires? Romans 6:20-21 says, “When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. 21 What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death!” In fact, we are ashamed of our sinful way of life. We have suffered due to a guilty conscience and experienced the power of death, living in regret, despair, sorrow and hopelessness. What a miserable life it is!
Yet it is not easy to deny ourselves because it is abstaining from sinful desires. 2 Peter 2:11 says, “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.” When we make a decision to deny our sinful desires, there is a spiritual war against our soul. You are engaging a spiritual warfare against your sinful habit, trying not to lose you when you want to get out of it. Then how can we win the victory in this warfare? There is a way. It is to live according to the Spirit. Look at Romans 8:5, “Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.” We must learn to live according to what the Spirit desires. The Holy Spirit desires what Jesus desires. The Holy Spirit tells us the word of Jesus. The Holy Spirit convicts us of our sins, of righteousness and judgment. He advocates for us in our weaknesses. Therefore, we must ask ourselves what Jesus wants us to do in such a situation and pray to hear what the Spirit has to say. Moreover, Jesus promised us to give us the Spirit when we ask him. When we are filled with the Spirit, we desire love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Gal 5:22-23) When we are filled with the Spirit’s desires, our hearts and lives are transformed and renewed. May God bless each one of us to live according to the desires of the Holy Spirit, so that we can win the victory in our spiritual warfare, denying our sinful nature. Amen!
II. Take up their cross daily
There are many crosses we have to take while on earth. But fundamentally, we can divide them into two kinds of crosses. The first kind is the cross of human responsibilities, which are like being father or mother, son or daughter, employer and employee, student or teacher, and so on. No one can avoid taking at least one of these crosses. We often carry our responsibilities with our own strength. Usually there is an immediate consequence when we do not take the crosses. For example, if you do not study for your final exam as a student, you will suffer the consequences, getting a bad grade. Even if you really want to go somewhere and have a good time, you deny yourself and stay up all night to study. Yet, often there may be no eternal impact unless we carry these responsibilities for the glory of God.
The second kind is the cross of Jesus. Usually there are no immediate and visible consequences even if you do not carry this cross. Oftentimes no one even knows whether you did it or not, because it is not given by a human but by God. Most often we have to pray earnestly to carry this kind of cross because we cannot do it by our own strength and wisdom. Yet there is an invisible and eternal impact. What is the cross Jesus wants us to carry? It is the same cross Jesus carried while he was on earth. 1 Peter 2:21 says, “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example.” This is suffering for doing good. That is how Jesus lived; he suffered and died to save sinners, while being falsely accused. It is the mission Jesus gave us to go and make disciples of all nations. It is Jesus’ command to feed his sheep as he gave it to Peter.
This cross of Jesus is not easy to carry but it gives meaning and purpose of our life when we know that there is an eternal impact. When one person repents and accepts Jesus as their savior, crossing over from death to eternal life, I believe heaven rejoices. 1 Peter 5:10a, says, “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ.” What a wonderful life it is to carry such a glorious mission, making an eternal difference, through individual and communal contributions in a church!
In a church, how we contribute to the mission can be different based on the gift of God. Romans 12:4-6, “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy; do it cheerfully.” In other passages, we can find many more gifts, yet one thing is clear, that God gives each person the gift of the Holy Spirit in order to of build the body of Christ, the church. Just as our body has different parts with different functions, God did not call everyone to be an evangelist but gave different gifts to fill different functions in the church.
Sometimes, we wonder what kind of gift God has given to each of us to fill the functions in the church. Definitely, we need to pray about it and have some soul searching. Yet we need to start from the talent God has given to us and fan it into flame. Sometimes, God gives us his gift as we pray to care for the needy with compassion. Paul encouraged Christians to seek better gifts, as God gives those who seek. May God bless each one of us to carry the cross of Jesus, using our talents and gifts of the Holy Spirit, and make heaven rejoice. Amen!
III. Follow Christ
This is the last but most important among Jesus’ three commands. Even if we deny ourselves and take the cross of Jesus, if we do not follow Jesus, we are going in a wrong way. What does it mean to follow Christ? In John 12:26 Jesus says, “Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.” In this verse, if we want to serve Christ, we must follow him. Following Christ means being with him. It is like an apprentice who lives with one’s teacher in order to learn not only skills but also values and life as a whole. This is how the disciples of Jesus had done. They left everything in order to follow Jesus, living with Jesus and learning of him as a whole.
Likewise, we must make such a commitment. My life must be fully committed to follow Jesus and his teaching instead of the pattern of this world. This should be internal and external commitment; one’s heart and life. Apostle Paul used the analogy of an army; Jesus as a commanding officer and his disciple as a soldier, saying, “Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets entangled with civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer.” (2 Ti 2:3-4). Recently, one young man went to a bootcamp to be an airman, but he met so many who had struggled between desires to go home and to finish training. A few could not learn to follow their officers and were disqualified to be soldiers. Can you imagine sending an untrained and uncommitted airman to fly an F-15? If you are a command officer, what kind of soldier do you need to fight the war and win the victory? The well trained and fully committed Christian solder is the one who absolutely obeys the commanding officer Jesus Christ. Simply speaking, following Jesus is obeying Jesus’ words with an absolute attitude. Obedience to Jesus’ word is our expression of love. Through obedience to his word, we come to know the truth and the truth sets us free. Just like the Roman centurion in Matthew 8, we experience the power of Jesus’ word when we believe in the power of his word.
Moreover, Jesus set a wonderful example for us to follow! Even though he is the Son of God, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, and humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross. Often, we may feel like dying when we want to obey the word of God or the way of Jesus Christ. At that time, we must ask what we want to follow either the way of Christ or our own feelings. What did Jesus do in such a time of struggle? Jesus prayed at the Garden of Gethsemane until his sweat became like drops of blood, saying, “Father if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.” This is the way we must follow in order to deny ourselves and take up the cross daily. May God help me to have the same attitude of Jesus, so that I can deny myself and take the cross of Jesus through prayer. Amen!
What are the results of following Jesus as his disciple? First, fruit bearing life. John 15:8 says, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourself to be my disciples.” This fruit is not temporary and earthly but eternal and heavenly. They are the fruits of the Holy Spirit and salvation of souls through the disciples, which will last forever.
Secondly, become like Christ. Mt 6:40, “The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.” The highest goal of a disciple is to become like their teacher. This is also God’s ultimate desire for us, to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. (Romans 8:29). Apostle Paul’s highest goal was to be like Jesus, considering everything else garbage. Thus, he also set a good example for other disciples to follow.
Through today’s passage, we learned three prerequisites of being a disciple of Jesus; denying themselves and taking up their cross and following the word of Jesus and his example. In order for us to do so, we need the help of the Holy Spirit through prayer, just as Jesus prayed at the Garden of Gethsemane, saying, “Yet not my will but yours be done.” The result of such a disciple’s life is fruitful, bearing fruit of the Holy Spirit inside and raising disciples, which last forever. Ultimately, each one of us grows in the image of Jesus Christ as we are called to carry God’s mission, using the talents and gifts of the Holy Spirit! Amen!