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In the context of these passages, Jesus had been predicting His death. Peter rebuked Him, and Jesus responded to Peter. Then Jesus made the statements we are discussing. They actually tie back to the points He was discussing before Peter interrupted Him. He had said He must die. Peter had shown a desire to follow his own will regarding this, instead of God's will. So Jesus showed how His death proves we must not follow our own desires, as Peter had just done.
If we want to come after Jesus (i.e., be His disciple), we must (1) deny self, (2) take up our cross, (3) follow Jesus. (4) This is then described further as losing our life. Note these points more closely:
Denying self requires us to give up anything that we would want or seek that would hinder our doing the will of God. This does not mean that, if we want something, it is necessarily wrong. It means we must take our wants and desires down from the throne and place Jesus and His will as the governing power in our lives.
There is room in each life for only one master (Matt. 6:19-24). If God is to rule in our lives, then our will must be made subservient to His. We must be willing to give up anything in life in order to please God. Rom. 12:1,2; Matt. 6:33; Luke 14:25-33; 2 Cor. 5:14,15.
Many think this means bearing burdens and suffering hardships for the Lord. Surely such hardships will at times be required, but there is a fuller meaning if we consider the context.
(1) What is a cross for? It was not just a burden to be borne. Far more than that, it was an instrument of death and total sacrifice. (2) Jesus said take up our cross and follow Him. He bore a cross and we must bear our cross and follow Him. But where was He going with His cross? He had just said He was going to die. (3) In the next verse Jesus said we must give our lives for Him. (4) Then He asked what good our lives would be to us, if we are unacceptable at the judgment.
So, "taking up your cross" refers to giving your whole life to God, as Jesus was about to give His life for us. This involves bearing burdens, but it is deeper than that. It is a total dedication of life. Our whole life is given to His service in anything He says. This will lead us to willingly deny self. Following Him then requires us to live as He lived His life (I Pet. 2:21; Matt. 10:34,35; I Cor. 11:1).
Luke adds "take up your cross daily" (Luke 9:23). There is a sense in which Christians must give their lives to God every day. This is not necessarily a physical death as Jesus died for us (though such might be required), but a daily total sacrifice of self to do the will of Jesus. Whatever He wants with my life is what must be done with it. What I want no longer matters, but I give myself for Him, just as He gave Himself for us despite the fact His human nature did not want to have to do it. Cf. Rom. 12:1,2; Gal. 2:20; I John 3:16-18; Matt. 6:19-33; Gal. 5:24; Rom. 6:6-23; 2 Tim. 2:11; 2 Cor. 4:11; Ecc. 12:13.
The determination to give our lives to God's service is called "repentance." In repenting we determine to turn away from our own will and live our lives to please God. We cannot be saved without this, and that is why repentance is so important in salvation. It also explains why so many people are not truly Jesus' disciples (whether or not they may claim to be His disciples): because they are not willing to make this total sacrifice.
The next verse then helps us understand Jesus' point and strengthens the application. If a person holds his life so dear to himself that he wants to use it to please himself, do his own will, and accomplish his own purposes, rather than denying self and serving God, that person will in the end lose his life eternally. But anyone who loses his life for Jesus' sake - gives it in service and sacrifice to God by denying himself, as described above - such a man will save his life by gaining eternal life.
There can be no greater or clearer teaching anywhere of the meaning of being a disciple. This is how our Master lived, so this is how His disciples must live. We must live lives of complete and total submission to the will of God.
(c) Copyright David E. Pratte, 2/5/2005
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Scripture quotations are generally from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright 1982, 1988 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. used by permission. All rights reserved.