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BE PREPARED: Wrestling with Scripture #23

My Lutheran and Catholic friends might be surprised to learn that other denominations typically don’t observe Lent, and those who attend reformed churches may wonder exactly what it is. In the traditional Church calendar, Lent is the forty days (excluding Sundays) beginning on Ash Wednesday (Feb 14 this year) and ending on Easter. It commemorates the forty days Jesus spent in the desert, fasting, praying, and being tempted by the devil.


Historically, Lent is a time of reflection as Christians repent of their sins, remember Christ’s death, and prepare their hearts to celebrate the risen Lord on Resurrection Sunday. Some do this by symbolically abstaining from something they love (like chocolate!) to remind them of God sacrificially giving up His beloved Son. Others skip evening meals or television during this period to spend the extra time in the Word or prayer, while still others might fast for part or all of Holy Week. Although many Christians have probably never fasted, Lent could be the perfect opportunity to explore this often-neglected spiritual discipline. Practicing self-denial prior to Easter is one way to heighten our focus on Jesus and what He gave up for us.   


In honor of Lent, let’s look at Mark 8:34-38. “And He [Jesus] summoned the crowd together with His disciples, and said to them, ‘If anyone wants to come after Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me’.”


Notice first that Jesus wasn’t talking to just the twelve disciples but to everyone who wanted to follow Him. As Christ-followers, His words are aimed squarely at us, but to hear and obey this difficult teaching, we must want to follow Jesus. Where are our hearts this Easter season? Are we grieving over our sins, thankful for what Jesus did for us on the cross, and joyfully awaiting the glorious promises of our Risen King? If we can answer yes, then we’re ready to wrestle with what it means to deny ourselves.


The Greek word means to utterly deny, disown, or abstain from. It’s the same word used in Mark 14:66-72 when Peter vehemently denied his Lord to the servant girl. That doesn’t mean God wants us to deny our humanity, to reject the person He made us to be, or to practice self-hatred. But self-denial means much more than using willpower to give up a bad habit or even to forgo a favorite food or TV show, and it doesn’t come naturally to humans who typically like to indulge themselves. Denying self puts God and His will and ways above our own. It’s realizing that God requires Lordship of our lives. In a very real sense, we belong to Him and have no rights to ourselves. As 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 states, “… [don’t you know] you are not your own? For you have been bought for a price …”


Next, our Master tells us to “take up our cross.”  Although we’ve probably all heard someone enduring a hardship, illness, or handicap say, “Well, it’s just my cross to bear,” this isn’t what Jesus means. It’s not really our cross that we carry, but His—and His cross is not an easy one to bear. In Jesus’ day, the Roman cross was not just a brutal form of capital punishment. It was a public spectacle designed for torture and maximum humiliation. To actively pick up His cross, we must humbly embrace self-sacrifice, accepting the things that expose, shame, and offend us for the sake of His name. Like Jesus, we’re called to walk a lonely one-way path that leads to death—the death of selfish ambition, pride, and hurt feelings—so that we can be made new, refashioned into the loving and sacrificial image of Christ. Dying to self requires total surrender to God.


If Jesus is both our Savior and Lord, we’ll want to follow Him, and the things of heaven will begin to matter more to us than the things of earth or the approval of men. To follow Jesus means to do what He says. To obey Him whatever the cost. In the Greek, this verse is written in the present, continuous tense so it literally means we are to keep on denying ourselves, keep on taking up our cross, and keep on following Him. Luke 9:23 echoes the idea that we must “…take up our cross daily.” It’s not a one-time action but a lifestyle of putting God first in our lives.


Clearly, it’s not an easy road. We might even ask if it’s worth the struggle, but in the next four verses, Jesus provides some crucial reasons why it is. First, He says, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35). Following Jesus is the only way to salvation. We must die to self in order to be born-again to eternal life.


Second, Mark 8:36 asks “For what does it benefit a person to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” The immeasurable worth of our eternal destiny far exceeds the importance of any earthly desire or accomplishment. Only the things of God will last. That’s why Jesus tells us to “store up … treasures in heaven” (Mat 6:19-21). Just as He emptied Himself and was obedient to the Father (Phil 2:7-8), we must empty our lives of anything that we value more than God.


Third, Jesus asks “For what could a person give in exchange for his soul?” (Mark 8:37). We have nothing to offer God to gain entrance to His paradise but our faith and trust in His Son. Since Jesus is the only way to the Father, it’s imperative that we follow Him. Like Peter in John 6:69 we must realize, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”


Fourth, Jesus warns, “For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38). One day we will all stand before a Holy God to give an account of our every careless word and deed. In order to be clothed in the righteousness of Christ, we must deny ourselves on a daily basis, pick up our cross, and follow Him.

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