Wednesday, January 6, 2021
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Religious pluralism. Materialistic hedonism. Moral relativism. Political unrest. Economic uncertainty. Christian apathy. You may read these terms and immediately think of present-day America, and in some ways you may be correct, but whatever evils we decry today are nothing compared to those found in the Roman empire in the early 5th century. Following several hundred years of brutal persecution at the hands of the Roman government, Christianity became a legally protected religion following Constantine’s conversion in 312, and just a decade later it was the official religion of the empire. Many Christians of the day, including the great historian Eusebius, viewed the legalization of Christianity as an answer to prayer and believed that the church of Jesus had entered its golden age which it would enjoy unchallenged until the imminent return of Christ.
But although Christianity was technically legal, many still considered it illegitimate. Faith in Jesus was looked down upon by most of the societal and political elite who had been raised in a pluralistic culture which demanded the worship of many gods. Individualism, materialism, and sexual promiscuity were rampant throughout Roman society, even within the church. When Rome fell to the invading Barbarians in 410, the influence of Christianity and its prohibition against idol worship was blamed for weakening the nation and inviting judgment from the gods. Roman Christians experienced a crisis of faith as they grappled with the idea that their supposedly sovereign God had suddenly abandoned them in their time of need.
In response to these accusations and anxieties Augustine wrote his classic treatise, The City of God, in which he explained in great detail that God has always been at work throughout the history of the world to bring about His purposes. Augustine did not view the fall of Rome as a polemic against the trustworthiness of the God or a refutation of the gospel, nor did He bemoan the loss of Christian power and influence over society. Instead, he argued that the current situation was, and always had been, a part of the eternal and perfect plan of God. In fact, Augustine saw that by losing their protected place of privilege within the empire, nominal Christians were actually being drawn back Christ. He wrote, “But as to those feebler spirits who, though they cannot be said to prefer earthly possessions to Christ, do yet cleave to them with a somewhat immoderate attachment, they have discovered by the pain of losing these things how much they were sinning in loving them.” Christians in Rome had grown so complacent and comfortable that they did not even realize that they loved the things of this world more than they loved Jesus. Where others saw tragedy, Augustine saw opportunity for the church to remember and recapture who it was always supposed to be.
When we read through the gospels, it appears that Jesus reserved His most difficult teachings for the times when the crowds grew the largest. Although He typically went out of His way to not draw attention to Himself, this time Jesus actually called the multitude to come over to Him. Imagine how excited everyone would have been to huddle in close, eagerly anticipating the next amazing message of Jesus. But instead of offering a reward or blessing for their willing obedience, Jesus used the harshest language possible to warn them what a life of following Him would cost them. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” These were not soothing words of comfort, it was a promise of deprivation and death.
Today we love to hang crosses on our walls and around our necks to remind ourselves of the love of Jesus, but in doing so we run the risk of softening its horrific meaning. For Jesus’ audience, crucifixion was the ultimate punishment, the cross the most gruesome method of execution the world had ever known. The mere mention of the word “cross” brought instant fear and repulsion. The cross was something to be avoided at all costs, and yet now Jesus was telling the people that they must willingly seek it out.
Jesus warned the people that if they longed for a life of safety, comfort, and influence, they should keep looking. But while the way of Jesus promised none of those things, what it did offer was vastly superior: salvation for the soul. To follow Jesus would cost them everything they had, but like the man who found the treasure in the field and then went and sold all he had to secure it for himself, life with Jesus was worth infinitely more than anything they could ever give up.
What does it matter if we enjoy material prosperity and worldly success to the point that Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates are scrubbing our toilets if this world is not our eternal home? As the author of Ecclesiastes put it, everything under the sun is vanity, worthless, when viewed in light of the grand scheme of eternity. Jesus makes crystal clear that those who desire the blessings of God without being willing to submit to His lordship will in the end lose everything that they are so desperately trying to save. There is only one thing of true value, only one thing that will last the test of time, and here He was urging the crowd to come and taste and see that life with Him was far greater than anything they might lose in the process of obtaining it.
Sometimes we feel the need to try to cushion or qualify this message of Jesus. We are tempted to tell our inquisitive friends, or even ourselves, yes, Jesus really said that, but He didn’t really mean it, most people don’t have to give up everything to be a Christian. This, of course, is a lie straight from the pit of hell. If we are unwilling to completely leave behind our lives of sin, if being a Christian means nothing more than saying a prayer and then going right back to how things always were, if we are ashamed to identify with Jesus when to do so is unpopular, then we risk missing Jesus altogether.
There seems to be a growing fear and anxiety in certain Christian circles about what being a follower of Jesus might cost us in the coming days and years ahead. Historically, since the ascension of Jesus there has always been a tendency by some within the church to look at the wickedness and corruption of secular society and the surrounding culture and conclude that believers must do everything possible to fight for their freedom and defend their reputation. But Jesus was never concerned with those things. He knew that being friends with God necessarily meant being enemies with the world. He knew that life as a Christian could mean losing relationships with friends and family members, influence within the culture, and even cost us financially. Yet followers of Jesus are called to love and pray for their enemies, to consider others more signifiant than themselves, to seek the welfare of their communities, and to boldly proclaim the gospel regardless of how it might be received. Christians must find their true source of significance, identity, and peace in their relationship with Jesus. When we do, we will see that we have gained far more than we could ever lose.
Prayer for Today:
Lord Jesus, we confess that it is so easy to get discouraged when we look at the state of the world. We often wonder where You are and why You allow things to be the way they are. Help us to know with certainty that You are the sovereign King and You ave things under control. Help us to take our focus off of ourselves and our own situations and fix our eyes firmly upon You. We thank You that You endured the cross so that we might have life in You, help us to willingly lay aside everything that distracts us from our mission of loving and serving You. In Your priceless name we pray, Amen.