10 April 2020
“And Jesus answered them , ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whosoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honour him” (John 12:23-26).
In another passage (Mark 8:34-35), Jesus said, “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”.
In the first passage in John 12, Jesus was clearly referring to the cross where He would be glorified; He revealed a spiritual principle that ‘death’ would bring forth ‘life’ and fruitfulness and so it is – the death of Jesus at the cross truly gives eternal life to many who would believe. This principle of ‘death bringing forth life’ also applies to all believers; in both passages in John 12 and Mark 8, Jesus applied this to all those who follow Him.
To take up our cross and to follow Jesus is ‘to put oneself into the position of a condemned man on his way to execution’. Following Christ with a cross on our shoulders means one thing – the place we are going to is the place of crucifixion. As Bonhoeffer put it, ‘When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die’. Although not all of us will suffer martyrdom, the imagery described here is ‘self-denial’. Self-denial does not mean denying ourselves the luxuries of life like chocolates, cakes and so on; it is denying our supposed rights to go our own way; it means turning away from the idolatry of self-centredness – it is dealing with our self-life by the enabling of the Holy Spirit and ‘putting the death the dependence on our abilities, ingenuity, pride and in our weakness and helplessness, to find strength and life in God alone. It means death to sin and subsequent life to God; it means deliberately putting our old nature to death daily with the continual practice of repentance and allowing the Spirit of God to examine us in our inner beings and to put right what is wrong before God in contriteness and humility.
Self-denial also involves showing God’s love in our lives towards others who may not be deserving, and the quality of this love is characterised by self-giving and a sacrificial spirit in accordance with God’s will and in line with His guidance and desires. In other words, it is a life that is others-centred and not self-centred, with the supreme example of our Lord Jesus who gave Himself in sacrificial love to die for the enemies of the cross and to bring the many undeserving back to God’s fold through His blood. In that light, we now understand why, when the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it bears much fruit. It becomes clearer why anyone who will follow Christ must deny himself and take up his cross. It is in line with Jesus’ example when He declared that He came to serve and not to be served and He came to give His life as a ransom of the many. Nothing indicated more clearly the great value Jesus placed on people than His determination to suffer and die for them.
We must take note that the self we are to deny and crucify is our fallen self, everything within us that is incompatible with Jesus Christ. We are, however, to affirm our created self, everything within us that is compatible with Jesus Christ; hence we can understand what Jesus meant when He said that if we lose ourselves by self-denial, we shall find ourselves. True self-denial is not the road to self-destruction but the road to self-discovery; so when Jesus instructs us to deny ourselves, it is to save us from our fallen self and to help us to find our true created self in HIm. True self-denial is not just self-forgetfulness but Christ-centredness and others-centrednessl; it produces the kind of self-forgetffulness that blossoms into the beauty of Christian character centred on Christ and effected by the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
The grain of wheat must die in John 12 also speak not just about ‘death leading to life’ but also about suffering leading to fruitfulness and glory; the grain of wheat must die to multiply. This principle is particularly seen in effectiveness in christian service in evangelistic and missionary outreach; the willingness to suffer and die leads to effective fruitfulness in christian service. It may be a death to popularity (by faithfully preaching the true gospel), or to pride (by the reliance on the Holy Spirit rather than on management methods) or to racial and national prejudice (by identifying with and empathising with another culture) or to material comfort (by adopting a simple lifestyle). The true servant of God must suffer if he is to bring light to the nations and the grain of wheat must die if it is to multiply.
Jesus clearly looked beyond His death to His resurrection, beyond HIs sufferings to HIs glory, and He was sustained in His trials by ‘the joy set before Him’ (Heb,12:2). It is also clear that He expects His followers to share His perspective – hence ‘suffering’ and the ‘cross’ were regular themes in HIs teachings to His Apostles. Suffering is to be expected; it is part of our calling. When we suffer like Christ, we are suffering with Him; as we share in HIs sufferings, we would also share in His glory. It is the hope of glory which makes suffering bearable. The eternal purpose of God is to make us holy or Christlike and ‘our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us’ because ‘our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that outweighs them all’ (Romans 8:18; 2 Corin. 4:127).
Suffering as the path to glory for the people of God is biblical but we cannot assert that all human suffering leads to glory; we cannot attempt to universalise this principle and apply it to all human suffering without exception. But for the believers, suffering for us as for Jesus is God’s appointed path to mature holiness, fruitful service and glorification (our final destiny).
The community of Christ is undoubtedly a community of the cross and will therefore be marked by sacrificial love, self-denial, service and suffering. The cross is to characterise all our relationships in Christ’s community. We are to love one another because God is love in HIs being and because He has shown His love by sending His Son to die for us. And this love always expresses itself in unselfishness, self-denial and others-centredness; this was and is the attitude of Christ who both renounced His own rights (Philip. 2:6-8) and humbled Himself to serve others (Mark 10:45). The cross is to mark our christian life in the home, in the church and even more so in the world.
As we look at the cross today and everyday, let us not forget that the cross communicated the spiritual principles, though paradoxical, that suffering is the path to glory, death the way to life and fruitfulness, and weakness the secret of power and strength. They were for Jesus, and they still are for His followers today.
If these principles are missing in our lives and relationships – beware – we may end up as ‘enemies of the cross of Christ (Philip. 3:18). To be an enemy of the cross is to set ourselves against its purposes. Self-righteousness (instead of looking to the cross for justification), self-indulgence (instead of taking up the cross to follow Him), self-advertisement (instead of preaching Christ crucified) and self-glorification (instead of glorying in the cross) – these are the distortions which make us ‘enemies’ of Christ’s cross.
A godly man once said ” It is the man…who has died with Christ …who can preach the cross of Christ”. Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life”.