We begin the first week of this series in Luke 9:18-27, where Luke records for us the first time that Jesus predicted His death on the cross. We might have heard it said before, that Jesus' words were shocking for his disciples and those that followed Him. In our day and age, the cross is closely associated with Christianity, and often made into associated jewelry or even accessories. But in Jesus' time, the ancient world saw it as a symbol of great shame and death by the cross was reviled and reserved for terrible criminals. It is this death that Jesus predicts for Himself, and what He calls His followers to.
As we begin this series, let us go back to the cross, and consider what it means to follow One whose greatest achievement was death.
(A) The one who calls us to taste death (v.18-22)
It is important to note the setting for Jesus' first prediction. We are told that Jesus was praying alone but His disciples were with Him (v.18a). It would be logical to say that Jesus probably prayed about His death, for this was what He asked them next, and His disciples were privy to the contents of His prayer and might have been praying too. Why is this important for us? This tiny detail in the narrative reminds us that the eternal Son of God Himself spends time in communion with God in prayer, and He always prayed with His death in mind. Do we pray? What do we pray about?
Jesus proceeds to ask His disciples about the word on the street -- who the crowds say that He is (v.18b). These refer to the many people who follow Him around and listen to His sermons. The people were divided in their opinions about Jesus' identity. Some believed Him to be John the Baptist (v.19a), becaused He preached a similar message of repentance. Others believed Him to be Elijah (v.19b), who was one of the greatest prophets who did great work and miracles, and so did Jesus. Still others believed that "one of the prophets of old has risen" (v.19c).
He follows with another question, this time addressing the disciples and asking them who they thought He is (v.20). Peter gives the fourth option, "the Christ of God" (v.20). We don't usually refer to Him in this way and Peter knew something important. "The Christ" refers to the Promised and Anointed One of the Old Testament. The Jews knew the scriptures, and knew the promises in it. They knew that God promised one that would come and make things right and Peter made the link between the promises in Scripture, and Jesus.
Notice here that there are two groups of people in Jesus' mind -- the distant followers not known to Him and then another close, more intimate group. The crowds saw Jesus was a man with a great message and with great power, and these were true, but ultimately they were not sure of who He is and related to Him as some distant Bible character. Peter heard His message and saw His power, but he also knew Him intimately after living and spending time with Him, and ultimately allowed him to conclude that Jesus was not just another great man or prophet, but he was the Promised One from God.
This same question confronts us today. Who do you say He is? Is He some guy with a great message, the one that the Bible points to, with wise words? Is Jesus just a guy with some powers and rather distant? Do you know Him the way a crowd member does, or do you know Him intimately?
Jesus responds to Peter's answer with a strict embargo on the revelation and information -- "And he strictly charged and commanded them to tell this to no one" (v.21). This might seem a bit harsh, doesn't it. We would expect Jesus to command His disciples to spread the word after this breakthrough. Verse 22 helps us see why Jesus said that, as He followed up with a four-fold comment. He tells them that the Son of Man must (i) "suffer many things", (ii) "be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes", (iii) "be killed" and (iv) "on the third day be raised".
This is definitely shocking for the disciples. All through the Scriptures, they were promised someone great in the line of David. The Son of Man, as referred to in Dan 7:13-14 truly someone great and mighty. He will be able to enter the enter the presence of God Almighty, the "Ancient of Days" (Dan 7:13b) and is presented to Him at a coronation (Dan 7:14a). This worthy, honorable and glorious one will also have glory and power that transcends national boundaries (Dan 7:14) and it is for infinity without end (Dan 7:14b). The Jews waited for this one to come, their Messiah, and expected him to come in glory.
However, Jesus' words in Luke 9:22 shatters all their ideas about the Son of Man. How can the Son of Man suffer, be rejected, be killed? Isn't He supposed to be accepted and reign eternally? And what is this business about resurrection? The Jews had no categories to understand individual resurrection and they, like us, had enough common sense to know that dead people don't come back to life. Jesus' words were indeed confusing for them, and perhaps, even for us. Luke 9:18-22 reminds us that Jesus, the one Christians follow and call the Christ, was death-bound. Do you really know Jesus, or do you know Him the way you want to know Him, not how He presents Himself? We could study so much, listen so much, or even be like Peter who lived with Him, yet get Him so wrong. How do you know Jesus? Do you really know Him?
(B) The command to taste death (v.23)
After Jesus told them about the death that awaited Him, He gave a description of a disciple and 4 things that His follower must do.
- "would come after me". There must be an intention and desire to follow. There is no coercion involved. Also note His disciple comes after Him, not before, nor alongside Him. He tells us that we are to follow after Him in His footsteps. He is the master, we are the followers. He is the head, we are the body. This is truly humbling, because so often in our lives, we do throw our prayer requests and desires in His face, expecting Him to agree to them in our time and way. Luke 9:23 reminds us that we need to learn to pray and ask to follow after Him, and learn to let that change our lives.
- "deny himself". How different is this from what we are used to! We are used to affirming and exalting ourselves, yet Jesus calls His followers to something so radical. Only two options confront those who wish to come after Him -- to either exalt Jesus and deny self in the process or affirm self and deny Jesus.
- "take up his cross daily". This is the first time that the idea of the cross appears. Jesus calls them to take up their cross daily, to bear the shame and humiliation and the cost every single day. Yet there is also a great comfort for us, because we know we are able to take it up because He took it up first. Luke 9 sets the stage for Luke 23, where Jesus Himself went to the cross.
- "follow me". Almost as a redundant afterthought and after all that He has said, He calls them to follow Him.
This is a call and command to all who profess faith in him and follow Him. Paul sums it up emphatically in Rom 14:7-9:
For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.
There is no question about what He is He is saying to all who desire to follow Him. Jesus, the death-bound Son of Man, calls His followers to follow in His footsteps to deny self and bear the cross daily. He calls us to this because in doing so, we meet Him at the cross and fellowship with Him. It involves the denial of self and suffering, but in the obedience that is a demonstration of our love, Jesus Himself promises His love (c.f. John 14:21).
(C) The glory of tasting death (v.24-27)
Jesus did not merely issue a command, but also follows through with 3 "fors". He lays down three statements to explain why He calls His disciples to taste death. In tracing the logic and flow, we see that the the basic essential reason begins in verse 26. He calls us to die to ourselves, and bear temporary shame because of the greater glory that is to come. Die to self and do not be ashamed of Jesus and His words, even if the world ridicules you. We see this in our world today, don't we, where we are told that there are no such things are miracles, or that we are fools for believing that an ancient text with strange words by a mere moral teacher has no place in a sophisticated, educated society. Jesus calls us and commands us once more to hold fast to him. Verse 25 helps us to see that if we are ashamed of Him, we end up losing everything. In contrast, if we are unashamed of Him, we ultimately gain true life (v.24).
The words of Luke 9:24 are worth thinking about. What are we doing with our lives, and what does it mean to truly live? If we are truly honest, many of us live rather miserable lives. As much as we don't wish to admit it, we seem to be stuck in a routine, aiming to get from one life stage to another, and continually trying to find our worth in our work/school and thsoe around us. Occasionally we do have some joys in the blessings of life like food, company, or the holiday. But is that all there is to life? The words of Jesus in Luke 9 are startling, because it means that if all we want to achieve in life are our tiny hopes and dreams and were are content with coasting through, Jesus says we have already lost our lives. John Piper describes it beautifully in one of his sermons:
“I will tell you what a tragedy is. I will show you how to waste your life. Consider a story from the February 1998 edition of Reader’s Digest, which tells about a couple who “took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when he was 59 and she was 51. Now they live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their 30 foot trawler, play softball and collect shells.”
At first, when I read it I thought it might be a joke. A spoof on the American Dream. But it wasn’t. Tragically, this was the dream: Come to the end of your life—your one and only precious, God-given life—and let the last great work of your life, before you give an account to your Creator, be this: playing softball and collecting shells.
Picture them before Christ at the great day of judgment: ‘Look, Lord. See my shells.’ That is a tragedy. And people today are spending billions of dollars to persuade you to embrace that tragic dream. Over against that, I put my protest: Don’t buy it. Don’t waste your life.”
Jesus ends off with a stunning climatic statement in verse 27. He uses the word “truly” in it to make sure you hear Him loud and clear. He makes a promise to those who respond to His call. His followers who die to self will never really die (c.f. Jn 8:51). He promises true life in the kingdom of God.
At the start of this series that leads us to the cross, it is plain to see that Jesus is calling die to our lives, what we think we want and need, what we think and expect of Him. He is calling us to much more, to live with His plans in mind and to truly live. In Him, we will find what we can never lose. Do you see that the one who dies calls us to die, so that we will never really die, because He never really dies? What is He saying to you today? He gave up His life, but He also demands our life, to hold nothing back and to lay it all at His feet. What is your cross? It might mean serving people you do not want to. It might also mean not having what you want to have. For some of us it could mean unemployment or being stuck in your current circumstance. For others it might mean struggling with the issues of singleness or same-sex attraction. Whatever it is, as followers of One who died on the cross, we can take comfort also in the fact that Jesus never calls us to go anywhere that He himself has not gone. He calls us to the cross, because He has gone there before. All we can and do is to follow in His footsteps. It might lead us to places that we do not want to go to, and it might be difficult but we remember the promise in Luke 9:27. We follow after One who was not slain by death but slayed death, and was raised from the dead.
Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, the death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and the death of your whole body in the end: Submit with every fiber of your being and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself and you will in the long run only find hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.
(C S Lewis, Mere Christianity)