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Inside Out: Making Impossible Obedience Possible

I trust that you had a wonderful Easter Weekend last week as you celebrated our Risen Lord! Today, I want to begin a series entitled “Inside Out: Making Impossible Obedience Possible.”  We recognize the Scripture is full of commands by our Lord; commands that seem utterly impossible to fulfill.  So, how is it that we fulfill the commands of Christ in our lives? This week, and for the next several weeks, we are going to be studying some of these commands and the implications for our lives.

Matthew 16:24-25 reads,

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find itFor what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?  Or what shall a man give in return for his life?  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.”

What a powerful statement by our Lord: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” This is the call upon the lives of every follower of Christ!

What does it mean and how is it accomplished? I hope this post will help provide an answer those questions.

The command to follow Christ is found throughout the NT:

  • Matthew 4:19, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
  • Matthew 8:22, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”
  • Matthew 10:38, “And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
  • John 10:27, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”
  • John 12:26, “If anyone served me, he must follow me; and where I am there will my servant be also.  If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.”

Therefore when we consider the strong words of Jesus here in Matthew 16 we recognize this is consistent with the teaching of Christ throughout the NT. As we unpack vs. 24 and 25, I want us to fully consider what it means to deny ourselves, to take up our cross, and to follow Him.

Deny Yourself

To deny ourselves is to affirm the utter rejection of self-sufficiency. This is the problem at the root of man’s heart. You see, behind every sin is a lie.  It is a lie seeking to convince us that whatever it is we have set our affections on will somehow satisfy us or meet a need that only God can meet. The Scriptures are littered with examples of this (and we have the evidence in our own lives as well). Let me give you both an OT and NT example:

OT: David and Bathsheba

In II Samuel 11:2-5, “It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful.”

Here is the lie David begins thinking to himself and listening to: “Being with this woman is going to somehow bring a measure of satisfaction that delighting in God cannot bring me.” What does he do?  Vs. 4, “So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her.”

Look with me for a moment at Matthew 19.

In verses 16-22 Jesus has an encounter with a rich man who had come to him wanting to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. After laying out all the positive things the rich man had done, Jesus peals away all the layers of pride in his heart and says in verse 21, “If you would be perfect, go, sell, what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”  When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” The lie the rich man believed was thinking that material wealth was the key to enjoying the fullness of this life.

When we look at the whole of redemptive history we see the lie of “self-sufficiency” can be traced all the way to the garden. Genesis 3:6:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise…”

There it is…self-sufficiency! For Adam and Eve the lie they believed was that there was more to life than what God could offer.  Their lie was to believe that they could, in some respect, become like God…His equal. And it is this sin that has been passed down to us through Adam and Eve. You might say, “Well, Will these seem like some extreme examples!”  But it doesn’t matter what the sin is, however big or little we deem it to be, there is always a lie behind our sin. Tim Chester in his book, You Can Change, wrote:

We sin because we believe the lie that we are better off without God, that his rule is oppressive, that we will be free without him, that sin offers more than God.”[1] Therefore, as Jesus says, to truly follow Him you must deny yourself.

KEY: You must remember that you are not self-sufficient, and it is in your total dependence upon Him whereby you seek His glory that you find it is ultimately for your good.

KEY: In other words, to deny yourself is to find yourself!  To build your hope on the eternal rather than the temporal will not bring despair or oppression!  It brings life! Ask yourself this question: “What lie are you believing and listening to?”

Now, how we fight against these lies is so critical!  Recognize that as long as we draw breath in this life, we will endure this struggle. Our flesh is constantly at battle with our spirit, and will be as long as remain in this body.  We have indwelling sin and we must wage war against it! The apostle Paul deeply understood this struggle.  Romans 7:18:

For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.  For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.”

If you don’t acknowledge that a battle is going on then the enemy has you exactly where he wants you.  A fierce battle is being waged.  Ignorance is not bliss! Proclaim the gospel and its implications to yourself! It was the well known pastor and theologian Martyn Lloyd Jones that said:

Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself.”

Tell yourself: “I am a wrecked sinner who has been forgiven and saved by a merciful and gracious Savior.”

Tell yourself: “I don’t have to prove myself to anyone because Christ has proven Himself to God on my behalf!”

Tell yourself: “I am a child of God with blessings at my disposal far greater than anything this world can offer!”

I won’t ask how many of you watched the Royal Wedding on Friday.  Candidly I was captivated by the tradition and history.  Here are two people, Prince William and Princess Catherine, who have literally anything this world can offer at their fingertips. Yet the wealth they possess is nothing compared to what I possess as a child of the King of Kings!  And I have been invited to a greater marriage supper!

Tell yourself: “God, you are working all things together for your glory!”

Tell yourself: “God you are in control and seated on the throne!

C. S. Lewis once wrote: “The moment you wake up each morning, all your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals.  And the first job of each morning consists in shoving them all back; listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other, larger, stronger quieter life come flowing in.”[2]

Talk to yourself in order that you might deny yourself!

“Denying yourself” captures the essence of the first part of Jesus’ command to “follow Me!”

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

Take Up Your Cross

The idea of “taking up your cross” was not lost on those who heard these words directly from Jesus’ lips. The cross was used by the Romans to crucify the vilest of criminals.  Some scholars have estimated that there were 30,000 crucifixions carried out by the Romans during the life of Christ.[3] Thus it would not have been uncommon for the disciples to see someone carrying the very beam upon which they would suffer and die.

Therefore when they heard the words of Jesus the picture was clear; “suffering lies ahead.” To “take up your cross” simply means a willingness to lay down this life in order to receive a greater life to come! Jesus said here in this passage:

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

KEY: We know from the Scriptures that even in our suffering there is the fullness of joy, for we have the very presence of Christ with us in our tribulation! Jesus’ promise to us in Matthew 28:20 is profound:

And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  His presence is not conditional!  He is with us!

John 15:11, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”

We also know that not only does our suffering result in an abiding joy, it also results in the glory of God. When we rest assured in Christ in the midst of suffering we communicate with our lives to all around us that there is nothing of greater value in our lives than Christ.  John Piper said it this way:

“…if you suffer with Jesus in the pathway of love because he is your supreme treasure, then it will be apparent to the world that your heart is set on a different fortune than theirs.”[4]

One author said it well, when he wrote 200 years ago and said:

Our lives will always be doing either good or harm to those who see them.  They are a silent sermon which all can read.”[5]

And within that “silent sermon” our suffering proves to be a very powerful illustration of just how “all satisfying” Jesus really is. This is a hard saying and rest assured the way is narrow!  To be a disciple of Christ is costly.  Make no bones about it.  As JC Ryle said in his book entitled Holiness:

That which costs nothing is worth nothing.”

The journey is long and the race we are called to is hard, but Christ is our reward.  Therefore take up your cross for the one who took up His cross to make our joy complete.

Finally, Jesus says: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

Follow Me

The words “follow me” carry with it the idea of being steadfast in our obedience.

The apostle John eloquently said:

And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.  Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.  By this we know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.”

We are called to live the way Christ lived (which we have seen in denying ourselves and taking up our cross) but we are also called to be about what Christ was about. Let me remind you of a few verses:

Mark 10:45 – “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.”

Luke 19:10 – “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Luke 5:32 – “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

Christ came to save a people for His own possession! And we are His ambassadors in this world!  We are ministers of reconciliation.  We are to proclaim the gospel in word and deed desiring others to find their identity in Christ by setting their affections upon Him. We “follow Christ” for a purpose.  To proclaim the gospel and reflect the kingdom that is to come.  We do that by:

  • Denying ourselves
  • Taking up our cross
  • Follow Him in steadfast obedience and commitment to the mission.

None of which is possible unless we have set our affections solely upon the one who perfectly denied Himself, took up His cross, and followed the will of His Father.

[1] Tim Chester, You Can Change, (p.)

[2] Tim Chester, You Can Change, (p.)

[3] John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 16-23, (p.)

[4] John Piper, What Jesus Demands of the World, (p)

[5] J.C. Ryle, Holiness, (p.50)


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