Peter denied Jesus by declaring, “I do not know the man.” That’s exactly what Christ calls us to do to our old lives when He commands us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him. Today, Barry Cooper invites us to count the cost of being Jesus’ disciples.
What does it mean to be a “disciple” of Jesus?
First, the easy answer; we’ll get to the hard one in a moment. The word disciple comes from the Latin word discipulus, which means “learner” or “follower.” A disciple of Jesus, then, is someone who learns from Him and follows Him.
Now, of course, we can’t literally follow someone who is no longer walking the earth. But “following” Jesus was always about more than that anyway. There were plenty of people who literally followed Him from temple to fishing boat to mountainside, but they weren’t necessarily disciples. His disciples were those who learned from Him, that is, those who listened to His teaching and put it into practice, however imperfectly.
But there is more to being a disciple than that. Jesus Himself was quite explicit about it. Jesus told His disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). That’s what a true disciple does: denies himself and takes up his cross.
First, we’re to deny ourselves. A bit later in Matthew’s gospel, we get a very clear illustration of what “denying” looks like when Peter denies Jesus three times. It’s exactly the same word Jesus uses when he says to His disciples, “Deny yourself.”
You know the story. Peter sits outside, in the courtyard of the high priest where Jesus is being tried. Peter’s asked if he knows Jesus, and the text says he denied knowing Jesus three times. He said, “I do not know the man.”
That’s what “denying” Christ looks like. When Jesus says that a disciple must deny himself, it’s as if He’s saying: What Peter will do to Me, you must do to yourself.
Then secondly, Jesus says that His disciples must “take up [their] cross.”
Now that can be a throwaway phrase for us—oh, you know, we all have our cross to bear. And usually we’re just talking about an awkward person at the office or a particularly troublesome case of lower back pain.
We throw that phrase around so easily, I think, because unlike the disciples Jesus is speaking to here, we have never seen someone crucified. But they had. And so for Jesus to say “take up your cross” isn’t just shocking. It’s terrifying.
The Roman orator Cicero, who lived just before Christ, described crucifixion like this: “The executioner, the veil that covers the condemned man’s head, the cross of crucifixion, these are horrors which ought to be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but even from his thoughts and his gaze and his hearing. It is utterly wrong that a Roman citizen, a free man, would ever be compelled to endure or tolerate such dreadful things.”
The cross was deliberately made so cruel and gruesome that any slave considering rebellion would pass by the crucified body and think to himself, “However terrible my life is, it’s not worth risking that.”
But Jesus is saying to His followers: “If you are truly my disciple, this is your life now. You have to go there, because you’re following Me, and that’s where I’m going.”
Now of course, it’s not that every disciple is called to the same kind of cross. Some disciples, like Peter, were literally killed on a cross for their faith. Others, like John, lived to a ripe old age, even though he faced many trials during his life.
But one way or the other, we must take up our cross. One writer says, to carry a cross means you are walking away, and you are never coming back. Have you come to terms with that yet, if you call yourself a “disciple”?
You may have been a churchgoer for many years, but have you said to Christ: “I am going to follow You, and I know that means I am never coming back. I will die to my former self, I will renounce it with all the force of Peter’s denial in the courtyard, and when I do sin, when I do stumble and fall, I will pick up my cross again, however much it hurts my career, my popularity, my prospects, my life, and I will keep following because I am never coming back”? Have you done that yet?
Someone might say, well, why would I do that? Surely, there’s too much to lose.
To which Jesus’ response would be: “There’s too much to lose by not being My disciple.” In the very next verse, Matthew 16 verse 25, Jesus says, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
And later Christ says, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”
So, a disciple is someone who willingly denies themselves and takes up their cross. A disciple is someone who loses their life so that they can find it.