Luke 9:23 is a well-known passage amongst us Christians, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me.” Yet this passage is often misinterpreted. Most contend this passage is a generalisation about discipleship—that we have to be Christlike in all circumstances. Whilst I concede being Christlike is a biblical teaching (as long as people also teach our inevitable failure to be Christlike and to rely on the grace of forgiveness in our failure), I maintain this passage is about following Christ whilst in the midst of suffering.
Directly before this text, Jesus foretold His death to the disciples: “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22). Then, directly after this, He makes use of the imperative that if anyone wants to follow Him, let them pick up their cross and follow Him on a daily basis. After His transfiguration and healing the boy with a demon, Jesus foretells His death a second time: “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men” (Luke 9:44). Yet is isn’t until Luke 23 when Jesus dies on the cross. (As a side note, the NIV inaccurately translates the given text as, “he must deny himself.” This force of the imperative is a mistranslation. The Greek morphology of the verb for “deny” in its imperative form is in the third person singular [ἀρνησάσθω, arnēsásthō], which in this voice is translated as “let us,” not an obligatory command that one “must” do; that is left to the second person voice.)
Moving on, the cross in Luke 9:23 is my focus in the text because it appears to me to be the focus of Jesus’ words, especially because it is the focus of His death, which He foretold on more than one occasion. Jesus had to carry His cross in His suffering and toward His suffering to occur on Mt. Calvary. On His way to Mt. Calvary, Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus bear His cross to Calvary, where on the cross He suffered and died for us.
Just as He suffered for us, so we are expected to suffer on His behalf. Paul said, “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Corinthians 1:5). Likewise, Peter said, “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13).
Obviously, the apostles recognised suffering as not only normal in the Christian life, but also the hallmark of the Christian life. It is a mystery, then, as to why some Christians expect the Christian life to be filled with warm, fuzzy feelings and perpetual joy. We certainly experience ineffable joy in the Lord, yet the joy of the Lord often comes in the midst of suffering. Joy is not the culmination of the “perfect” Christian life as the prosperity gospel heresy perpetuates.
The reality of our suffering as Christians is not something Peter and Paul made up; Jesus warned them of their inevitable suffering as ones who follow Him. He said, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33b). Jesus knew the apostles would suffer because of Him, whether from the world, the Devil, or their flesh. If the apostles themselves suffered, this is also true for us as Christians today. This does not mean every single Christian will be persecuted to death for the sake of Jesus. What it does mean is that as followers of Christ, our lives will be difficult even in the midst of joy, and we must be willing to bear this suffering—to bear our cross—on a daily basis, even to the point of death. That is, as we live life as followers of Christ, we must accept the reality of the difficulties of living as Christ followers, and we must also accept the real possibility of dying for the sake of Christ.
Yet I also want to bring our attention to the shocking optimism that Paul and Peter highlight on our inevitable suffering as Christians. In 2 Corinthians above, Paul compares our sufferings to the comfort we receive. Yes, we will all suffer in this life—some more than others—yet we will also be abundantly comforted. Paul didn’t make this up either. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). The Beatitudes describe our condition as children of God. Because we belong to God, we are blessed when we mourn because we shall receive comfort. That is, we mourn with one another and give comfort to one another.
So, what form does this comfort come in? I have found this comfort comes from God’s people in the church, which all the more stresses the vitality of going to church. (For more on why we should go to church, read my article here.) In the Church, when a brother or sister is mourning, others stop to mourn with him or her. God certainly brings us comfort in His Word, but He also brings us comfort in ordinary means, such as in the form of our Christian family in the body of Christ (i.e. the Church). He also does this through other ordinary means, such as the Sacraments, namely, Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper for the remembrance and reception of forgiveness of sins.
So, that’s Paul’s optimism. Peter, in his first epistle, has a similar optimism in which he says we ought to rejoice when we share in Christ’s suffering. That’s a rather odd thing to say. Who in their right mind, when he has fallen severely ill, says, “Thank You, God, for permitting this illness! Hallelujah!” No one does that. But neither is that the kind of rejoicing Peter is describing. So, what kind of rejoicing is he talking about?
For this, I think we need to go to Paul: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). Peter essentially paraphrases Paul (whether he borrowed this teaching from Paul, I do not know, but the continuity of the teaching among the apostles is most interesting). Peter says we ought to rejoice in the sufferings we share with Christ so that (purpose clause) we may also rejoice and be glad when Christ returns. So, for both Peter and Paul, our current sufferings—whatever they may be—are deeply connected with the final eschaton—the coming of Christ in all His glory. When Christ returns, our suffering will be so insignificant that we won’t even be able to compare it with Christ’s glory to be revealed. That is what we have to rejoice in. Even though we suffer, we know it will come to an end at Christ’s return. Thus, though we suffer, let us rejoice!
Then there is Jesus’ own optimism. He told the apostles to expect tribulation, which is something we need to expect as well. But He also encourages the apostles to “take heart” (to “be courageous” in the Greek) because He has overcome the world. So, Jesus overcame the world, but why should this give the apostles, and us, courage? Since Christ overcame the world, so we are able to overcome the world. But how? How do we do this? We don’t; Christ does it for us in our Baptism.
Paul writes on this to the Christian Gentiles in Rome, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into His death? We were buried, therefore, with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His” (Romans 6:3-5). In Baptism, we have died with Christ; therefore, we will also be resurrected just as Jesus was. Jesus overcame the world by God the Father resurrecting Him from the dead. In exactly the same way, we will also overcome the world when God the Father resurrects us from the dead.
Even though we suffer, we can take comfort in the fact that we will overcome the world just as Christ overcame the world because we have been clothed in His righteousness (justified) by faith in our Baptism (Galatians 3:27). This joy is our reality, yet it’s also our reality that we will suffer in this world, some more than others. Christ enables us to bear our cross even unto death just as He bore His cross to His death on our behalf. In the words of one of my professors during my undergrad, Rev. Dr. Theodore Hopkins, “Suffer on account of Christ, not because you’re a jerk.” We suffer in this world because the world hates Christ. Therefore, anything having to do with Christ will be hated too. Yet we have the ultimate joy in that God has declared us righteous on Christ’s behalf by faith (justification) and makes us alive in Christ in our Baptism, no longer dead in sin. In this we rejoice, for as He has killed us in our sin in Baptism, so He will also raise us from the dead.