In Luke 9:23 Jesus made it clear to both his disciples and would-be followers that all applicants “must deny themselves,” and “take up their cross daily,” and ”follow him.” Was Jesus having a bad day? Why was he so rough on his guys? What did he mean by this metaphor, “take up your cross”? What relevance does this have to congregational (community) life? Perhaps the answer involves understanding the transformational power of self-denial and suffering. In the Kingdom of God suffering and death are not what they seems to be here on earth. God has given us examples in nature to help us understand. We also need to understand Jesus’ call to follow him in unity with others…not as lone rangers. By God’s design, we are transformed into the image of Christ as we follow Him in community with others.

Jesus’ Two Prerequisites (Luke 9:23-24)

Jesus gave the following command to both his disciples and to the crowds who came to hear him speak:

Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. (Luke 9:23-24 )

This passage is quite interesting. It can be understood as invitation, warning, command and promise all at the same time. It is recorded in the gospels of Matthew and Mark as well as Luke. It lays down the primary condition for joining Jesus’ band of merry men. It was (is) an open invitation addressed to “anyone”…anyone who dares to pay the cost…anyone with the perception that it is well worth the cost. Jesus wasn’t interested in recruiting the curious or the casual. He made it clear from the beginning that the applicant MUST deny himself and take up his cross. The word ‘must’ makes it an absolute condition. Jesus seems quite dogmatic about it. He didn’t use the words, ‘should, might, can, probably’ etc. There is no getting around the ‘must.’

Jesus’ first prerequisite to following him was to, deny self. Its not hard to conceptualize what it means to deny ourselves. Easy to comprehend but hard to do. It is against human nature to renounce, reject, and refuse ourselves. Renounce the right to rule our own lives. Reject our status as freemen. Refuse to go our own way. Yet we must…if we want to follow Jesus. Denying is an active word. Jesus didn’t say to ignore or overlook ourselves but to deny ourselves. Later in Luke chapter 9, three men were interested in following him but none seemed willing to pay the price of denying themselves. Was Jesus too picky?

As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

He said to another man, “Follow me.” But the man replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-by to my family.” Jesus replied, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:57-62

We have no record of Jesus asking applicants for resumes, school transcripts, IQ scores, mentoring fees, or employer references. But he did require them to ‘deny themselves.’ He set the bar high but apparently did not exclude anyone based on intelligence, appearances, handicaps or social status. Denying self is an action birthed from an inward attitude of humility. Jesus is our role model for denying self.

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross! Phil 2:5-8

An attitude of humility is a consequence of our affections. Out from our affections (our deep seated values and love) are birthed our attitudes and actions. Psalm 37:4 says ‘Delight yourself in the LORD’ meaning to make him your joy and affection. Jesus commanded his followers to ‘love the Lord their God with all of their heart, mind, and soul.’ We can only do this if we remove ourselves from the center of our affection. Denying self is both an action and an inner ward attitude. I think the idea is well illustrated with this model I call the ‘affection circle.’

Our actions and our attitudes are (the two outer circles) are transformed from the inside out… as we change our affections (i.e. what we love and delight in).

Denying ourselves is primarily an act of making Jesus the center of our affections rather than ourselves.

If we do that our attitudes and actions transform ‘naturally’… so to speak. If our ‘affections’ never change, we cannot expect our attitudes and actions to change. To believe in Jesus is to make him the center of our affection.

The second prerequisite for following Jesus was to “take up our cross.” At first glance it seems very much like the first prerequisite (i.e. deny self). But how do we understand this metaphor? In Luke chapter 9 Jesus had yet to be crucified. Did the crowds understand? Was Jesus speaking prophetically or did his listeners know immediately what he meant? Or perhaps Jesus was speaking in metaphors in order to cloak his meaning all together…sometimes he did that. I believe the two most likely scenarios (unless you accept a completely alternative interpretation[1]) are as follows; either Jesus’ figure of speech “take up your cross” was a commonly understood saying or Jesus himself invented the idiom knowing its mean was implicit to his listeners. After all, crucifixion was not a new method of execution introduced by the Romans. The Romans borrowed it from the Greeks and the Greeks had borrowed it from the Phoenicians. During the past centuries the Romans, Greeks and Phoenicians had all ruled Israel. By the start of the first century crucifixion was already an infamous form of execution and undoubtedly very familiar to the Jews of Palestine. It was quite likely that the meaning of Jesus’ metaphor was loud and clear to his would-be followers. A man carrying a cross was on his way to execution. He had no plans of his own. He carried the weight of death and disgrace on his back. It was a journey (although relatively short) of suffering and ridicule. ‘Take up your cross’ was a metaphor of death and suffering. Jesus had a strange way of recruiting followers. No wonder not too many people signed up for his ‘program.’ It was not an initiation to study, travel, or meet new people. Only those who counted the benefits of following Jesus as better than life itself joined him. Jesus forewarned his listeners of the future suffering and sacrifice that lay ahead of all who followed him. I find it interesting too that Jesus didn’t say take up ‘my’ cross or ‘a’ cross or ‘his’ cross, but ‘your’ cross. Each of us must carry the cross that has been assigned to us.

The Luke 9:23 passage is slightly different than the similar passages in Matthew 16:24 and Mark 8:34. Luke includes the word “daily” (where as Matthew and Mark don’t) so the passage reads “take up his cross daily and follow me.” This is quite significant because it reminds us that we must choose daily to follow Christ in self denial and suffering. Jesus wasn’t saying that we commit ourselves to him one time and it is enough. He was not making an alter call for a one time commitment but rather for a daily commitment to die to self. Daily we must renew our commitment to take up the cross (consider ourselves dead) and follow him. He seems to be asking us to re-surrender our lives to God every day. At the minimum it should put a new spin on our daily quiet time.

Only after we have ‘denied self’ and ‘taken up our cross’ are we available to follow Jesus. Jesus wants us dead to ourselves but alive to follow him. In Romans 12:1 the expression ‘living sacrifices’ expresses the same thought.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship. (Rom. 12:1)

We are urged by Paul to offer ourselves as living sacrifice (one dead-to-self but alive and set-a-part to serve God). Isn’t this the same thing Jesus was requiring of his followers in Luke 9:23? A living sacrifice is one who denies himself and takes up his cross daily and follows Jesus. When we follow someone we learn his ways. God wants followers of Jesus not only to learn his ways but also to become like Him. Change (or transformation) towards Christlikeness has always been on God’s agenda for believers.

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Rom 8:29)

Biblical Transformation

The previous discussion of Luke 9:23 laid the groundwork for our main subject of biblical transformation in community. But what is biblical transformation? When does it begin and when does it end? The whole process begins at conversion when we believe in Jesus.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (2 Corinthians 5:17)

In Christ we become new creations. We transform from what we were to what we are now. We may not look much difference from the outside, but from the perspective of the heavenly realms we are completely different. We are new creations. Yet this is only the start of a wonderful journey. God has more changes in mind as He wants us to become more and more like Jesus. This process is called transformation.

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. .. (Rom 12:2 )

The word transformation appears several times in the NT. It means to change from one form (or state) to another. The NT Greek word for transformation is ‘metamorphoo’ where we get our word metamorphosis. The most amazing thing is that while on this earth we have the opportunity to be transformed step by step into the image of Christ. The completion of our transformation won’t happen until death, but the process starts when we are regenerated in Christ. From conversion until death we are in the process of being sanctified, transformed, matured or completed. These are all terms used to describe the same process. That is to say we are in the process of metamorphosis. It is something that God does but it is also something that must be pursued by the believer. The more we resemble Jesus in our actions, attitudes and affections the more complete we become. While we are waiting for the final transformation (at physical death or the 2nd Coming) we are being transformed by the Holy Spirit step by step, over time, as we co-operate with Him through faith and obedience. We are in a process of transformation (metamorphosis).

And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor 3:18)

At physical death we will be completely transformed. We will still have bodies but they will be very different from what we have now. They will be specially designed for the heavenly realms just as our current bodies were designed for this earthly realm.

But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, … will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. (Phil 3:20-21)

In the animal world there are many parallels. For example, the dragonfly starts life as a pupa or worm. The worm is hatched and develops completely underwater until its final stage. Once the worm metamorphosis into a dragonfly it can never return back to water. Its new body is built only for the air. God designed the dragonfly for the air, just as God designed you and I for heaven. Our present bodies (even though perfect and wonderfully made) are still but tents compared to what awaits us in heaven. Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. (2 Cor 4:18-5:1). But processes of transformation include perserverance in suffering and participation in community. I’ll talk about these next.

[1] The word translated here as cross is the Greek word ‘stauros’ meaning stake or pale. One might argue that the passage can be translated “pull up his tent stakes daily and follow me.” This translation would also make sense. It would denote the sacrifice of living on the move with no security or home (a few verse later Jesus would reply to a man who said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Luke 9:57 ) This interpretation makes sense. But the Greek word ‘pegnumi’ is more typical for tent peg. According to Vine, ‘stauros’ is the primary word used in the New Testament to denote the upright pale or stake to which Romans nailed those who were thus to be executed. (Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29, Gal. 3:13, 1Pet.2:24). All English versions of the NT that I know of translate ‘stauros’ as cross.