Friday, February 10, 2017

Take Up Your Cross

I have been a minister at our local county jail in Humboldt County for several years now. Earlier on, I had been ministering in a dorm where there was a high percentage of new inmates each week. As a result, I would bring the message of the gospel each week so that the new attendees would get a basic understanding of Christianity.

One day, after I had been doing this for a couple years, I had a group of perhaps 8 or 9 fellows. I found both myself and the fellows transfixed as the Holy Spirit poured out a profound series of scriptures from memory that constructed a clear understanding of impact of Christ's death and resurrection. Some time later, I wrote all the passages down, and since then I have added slightly to it as illuminated by the Holy Spirit.

The message is essentially an explanation on how to realize Paul's great summary statement that the "word of God in its fullness"..."is Christ in you, the hope of glory".

Col 1:25, 27 I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness-- ... To them [God's people] God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

What follows is that message, which I continue to use as a basic template to this day.

Take Up Your Cross and Follow Me

In Matthew chapter 10, very shortly after Jesus calls the 12 apostles, He issues to them what must have been a perplexing command. He told them:

Mat 10:38  And whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

Jesus didn't tell them this once, later in His ministry he emphasizes this again:

Mat 16:24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone wants to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

A common interpretation of these passages is that following Him in this life will be hard, like carrying a cross around as we lived out our life trying to follow His ways. If we are not willing to work hard in following Him, then we are not worthy of Him. Perhaps the disciples had thoughts like this, of a hard life in the willingness to follow Him. But is this really what Jesus was saying?

The apostles really had no what He was really telling them. They were surely aware that the Romans put people to death by crucifixion, and they had surely had seen the Roman crosses with criminals hanging on them, but what did this have to do with Jesus? We can read late in Luke that the disciples did not understand any of what Jesus was talking about with regards to His death. They had not made the connection between Jesus saying He was going to die and the reality that His death was going to be carried out on a cross, and did not know the implication of that. They surely did not know what Jesus meant when He told them to take up their cross.

Luk 18:31-34 Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. (32) He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; (33) they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again." (34) The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.

The impact of Jesus' command to take up their cross and follow Him must have begun to hit them when they saw Jesus carrying the cross on the Via Dolo Rosa. They may have reacted in horror as they considered that what Jesus had told them to do was to follow Him to His crucifixion. After all, Jesus did tell them twice to take up their cross and follow Him, and here they were seeing Him for the first time with a cross, going to His crucifixion.

Paul's Understanding

What could this mean? The full understanding of what was meant by taking up their cross and following Jesus was not initially available to the disciples. It took some time before the fullness of what Jesus was saying would come to be known. The manner of taking up our cross and following Him was not meant physically, but rather spiritually. It wasn't until years later when Paul was given the revelation and understanding of what all it meant (Gal 1:11-12)  that the true meaning started to come out and be known. Paul hit directly on the meaning of "take up your cross and follow me" when he said:

Gal 2:19-20  ... I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me, and that life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Paul obviously had not been physically crucified, he was the one writing to the Galatians. Clearly, Paul understood the spiritual meaning behind "take up your cross and follow me" and associated it with "being crucified with Christ".

Paul further identified Jesus' words, "let him deny himself" (Mat 16:24) with "crucified the flesh together with its feelings and desires" in this passage:

Gal 5:24 Now those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh together with its feelings and its desires.

What Paul is saying is that taking up our cross and following Jesus means death to our selfish nature with its fleshly feelings and desires. To crucify means to put selfish feelings and desires to death, to throw them away, to put them out of our mind, and to die to them.

Crucified With Christ

But this is easier said than done. No matter how hard we try, we seem powerless to accomplish setting aside selfishness and our fleshly wants and desires. So how is this accomplished?

What follows is a step by step description of how this is worked out in our lives.

James breaks down and explains the problem:

Jas 1:14-15 But each one is tempted when he is dragged away and enticed by his own desires. (15) Then desire, after it has conceived, gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is brought to completion, gives birth to death.

We see an object of desire
We allow desire to grow to uncontrollable dimensions
We are dragged away by our out of control desire
Out of control desire leads to sin being birthed
Sin leads to spiritual corruption and then to death

This process is actually the path that a man takes when he lives for the flesh, from temptation to death. Our efforts to gain freedom from this process can leave us feeling rather hopeless. All around us we can see people who are living spiritually dead lives. Death is the loss of spiritual life and peace in this life, as Paul explains here:

Rom 8:6 "For the mindset of the flesh is death, but the mindset of the Spirit is life and peace,".

As hopeless as it may seem to break free from this, Paul helps us keep it in perspective:

1 Cor 10:13 Temptation has not come upon you except what is common to humanity. But God is faithful, who will not permit you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but will also make a way out together with the temptation, so that you may be able to endure it.

What this means is that if you see people around you that are living peaceful lives there is nothing special about them, for all temptation is common. No one has greater or lessor temptations than other people. You too can experience the same peace that you see others experiencing, for God will provide you "a way out" with the temptation just like everyone else has been provided a "way out" with their temptations.

So what is the first step, where is that doorway that leads to the "way out" from the temptation?

2 Cor 10:3-5 For although we are living in the flesh, we do not wage war according to the flesh, (4) for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but powerful to God for the tearing down of fortresses, tearing down arguments (5) and all pride that is raised up against the knowledge of God, and taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.

In the explanation that James gave of the problem above, the "way out" is between "seeing the object of desire" and "allowing that desire to grow to uncontrollable dimensions". The "way out" begins with taking the thought of fleshly desire captive when it first occurs. You capture it by recognizing it before it has a chance to grow, holding it up before you and saying, "I see you, you temptation!" and grabbing a hold of it before you get to the point where you take action on it.

OK, so now you have recognized this thought and captured it, now what? The next step is to ask God for help in dealing with it while you have it captured.

Heb 4:15-16 For we do not have a high priest who is not able to sympathize with our weaknesses, but who has been tempted in all things in the same way, without sin. (16) Therefore let us approach with confidence to the throne of grace, in order that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Jesus has been there, He knows what we are going through, and He has promised mercy and grace, help in our time of need. Our part is to capture the thoughts and bring them to Him. His part is to help us to put the thought to death, if and when we bring it to Him.

The process of capturing thoughts, and bringing them to Jesus so they can be put down is "being crucified with Christ", and is the essence of Jesus' words, "let him deny himself, take up your cross and follow Me."

Now what happens when we bring these thoughts to Jesus? What does Jesus do when we bring thoughts captive to Him? At the moment we bring each thought captive to Jesus, we are calling out to Him and inviting His influence in us, and putting ourself in a position that will allow Him to help us. When we do that, we receive power, and pass from death to life. A "light" shines in our hearts. Paul calls this light in us "treasure in jars of clay"!

2 Cor 4:7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

2 Cor 4:10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.

So the next question to be answered is how does this power come, what form does passing from death to life take?

Resurrection Life Promised

Paul states in this pivotal passage that through "death" comes "life".

Rom 6:6-8 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin-- (7) because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. (8) Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.

The reason Jesus told His disciples, and us to "take up our cross and follow Him" in this way is because if we follow Jesus in His manner of death, then we will also then be able to follow Jesus in His manner of life, the very resurrection life that can bring dead men to life.

Rom 6:4-5 Therefore we have been buried with him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so also we may live a new way of life. (5) For if we have become identified with him in the likeness of his death, certainly also we will be identified with him in the likeness of his resurrection,

These words of Paul teach us that the reason for "denying ourselves", "taking up our cross and following Him", being "crucified with Christ", is because that is the only path to life. It is only through death that life comes. John recorded a metaphor that Jesus related in this discussion of taking up our crosses:

John 12:24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

The promise of resurrection life pouring into our lives is brought about through following Christ in His crucifixion.

Resurrection Life Through Transformation

The pragmatic implantation of resurrection life in us is the fulfillment of the promise of the New Covenant. Jeremiah recorded:

Jer 31:33 "This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.

God is doing the writing, and that writing takes place as we are transformed into Christ's likeness. Ezekiel expands on this by connecting the New Covenant with a new Spirit being placed in us:

Eze 36:26-27 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. (27) And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (See also Eze 11:19)

Quite simply, resurrection life comes through the Holy Spirit living inside of us.

Rom 8:11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.

And how does the Holy Spirit come to live in an abiding way inside of us? The Spirit finds room in our hearts as we capture our fleshly thoughts, wants and desires, and bring them to Jesus in our time of need. By doing this, we extend an open invitation, born of our own free will, to the Holy Spirit to come in and live within us. Along with this invitation, we consent to His influence in our minds and hearts so that changes can be brought about by Him. By this we are made into a new creation as He takes off the old man and put on the new man and transformation has its full effect in us.

2 Cor 5:17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!

Eph  4:22-24 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; (23) to be made new in the attitude of your minds; (24) and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Rom 12:2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Tit 3:4-5 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, (5) he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,

The work of resurrection life happens in us through no effort of our own, it is entirely the Holy Spirit's work. Our part is to submit and yield, allowing the Holy Spirit to do that work in us by coming to Him and accepting His help.

2 Cor 3:18 And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

Result is Fruit and Assurance of Salvation

The outward expression of the inward transformation by the Holy Spirit is expressed agape love. The expression of love for our neighbor is the opposite of the pursuit of selfish fleshly wants and desires.

Agape love is associated with divine revelation, and is an overcoming love that is planted into us by the Spirit. Agape love is powerful, and has some of the same nature as light. In the same way that light dispels darkness, so to does agape love dispel darkness. In the same way that darkness cannot overpower light, so to evil cannot overcome agape love. The intent of transformation through and by resurrection life is simply to produce agape love for God and neighbor within our hearts and minds.

The presence of agape love in our lives is the measurement with which we can examine ourselves to see if and how deeply we are in the faith.

2 Cor 13:4-5 For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God's power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God's power we will live with him in our dealing with you. (5) Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you--unless, of course, you fail the test?

The test that measures Christ is in us is that of expressed love. Is your life characterized by the following descriptions of love? These characteristics are the yardstick with which to examine ourselves.

Gal 5:22-23 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, (23) gentleness, self control. ...

1 Cor 13:4-7 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. (5) It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. (6) Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. (7) It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Col 3:12-14 Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. (13) Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (14) And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

The production of agape love as the end result of taking up our cross and following Jesus and so passing from death to life is so profound, that it is by this that we may know that we are saved. It is by the presence of agape love that we know that Christ is in us. The following passages should comfort us with the assurance of salvation based on Christ being in us as confirmed by the presence of agape love.

1 Jn 3:14 We know that we have passed over from death to life because we love the brothers. The one who does not love remains in death.

1 Jn 4:12-13 No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God resides in us and his love is perfected in us. (13) By this we know that we reside in him and he in us: that he has given us of his Spirit.

Christ in you, is your hope of glory!

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