“Τότε ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ· εἴ τις θέλει ὀπίσω μου ἐλθεῖν, ἀπαρνησάσθω ἑαυτὸν καὶ ἀράτω τὸν σταυρὸν αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀκολουθείτω μοι.” Matthew 1624
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.'” Matthew 1624
So what’s your cross? Is it the guy in the next cubicle over who continues to badmouth Christians around the water cooler? Maybe it’s your neighbor with the “I’m pro-choice and I vote” bumper sticker. A malady of the flesh, perhaps: carpal tunnel syndrome?
I have just finished team teaching a course in biblical hermeneutics–the art of biblical interpretation. In our last class session I raised this particular verse as an exercise. What, in fact, is it saying?
The answers I got were very similar: we all have a particular difficulty in life–a cross to bear–and our Lord bids us bear it patiently.
Now, I’m not going to disagree with that statement. In fact, I affirm it wholeheartedly. Each of us has difficulties that are particular to our given situations. There are ways in which we are all different and our experiences–and therefore our difficulties–are different. And indeed, Christ calls us to bear these hardships with patience. Yet even though this statement is true, its truth is not proved by means of this passage of Scripture. To make the cross into an allegory is to ignore what Jesus said.
When Jesus’ hearers heard Jesus utter these words and when Matthew’s 1st Century audience read and heard these words, there was no allegory to be made. Jesus was talking about a very real, very bodily death. And the death of which he spoke was death on account of being his disciple.
But we don’t deal with death. Even as we are agree that every man born of woman eventually dies, we prefer to keep death and all talk of death at a significant distance. This attitude feeds and is fed by our funeral practices.
And so we meld together our disdain for death and our desire to take Jesus and his Word seriously, and we arrive at a reading of this particular text which tells us that every problem that we face in life is a “cross to bear.” We consider life to be full of “little crosses” and we must somehow deal with them. Discipleship becomes nothing more than a willingness and ability to continue to soldier on through life in the same way that the pagans do. And this finds resonance with many of us, because we’re pretty soft.
To be sure, some of the difficulties that Christians do face in the Western world can be significant, but they are not necessarily difficulties that we experience for the sake of our faith. Yet I’d argue that the majority of our problems are largely petty in the grand scale of everything. In the case of Matt. 16, we’ve imported a softer worldview to the text so that it somehow answers our experience.
Check out where our hymnody has gone. I submit two hymns for your consideration. Stanza 1 of TLH 421, “Come, Follow Me, the Savior Spake,” reads in part, “Oh, bear the cross, whate’er betide, / Take My example for your guide.” This text was altered in LW 379 “Come, Follow Me,” Said Christ, the Lord,” to read, “Oh, bear your crosses and confide / In my example as your guide.”
Did you catch that? In 1941 there was one cross that Christ was charging us to take up. In the softer, kinder, gentler context of 1982 there were many little crosses that we are to endure. Death might be one of them, but we’ve expanded crosses to include other little problems. I’m personally gratified that LSB 688 has returned us to a singular cross.
Consider the same progression in the case of TLH 429, “Lord, Thee I Love With All My Heart.” In stanza 2 we sing, “Give strength and patience unto me / To bear my cross and follow Thee.” From LW 413 we sang, “In all my crosses comfort me / That I may bear them patiently.” It’s a subtle shift that we don’t tend to notice, perhaps because it appeals to us. Yet this is not how Christ spoke and not how we are given to understand him. Again, thankfully, LSB 708 returns us to a singular cross.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” It’s one cross. Christ enjoins us to consider him and his kingdom to be of more value than our lives in this age. To be Jesus’ disciple is to be willing to die on account of following him.
Understand, I don’t pray for a martyr’s death–for myself or anyone else. I am simply maintaining the integrity of Jesus’ words for contemporary readers. There is one cross. But there may be many places for Western Christians to apply this text. The one that comes to mind at the moment is self-denial–having in mind “the things of God,” not “the things of man” (1623). The place where I see opportunities for self denial quite clearly (there are certainly others) is in humble submission to the Word of God.
In the course of teaching this class in hermeneutics it became ever more apparent to me how easy (and common!) it is to try and make God’s Word into what we would have it say. Deny yourself, Christ says. Let his Word have free course and let us conform ourselves to it. And consider what it says to be greater than yourself and your agenda.
In concrete terms, we can impose a worldview upon the text and read that we ought to be free to ordain women, use laymen to perform pastoral acts, or any number of non-Biblical practices that have cropped up among us. We can project our experience upon God’s Word and come up with an entirely false understanding of it. Yet God has given his Word to us that we might be transformed by it, not the other way around.
Scripture quotations in English are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.