Embracing the Cross
© C. O. Bishop 2013 THCF 6/2/13
Last week we discussed the tendency that we, as humans, have, to avoid discomfort, and circumvent the Cross, in our dealings with God. As sinners we want to approach God as if we were NOT sinners. As created beings, we want to approach God as if he were a fellow creation, instead of the almighty, holy, all-knowing, all-powerful God of all time and space. God reasons with us, giving us time to repent, but ultimately insists that the only way we can approach Him is through the agency of Christ. Jesus, who is in fact God in the flesh, is our only intermediary, bridging between the whole fallen human race and the Holy God who desires to redeem us.
But let’s say that I have finally submitted to God’s directive; I have humbled myself to realize that I am a lost and condemned sinner, and that I need a savior. I have placed my full trust in Jesus’ blood at the Cross as my only hope for salvation. I have become a child of God! My troubles are over, right?
Well–no. When God redeems a sinner it is by means of the new birth. I gained a new nature, and that new nature is righteous and holy, just like God. But I still have my old nature, and it has had fifty-eight years to practice and grow strong in rebellion and pride and foolishness. My new nature is a baby by comparison. I need to feed my new nature on God’s Word, so that it will grow strong, and I can learn to walk with God. I need to learn Discipleship.
What is a Disciple?
Jesus had a fair bit to say about discipleship: He repeatedly stated the need to count the cost of discipleship; the need to make the person of Christ the central issue in one’s life, and to join him in the journey to the cross. In Luke 9:23, he made the statement that a disciple should “…deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Him.”
Many people have misunderstood him to have said that this is the recipe for salvation. It is not. In John 6:28, 29, the people asked him “What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?” He answered them and said, “This is the work of God; that ye believe on him whom He hath sent.” So, salvation comes by faith in the person and work of Christ. Discipleship is the logical result of salvation.
What does it mean, then, to “Take up the Cross?”
Remember that the Cross is a means of death, and nothing but that. It is not a pretty decoration, or a piece of jewelry, though we frequently see it that way. It was one of the worst, most cruel means of execution used by the Roman Government. We would find it pretty repulsive if someone today had a little gold electric chair as a piece of jewelry, but the electric chair is quite humane, compared to the cross.
A person who had taken up his cross was a walking dead man–he was headed for a cruel execution. Jesus took up his cross for the joy that was set before him, according to Hebrews 12:2. He did not do it because it was a good religious exercise. He was going there to die, knowing that his death, specifically, would be the satisfaction of God’s Holiness, for the sins of the whole human race. “For the joy set before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame…”
All the way through the Bible, the concept of Death has to do with separation of one sort or another. Adam and Eve were separated from fellowship with God the moment Adam ate that forbidden fruit. They were spiritually dead, separated from God. Adam experienced physical death 900 years later, as his spirit and soul were separated from his physical body. All of us have experienced spiritual death, as we are born in that state. Virtually all of us will experience physical death, as it is appointed unto us once to die. But there is another kind of death, called “the Second death.” People who experience what is called “the Second death” are permanently separated from God, in the Lake of Fire. Death always implies separation of some sort, not simply cessation of life. So what does the Cross separate us from?
Galatians 6:14 says that “…the World is crucified unto me and I to the World.” I have been separated permanently from the World, whether I like it or not. Galatians 5:24 says that those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its affections and lusts. In God’s eyes, at least, the old sin nature is no longer part of who I am. It is definitely still there, but I need to recognize that it is dead to me, and learn not to respond to its clamoring demands. God only wants to fellowship with my new nature…he sees the other as dead. I need to learn to see it that way, too.
Galatians 2:19-21 says “I, through the law, am dead to the Law that I might live unto God. I am Crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live: yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not frustrate the Grace of God, for if Righteousness come by the Law, then Christ is dead in vain.”
Our crucifixion with Christ is a fact. It is not something for us to try to accomplish. We take up the cross when we accept the fact that we are separated from the World and from our old self, and choose to live that way. So what does it mean when one talks about “having a cross to bear”?
Is all suffering “bearing the cross?”
In a word; No! We hear people talk about something being their “Cross” to bear. Frequently it has nothing to do with suffering at all, much less suffering for Christ. Just because you don’t like some circumstance does not make it a “cross to bear”. Even if it is genuinely “suffering”, there are many kinds of suffering.
Philippians 1:29 states that “unto you it has been given on the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on His name but also to suffer for his sake.” So we need to know what that means.
Thirteen reasons for suffering:
As far as I can see from God’s Word, there are at least 13 different reasons for suffering. There may be more, of course; my understanding is limited. Let’s look at the ones I do understand:
In the first place, let’s remember that God is Sovereign: He does not require our approval. His ways are just, even when we don’t like them. God defines righteousness. The evil that is in the world came here as a result of Human sin, not Divine caprice. But it is not always “punishment”, and it is not always “suffering for Christ”.
So, we can begin with:
- Consequences of Original Sin. There are bad things happening in the world; it is full of tragedy. The world got that way when Adam sinned. Romans 5:12—“Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” Everyone experiences some of this, in varying degrees, whether or not they are believers. It has nothing to do with “suffering for Christ”.
- Consequences of Personal (past) Sin (or simply error, etc).—there can be (and usually are) consequences for sin, folly or error. This is not punishment per se, but simple consequences. Sometimes the natural consequences for an error are seen as punishment—but punishment implies wrongdoing, and some error is not wrongdoing, but just bad judgment, or clumsiness, or ignorance—all can have terrible consequences. I have a cousin who is missing an arm. He lost it because he fell out of a tree as a young boy, and broke it…and the attending physician did not realize the bone had pierced the skin, and plunged into the soil before pulling back into the flesh—thus infecting the flesh with bacteria that nearly killed him. They had to amputate the arm to save his life, and even so, they nearly lost him. Was it Punishment? No—it was partly original sin—there are terrible bacteria out there (remember the ground was cursed…); bacterial infections can disfigure, maim, or kill a person. It was partly error on my cousin’s part—he fell out of a tree; kids do that. It was partly error on the physician’s part—he was not careful enough in his diagnosis. But possibly, even had they known exactly what they were up against, they may have lost that arm anyway. No matter how you look at it, it is not punishment. But it is also not suffering for Christ.
- Consequences of (current) Personal Sin. God may institute chastening in a believer’s life to turn us away from error. It is still not the same as punishment. God says the wages of sin is death—eternal separation from God in the lake of fire. That is punishment. Jesus said (John 3:18) “He that believeth in Him is not condemned; He that believeth not is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten son of God.” We who are believers have placed our trust in Jesus’ shed blood at the Cross: where is our Judgment? At the Cross. Where is our sin? At the Cross. Where is our punishment, our condemnation? At the Cross. But God does chasten believers, to straighten them out. (Consider Jonah: do you think his trip back to the beach was fun?) This can go as far as physical death; remember that Annanias and Sapphira were believers who lost their lives because of sin. This is still not punishment, nor, obviously, is it suffering for Christ.
- Training, or testing, in the sense of an athlete, or soldier, or student. God still refers to this as “chastening”, but it is not punishment, nor even as a result of wrongdoing. It is a “workout” given so that we may profit thereby. Sometimes God allows us to go through hard times to develop our faith. James 1:2-4 says “Count it all Joy, my beloved Brethren when ye fall into divers temptations, knowing this; that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.” God loves us and subjects us to stresses to make us better able to serve, and better able to stand against the evil of the world. (Have you ever noticed that an athletic director or coach never selects someone at random out of the bystanders in the bleachers, and makes them run laps after practice? He only requires that of the members of his team.) Another way to look at the same concept is “pruning”. John 15:2(b) states that a genuine, healthy, live, fruit-bearing branch of a vine may still be pruned to make it more fruitful. This is entirely up to the vine-dresser…God, in this case. We trust his good judgment.
- Because it is simply God’s will for us at the time. Job did NOT know what was going on in his life, nor why he suffered the loss of all his possessions, and all his children in a single day. We were given a little peek into what was going on. God did have a purpose, and it had nothing to do with any error on Job’s part, nor, apparently, any need for correction, testing or training (though we could read that into the result). God had his own purpose in Job’s life, and was not required to explain it all to Job. (And he didn’t, as far as we know, unless Job was the author of the book, and God gave him revelation to know what all had happened behind the scenes.) But Job was neither being punished (God says so!) nor was he suffering for Christ, so to speak. It was simply God’s will for him.
- Consequences of Personal Righteousness. This is an odd one—we think that if we are doing right, everything ought to go well…and sometimes it does. There is a verse, (Proverbs 16:7) that states, “When a man’s ways please the LORD, he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him”. That is a general truth—in general, that is something we can expect. But if our enemies are God’s enemies, then at some point, we will be attacked for being good. 1st Peter 2:19 “For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully.” Also, there may be advantages to immoral or unrighteous behavior (perhaps a promotion, in an ungodly business world) that we will simply miss out, because we choose to behave righteously. This is the beginning of “Suffering for Christ”.
- Suffering for Faith. Being subjected to threat from those around us, and suffering rather than renouncing faith. (This is related to #6, consequences of personal righteousness, but is a little different.) Under genuine persecution, a believer may be offered a chance to recant his faith in order to escape persecution. Refusing to recant, and accepting the suffering, is part of the believer’s lot. During the early days of the church, many lost their lives for that very cause. Philippians 1:29 “For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for His sake”
- So that we may be a comfort to others. 2nd Corinthians 1:3-11 (read) Verse 4. That we may comfort others with the same comfort wherewith we were comforted by God.
- So that our consolation in Christ may abound. Verse 5. As the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so may the consolation of Christ abound. We are called to join Him in the fellowship of his sufferings (Philippians 3:10). But we are to experience the reality of His consolation, as well. (Habakkuk 3:18)
- So that others’ consolation may abound through us. Verses 6-7. We can learn from the experiences of those around us. We will not experience everything ourselves.
- So that we will learn to trust God, and not ourselves (could be tied to #5, as in Job’s suffering). Verse 9. This is an important one.
- So that we as Christians may learn to pray for each other. Verse 11.
- So that Thanksgiving may be offered on our behalf. Also verse 11.
Embracing the Cross
I frequently have told my students at work to “embrace reality”. By that, I mean that they should accept the reality of work, the reality that life “isn’t fair”. Sometimes life is hard, but we are to embrace that reality and go ahead and function. That is what maturity teaches us; to accept responsibility and go ahead and function when life isn’t fun.
God wants us to embrace the Cross: we are to accept the reality that we are separated from the World (we no longer can really feel at home here, as we see the monstrous reality of Man’s rebellion against God, and his cruelty toward other creatures, animal or human.)
We are to accept the reality that we are separated from our old sin nature–it is no longer the “real me”. My old desires are a foreign thing, now. They are definitely not the desires of my new nature. Ephesians 4:24 says that my new nature is “…created in righteousness and true holiness”, in the likeness of God. I must accept the reality of my two natures, and daily choose to feed the new nature, and fulfill its desires, rather than those of my old nature. I can never “coast” or “glide”. It is accurately called a “walk”: it demands day-by-day, step-by-step choices, in order to follow Jesus.
One of the things God requires of us is that we love our neighbor as ourselves. That we be concerned with the needs of those around us, as much as with our own needs. That Agapé love that he requires of us is not possible in the flesh, I am convinced. In fact, the whole Christian life is not possible in the flesh. The Christian life is not difficult; it is impossible apart from daily (moment by moment, really) choosing to allow the Holy Spirit to Love and Live through us. But that means constantly embracing the fact that we died with Him, and then allowing Him to live through us.
It certainly isn’t easy, folks. But that is what the Christian life is all about.
Embrace the Cross, and Learn to Walk with Jesus.