Way of the Cross

To follow Jesus “wherever he goes” requires a life of self-denial and sacrificial service for othersMatthew 20:20-28

Uncertain Path - Photo by Karsten Würth on Unsplash
When Jesus dispatched his disciples to announce the “
good news” to the “lost sheep of Israel,” he warned that they would find themselves as “sheep among wolves.” Hostile men would haul them before “councils and whip them in their synagogues.” In reaction to Christ’s message, even “brother will deliver up brother to death,” and his followers will be hated “by all men for my sake” - [Photo by Karsten Würth on Unsplash].

That was the harsh reality discovered by his first disciples. Many of the very men who ought to have welcomed the Messiah instead fought what he represented tooth and nail. But the disciple is “not above his master,” and only by “enduring to the end” will anyone be saved. If they persecuted Jesus, they certainly had no qualms about mistreating anyone who walked the same path.

And Jesus never promised his followers a life of ease and tranquility. “Think not that I came to send peace on the earth. I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be they of his own household.”

No, he did not come to wage war against humanity. Rather, conflict begins whenever men and women reject Jesus and his teachings, and the persecution of his followers becomes inevitable. And while such warnings strike us as being rather grim, he also warned that “he who does not take his cross to follow me is not worthy of me. For he that finds his life will lose it, and he that loses his life for my sake will find it.”

The faithful disciple will reap great rewards in the end, but the narrow road that leads to life is all too often rough. Therefore, anyone who desires to become his disciples must first count the cost. The call to follow Christ is an all-or-nothing proposition.

Not all Christians experience persecution, but the potential and often real loss of all things for his sake is the price of following Jesus. And the New Testament does not sugarcoat it.

For example, in Revelation, Christians are found standing majestically on “Mount Zion” with the “Lamb.” But before reaching its glorious summit, they first had to overcome the “Dragon.” And they did so by the “blood of the Lamb, the word and their testimony, and because they loved not their lives even unto death,” and the clear implication of the last clause is martyrdom. In the same manner as did the “faithful witness” – Jesus – saints who “overcame” qualify to reign with him on his Father’s Throne by remaining faithful even when doing so means a violent and unjust death – (Revelation 1:4-6, 3:21, 12:11, 14:1-5).

On one occasion, Jesus foretold his impending arrest, trial, and execution. But his disciples either did not hear him or were incapable of comprehending his words. In reaction, they began to jockey for position and power in the coming messianic kingdom. But Jesus used the opportunity to teach them just what it means to be his disciple.

James and John asked to sit at his right and left sides when Jesus came “in his glory,” theoretically, positions of great honor and power. But their request only highlighted their lack of understanding. As Christ’s words and DEEDS demonstrated, his servants serve others, and sacrifice, suffering, and death precede glory.

Jesus first challenged James and John. “You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” In the Old Testament, the “cup” often symbolizes something allotted by God, and most usually in the negative sense of judicial punishment. Likewise, Jesus would drink the “cup” of God’s wrath for the benefit of others in his coming sufferings. So, also, the literary context indicates the negative sense for his metaphorical use of “baptism” - (Psalm 11:6, 16:5, Isaiah 57:17-22, Jeremiah 25:15-28).

When James and John declared they were well able to drink this “cup,” his response demonstrated their cluelessness. However, years later, they would drink of the same “cup” when they suffered for his sake. But this warning was not just for James and John, but also for all disciples. Collectively, the followers of Jesus are destined to endure suffering, deprivation, and persecution for the gospel.

But since the disciples desired high positions in his kingdom, Jesus explained exactly what it means to be “great” in his kingdom. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones tyrannize them. Not so will it be among you. But whoever wishes to become great among you will be your servant, and whoever desires to be first among you will be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Contrary to the ways of this age, “greatness” in his domain is achieved by self-sacrificial service for others, and NOT by achieving power, rank, and privilege, and certainly not by exercising power over others.

The one who wishes to become “great” must first be the “servant” of all. This term translates the Greek noun diakonos, which is used elsewhere in the New Testament as a general term for “servant.” However, in ancient Greek, it referred to the slave who waited on tables. And in the parallel passage recorded in Luke, Jesus used it in that very manner – “Let him who is the greatest among you become as the youngest and the leader as the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves” - (Luke 22:26-27).

Jesus was quite explicit. The disciple who desires to become “great” must first become the “slave” or doulos of others, just as the Messiah of Israel came “not to be served, but to serve, and to give his soul as a ransom instead of many.” And here, the Greek verb rendered “served” is the verbal form of the noun diakonos.

As for Jesus giving his life to “ransom” others, his words allude to a passage from the ‘Suffering Servant’ song in the book of Isaiah.  “Therefore, I will give him a portion among the great, because he poured out to death his own soul, and with transgressors let himself be numbered, he the sin of Many bare, and for transgressors interposes” - (Isaiah 53:10-12).

By giving his life to “ransom many” does not mean a limited or exclusive company. The term is a verbal link to the passage in Isaiah where “the many” refers to the “transgressors.” Moreover, the contrast is not between “many” and “all,” but between the one Christ who gave his life and the many beneficiaries of his self-sacrificial act. And in that society, ransoms were paid often to purchase the freedom of slaves. His statement was a declaration of his mission - to give his life to free others from slavery to sin, death, and Satan.

But Jesus was NOT explaining his view on the much later doctrine of "substitutionary atonement" or answering questions about who paid what to whom on Calvary. Nor was he attempting to differentiate between “great” and ordinary disciples in his church. Instead, by responding to the disciples in this way, he used his self-sacrificial example to demonstrate what it means for anyone to become his true follower. His call to service was not just applicable to personally ambitious disciples but to all.

Thus, to follow the “Lamb wherever he goes” is to walk the same path that Jesus did, to live a cruciform life of self-sacrificial service to others, to the poor, the weak, the disadvantaged, the marginalized, and especially to one’s “enemy.”



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