Luke 9:23 is a fairly well known verse. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Well known, but not well liked — at least for me. It laid down conditions for being a follower of Jesus that were not very attractive. Deny myself. Take up my cross. Oh okay – not too many ski lift tickets, no table saw, no touch screen. And for sure, no relaxing fun – after all, crosses are really heavy, sweaty, exhausting things to carry. And since it is for Jesus, it doesn’t feel right taking a day off from denying myself and to put down the cross. Drudgery – here I come, but I am doing it for you Jesus.
But then I learned to read this through the lens of the gospel. It changed everything. This is a good news verse. Let’s look.
First, Jesus tells me to “deny” myself. My initial interpretation of this always leans toward asceticism, austerity, starkness – interpreted meaning my life is going to be filled with unmet desires, boredom and rather drab. And jealousy of those who don’t deny themselves. The good news is that it does not mean this. The Greek word arneomai means “refuse to follow.” Who do I refuse to follow? Myself. Stop being independent…because if I am my life will be filled with unmet desires. It will be drab. Boring. A disappointment. I will be like the prodigal son who thought independence offered the perfect life. God knows what is more fulfilling for me than I do. Okay – so denying myself is really a good thing.
But then Jesus says “take up your cross.” Movies always show the cross-beam as unbelievably heavy. A huge burden. Why would he be telling me here to carry a heavy burden if in Matthew 11:30 Jesus tells me his burden is light? Which is it?
I need to understand “take up your cross” the way the original audience did. To the original hearers, seeing an individual carrying their cross meant that person was on a one-way journey. And the imagery also included a pathway lined with crowds jeering and criticizing the soon to be crucified criminal.
Lastly Jesus says “follow me.” Why would Jesus say this to me? I think it’s because he wants me to be with him. And maybe even more significantly, he wants to be with me! Jesus wants me to experience an incredibly precious relationship.
Putting all this together – what do I hear Jesus saying? For me it sounds like this; “Don’t be fooled into thinking you independently know what is most fulfilling for you. Instead, come on a one way journey with me and don’t let those who criticize you cause you to turn around. Follow me because I want you to be with me, and I want to be with you. And in this relationship of ours, you will find life just as the Father and I have planned it for you – and nothing could be better.”
To take up my cross is to be rescued from the emptiest and most unfilled life I could live and it is an invitation to unlock the best ever! Luke 9:23 is a good news verse.