And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. (Luke 9:23-24)
What does it mean to “follow Christ”?
It is a phrase that most Christians use fairly freely, particularly when talking about discipleship, but very rarely have I actually heard someone answer the question of where we are following him to.
This may seem to be a strange observation since for most of us the ultimate destination seems pretty clear: the goal is heaven and, above all, the completely restored and redeemed relationship with and experience of God that will make heaven, well, heaven. But while, technically, this is correct and true of the ultimate destination to which we all look forward in Christ, it is not actually the destination implied in the text above. Of course the two are deeply related but, nevertheless, different and tend to lead to different ideas of what discipleship, that is following Christ, actually looks like.
What do I mean by this?
Very often when the phrase “follow Christ” is used, the implications often drawn about what it looks like to do so tend to focus on sanctified living—on living a holy life, obeying God, performing acts of charity, etc. That is to say, the phrase is often interpreted to mean leading the type of life we should live if as, Fred so perfectly put it “heaven is where [we] really want to end and as if being like Jesus is what [we] really want to become”. This, of course, is exactly how we should live and is an essential part of what it means to strive to follow Christ in his example of a sinless, love-driven life. But it is not, ultimately, what this text is talking about here, nor is it even the fullness of what it means to follow Christ.
Look again at quote above. It is quite clear what destination Jesus has in mind here. It is not heaven, but the cross: anyone who would come after him, must deny himself daily and take up his cross and follow him. Underlying this image evoked by Jesus is the reality that the only man or woman who would carry their own cross would be someone who was condemned to death. And, as Joel Green notes, it carries with it all the connotations of what being condemned to death meant in first century Roman society: to forfeit your estate and be denied even the basic dignity of a burial. Suffice to say, it is not the most comforting image one might imagine. It goes far deeper than trying to live purely and perform charitable acts. It goes all the way to the point of surrender of the whole of one’s life.
However, two things should be noted here. First of all, Jesus is not positing as alternatives two equally viable lifestyles—one in in which we deny ourselves and find life and another in which we don’t really deny ourselves (but perhaps try to be good people) and still find life. Here and elsewhere he is clear, “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” Very often we read these words as a threat, as if our life will be taken from us in punishment for seeking to save it, but, in fact, it is presented here and throughout scripture as an inevitable end. Life is not taken from us when we become turned in on ourselves and self-serving; it is lost. One of the most poignant images that illustrates what this looks like is that of Smeagol from Lord of the Rings, indeed all who become ensnared by the luster of the ring’s power. The more drawn in they become, the more self-protective and self-seeking they become, the less human and real they become, until they are but a shadow of themselves and are ultimately destroyed by it.
The other thing to note is that in calling us to deny ourselves and take up our cross, Jesus is not calling us to a life of masochism, as if suffering for the sake of suffering has inherent value. Rather he is instructing us in the way in which we can ultimately find and experience the life for which we were made—His abundant life (Jn 10:10). Whoever loses his life for his sake, he says, will find it. It is a promise. And he who promised is faithful (Heb 10:23).
But what does it look like to ultimately follow Christ in this manner? Do we forfeit all of our worldly possessions and abase ourselves for the sake of God?
Well, yes, we do, though of course this may not mean—in fact it rarely means—that we sell off all of our possessions and give the proceeds away that in order to live in abject poverty. It means, rather, that we begin to see our lives not in terms of expectation and entitlement, but rather in terms of surrender and service. It means that we begin to view everything we have—our possessions, education, financial circumstances, even our opportunities and successes—as gifts that have been entrusted to us not only for our good and enjoyment, but also—and primarily—for God’s glory, to be used that others might know his love and his justice, and above all so that they might know Him.
This is fundamentally what it means to follow him in self-denial, because it means turning away from self-preservation and self-seeking—which ultimately end in death—and toward a good that is greater than we are, but in which our greatest good resides: life in and with God, and the healing and redemption not only of our own lives, but those of the people around us. This can only come about if we seek not only to follow Jesus’ example of sinlessness and holiness, but also his example of sacrifice and service. This is what discipleship, in its fullness, is ultimately about.
Towards the end of Luke 9 we are told that Jesus’ “set his face toward Jerusalem.” It is, according to Green, a phrase that evokes an austere determination to go to the very place where he would suffer rejection and ultimately be handed over to die as he has predicted throughout this chapter. But he did not go to Jerusalem to die; he went to fulfill with the whole of his life the divine purpose, which was to bring life, healing and redemption to the whole of creation (see Hebrews 12:2).
We are all called to set our face towards to Jerusalem—to seek to fulfill the divine purpose through the whole of our lives, which necessarily means death to self. But we do not do so for the sake of death; we do so for the sake of Life, and Abundant Life, at that.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:3-11)
Kathleen Durham is the Vice President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.