The Christian life is a journey to the greatest joy that exists. But "the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few" (Matthew 7:14). Why is that? Because, paradoxically, in order to pursue our greatest joy, we must deny ourselves.
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It was a moment of euphoria for the disciples. Jesus was the Christ. Peter had confessed it and Jesus had confirmed it. The long-awaited arrival of Israel's Messiah had come! And the Twelve were at the center of it!
Then oddly, Jesus immediately started talking about being murdered by his enemies. And he said some strange things about a resurrection. This was very confusing. But one thing seemed clear to Peter: defeat could not be the path to the Christ's glory. The Christ was to be victorious.
So Peter brought correction to Jesus. Jesus called his correction satanic.
Peter was stunned. What could be satanic about wanting the Christ to be victorious? Jesus' answer was, "you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man" (Mark 8:33).
Jesus knew that this was the case for all the disciples and the crowd following him. So he gathered them all together and dropped a bomb on them:
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Mark 8:34)
A crowd of bewildered faces. A cross? They all knew what that meant: Roman execution of the most horrific kind. They were hoping that Jesus might conquer their enemies and "restore the kingdom to Israel" (Acts 1:6). Carrying a Roman cross did not sound like the Messianic kingdom. It sounded like death. Jesus wanted them to die?
Jesus' kingdom was not of this world—not the geopolitical world they knew (John 18:36). His kingdom was far broader in scope than they yet realized. And their true enemy was far more powerful and deadly than Rome. Rome was a drop in the bucket (Isaiah 40:15). Their real enemy lived in them and all around them. Jesus had indeed come to conquer that enemy. In fact, he was headed to Jerusalem to strike the decisive blow in just days.
So he now was preparing them for the cross—his first and foremost, then theirs—and the multi-millennial mission to call out Israel from all peoples into his kingdom. Jesus was teaching them to intentionally move toward death.
Physical death, yes. All present that day would die, some as martyrs. But all his followers would also have to die to themselves. Die to the desire for self-glory, die to the desire for worldly respect and the fear of man, die to the desire for an easy life, die to the desire for earthly wealth, and a thousand other deaths. Finally, they must die to their desire to save their earthly lives.
But Jesus wasn't calling his followers to some stoic life of self-sacrifice for a noble cause. His was an invitation to joy beyond imagination. The broad road of the world was lined with seductive false promises appealing to and blinding sinful human heart-eyes. And it was leading many to a horror beyond imagination. So Jesus was calling his followers to deny themselves the world's paltry, brief joys that they might have overflowing eternal joy; to deny themselves hell that they might have heaven.
That's why he went on to say:
For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. (Mark 8:35-37)
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Two brief summary observations from this account:
First, the Christian life is hard; sometimes agonizing. We shouldn't be surprised (1 Peter 4:12). It's hard because denying our fallen selves is hard. Any death is hard, some much more than others. But it's designed to be that way. Our lives are our most precious earthly possession. Nothing displays the worth of Jesus more than our willingness to give away our lives (in small and large ways) for his sake.
Second, the only things that Jesus asks us to deny ourselves of are what will rob us of eternal joy. Like Moses in Hebrews 11:25-26, we are called to deny ourselves the passing pleasures of sin and consider the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the world's treasures. How? By looking to the reward! I'll sum it up in some lyrics I wrote in a song for my oldest daughter years ago:
There's joy beyond your wildest dreams if you will just believe
This aching thirst for joy you feel God only can relieve.
And that eternal life is what's in store
For all who will believe that only he's worth living for.