Best Me Versus Worst Me
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matthew 16:24d (Holman) “. . .take up his cross. . .”
We Christ-followers think automatically of the cross as the means of our salvation. Jesus here reminded us to also think of the cross as the pattern for our lives. Each step of the Christian life reverberates with the echo of the cross.
Peter had tried to keep Jesus from taking His cross – “No, Lord! This will never happen to you!” (16:22). The Apostle would have been better served to contemplate his own cross, and to determine he would carry it with Jesus.
Using a cross as the means of execution is a concept foreign to us, but every person in Jesus’ day understood the imagery. The Romans were sadistic, prolific users of crucifixion. Spartacus’ slave revolt ended (71 B.C.) with 6,000 of his followers being crucified. When Judas of Galilee revolted, Rome’s General Varus crucified 2,000 rebels along the roads of Galilee. Jesus, who lived in Galilee at the time, would have been about ten years old.
Crucifixion was one of the cruelest, most humiliating, and most tortuous forms of execution ever devised. By telling us to take up a cross, Jesus was obviously saying discipleship would at times be painful. It costs to serve Jesus. This fact cannot be diluted or denied. Easy spiritual success is a pipedream.
Taking up a cross does not mean a believer’s life will be non-ending doom and gloom. There is a rightful self-love. Desiring to live and enjoy life are natural, God-given, wants. Much of life is harmless, pleasurable activity.
Taking a cross deals with restricting the part of ourselves which opposes God. From birth, we have a sin nature that dogs us even after we follow Jesus.
When born again, we receive a new nature that is stronger than the old nature, but unable to annihilate it. The battle inside us is engaged for a lifetime.
When it comes to Christian living, our old self is our most dangerous enemy. Believers must choose to let this part of our nature suffer pain. Taking up a cross means letting our best self use God’s power to thwart our worst self.
Taking our cross must be done regularly, unashamedly, and voluntarily. One, regularly. In Luke 9:23 Jesus added the word “daily” to His command in our text. Every morning my preacher-brother Charles looks in a mirror, salutes, and says to the Lord Jesus, “Private Marshall reporting for duty, Sir”.
Discipleship is never a once for all time choice. We must choose each day, sometimes each hour, to say no to our selfish self. Successful Christian living entails not only occasional shining, mountaintop moments of brilliance, but also constantly repeated acknowledgements of God in the valleys of life.
This never-ending choosing is tough. It helps us appreciate Paul’s confession, “I die daily” (I Cor. 15:31). Taking a cross means we everyday reaccept the fact life is not about us. Someone quaintly said a cross is an “I” crossed out. Amen, it’s all about Jesus; for Him we restrict our worst self daily.
Two, we must take our cross unashamedly. The very act of lifting a cross identifies us with the One who was and is rejected by most. By taking a cross, we unashamedly accept the “scandal of identification” (Ogilvie) with Jesus.
The parade to Calvary marches on. It is a strange looking parade. Led by a thorn-crowned King bearing a cross, followed by loyal subjects doing the same. Are we bold enough to identify ourselves with this religion of the cross?
A martyred Master is well within His rights to expect His followers to also be martyrs, if need be (Maclaren). We are to make the “must” of His life – suffer many things, and be killed (16:21) – the “must” of our life (Morgan).
Jesus bore the heaviest end of cross-work, the end that had the curse and worst humiliation attached to it. He made the other end, our end, lighter and easier for us. We are expected to take it up on His behalf. Don’t be ashamed.
For many of us, including me, cowardice is a dead weight bogging us down. If we cleared this hurdle, we would become better witnesses for Jesus.
Three, we must take our cross voluntarily. Rome compelled condemned criminals to carry their own crosses. Jesus will not coerce us to take His cross.
For us, a cross is something we take of our own free will because we love Jesus. His cross helps only those who voluntarily take up their own cross.
Taking a cross is not enduring the inevitable, or bearing the common trials and hardships of life. For the believer, a cross is not something forced on us by life, such as an unbelieving family member, a handicap, loss of a job, a mean spouse, a rebellious child, bad health, etc. We commonly misspeak by calling these burdens our cross to bear in life, but they are not crosses.
The crosses we carry are not like loads strapped on a mule that has no choice in what happens. Taking a cross requires consent from our will. It means voluntarily saying yes, for Jesus, to something painful to our worst self.
We have no choice in whether or not we will experience life’s burdens, temptations, trials, tests, and storms. They come with a vengeance and aplenty.
We do have a choice as to how we will spiritually respond to these difficulties. This proper mental reaction is the meaning of our text, the cross Jesus said we decide whether or not to carry daily, unashamedly, voluntarily.
Taking up our cross entails making appropriate responses to temptations every day. Sex, money, power, drugs, selfishness – temptations come our way constantly. We have no choice in them. Taking the cross refers to how we respond to them. Will I say no to my sinful appetites, though my body is literally trembling to indulge itself? Will I rebuke and deny my worst self? When we say no to our old self we say yes to taking our cross.
Taking up our cross means making right reactions to the troubles of life. Illness, a broken marriage, unbelieving family members, a disability—these are tough, but they are not crosses to bear. The cross to bear is, will I choose by God’s grace and with His power to not let these things make me bitter?
The test is not so much the trouble itself, but the controversy with God, or the animosity toward others, or the frustrations about life in general. These reactions are the real tests, the crosses we choose whether or not to carry.
Daily we have to decide anew about these crosses. We often can’t help but wonder at the Lord’s ways—look at the devastation in Haiti, for example, and mull a while; the why question can eat us up—yet we are not allowed the luxury of nursing these doubts and suspicions very long. Let go this baggage quickly. We can’t carry it in our arms and at the same time take up our cross.
Taking up a cross means being willing to release our anger over setbacks, though our worst self enjoys nursing wrath. Taking a cross involves letting go when abrupt unexpected changes interrupt our plans, destroying the life we intended to live. Our best self wants to say these disruptions are okay, but our worst self hates them and wants to revel in the fiendish adrenalin rush of fury.
One of the most difficult crosses we will ever bear is surrendering the way we wanted life to be. It is hard to leave our self-determined comfort zones, our sometimes selfish futures, without becoming bitter. The latter is disallowed.
The most serious threat to taking up a cross is loving our worst self more than we love our best self. The new me wants to surrender my life totally to Jesus. The old me hates to set aside sins, personal agendas, ambitions, wrong dreams. Every day we have to let our new selves take God’s part against our old selves, to say His way is right, ours wrong. As we do this, we take a cross.