Last night at ACG, one of our members asked this interesting question during QnA about the relevance of Jesus’ command to “deny himself, take up his cross and follow me” for believers living in today’s culture (see Matt. 10:38; Matt. 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23; Luke 14:27).
She mentioned how she recently heard a conference talk on the particular verse and the speaker said in his sermon that Jesus’ specific command to his disciples to take up their cross does not apply to Christians today for the following reasons:
- The command to “take up your cross” was only mentioned before Christ’s death and isn’t mentioned in the rest of the gospels after Jesus’ resurrection or in the epistles
- The command to “take up your cross” is a command that is humanly impossible to do, which means we can never take up our own cross
- Only the Lord Jesus was able to take up the cross for us, and therefore this specific command to “take up your cross” is obsolete. (The speaker also prefaced by saying that this reality doesn’t detract from the fact that believers are still called to live self-sacrificially)
During QnA in our bible study, I recall myself quickly disagreeing with the statement without providing rationale, before quickly moving on to the next question. But since then, a number of you (those who listened to the talk) have asked and messaged me why I disagreed with the interpretation.
So let me provide you with some thoughts and reflections on why I believe the command to “take up your cross” is still a direct calling and command for us today. And I want to preface quickly by saying that my counter-arguments are based on second-hand information I received from those who were present at the talk. I was not there to listen to it myself. So my hopes here is that I do not misrepresent or distort the speaker’s position as I elaborate on my reasoning and deconstruct some of the assumptions he’s made that has led him to this conclusion.
Here’s my response on why I disagree with his point. And be mindful that each point will have varying degrees of persuasive force (and if I’m found guilty of straw man argumentation at any point in this response, I sincerely apologise).
- This interpretation is rather unorthodox. I think it’s worth pointing out that this is a minority view to hold. This view stands against the traditional views of this verse that this command is directly given to the original disciples, and is still applicable for disciples living in the 21st century.
- Not all biblical commands become obsolete once they are fulfilled. I’m neither saying that this command is obsolete or that Jesus actually fulfilled the command himself. All I’m doing is establishing a principle here. Though we live on this side of the cross where Jesus has fulfilled many of the wondrous promises, prophecies, and commands found in the Old Testament (much of which includes fulfilling the laws in the Old Covenant), God still demands obedience on some of the more prominent commands that are taught in Genesis 1 – Exodus 19.
Here’s an example: even if Jesus in his fullness has fulfilled the cultural mandate in Genesis 1:28-30 to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over it…”, there is no scriptural evidence that teaches that the cultural mandate no longer applies to us—we are still called to use our God-given gifts and subdue the earth to the glory of God.
Another example is that even if the Old Covenant is no longer binding on Christians today, we are still called to obey the Lord’s commandments. Undoubtedly we know that our Lord Jesus is the only one who truly fulfilled the 10 Commandments through his saving work. Yet, he still calls his disciples to love God above all things and obey his commandments (see Matt. 22:37-40; John 14:15; 1 John 2:4-5). If we applied this logic, therefore, we can say that even if Jesus did technically “fulfill” this command, there is no indication in Scripture that suggests that the command to “take up our cross” no longer applies to us.
- The inability of fulfilling a command doesn’t necessitate that the command was not intended for us. I’m establishing another principle here. And before I go along further, I want to firstly say that I empathise with the speaker’s reasoning here. In God’s sovereign grace, He knew from the very beginning that it was humanly impossible for sinners to meet the holy requirements of His law. The law really was not intended to be fulfilled by human efforts whatsoever. However, it is worth emphasising the aspect of human responsibility in this equation—God, nevertheless, have set expectations for humanity to follow His commands. Even if God, in His sovereignty and foreknowledge, anticipated that Adam and Eve would sin in the garden, that does not detract the responsibility that God had placed upon Adam and Eve to adhere to the command to not eat of the fruit of the tree (Gen. 2:16-17). Just because a command is “humanly impossible” to follow, doesn’t mean the command is not still intended for us to follow.
- It makes illogical sense to suggest that Jesus’ command to “take up your cross and follow him”… was actually intended for himself. The speaker’s argument doesn’t hold water when you think carefully about how the command is to be naturally understood. If Jesus gave this command to his disciples and later on ends up fulfilling the command by “taking up his cross” for us, it is the sole equivalent of Jesus saying to himself: “Since no one is able to take up their cross, deny themselves and follow me, then I guess I’ll take up my own cross, deny myself… and follow myself.” This is obviously a slight exaggeration. But I hope I proved my point. The pronouns “their” (NIV) or “his” (ESV) in Matthew 16:24 strongly suggests that Jesus was referring to the disciples and the crowd he was addressing (see Mark 8:34). This command was intended for prospective followers of Jesus—not Jesus himself. We could also possibly run into a dilemma of turning Jesus into a deceiver, if we presume that Jesus had really intended this command for himself, when he was making a strong appeal to the crowd to come and follow him.
- We need to take all of the verses together in context to understand the command. Exegetically speaking, this verse is not a call to bear any physical cross. It is a call to self-denial and self-sacrifice. It is a call to die to oneself. Jesus is calling people to devote their entire lives for him. Jesus continues on to say “whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matt. 16:25). This is Jesus dissuading others from chasing vain worldly pursuits and he is making an appeal to draw them to follow him. This is the cost of discipleship. Christ calls us to consider losing our lives for the cause of proclaiming his excellence to all of creation.
- It really is possible for Christians to take up their cross. When we comprehend the Lord’s demands in this calling, on the one hand we feel the gravity of what’s at stake. A call to self-denial is a call that’s humanly impossible to do, especially in today’s world. In Western culture, we are driven by the culture’s calling toward authenticity—to gratify the carnal desires of our sinful selves—as a means to find true expressions of our identity. To kill our old selves is, in fact, a counter-cultural response to the sex-driven, schizophrenic climate we are living in. But on the other hand, through the Holy Spirit’s empowering, the original disciples and many Christians, who have lived up to the 21st century, have sufficiently killed themselves and have sincerely sold their entire lives to following Jesus. There are countless testimonies and stories of the heroic acts of men and women who have fought valiantly for the cause of God and His gospel.
The call to take up our crosses is, indeed, a call our Lord Jesus had intended to give to all people across time and space, in order to recruit more followers who will stand tall for him against the grain of opposition, shame, and suffering.
The cost is tremendous.
But it is so worth it.