What Does “Deny Yourself and Take Up Your Cross” Mean?

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me…” (Matthew 16:24)

This verse has gotten us into trouble over the years. Not because there’s something wrong with the verse or with Jesus’ amazing statement, but because we’re doers and we’re always looking for something to do in order to be more pleasing to God. We’ll insert ourselves into any Bible verse that looks like it needs us to do something. We’re doers. We’ve convinced ourselves that our own labor and effort are necessary contributions that earn extra credit or additional merit. Even though Jesus answered the question 2,000+ years ago, we’re still asking “What must we do to be doing the works of God?” (John 6:28-29). What’s our contribution? We’re ready at a moment’s notice to strap on the spiritual tool belt and get busy because we’re doers.

Because we’re such doers, we’ve interpreted this verse as marching orders for the Christian life. We’ve been told it’s a call to spiritual progress and maturity. You’ve heard it as much as I have. When hard times hit, we remind each other that we all have our cross to bear and bearing the weight of that burden is key to denying ourselves because after all, that’s what Jesus said to do. We’ve made this beautiful passage all about us and our ability to endure and press on when life gets hard.

But it has nothing to do with that. Let’s take a second glance at the context. First, Jesus is talking about his own pending crucifixion (Matthew 16:21). Second, failure on our part to take up our cross and follow him has eternal, not temporal consequences. Things like losing our life and losing our soul are at stake (Matthew 16:25-26). Eternity is on the line, not spiritual maturity. In other words, failure to take up my cross and follow him, leads to death, not disappointment at being an undisciplined Christian. Third, where did Jesus’ cross take him? It took him to Calvary to die. If I take up my cross and follow him, to where am I following him? To Calvary to die (John 12:24-26). This is why Paul could say, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God”(Colossians 3:3) and “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God” (Romans 7:4).

This is the meaning of denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following him. It’s an invitation to believe. It’s an invitation to die. It’s an invitation to identify with him in his death. It’s an invitation to die with him and in so doing, to find life. It has nothing to do with endurance under trials but everything to do with dying with him in order to reign with him.


Photo by Jesse Orrico on Unsplash