Luke 9:23 is a famous passage Christians use where Jesus says, “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 generalization about discipleship: That we have to be Christlike in all circumstances. While I concede being Christlike in all circumstances 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 while in the midst of suffering. I came to this conclusion because when considering the context, what He says here is a foreshadowing of what is soon to come.
Directly before this passage, 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 says as an imperative if anyone wants to follow Him, let them pick up their cross and follow Him. After His transfiguration and healing the boy with a demon, He foretells His death a second time: “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men” (Luke 9:44). Yet it isn’t until Luke 23 when Jesus dies on the cross. (As a side note, the NIV inaccurately translates the verse as, “he must deny himself.” Yet in the Greek, it’s the imperative third singular, ἀρνησάσθω [arnesástho], which in this voice and mood is interpreted as “let us,” not an obligatory command of “must.”)
Moving on, the cross is our focus. It’s the focus of Jesus’ words in Luke 9:23, and it’s the focus of His death. Jesus had to carry His cross in and to His suffering. On His way to Mt. Calvary, Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus bear His cross to Calvary, where on the cross He suffered and died on our behalf. Just as He suffered for us, so are we 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 saw suffering as a normal part of the Christian life. It’s a mystery, then, as to why some Christians expect the Christian life to be filled with flowers, warm, fuzzy feelings, and perpetual joy. We certainly experience the ineffable joy of the Lord, yet the joy of the Lord often comes in the midst of suffering; it’s not necessarily the culmination of a “perfect” Christian life as the prosperity gospel heresy perpetuates. Paul and Peter did not make up the reality of Christian suffering on their own. Jesus warned us of our inevitable suffering. He said, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33b). Even to Jesus, our suffering is to be a normal part of our Christian life.
Yet I want to bring to our attention the surprising positivity of all these verses highlighting the reality of our suffering. In each verse, there is something positive. In 2 Corinthians, Paul compares our sufferings to the comfort we receive. Yes, we will suffer in this life, yet we will also be abundantly comforted. He 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 of being children of God. Because we belong to God, we are blessed when we mourn because we shall receive comfort.
Yet 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 brings us comfort in the form of our Christian family in the body of Christ (i.e. the Church) and through other means, such as remembering our forgiveness in Baptism, forgiveness received through the Lord’s Supper, and His Word.
Peter likewise tells us to rejoice even though we share in Christ’s suffering. Rejoicing while we suffer is a rather odd thing to say. The last thing we want to do when we suffer is rejoice. So why would he say this? Consider what Paul says in Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Peter essentially says the same thing. He says we ought to rejoice so we may continue to rejoice and be glad when Christ returns. When Christ returns, our suffering will be so insignificant 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 while in the midst of our suffering.
Lastly, even though Jesus told us to expect tribulation, He encourages us to take heart because He has overcome the world. Yet, why should this encourage us? Paul gives us a further understanding when he says, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27). He is summarizing in a simple way his Romans 6 thesis—in our baptism we are baptized into His death and made alive with Him (Romans 6:1-11). Being made alive with Christ in Baptism, then, we shall overcome the world just as He has overcome the world.
This is because, “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Christ died sinless, yet He died with all our sins placed on Him. While our sins were placed on Him, His righteousness was placed on us, which is our justification. This was the fulfillment of Isaiah 61:10, “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for He has clothed me with the garments of salvation; He has covered me with the robe of righteousness.” This clothing of His salvation and righteousness happens by faith, for we are justified by faith (Romans 5:1).
Therefore, even though we suffer, we can take comfort in the fact we will overcome the world just as Christ has because we have been clothed in His righteousness (justified) by faith in our Baptism. This joy is our reality, yet it’s also our reality we will suffer in this world, some more than others. Christ expects us to bear our cross even unto death just as He bore His cross to His death on our behalf. As one of my seminary professors said, “Suffer on account of Christ, not because you’re a jerk.” We suffer in this world because the world hates Christ. Therefore, anything that has to do with Him shall 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 His glory to be revealed shall cast our suffering into the lake of fire.
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