Jesus went to the cross in an unsurpassable act of love for us. Sin separated all of us from God, and there lay before us an impassable canyon, between the filthy rags of my best efforts to qualify for heaven on my side, and the blinding light of God’s purity and holiness on the other. It was impossible for us to “earn” our way across this canyon, it was far too deep and wide, so Christ built a bridge for us – His own voluntary death on our behalf as the complete sacrifice for our sin. His resurrection from the dead by the power of God’s Spirit then raised up all believers to a new and eternal life with Him.
That sums up the gospel in a nutshell, the final focus of this series of meditations on the genealogy of Jesus Christ. Or does it? Jesus added one more, somewhat mysterious requirement for His followers:
24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will find it. 26 What will it benefit a man if he gains the whole world yet loses his life? Or what will a man give in exchange for his life? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come with His angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will reward each according to what he has done. Matthew 16:24-27 (HCSB)
What does Jesus mean when He says that we believers must deny ourselves and take up our cross? For Jesus’ apostles, this would have special meaning, as tradition tells us that most of them would die for their faith, some of them on a literal cross. And globally, many believers are still being killed as martyrs for their faith, even today. But for most people, Jesus is speaking of something different – putting to death our own selfish and self-centered desires and sinful actions and choosing to live each day for Him, seeking to follow wherever He leads. This requires a constant effort on our part to focus or refocus on, and prioritize, the things of God.
5 For those who live according to the flesh think about the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, about the things of the Spirit. 6 For the mind-set of the flesh is death, but the mind-set of the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind-set of the flesh is hostile to God because it does not submit itself to God’s law, for it is unable to do so. Romans 8:5-7 (HCSB)
Oftentimes, we fall short of this ideal behavior, and say or do something offensive and not in keeping with a citizen of God’s kingdom. When that happens, we are able to approach the Lord to confess our sins and to recommit our hearts to Him, making amends, if possible, to anyone we have hurt, and forgiving others in the same way that God has forgiven us.
We are transferred into God’s kingdom by grace, through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But Jesus also tells us that, beyond salvation and an eternal presence with Him, believers will also be granted rewards when He returns from heaven with His angels to set up His final kingdom here. Presumably these rewards will follow from the times we have fulfilled our role in the good works that God has prepared for us beforehand.
10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:10 (NKJV)
It is in the act of choosing His will for us over our own fleshly desires that we are, in essence, taking up our cross to follow Him. This is accomplished through the power of the Holy Spirit, who lives within the hearts of all believers.
In referring to the effectiveness of his Christian walk, my pastor, Craig Cooper, often states, “I may not be who I want to be, but I am not who I used to be”. Our lifelong journey is one of spiritual progress, not perfection, except for the perfection of Christ, who lives within us and gives life to our souls. God’s forgiveness when we fail is offered in abundance, and every victory we do have, whenever we choose to follow Him rather than our old selfish ways, is celebrated with great joy on earth and in heaven.
Father God, thank You for Your amazing grace, mercy, and love for each one of us. Help us to follow Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, and to live a spiritually fruitful life that is pleasing to You. We ask this in Jesus’ name, Amen.