A cross-shaped life
When he hung on the cross, Jesus was experiencing what the Old Testament considered to be the ultimate curse, the epitome of a repulsive, feared fate, the fate reserved for the worst criminals…
‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law,’ wrote Paul, ‘by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’ (Galatians 3:13, quoting Deuteronomy 21:22 23). ‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree’ (1 Peter 2:24)…
Bringing together Deuteronomy 21; Isaiah 53; Galatians 3; and 1 Peter 2, we find that the shocking disclosure of the New Testament is that when the Old Testament spoke in some places of a coming triumphant Son of Man and when it spoke in other places of a coming Suffering Servant, these predictions, seemingly polar opposites, are realised in the same person.
The disciples wanted liberation. But they were short-sighted. They wanted liberation from their circumstances — Roman occupation, pagan overlords, Israel’s internationally undervalued reputation. But Jesus had come truly to liberate them. He had come to liberate them from their sins. He came to free them not from others, but from themselves — not from the overlords of Rome, but from the overlord of sin (Romans 6:14)…
Jesus’ mission was not just that of a lion. Circumstantial liberation required a kingly messiah, and a kingly messiah alone. Spiritual liberation — real liberation — required a kingly messiah, who would himself be bound like a criminal so that his followers could be liberated in the only sense that ultimately matters.
Jesus the king would suffer as a common criminal. Magnificence would be turned inside out. This is the surprise of the Gospel of Mark. Truly Jonathan Edwards preached that in Jesus there is ‘an admirable conjunction … of infinite dignity, and infinite condescension and love to the infinitely unworthy’.
Immediately after rebuking Peter, Jesus turns to those nearby and reveals to them what it means to be led by a suffering Messiah-King: ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it’ (Mark 8:34-35).
For disciples of Jesus, the Messiah’s death not only plucks them from the easy path to hell, but also places them on the hard path to heaven. ‘When Christ calls a man,’ wrote Bonhoeffer, ‘he bids him come and die’.
Jesus’ suffering was ultimately so that we would not suffer for ever. The greatest accomplishment of Jesus’ mission is something he did on our behalf — vicarious atonement. But Jesus was not only a substitute. He was also a pioneer (Hebrews 2:10; 12:2).
He not only bears the cross in our place, he also blazes a cross-shaped trail that we are to follow. The suffering of Christ not only wins us forgiveness, but trains us to lose our lives for his sake — as we learn to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.
Followers of Jesus trade in temporal pleasures with eternal suffering for temporal suffering with eternal pleasures. These are our only two options. C. S. Lewis echoed the teaching of Mark when he said that ‘… a crucifixion of the natural self is the passport to everlasting life. Nothing that has not died will be resurrected’.
Meaningful discipleship under Jesus Christ is not the fruit of cool, detached on-looking, however appreciative of his teaching one may be.
Only the disciple who loses his life for Jesus’ sake, and thereby secures the only life worth having, truly understands who Jesus is and how God’s redemptive purposes in the world operate — not only through his Son, but also through his people.
Notice that Jesus does not call us to allow ourselves to be denied by some outside agent; he does not call us to be ready to have a cross placed upon us; he does not call us to wander after him. He calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him. Proactive exertion, not passive compliance, is the modus operandi of vital Christian discipleship.
Henry Scougal was professor of divinity at Aberdeen University until his death in 1678 at the age of 28. The year before he died Scougal wrote a letter to a distraught friend in which he said:
‘Never doth a soul know what solid joy and substantial pleasure is, till once, being weary of itself, it renounce all propriety, give itself up unto the Author of its being, and feel itself become a hallowed and devoted thing, and can say, I am content to be anything for him, and care not for myself, but that I may serve him.’
To take up the cross is to take up joy — painful joy, but real joy. For, to take up the cross is to walk with the one who in great love bore the ultimate cross in our place. Aim at joy, and you will miss it. Aim at Christ, and his cross-bearing call, and you will find it.
Contrary as it is to all our presuppositions, the way to save our life is to lose it. Death was the way to life for Jesus. Death is the way to life for Jesus’ disciples. ‘Die before you die. There is no chance after’, remarks a character in C. S. Lewis’s Till we have faces.
If we tunnel in to the very heart of Christian discipleship as articulated by Mark, we find, echoing the mission of Jesus himself, this startling principle: loss is gain. Death is life.
Yielding all guarantees receiving all. Self-denial for the sake of the gospel is the secret to saving our life. This was the way the upside-down mission of Jesus worked out, and it is the path of discipleship for his people. Glad abandon is our only sanity.
Contrary to what all our instincts of self-preservation whisper to us every day, abandonment to Jesus is the safest investment we can make. Our only security is renunciation of all that this world holds secure.
The emotional cash value of all this is the realisation that taking up our cross is not an alternative to joy. Cross-bearing is not masochism.
The grim self-denial to which Jesus calls us in Mark 8 does not quench, but fans, the flames of the irrepressible gladness in which we have been swept up. We are not called to be sorrowful or rejoicing, but both (2 Corinthians 6:10); not self-denying or joyful, but both.
One way we see Christians falling off on one side or the other of this tension is in the encouragement of some that believers should be perpetually ‘broken’, on the one hand, and in the call to ‘triumphant’ or ‘victorious’ Christian living, on the other hand. Both amount to one-sided reductionism of a gospel-formed life.
Are Christians to be broken? Well, it depends what we mean. If by ‘broken’ we mean downcast, long-faced, perpetually discouraged, hand-wringing, abject, ever grieving over sins — no.
If by ‘broken’ we mean contrite, low before the Lord, poignantly aware of personal weakness, self-divesting, able to laugh at ourselves, having sober judgement, being sensitive to the depths of sin within us — yes.
Are Christians to be triumphant? If by ‘triumphant’ we mean self-assured, superficial, obtuse to personal weakness, beyond correction, self-confident, quick to diagnose others’ weaknesses and our own strengths, showy, triumphalistic — no.
If by ‘triumphant’ we mean confident of God’s unconquerable purposes in the world through faltering disciples, bold with a boldness that accords with the outrageous promises of the Bible, quietly abandoning ourselves to God in the light of Christ’s irrepressible victory, relentless in reminding the enemy of Christ’s emptying of the power of Satan’s accus¬ations, prepared to take risks not for the sake of reputation-seeking but fuelled by a faith that is fixated on God — yes.
Brokenness without triumph is Eeyorish gloom that emphasises the Fall to the neglect of redemption, crucifixion to the neglect of resurrection … ‘Cross and crown, death and resurrection, humiliation and exaltation lie on the same line’, wrote Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck.
Our two options are: a cross with a crown, or neither; contrite brokenness with ultimate triumph, or neither — not one or the other. A cross-shaped life is the path, not the alternative, to the only crown that matters. For, in the gospel, we are liberated to experience both fall and redemption, crucifixion and resurrection, brokenness and triumph.
Extracted from the authors’ recent book Defiant grace — the surprising message and mission of Jesus (EP Books, 144 pages, ISBN: 9780852347515)