“Take Up Your Cross and Follow Me…”

A few days before he was to be crucified, Jesus declared:

 

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour (John 12:‬23‭-‬27).”

 

Jesus was that kernel of wheat falling to the ground. He accomplished what no one else could, and through the death he died his name was glorified forever. If he had not died he would have remained a single seed, a solitary Son of God, and the family of God would not have grown to include anyone other than him and the Father. Think about that: all of the patriarchs and prophets who came before him would have lived their lives in vain. If he had not died, it would have been pointless for his disciples to have left everything behind to follow him. Abraham and Moses, who were referred to as God’s friends, would not be merely sleeping now, they would be dead, forever, with no hope for resurrection. Jesus died so that they might join him in eternal life. He died to offer you the same opportunity. But, as is true with every opportunity, there is a cost. The passage above shows that sacrifice is required of all, whether a person believes in God, or not. It is only a question of whether you choose to sacrifice the now, or the later. If you place the greatest value on the things which you can gain from the material world, your life, along with everything you acquire in it, will inevitably be lost. But those who would willingly give up their life to follow the Lord will inherit all things, for all eternity. According to the Lord’s own words, then, where are would-be disciples obligated to follow him to? What was the way to the place where he was going? Luke 9:18-23 is a Scripture which shares the theme of this passage in John, and it makes it clear that Jesus meant his disciples must be willing to figuratively follow him to the cross, so let’s read together what it says:

 

“Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.” “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. 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.”  Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.””

 

The interaction began with two questions, and was followed by two statements of fact. The first question (“Who do the crowds say I am?”) encompassed the world at large, in Christ’s day. The general populace regarded Jesus as a noteworthy person, someone on par with John the Baptist, Elijah, or a resurrected prophet — important, perhaps — but still just a man. As a side point, it’s worth mentioning that this whole interaction recorded in verses 18-23 occurred sometime shortly after the twelve disciples had returned from being sent out to the people to preach the kingdom of God, raise the dead, heal the sick and cast out demons. Having just recently returned from that mission, the disciples would have certainly been well qualified to report on the public’s estimation of Jesus. So Jesus then directs the same question to his disciples, as if to say, [Having now seen all that you have just seen, and having now done all that you have just done,] “who do you say I am?” Peter’s response was that Jesus was not just a man, he was the Savior of Man, sent from God. His response establishes a fundamental difference between the viewpoint and belief of the followers of Christ in contrast to that of the rest of the world. Those who believe without any reservation that Jesus is the Messiah, the only way of salvation, and who also believe that the reward of eternal life in God’s kingdom is greater than anything that can be obtained in this world, willingly forsake everything to follow him. Those who doubt hesitate to do so. Having thus established this key difference, Jesus proceeds with the first statement, disclosing the imminent reality that, as the Son of God, he was going to suffer many things, be killed, and then be resurrected. Which brings me to his follow-up statement, the second of the two realities — one that is on-going, and perpetually current — and the focal point of this message:

 

“Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”

 

How much time have you spent reflecting upon what that means? I ask because the answer to that question leads to a more penetrating one: how much do you really want to know, and fully understand, what it means? To deny yourself means losing sight of your own interests; it means forsaking your very nature. But, even with the help of the spirit of God, that is not something that is easy to do. By nature, people prefer personal comfort over sacrifice, and yet the more a person understands about the sacrifice that is expected of them, the more they become responsible for offering it. So it is perhaps not unusual for people to read over the command to take up their cross without really thinking too deeply about what obeying it entails: and therefore there are few people who ever commit themself to serving God to the degree the Lord requires. To those who would say that I am being uncharitable when I state that there are few people who will fully commit themself to taking up their cross daily, I refer you to Luke 10:1‭-‬2, which states:

 

“After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

 

To paraphrase the Lord’s words, there’s a whole world out there ignorant of the true nature of God, and His Kingdom — no shortage of brothers and sisters in need of salvation — but where are the servants who are qualified and willing to do the work? Oftentimes the problem isn’t that we don’t want the kingdom of God to arrive — most people would like to reap the benefits and blessing of its peace and unity — the problem is that we don’t want it enough now to sacrifice our own desires in order to dedicate ourselves completely to its work. We hesitate to make laboring to serve God our primary purpose. But read what the apostle Paul willingly endured in order to do the work of God. It’s recorded in 2 Cor. 11:23-29. Based upon what he suffered, and how he lived his life, how confident would you be that his desire to serve God was genuine? Did his deeds reveal his faith — did they prove that his convictions about the kingdom of God were real to him? It’s easy to say ”I want to serve God,” but do your actions, does your life, supply credibility to those words? If they do not, a re-evaluation of priorities is called for. Think of everything you are currently striving for in your life, and everything you hope to gain from your efforts, in the context of Jesus’s question from Luke 9:25:

 

“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?”

 

Are any of the things you’re currently working for worth more to you than your soul — than eternal life? If your answer is no, are you then living like the kingdom of God is the ultimate reality, or is your life indistinguishable from that of a citizen of this world? Jesus willingly gave his life to show that there is a greater life beyond this one, so that through faith in him we might be encouraged and inspired to follow him to that Promised Land, despite the fact that in this life “we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22).” And as we read in John 12:27, his death was the culmination of his entire life’s purpose. Therefore, if you are called a Christian, as his follower, what is your purpose? Why were you called? Individual answers as to purpose may vary, but the word of God supplies answers which apply to every believer, every true Christian. One such answer is found in 2 Corinthians 5:15:

 

“And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”

 

Anyone whom the Father calls is called to live a life of service to the Son. What, then, are the aspects of a life lived for him? One example of what the Lord’s service entails is found in 1 Peter 2:20‭-‬21:

 

But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”

 

Peter plainly states that part of the work a Christian is called to do is to be willing to suffer for doing good and to endure it for the cause of advancing the gospel of the kingdom of God. Doing so is part of taking up your cross, daily, to follow the Lord. Continuing on with verses 22-24 he provides a more specific example of how Christ suffered for the sake of righteousness:

 

“He [Jesus] committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.  When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.”

 

The Greek word translated here as healed means “made whole.” A person who is ”whole” can be considered to be fully integrated — they have no internal division, no disconnected or uncoordinated aspects to their personality — everything in them is working in “oneness” for a unified purpose. Consider that in light of Peter’s statement here about the Lord: ”When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” If someone insults a person, what prompts the other to retaliate? Is it not because their pride has been injured, and they feel a need to answer the injury? How natural it is for us to mirror back to others the ill treatment we receive from them! But when Jesus was insulted, although he may have been grieved by the unwarranted accusations of men, he never responded in kind because he trusted fully in the just judgment of God, and was completely secure in the love his Father has for him. It is not that he did not care about what others said of him, it is more that the esteem he knew his Father had for him made him whole, and rendered every other opinion of little consequence. Now consider that passage again, not as it applied to the Christ, but in regards to yourself. Has the love of God made you whole? Are you so secure in your knowledge of the Father’s and the Son’s love for you that insults and threats no longer unsettle you, so that you cannot be goaded into retaliation? Because that is how Jesus walked, and it is the example we are to follow: as it is written, ”This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did (John 2:5-6). The loftiness of that standard does not negate it’s reality. Instead, that standard should inspire a desire for the type of inner peace that the Lord himself possessed, the type that can only be obtained through intimate communion and fellowship with God, our Father; because it is only the peace of God which enables a person to endure in the face of suffering, and to do so without sinning. And whenever we fail to live according to the Lord’s example, those failures should only drive us to our knees all the more, feeling fervently the words of the psalmist: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? (Psalm 42:1‭-‬2)”

 

Continuing on now with the discussion of the type of work which comprises a Christian’s purpose, if we skip forward to 1 Peter 4:1‭-‬3, we read:

 

“Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin. As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God.”

 

The exhortation that we are to arm ourselves with the same attitude as Christ indicates that we must make a conscious resolution that no amount of suffering in the body will cause us to turn away from continuing to seek to serve God’s will. A willingness to endure suffering for the sake of advancing the gospel is something that we must maintain as a point of focus because we know it is in unity with our Father’s will. But on its own, a willing spirit is not enough to succeed, because the flesh is weak, and human focus and will lacks the constancy of an eternal perspective. Our carnal nature continually wars against the spirit of God for supremacy within us, testing us to see what we desire most.

 

What is our human, carnal nature, then? One answer is that it is our unexamined life, those things we do naturally, instinctively. And, instinctively, in order to preserve life, we work first to satisfy our physical needs. But we also have wants, which extend beyond our needs — and we can exhaust ourselves in the pursuit of them — due to the nature passed down to us from our common parents. In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had all their needs supplied, and were denied only one thing — the Tree of Knowledge — but once the seed of “want” for that one thing was sown in the heart of Eve, she yielded to it. She desired instant gratification of what she would have otherwise been given in time (knowledge), and because she believed the lie that she would not die, she consumed the fruit, which, in a spiritual sense, also consumed her: since once she ate, death entered the world. The fact that Adam was not deceived implies that he discerned her fallen state and therefore, recognizing that the cost of his continued obedience to God’s command would now eventually lead to him being deprived of her companionship, he willfully disobeyed God, consciously choosing to die with her instead, because he did not want his life without her in it. And yet they had been created perfect, whereas we are born into sin. So if our common parents, who were superior to us in every way, and who were given but a few commands to obey, could not submit their “wants” to the will of God in an environment where only one thing was withheld from them, how could it ever be natural for us to do what they could not? Through Adam and Eve, Satan prompted mankind to question the perfection of God’s will and, collectively, we have all eaten of the same fruit as they did. Their choice to follow their own will above God’s has become our nature.

 

The purpose behind that brief discussion of human nature was to help illustrate that it is impossible for anyone to “take up their cross daily” to follow the Lord by their own strength. Indeed, if it were natural for man to sacrifice for others in the way that Jesus did, the world would be a vastly different place than it is now. No one accomplishes anything for God apart from the work of His spirit. I think there is a proof of that intended in the fact that, due to the beatings he had endured, in a purely physical sense even the Lord himself was not able to carry his cross to its end destination under his own strength (Matt. 27:32). But if the exhortation from 1 Peter 4:1‭-‬3 (along with other similar scriptures), that we are to arm ourselves with the same attitude as Christ, indicates that the Holy Spirit doesn’t just do all the work, or completely change us overnight, what role does the spirit of God then have in our life? How does the spirit of God work in you to change your base nature?

 

First, it is a witness to the truth. Because we lack knowledge, and can therefore be too easily led to believe things that are harmful and false, it provides testimony as to what is true, calling to our minds the words which God has spoken on a given matter. The spirit of God is our counsellor and teacher, both informing us of what is good and bad, and providing wisdom and understanding as to why it is so. More than that, it provides the motivation to respond to and act upon the newly discerned truth by providing an awareness of greater things to come. As it supplies us with a glimpse of future perfection, our faith in that vision works to alter our values and desires, reshaping them from an inclination for temporary things to a longing for what is faultless and eternal. We begin to want bad/transient things less and less, and good/permanent things more and more, because we see them for what they are, as God himself sees them: because the spirit of God gives access to the perspective of God. The end result of this process is that we are to lose our desire to eat from the tree of knowledge because we come to know with certainty that self-reliance leads to death. It is only absolute trust in God, fostered by the spirit of God, that leads us to reject its fruit and what it produces, thereby making a different choice than our parents did. Could oneness ever be obtained through any other means than complete trust in God? What is it that prevents Satan from repenting and being restored to a right relationship with God? Is it not his unyielding belief in his “right-ness” — that he knows better than God? Is it not a similar pride within us, that by nature causes us to reach for the Tree of Knowledge, and bars access to the Tree of Life?

 

Returning now to the question of how the spirit of God works in us to convert us from being physically-minded to spiritually-minded beings, consider how, in the Scriptures, water symbolically represents baptism and cleansing, while the holy spirit is described as a refining fire (John 3:5, 1 Peter 3:21, Matt. 3:11, Acts 2:3, Numbers 31:23, 2 Peter 3:3-7). Baptism is a figurative acknowledgement of our willingness to die to ourself, submerging our human nature in a watery grave to become immersed in a new life of obedience to God’s will. When we emerge from the water, through the laying on of hands we are symbolically touched by God, and we receive an earnest of the fire of God, burning within. The fire represents our new nature, a nature that enables us to live a new life governed by the power of God. In this sense, the Holy Spirit provides a power that far surpasses human limits, to enable a person to overcome their inherent weakness. The water represents our old nature; and it is important to note that water and fire oppose each other, they do not merge. In this symbolism, fire is pictured arising out of water, to be separate and distinct from it. And, by nature, if they mingle, when fire preponderates over water, the water evaporates; but if the volume of water is greater than the flames, the fire is extinguished. Similarly, the spirit of God within you will either work to burn away your old nature, or your human nature will douse the Holy Spirit’s flame. The principle is discussed in the parable Jesus told, recorded in Matthew 13:33:

 

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”


The parable indicates that the spark of God’s spirit, which is kindled through baptism and the laying on of hands, is intended to grow within, like yeast working in dough, until our old nature is fully consumed by it. But if it is true that it is also possible for our old nature to quench the holy spirit, it is then important to know how that occurs. The apostle Paul spoke regarding this when he was inspired to write:

 

“Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. (Romans 8:5)”

 

A “set” mind is one where thoughts are fixed on something, to the exclusion of considering things that are contrary to it, so that it cannot be moved. Such a mind maintains an unchanging position. So if our mind is set on what the flesh desires it ceases to be attuned to the voice of the Spirit — it will not hear or entertain what it has to say. Conversely, living in accordance with the Spirit means having a lack of preoccupation with physical concerns. It means that a person’s foremost interest and focus is both to discern and do the will of God. But fixing our minds on what the Spirit desires requires that an effort be made on our part — God doesn’t just do it all for us —

“For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble … (2 Peter 1:5‭-‬7‭, ‬10)”


Making an effort to add those attributes is not a  is not a one time action, it is a continuous practice. A single action does not establish a pattern. An action must be performed repeatedly before it becomes a behavior; and the character that God desires to build in us goes even beyond behaviors. God is love, which indicates a state of being. Everything He does is motivated by love, and He would be disavowing himself if He ever behaved in any other manner. If we are to grow to be like our Father, practicing His love, and the right behaviors associated with it, is what we are to work toward, until it becomes a state of being. That is the process of how we become transformed.

 

But why doesn’t God just do all this work for you? If He did, how would you show Him how much you value holy character? God tests us all to bring our values and priorities into the light. How you use your time is one of those tests. Has the thought ever occurred to you, that any and every day you do not willingly take up your cross to follow the Lord, you are quenching the work of the holy spirit? We have been instructed to “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” Reflect on how you used your time this week/month/year. Was seeking to advance the interests of the kingdom of God your first pursuit? The second? What were the thoughts that most occupied your mind? Do you want to serve God more than you want to have fun and enjoy yourself, or is taking up your cross a mere afterthought, buried under a mountain of self interests?

 

All of us will one day stand before God’s judgment seat, and each of us will give an account of ourselves to Him (Romans 14:10‭-‬12). If honest reflection on the questions I have just posed prompts anyone to acknowledge that they have been living more for self than for God, know that I have not asked them as anyone’s judge. Instead, my hope is that you will take encouragement from those questions — because it is far better to consider such things now, while you still have time left to choose to live differently, if need be, than it is to stand ashamed before the Lord after our account has been given. If your life thus far has only been lived as a hearer of the Word, my prayer is that you become a doer as well. My prayer is that God will indeed send workers into the harvest. I pray that God will supply every one of us with what we need in order to truly take up our crosses and follow Christ, and that these words may inspire every one of you to join me in that prayer. I’ve said before that I believe all service to God begins with humility, and that’s really what the essence of taking up your cross is: humility. So I’ll conclude with the apostle Paul’s words about the humility of our Lord and Savior, and its end result:

 

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.  In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,  that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life (Philippians 2:1‭-‬16).”

 

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The “Mark” of a Christian

The topic of my last message was the love of God, and I put forward the idea that the purpose for the conversation that took place between Jesus and Peter, as recorded in John 21:15-18, was to reinforce the principle that human love alone is insufficient to serve God effectively.  I wanted to start off today by developing that idea a bit further.  Let’s begin by examining three of the Lord’s own statements, which establish that a clear distinction exists between the love of man and the love of God.  In John 15:18-21, he said:

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.  If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own.  As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.  That is why the world hates you.  Remember the words I spoke to you:  ‘No servant is greater than his master.’  If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.  If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.  They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me.

Moving forward to chapter 17, in verses 25-26, he states:

“Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they (all believers) know that you have sent me.  I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them, and that I myself may be in them.”

The first point I would draw your attention to from those verses is that the world does not know God, and His love is not in them.  The second is that although the love of God is not in the children of the world, the world’s children still are capable of exercising love, which is evident from Jesus’s statement that the world loves its own.  For the third scripture, please turn to Matt. 5:43-48, where Jesus was recorded as saying:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven (as opposed to children of the world).  He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?  Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others?  Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Without further elaboration, those scriptures should be sufficient to establish that there is a natural love, common to all humanity, such as familial love and brotherly love.  Such love exists and is practiced even by those who do not believe in God, yet the various forms of human love are clearly distinct and separate from the love of God.  Why is that point important?  Because if you turn to John 13:34-35, you’ll read that Jesus has said, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” What type of love do you think he had in mind when he said that?  Was Jesus saying that when someone practices natural, human love they are showing themself to be his follower?  Absolutely not!  Even pagans are capable of human love.  It is only having the love of God dwelling within oneself that marks a person as a true Christian!  A Christian is to love in the same way as Christ loved, and with the same type and degree of love.  Possessing and exercising this love is not only essential, it is the primary trait that distinguishes us from the rest of the world!  

We can stay in this same 13th chapter of the book of John, back in verse 12, to find an excellent example of this love in practice:

“When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place.”

Before continuing with the passage allow me to make a brief side comment: Intellectually, we understand that foot-washing was a task relegated to the lowliest servant; but in our present day, this once common function has been rendered obsolete — and the hands of time have eroded much of the context which made the Lord’s example so poignant.  Every year at Passover we may wash one another’s feet, but it is exceedingly unlikely that the 5 or so minutes we spend in doing so would ever be able to adequately approximate just how a slave would feel in the performance of the same chore.  To attempt to get close, let’s change the scene.  Think how your attitude would be different if, instead of washing a fellow-believer’s feet, as we do by mutual consent here in this room, you were approached by some co-workers, who demanded, “Hey. You. Worthless. Get over here right now and shine our shoes.” You might bristle and refuse: the slave, however would be subjugated to accept the humiliation. With that perspective in mind, let’s return to the remaining verses:

“Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them.  “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am.  Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.  I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.  If you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.””

We should ask ourselves the same question Jesus posed to his disciples here.  Do I understand the full implication of what the Lord did here?  

Reflect again on his words “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am.”  Our Lord’s rightful position is to sit enthroned at the right hand of his Father, the Almighty, Eternal God!  He is the King of Kings, and Lord of Lord’s!  He is the Only Begotten Son of God!  All praise and honor and glory are due to him — but did he insist upon any of those rights while on earth?  No.  Instead, he subjugated himself, and became the lowest of servants in obedience to His Father’s will.  He was willing to suffer greatly in order to teach us the right way to live. He consented to being hated, slandered, spit upon, beaten, even crucified.  He did everything, in service to God, for you. For me.  

But in doing so, he also said that he set an example that his disciples should follow.  It might be pleasing to human nature to believe that the alluded-to example in John 13:15 is restricted merely to the foot-washing; but the command, “as I have done for you” has the meaning of doing to the same degree, or proportion, and therefore carries the sense of encompassing all that Jesus willingly sacrificed during his transition from being ‘Lord’ and ‘Master’ to becoming the lowest of servants.

Human nature is opposed to being told, “no”.  If we desire something, we feel frustration if we are denied it.  But the lowest servant doesn’t get to live as they choose.  Their will is continuously frustrated, to the point where they become accustomed to carrying out the will of others, without considering their own.  No one asks or cares about what they would like.  That is their existence; and that was the attitude or spirit Jesus was demonstrating when he washed his disciple’s feet.  And you are called to be slaves to Christ in this life, so that you might inherit the Kingdom of God as free children.  With our Lord’s example before us, how can we ever be justified for demanding our rights, or for feeling disrespected if the world does not give us our “due”?  We shouldn’t be concerned with seeking worldly position or the esteem of men, and we shouldn’t be offended if we are judged to be a “nobody” by the standards of the world.  How different would the church be today, collectively, if we as individuals pressed beyond the letter of the law modeled in the physical activity of foot-washing, and truly embraced the spiritual attitude it was intended to teach?  What impact would we then have on a world that does not know God?  

Have we made progress in striving toward such a lofty standard?  In 1 Cor. 11:28-29, the apostle Paul was inspired to write, “A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.  For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.”  In other words, when we take the Passover, we are acknowledging that Christ died for us, and we renew our covenant with him, indicating our willingness to die to ourselves, so that he might live in us.  So in examining ourselves, we should be asking, ‘Have I really been living as the Lord lived? I profess to be a Christian, so how well have I kept his example alive in the world by my thoughts, words and deeds?

Like our Lord, we are to go through life putting others above ourselves, in order to further the work of God’s Kingdom.  The sacrificial, selfless love modeled by the Messiah and manifested in the true Christian cannot be attained by human strength; it is only made possible through God’s Spirit.

In further support of that conclusion, I ask you to consider the following rationale, starting with a question: how was it that in verse 38 (still in John 13), Jesus was able to prophesy that Peter would disown him?  The amplified version of the Bible translates Romans 5:7 as stating, “Now it is an extraordinary thing for one to give up his life, even for an upright man; though perhaps for a noble and lovable and generous benefactor someone might even dare to die.”  So although it would be an extraordinary thing, Peter’s professed willingness to lay down his life for Jesus was neither unheard of, nor beyond the realm of possibility (and when we partake of the body and blood of Christ, we make the same profession as did Peter).  Therefore, if Jesus could foretell Peter’s denial, he had to have insight into something Peter was lacking that would make his action a certainty.  What was Peter missing?  When he was asked if he was one of Jesus’s disciples, was he suddenly stripped of his free will in that moment in order to bring Christ’s words to fruition?  Did he not still have a choice as to how he would respond?  Far be it from God to compel man to sin, so of course Peter had a choice!  Take those questions a step further now.  Since Peter had a choice, and still denied the Lord, does that mean he consciously, deliberately disowned him?  Do you believe that is the choice Peter willingly wanted to make?  I would argue it was not, since when the rooster crowed the second time and Jesus turned and looked at him, he immediately regretted what he had done and wept bitterly.  What phenomenon was at work here, then?  This was a perfect illustration of the truth of the apostle Paul’s words from Romans 7:18-19: “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.  For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing.”

Jesus knew Peter’s denial was a foregone conclusion because he was aware of the spiritual realities that apart from him we can do nothing (John 15:5); and when the shepherd is struck, the sheep will scatter (Matt. 26:31).   He also knew that the Holy Spirit had not yet been given, so when that moment of testing came upon Peter, he was inadequately equipped to meet it successfully.  He knew that although Peter intellectually, in his inner being, was willing to die with him, the natural inclination of concern for the physical body would also be warring within him; and a house divided against itself cannot stand.  Jesus knew that Satan desired to “sift” Peter (Luke 22:31), and because of all these things, he gave him counsel while they were in the garden of Gethsemane to “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.” (Matt. 26:41)   It is noteworthy that Jesus had taken the two sons of Zebedee along with him, in addition to Peter, yet this admonition was directed solely to Peter.  What was the temptation he was to be on his guard against?  I think it reasonable to conclude that this was an allusion to the very denials which Christ had foretold, and which came to pass so swiftly after this warning.

The reason (at least in part, if not in totality) Peter failed was because when he was told to watch and pray so that he would not fall into temptation, his physical fatigue caused him to sleep instead.  Temptation can be understood to be a testing or proving of one’s integrity, or it can be any force that acts to oppose an individual’s accepted standard of right conduct: and in Peter’s moment of testing, he wasn’t able to do what he claimed he would do, or act consistently with how he believed he would act, because his thoughts weren’t anchored on what he should have been praying for — which is that God would deliver him from temptation and supply him with what he needed so that his faithfulness might not falter.  He temporarily lost sight of looking to God to uphold him in any situation and in doing so, he was left to rely upon himself, and the resources that were natural to him.  And although Peter could be considered an upright man even before he was given the Holy Spirit, even the best qualities he possessed as part of what made him who he was were not sufficient for him to overcome his adversary in the critical moment.  He was limited by his weaknesses — the same reality which confronts every single person who has ever lived.     

Consider that when God’s protection was removed and Satan was allowed to test Peter, he could not even acknowledge himself to be Jesus’s disciple, even though he had previously left everything to follow him!  Just like Peter, whenever we rely on our own strength to serve God, we will fail — but what is impossible for men is possible with God (Luke 18:27).  God is love and God is spirit.  One of the functions of the Holy Spirit is to increase our capacity for love by giving us access to the power of God’s love.  But once we receive it, we do not automatically have it in an unlimited supply.  Although the spirit of God is inexhaustible, the love of God can grow cold and His Spirit can be quenched within us.  In my last message, I referenced Christ’s prophecy that prior to his return, the love of most would grow cold.  I anticipated that would be my topic today, but that message is built upon an understanding and acceptance of the principle just expounded on: that apart from the power of the Holy Spirit — apart from having God’s love dwelling in us — it is impossible to serve God.  Therefore, I thought it best to establish that foundation more firmly before moving forward, and because of that I will have to once again leave you until next time to ponder the question I posed in conclusion to my previous message: “How do we make certain that we will be among those who hold fast to the love of God and stand firm to the end?”.   

Open study discussion

Hi all,

During his time on earth, Jesus had much to say about the cost of being his disciple and the responsibilities inherent to being a Christian.  For this study we’ll be exploring some of the passages relevant to these themes.  The first three relate to the cost of following Jesus.  They are:

Luke 9:57-62

1.  Why do you think these short snippets of conversation are included in the gospel account?

2.  What connection does the Lord’s response in verse 58 have to the statement which prompted it?  What is the take-away of the entire passage for would-be Christians today?

Luke 14:15-35

1.  Why do you think Jesus chose to answer the statement made in verse 15 with the parable in verses 16-24?

2.  Think of the responses given by those who were invited to the banquet, and then read Matt. 9:37.  Do you think there is a connection?

3.  In verse 27, Jesus states, “And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”  This is a hard statement, isn’t it?  What does “carry his cross and follow him” mean to you?

4.  Pair verse 27 with John 12:25-26.  Compare the standard outlined in these two short scriptures with the modern view of what being a Christian means.  In your opinion, are the standards consistent?  Why or why not?

5.  What is the point Jesus is making by following the pronouncement in verse 27 with what he says from verses 28-35?

and Matt. 10: 34-39

1.  Jesus is the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), so why would he ever make the statement found in verses 34-36, and how can it be reconciled with what he says at the end of Mark 9:50?  How should we properly understand this passage?

2.  Based on this passage, should a Christian be at peace with the world?  Why or why not?

Let’s conclude with two passages that address the responsibilities inherent to the Christian calling:  Matt. 5:13-16 and Mark 4:13-29.

1.  List as many qualities and attributes of salt and light as you can.  How do these qualities correlate to the attributes the Lord expects his followers to possess?

2.  In the context of Mark 4:21-23, and also in the larger context of this study, what do you think verse 22 refers to?

3.  When you combine Mark 4:13-19 with another parable Jesus gave regarding a wedding banquet, found in Matt. 22:1-14, what is the message you come up with?

Self-deception and Service to God

King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them.  While Belshazzar was drinking his wine, he gave orders to bring in the gold and silver goblets that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken from the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines might drink from them.  So they brought in the gold goblets that had been taken from the temple of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines drank from them.  As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.  Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace.  The king watched the hand as it wrote.  His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way.  Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant.  So King Belshazzar became even more terrified and his face grew more pale.  This is the inscription that was written: Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin.  Tekel means, ‘You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.’  

What relevance does this story of a pagan king have for you or I as a Christian?  Simply this.  Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard someone utter the words, ‘I am a good person.’  Raise your hand again if you would apply that statement to yourself.  Despite the fact that even our Lord, who was without sin, acknowledged that ‘No one is good but One, that is, God.’ — I say despite this, it is natural for men to hold such an opinion about themselves.  And given that the tendency to think of oneself in this light is so pervasive, it’s reasonable to conclude that King Belshazzar also imagined that he was a “good” person.  But regardless of how the king perceived himself, God’s assessment — which is the only one that truly matters — is that his character was lacking in redeemable qualities.  So return with me to his reaction to the materialization of the ethereal hand.  Although he knew not what it wrote, he was shook to the very foundation of his being by its appearance, because at some tenuous level of his awareness, he perceived that it was not sent as an omen of good tidings.  That is an understatement.  Reading further into the account, we’re informed that his time in this world ended that very evening.  Try to imagine what it would feel like going to your grave with such a testimonial of your life and its value being recorded by the finger of God.  Does it make you shudder, as it did the king?

So how is it that he could be so blind to the reality of his condition, until it was too late?  Daniel, the servant who God used to read and translate the inscription to Belshazzar, pointed out that the king’s ignorance was without excuse, because he had full knowledge of how God had humbled his father, Nebuchadnezzar.  He chastises the king, “But you his son, O Belshazzar, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this.  Instead you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven.  You had the goblets from his temple brought to you, and you and your nobles, your wives and your concubines drank wine from them.  You praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or understand.  But you did not honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways.  Therefore he sent the hand that wrote the inscription.” (Dan. 5:22-24) So I ask again, how could he have failed to see “the handwriting on the wall”?  What prevented him from seeing himself as God saw him?  I believe the answer is he was blinded by human nature.

Human nature is self-oriented.  The love of self, woven into every fiber of our being so deeply as to be inoperable, instills us with a desire to be esteemed by others, and frequently causes us to view ourselves through the most flattering of lenses.  Love of self skews and distorts our judgement.  It makes us over-valuate our “good” actions, and shields our sins from our view.  We are, so often, our own greatest apologists.  Since rationalizing and justifying whatever it is we want to do comes so naturally, it is not difficult to picture Belshazzar consoling himself after Daniel’s rebuke with the thought, ‘I was just celebrating with my family and loyal supporters.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  It doesn’t make me a bad person.’  Whether he did so or not is not something Scripture concerned itself with, and so neither shall I.  However, we should be concerned with the harvest this condition of the heart yielded in Belshazzar’s life — and yet as tragic as it proved to be for him, for professed Christians the ultimate danger of the deceitfulness of our nature is made evident in the Lord’s warning delivered at the close of the Sermon on the Mount.

The entire sermon is recorded in chapters 5, 6, and 7 of the book of Matthew, but in 7:21-23, Jesus states, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’  Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you.  Away from me, you evildoers!’”.  So what connection is there between the Lord’s admonition and Belshazzar’s demise?  As Christians, we are called to serve God.  It should be our highest purpose, and the number one priority of our lives.  But if we were to look through the microscope, and assess honestly, how closely does the reality of how we live align with the demands of our calling?  What if, right now, it doesn’t measure up?  What actions would we be willing to take?  If we are unconcerned, and do nothing, will there be anything more terrible for the supposed Christian than to have the Lord say, on the Day of Judgement, “I never knew you”?  Lest we feel secure that this pronouncement will apply as the exception, rather than the rule, bear in mind that Jesus said it will be directed to many.

Warnings such as this are intended to give us pause, and to cause us to take personal inventory of our spiritual life.  The bible is full of many such exhortations.  But God’s word also tells us that “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.  Who can understand it?”  The heart, that which blinded Belshazzar and represents who and what we are in our central-most being — our very nature —  can blind us as well. So if the heart is so deceitful, how do we proceed to take an honest inventory of it?  We have to begin by asking God to show us our faults — to teach us what we cannot see — because it is only the working of the Holy Spirit, which gives access to God’s perspective, that enables a person to see themself as they truly are. 

I’ll share a personal example to show how God’s spirit works in us to direct our focus toward the corrections He would have us make in our lives.  A few years ago, I was seeking to understand God’s will for my life, and I asked Him, “What service would you have me do at this present time?”  I wanted my life to have a meaningful impact on others and, at the time, I was interested in starting, or at least working in, an orphanage.  In retrospect, I suppose I was looking to serve God through a particular career path, specifically the one most appealing to me, since I didn’t know of any other method of determining His will.  I never received an answer in that regard.  Instead, the response whispered by that still, small voice was, “Humble yourself.”  It seemed to me to be a very inadequate reply.  That’s not to say I saw no value in doing so, it’s just that I wanted to do great things for God, and I thought my time needed to be occupied by activities that would have a more practical benefit to others.  But service to God always starts with an internal process of refining.  I believe that any and all efforts to draw near to God must start with humbling oneself (which was the very thing Belshazzar was disinclined to do), and I see now that even if I occupied myself with nothing other than this single labor of service, the task is such that I would never be faced with a shortage of work to do.    

Why is it that service to God should start with humility?  One important aspect to understand regarding humility is that it correlates proportionally to the degree of faith a person has in God.  How so?  The more pride a person possesses, the less they look to God for help because they lack a sense of need.  The humble person however, recognizing their own inadequacy, depends upon God; and their faith is built as they receive the answers to their petitions for aid, which they directed to Him.  Humility is also the end-result of thinking about yourself less and less, so if an individual were to trust in God to provide for ALL of their needs with all of their heart, mind, soul and being, less thought and energy would be unnecessarily spent on self-considerations and could be re-allocated towards service to others.  And in the process, faith would grow and flourish: so we can see a link between humility, faith, and service to God (which is a reflection of our love, both for Him and our fellow man).

Another component of humility is being willing to submit our will in order to bring it into alignment with God’s.    When the Lord’s half-brother wrote about submission to God in James 4:1-10, he was speaking of a complete relinquishing of self — turning control of the direction of our lives over to God.  That entails consciously choosing to promote God’s glory rather than seeking to further our own agendas.  For indeed, “What causes fights and quarrels among you?  Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?”   Conflict arises because we want something, someone else wants the same thing, and there’s not enough for everyone — so we fight to see who gets to have it.  But when we do so, it shows where our interests ultimately lie.  The Kingdom of God is spacious enough to accommodate all who earnestly desire to enter it, and it knows no scarcity — so when obtaining it is our focus, we need not quarrel over the things of this life.  In order to promote God’s Way, we need to first forsake our own.  We need to learn to make ourselves small and stop seeking personal greatness.  We should be content with what God provides, leaving concern for material blessings to the children of the world; because God’s children have a far greater inheritance.   And when we set our sights on the heavenly abode and allow God to direct our path to it, we acknowledge that we cannot serve Him in the way of our own choosing — that which suits us best.  At least not if our Christianity is to be something other than a nominal one.  

If one desires proof of this, they need look no further than Luke 16:13.   It states, “No one can serve two masters.  Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve both God and mammon.”  Mammon is commonly translated as money, or material wealth.  I believe this misses the mark; the meaning is too narrowly defined.  Money is only a resource — one that provides a means to pursue and obtain one’s own self-interests.  I believe the true intent of the passage is to convey the reality that it is impossible to serve God and the self-interests of the natural man at the same time.  Our time, energy, and resources are going to be spent doing one, or the other.  There exists no third alternative.    

With that in mind, I’d like to ask a different question now, but in order to frame it properly, allow me to draw the discussion of humility to a close with one more observation.  Humility is an essential safeguard to protect us from the danger of self-deception; a critical ingredient in equipping us to overcome it.  It requires that we be willing to embrace the truth about ourselves, so here is an honest question to reflect upon: What percentage of our time is expended upon laboring in our chosen careers, simply to obtain the necessities of life?  How much do we then further exhaust ourselves to ensure our ability to procure all the additional luxuries we might desire?  Extend the examination a bit further.  What percentage of our “free” time is used in the pursuit of enjoying these comforts?  How much is required for the passive activity of simply “decompressing” from the stresses of the day?  I’m not saying these things are bad, or wrong, in and of themselves, brethren.  We are not machines.  Life needs to have its enjoyments, even for the most dedicated servant of God.  But when we add it all up, what is left for God?  Go a step further: in our labor for Him, are the efforts we do make truly the best we could give?  Even if they are, who can rightfully claim to be offering their all?  If we take an honest inventory of how we have stewarded the spiritual wealth and truth given to us by our Father, and the amount of time we have spent using those resources in His employment, how true does our claim to be His servants still ring?

Food is good, drink is good, owning homes and cars is fine — but if they cost me entrance into God’s Kingdom because I worked harder to have them than I did for God, I would curse the day that I ever enjoyed them.  “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36)  If we find that our focus has drifted towards seeking our own pleasure, and our desire is to relax and enjoy “the good life”, does that awareness cause us any concern?  It should, my brothers and sisters, it should.  If it does, James once again supplies the counsel we ought to follow.  He says, “Come near to God and he will come near to you.  Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.  Grieve, mourn and wail.  Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.  Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”   

Grieving, mourning and wailing isn’t a fun list of things to do, and denying ourselves isn’t easy — it’s contrary to our nature.  But if we want to serve God, it is what’s required of us. If we feel it’s too difficult, bear in mind that we have not resisted sin unto the shedding of our blood.  If we are tempted to walk our own path, because it’s the path of least resistance, we should remember the example of Esau: who despised his birthright because of the responsibilities that came with it, and valued so little the blessings he would have received that he sold it for a single meal.  Because of this the scriptures testify that he was a godless man, and that he could find no place for repentance (Heb. 12:16-17).  

So then, how genuine is our desire to serve God?  How diligently have we sought out His service?   Our lives are a mirror that will always reflect back what we are really living for.  What are we willing to sacrifice to further God’s Kingdom?  It’s easy for men to praise God when all their needs and wants are satisfied; to serve others from a position of overflowing personal abundance, like the rich young man from Matt. 19:16-30, and to feel good for having done so.  But suppose all the blessings were taken away.  Would deprivation diminish your enthusiasm for the Lord’s service, or is our mentality like Job’s, who viewed the loss of all he possessed within the following context: “Shall we accept good from God, and be unwilling to accept adversity?”  Sacrificing the tangible enjoyments of the present life for celestial reward in a future age is a trade too many are unwilling to make.  The choice between living for this life or for the Kingdom of Heaven is presented to each of us, as it was to the rich young man.  Are we willing to forego our own aspirations whenever they fail to align with God’s purpose?  Have we drawn any unconscious lines we are unwilling to cross to serve Him — things we refuse to give up?  Jesus told the disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.”  (Luke 10:2)  His statement has not lost any relevance in our present day.  Why are the workers few?  Because few are willing to forego the pursuit of their own interests in order to take up a new life of sacrifice and service to others.

How eager are we to suffer to serve the Lord?   Would we be willing to go through what Ezekiel did?  Take the time to read the fourth chapter of Ezekiel.  He had to lie in the streets for 430 days, and was told Take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them in a storage jar and use them to make bread for yourself.  …Weigh out about [8 ounces] of food to eat each day and eat it at set times.  Eat the food as you would a barley cake; bake it in the sight of the people, using human excrement[!] for fuel.”  He replied, “Not so, Sovereign Lord!  I have never defiled myself.  No unclean meat has ever entered my mouth.”  The Lord answers, “Very well, I will let you bake your bread over cow manure instead of human excrement.”  

… Oh!  Well then … Awesome!  Thank you!  Thank you!  … Seriously, who wouldn’t fight to be first in line to be selected for such an opportunity?  Of all the various ways one might while away fifteen months, surely in all the history of man a more pleasant time has never been had, or even imagined!  Now, obviously, I’m having a little fun here, but in reality, it wasn’t a laughing matter.  Such are the lengths God’s servants are called to go to at times — and it is but one example.  

“Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection.  Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison.  They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword.  They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated — the world was not worthy of them.” (Heb. 11:35-38)  

So how are we doing, individually and collectively?  I am here to ask the questions, not to supply the answers.  But I ask because I am convinced that there will be a Day when the Lord himself asks them of all who would seek to be identified by His name.  Far better to reflect upon the matter now, while we still have the opportunity to make any necessary course corrections, than to find that, in the final Judgement, our service was mere self-deception, and that, being weighed in the balances, we have been found wanting.  I can imagine no delusion more dreadful or tragic.