Taking up the cross

I still have so many questions.  In all honesty, this entire post could probably just be questions if I wanted to take the time to type them all out.  But one thing I know for certain…the gospel the spirit of God has been showing me of late is the most deeply penetrating, life-altering, heart-moving, empowering, freeing, dearly offensive tapestry of impossible kindness I’ve ever even remotely understood.  For the first time in my life, the secret certainty that there must be more than even the most extravagant good news has been realized.  Not because it has been irrevocably answered, but rather because it is infinitely fathomable.  There is simply no end to the depth of revelation, and consequential response of the heart, within this gospel…the real good news.  The news neither I, nor the vast majority of the believing and unbelieving world, have ever heard until now.

Taking up the cross.

Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.  For whoever desires to 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 too long, at the mercy of a horribly deceived church controlled by religion, I’ve believed this passage to be the mantra of the “sold out”.  It was the linchpin of the self-sacrificing, desire surrendering, way of “life” I’d always been told was true discipleship.  It was the holiest and most admirable pursuit…however entirely impossible it was.  Every church camp, every youth rally, every trendy wrist band and t-shirt bent itself in this direction.  “DIE TO YOURSELF”, because it’s obviously the only way to save your life.  I mean…its in the BIBLE for crying out loud!!  Praise You, Holy Spirit of God, that you are so faithful to lead us into all truth…because I so appreciate not having to live beneath the desolate and joyless weight of such ungodly (literally) expectation.

The first ignorance in my understanding was really a very basic thing, but a foundational knowledge that drastically effected the way I perceived the whole of scripture, and life in God in general.  I realized that the reason I’ve never comprehended  what it means to carry my cross is because I never REALLY understood HIS cross.  Although every sermon from every preacher I’d ever encountered was carefully crafted to excessively repeat that “The cross of Christ is salvation for everyone who believes!”…it was all too covertly woven into the tapestry of Christian rhetoric that I had BETTER believe.  In other words, it wasn’t an inviting aroma that answered the longing in my heart for eternity.  It was a story about how kind God was to kill Himself for me, and how if I was going to follow Him, He expected the same of me in return.  You know, an eye for an eye kind of deal.  Thus…carrying your cross.

However…one of the great things about coming into your own in the Lord is that you start to realize that you don’t have to listen to everything every “leader” in the body says about God.  As a matter of fact, in the state we’re currently in as the church, you’re probably better off just NOT listening to most of them AT ALL for a while.  When you start to read the word of God for yourself, a lot of context suddenly appears that was somehow drowned in the agenda of religion before.  And that’s where I’m going to start with this passage: it’s context.  Now, I’m not a bible scholar, and I won’t get into an argument with you concerning the exegesis of a particular passage.  But even just the basic reality of who Jesus was speaking to, when He was speaking, and WHY He said what He did brings most religious argument to its knees.

When Jesus was walking the earth, He preached a message that pointed to something.  We tend to think of the words of Jesus, specifically the beatitudes and sermon on the mount, as a life-manual for those who call on His name.  But the problem with that thinking is that, well…its just not true.  Jesus, the only sinless man to ever walk the earth until His resurrection, preached to a specific group of people and spoke very specific words to make a very particular point.  He was born a Jewish man, and preached among the Jewish people, a people familiar with the ways and life of the Torah (law).  The message He preached was VERY different from the message He died for.  His sermons were the law, and they were the law at its maximized intensity.  If you actually read through the beatitudes with this in mind, it becomes very obvious.

“You’ve heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (emphasis added) – Matthew 5:27-28

Jesus did not “reinstate holiness” and “call people to TRUE righteousness”, at least not at this particular juncture of His life.  He made an already impossible standard even more unattainable.  He took the law that the Pharisees so arrogantly claimed to have kept and preached one that no man could even hope to lie about.  This is why it says in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (emphasis added)  This was NOT a statement from the God of grace that He was coming to tell us how to be holy; that it was going to be hard, but that He’d help us along the way.  He was NOT simply revealing the sin-governed heart of man so that we could recognize it, feel bad all over again, and try harder.  He was, in ONE statement, silencing the arguments of those who hated Him and those who would love Him.  For the religious Pharisees and Sadducees, He was declaring that He was not replacing the revered law of Moses, or nullifying that covenant with God, thus voiding one more thing they would most certainly have used to accuse Him unto death.  And for those hopelessly aware of their inability to abide by a law that was given to bring that exact awareness to vision, He was neither maintaining  the former covenant and law of Moses, leaving them to drown in their inadequacy and shame.  He was FULFILLING them.  HE was the answer, as He always had been, since before the foundations of time. Romans 10:4 says, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”  More literally translated it says, “…end of the law, that everyone who believes may be justified.”  The REAL gospel of Jesus is one of UTTER relinquishment of self, in its truest form…absurd and abundant grace.

This verse from Romans 10 is speaking of the way of salvation.  That’s a pretty big deal.  We like to say that salvation is not “your life and Jesus’ life; You can’t have what you want AND what God wants for you.  You have to die to yourself, because He died for you.”  Even in the margin of my bible, these notes are present concerning this verse:

“…’law’ here refers to the system of earning righteousness in one’s own strength. Christ indeed is the perfect fulfillment of everything the law requires, but He also put an end to the law as a way of achieving righteousness for everyone who believes.  Thus, Paul emphasizes the sufficiency of faith in receiving the righteousness of God because in fulfilling the law’s demands, Christ terminated its claim.  The verse does not mean that a Christian may ignore God’s moral standards or commandments”

Now, without getting into some of the original Greek and Hebrew text, it can be quite the task to disagree with what is said here in the footnotes of my bible, and what we’ve all been taught.  But the problem is mostly in the perspective that has resulted from twisted teaching, as it is the lens we continue to interpret all of scripture through.  I do not necessarily disagree that we need to believe that Jesus has been raised from the dead to be saved, or that this isn’t the core of the good news.  HOWEVER, I believe the thought that it is an obligation, or a condition of our salvation to be another nearly indiscernible corruption of religion.  In the Hebrew, the only word for “faith” is literally translated “trust” in English.  The Hebraic understanding of salvation is simply trusting that He is who He says, and did what He said He did; believing on His sacrifice.  The issue with making our salvation conditional on anything we can DO or SAY is that it still, no matter how infinitesimal the mixture, dilutes the purity of the grace offered to us in the cross of Christ.

When Paul says in Romans 10:4 that “…Christ is the end of the law for everyone who believes”, he was not saying that He is the end of the law IF we believe.  He was saying He is the end of the law, of self-effort, period.  The “believing” is not a “doing”, it is a result of revelation.  The magnificent cross of Christ boasts within itself the power to motivate the heart to explode with faith (trust), and spill from the mouth with irrepressible declaration.  He was not giving us a formula for fire-insurance.  He was giving voice to the finished reality of salvation for ALL of mankind inherent in the resurrected life of Jesus that is the only plausible confession of the heart that encounters it.  Francois Du Toit, author of the Mirror Translation, says it like this: “…it is the spontaneous inevitable conversation of a persuaded heart!” (Notes on Romans 10:9, The Mirror Translation).

To even need to say that a Christian is not allowed to “ignore God’s moral standards or commandments” (in my opinion) speaks to the possibility that the author of such a statement is living from a reality in which he feels the responsibility personally for another persons potential “misunderstanding” and “abuse” of grace.  Or, perhaps responsibility is the wrong word.  It seems he may feel the need to be the voice of conviction; to preserve the “holiness” of the body required by a God who is holy.  This, my friends, is the fruit of law and performance.  Of course, in the grace of God (rightly understood), no person would ever WANT to live in the way that leads to death.  Whether they are allowed to or not, is not the issue, and finds its origin in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Most preachers spend their time pre-emptively medicating the exploitation of a grace that only has the power it is entitled to when it’s beneficiary is aware of it’s absurdly permissive nature.  A Christian CAN ignore God’s moral standards and commandments…but that person will live a half-life, and most likely, has never encountered true grace.

The life of a believer, to “follow after” the One we love, was never meant to be drudgery.  The fallacy of sacrifice as we’ve understood it is the primary reason a good majority of the Church is still warring with their “sins” instead of becoming infatuated with Jesus.  It’s the crippling identity we’ve assigned to a gospel that is supposed to be good news, but reads like bondage to an already bound world.  Discipleship was not the idea of humanity, nor of a transformation-hungry God.  It was not born of necessity to corral the unruly and human body of Christ, nor for the sake of multiplication unto mass conversion of the nations.  It was not a strategy, and is not the battle plan for the “army of God”.  Discipleship is the OUTCOME of the knowledge of Christ Jesus, not the road to it.  Look at every verse in which Jesus says something to the tune of “unless you _____, then you cannot be my disciple” through that lens.  What once seemed to be the God-man demanding that you have no fun or you can’t be His friend, will suddenly make His point very obvious.  He was proving to a nation based on, governed by, and drowning in the law that they could not meet the requirements of it.  He had come to fulfill the law (Matthew 5:17), so that we could be made righteous in His sacrifice forever (Hebrews 10:14).  He died so we don’t have to…period.  The “die to yourself” doctrine has gone on long enough, and it’s why our understanding of “carrying the cross” has caused so much more damage than we may even be aware.

After a famous portion of scripture known as “the hall of faith” in which the author of Hebrews remembers in chapter 11 those who had gone before since the dawn of time and their faith, chapter 12:1-3 says this:

“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith (“our” is excluded in the original text), who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

This verse is nearly synonymous with every motivational message concerning the laying aside of sin, so that we can run the race.  That is the precise opposite intention of the author of Hebrews in this passage, and a misconception that has sown deeply into striving for a good majority in this generation of the church.  First of all, I would wager that the original text would translate very differently.  Language dictates much of how we receive the heart of any given sequence of words.  The word set “let us lay aside every weight, and sin…” most likely sounds like its your job to stop sinning when you read it.  This is the byproduct of religious conditioning and misinterpretation.  The actual meaning of that specific phrase is inherent in the solid chapter of remembering that came before it.  Chapter 11 of Hebrews is a testimonial of those who believed in the gospel of Jesus Christ without living to see His coming; a tribute to the “giants” of the faith who were, comparatively speaking, believing in a mere shadow of that which we have access to.  Thus, when it says “Therefore we also…”, it is speaking in the context of faith, or trust in the finished work of the cross.  When THAT is the lens we read “let us lay aside every weight, and sin” through, we see the author was giving us permission to rid ourselves of sinconsciousness since sin was dealt with conclusively at the cross.

The word in this passage for “looking” in the greek is Apharao (af-or-ah-oh), which means literally to be distracted by.  It is looking, with undivided attention, because of the fascinating nature of the object stealing your gaze.  The problem with the way we tend to teach the knowledge of the cross of Christ, is that it doesn’t distract anyone from anything.  If anything, its obligatory and duty-ridden implication causes us to LONG to look away.  Its simple really…we will dwell upon those things that bring us pleasure, and give our lives wholeheartedly to the pursuit of them.  And in the context of true grace, that is exactly what the cross does.  That is why Jesus said in Mark 8:34, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself…”.  We’ve been taught that this means to lay down your desires, give up your way of doing things, and make Jesus Lord of your life.  While those principles are true, to assume we can accomplish them, or anything else for that matter, of our own strength would be to return to the law.  Denying yourself in the light of the grace of Jesus’ triumphant resurrection means to refuse to operate within self-effort.  Not to deny who YOU are, but to accept who HE is.  He did not die to get rid of you, but to restore your true identity.  Further on in verse 34, He says “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him…take up his cross, and follow Me.”  I cannot affirm enough that these are not conditional statements, meaning they are not the 1,2,3,4 of following Jesus.  These are consequential statements, detailing the process of what happens to a person who has come into revelation of salvation that was accomplished before the foundations of time.  Taking up your cross has nothing to do with the burden of sacrifice.  Galatians 2:20 says that we were crucified with Christ.  The reason He calls it OUR cross is because we were on it with Him.  You both already died together, so that you can live forever with Him.  To take up your cross is to live beneath the ever-present weight of the finished work in Jesus death and resurrection.  Like Hebrews 12:2 says, to be distracted by the work of the cross; staring intently at the author and finisher of our faith.  It is not sacrifice in itself, it is never forgetting the FINAL sacrifice that occurred over 2,000 years ago and before the foundations of time.
We have to deal the final blow to our self-effort.  It is a disease bred by religious thinking that offers no cure.  The antiserum is called grace.  It is potent, life-saving, and tastes wonderful…but it must be drunk straight.  Mixture with law nullifies the essence and purpose of the entirety of the gospel.  We cannot treat it lightly.  Verse 35 of Mark 8:34-35 reads as follows:

“For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it”

To be a disciple of Jesus, to carry your cross, is to die to your self-effort…not to yourself.  If YOU desire to save your life, you will be bound to the law for as long as you refuse to let go.  The goal of the law was to reveal sin, and the wage of sin is death.  You will lose your life if YOU try to save it.  But, in the beautiful grace of God, if you will finally rest into the ease of what Jesus has already done…for His sake, because He is most glorified when you are most satisfied, and for the gospel’s sake because you ARE the message you believe…you will save your life.  He came to save the world, not to condemn it.  If you will let HIM save your life, you will have life abundant.

Carry your cross.  Live in grace.  Stop trying.  It’s the good news.

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About michaellevimiller

I am a man, and I will love well, if its all I ever do. View all posts by michaellevimiller

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