In Matthew 16:21-23, Jesus foretells His death and resurrection, and after that, he teaches His disciples about “taking up your cross and following Jesus”. So what did Jesus mean by saying in Matthew 16:24, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”?
Jesus is teaching two things here. First, Jesus foretells that He must go to Jerusalem, suffer many things, be killed, and be raised on the third day. Next, He says there is a demand for all who want to follow Jesus. The demand is the willingness to deny themselves wholly or die to self. There is a reversal happening here compared to what the elders, chief priests and scribes were doing to Jesus (Matthew 16:21, Acts 3:14), which was to “renounce” Christ and send Him to the cross.
On the other hand, his followers were to “renounce” themselves and give it all for Christ. Romans 14:7-8 says, “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
In essence, carrying the cross is not to be equated with some sort of burden we have to carry in our lives; instead, it must be viewed as what a first-century person would have understood. In the first century, the cross meant death in the most painful and humiliating way possible. Carrying the cross meant that the victim would be nailed to a large wooden cross as a means of capital punishment where they would hang until they died either from exhaustion or asphyxiation. Likewise, when we “deny” ourselves, it means that we are to intentionally move away from the relationship where “self” is primary and instead pledge complete allegiance to Christ, costing you your very self. What Jesus is getting at here is the harsh reality of being His follower. There is no lukewarmness or partial submission; instead, it is an extreme surrender of what and who we are, crucifying “self” daily so that Christ might be exalted in us.
Jesus, knowing that we could not achieve this in our strength, sends us the Holy Spirit to enable us to do this daily and grow into the likeness of Christ every day (John 16:4-15). Being a disciple of Christ is a life of sacrifice, and a cost is associated. Too often, people are under the impression that by coming to Christ, all things will be smooth, and He will remove every trial and trouble. This is a distorted view of Christ because, ultimately, it goes back to “self” and fulfilling the needs of “self” rather than the will of God. Many crowds similarly followed Jesus. They were there to receive physical and material blessings rather than the true gospel that was preached. John 6:26 says, “Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, you want to be with me because I fed you, not because you understood the miraculous signs.” (NLT)
Instead, the scriptures teach that we will have tribulation in this world. Yet, we can take heart because we have peace in Christ as He has overcome the world (John 16:33). Acts 14:22 says, “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”
Jesus goes on to teach that if you do not “deny” yourself, “take up the cross and follow Christ”, then what it means is that you are more in love with yourself and trying to save yourself. So Jesus says in Matthew 16:25-26, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” Many Christians are taught to come to Christ to gain worldly wealth, abundance, etc. Instead, Christ asks: Are you willing to give up everything for Christ, even your very life? If not, you are unworthy to be His disciple (Luke 14:27). Doing this will only be at the expense of your own soul.
Jesus goes on to say in Matthew 16:27-28, “For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” The teaching is that Jesus Christ is the ultimate judge, and He will be returning to repay everyone according to what they have done. Anyone who is not in Christ, or in other words, anyone who has not denied themselves and taken up His cross to follow Christ, will be under His righteous judgment. Whereas all those who are willing to deny themselves even to His very soul, take up His cross, put to shame, suffering, being ridiculed, oppressed, self-denial, putting self to death, crucifying the flesh and its desires, filled with His Holy Spirit, doing the will of the Father, and glorifying God in all they do, will be His forever and worthy to be called His disciple. These are those who will be in His eternal kingdom. Amen!