There’s a story of a young woman who wanted to go to University, but her heart sank when she read the question on the application form that asked, "Are you a leader?" Being both honest and conscientious, she wrote, "No," and returned the application, expecting the worst. To her surprise, she received this letter from the University: "Dear Applicant: A study of the application forms reveals that this year our University will have 1,452 new leaders. We are accepting you because we feel it is imperative that they have at least one follower."1
The way of this world is ingrained in us from an early age. It is all about success, about reaching the top, about being whatever we want to be. It's about having enough money and material possessions so that we feel secure. We look up at successful people, we want to be like them. We want their fame, their money, their houses and cars, we may secretly long for the amount of attention and adoration they receive. Do you know anyone famous, anyone that is looked up to by thousands or millions of people? No, I don't either, I suspect that the images we have of their fame and fortune is perhaps quite different to the reality. A writer by the name of Philip Yancey has this to say:
“In my career as a journalist, I have interviewed diverse people. Looking back, I can roughly divide them into two types: stars and servants. The stars include NFL football greats, movie actors, music performers, famous authors, TV personalities, and the like... Yet I must tell you that, in my limited experience, these 'idols' are as miserable a group of people as I have ever met. Most have troubled or broken marriages. Nearly all are hopelessly dependent on psychotherapy. In a heavy irony, these larger-than-life heroes seem tormented by incurable self-doubt.”2
Few would doubt that Jesus is the biggest super-star that ever lived. There is no-one else in history that comes even close to His sustained fame that has shaped world history over centuries, (not even Elvis). Yet He achieved all this in just about three years of activity in the public spotlight. There was nothing neurotic about Him whatsoever. As a man he was the most together person who ever lived. Yet He was (and still is) a real hero. Peter and the other disciples worshipped Him as the Messiah, they thought (quite rightly as it turned out) that He was invincible, but the way He carried out His mission to save people from their sins was very different from what Peter and co. expected. So imagine their surprise, confusion and perhaps even anger when the Lord Jesus turned to them and said:
“I must go to Jerusalem and suffer much from the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law. I will be put to death, but three days later I will be raised to life.”
(Matthew 16:21 GNB)
In his typical style, Peter rushes in before anyone else. He takes the Lord aside and begins to rebuke Him, to tell Him off. In Matthew's account he says to Jesus:
“Never, Lord! ... This shall never happen to you!”
(Matthew 16:22b NIV)
Of course Peter should have known better, had he not read about the suffering servant in Isaiah 53? Did he not remember that John the Baptist had called Jesus “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”?3 Peter and probably most of the other disciples wanted to follow the Messiah the King. They were happy to be associated with someone who was powerful and mighty and who could perform miracles. They were not so happy (at this stage) however to follow someone who would be so humble that He would willingly walk the road to death. Unknowingly, Peter was trying to get Christ to avoid going to the cross, the central part of Jesus' mission, and that is why the Lord Jesus responds so harshly, He replies to Peter:
“Get away from me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my way, because these thoughts of yours don't come from God, but from human nature.” (v.23 GNB)
Jesus fully realises that at the back of Peter stood Satan, who was attempting to turn Jesus away from the cross4 and it is to the enemy speaking through Peter rather than to Peter himself that the words are addressed.
Peter and the other disciples were motivated in love to protect their master and friend, they didn't want Him to die, He was everything to them. But they had a very important lesson to learn, that what was true for Christ is true also for his followers. It is only by way of the cross that we enter glory. Of course Christ's death is totally different in that He died for our sins, we only die to our sinful selves, but nevertheless the saying is true that “the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear”5
So the Lord Jesus says to the disciples and the crowd about them:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?
The Disciples, knew what taking up the cross meant. Death on a cross was a form of execution used by Rome for dangerous criminals. A prisoner carried his own cross to the place of execution, signifying submission to Rome's power.
Jesus used the image of carrying the cross to illustrate the submission required of his followers. He is not against having fun, nor was he saying that we should seek pain needlessly. Jesus was talking about the heroic effort needed to follow him moment by moment, to do his will even when the work is difficult and the future looks bleak.
We should be willing to lose our lives for the sake of the gospel, not because our lives are useless, but because nothing – not even life itself – can compare to what we gain with Christ. Jesus wants us to CHOOSE to follow him rather than lead a life of sin and self-satisfaction. He wants us stop trying to control our own destiny and to let Him direct us. This makes good sense because, as the Creator, Christ knows better than we do what real life is about. He asks for submission, not self-hatred; he asks us only to lose our self-centred determination to be in charge.”6
Remember at the start I quoted the writer Philip Yancey saying that he had interviewed people who were stars, and yet what a mess they were in? Well he also interviewed many people who he called servants. These were people who worked amongst the poorest of the poor, people who left high paying jobs to work with leprosy patients in rural India and people all over the world who gave their lives in the selfless task of helping and serving others in many different ways. This is what he had to say about them:
“I was prepared to honor and admire these servants, to hold them up as inspiring examples. I was not however, prepared to envy them. But as I now reflect on the stars and servants side by side, the servants clearly emerge as the favoured ones, the graced ones. They work for low pay, long hours, and no applause, (supposedly) wasting their talents on the poor and the uneducated. But somehow in the process of losing their lives they have found them. They have received the 'peace that is not of this world'”.7
So the message to us then becomes clear; we must let go of our own desires, plans and ambitions for our lives and submit to Christ and His plan and purpose for our lives. In Jeremiah 29:11 God says:
For I know the plans I have for you, ... plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.
Look, it doesn't take much faith or life experience for us to realise that God knows a whole lot better about what is best for us that we do, the only difficulty is that we are naturally so proud and so sold on the illusion of thinking we know what's best. Like chasing a rainbow, happiness always recedes from those who pursue it for their own selfish wishes. Of course we cannot take up the cross and follow Christ in our own strength and that is why the Holy Spirit is and must always be our Guide. But every new day the choice is there for us. Will I go my own way, or will I go the way of Christ? Which, will we choose?
2 Philip Yancey, “Where is God when it hurts?”, Zondervan 1990, p.57
3 William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary MARK, Banner of Truth 1999, p.328
4 Hendriksen, p.328
5 Philip Yancey, What's so Amazing about Grace, Harper Collins, 1997, p.132
6 Life Application Bible, Tyndale House 1991, notes for verses 34 and 35, p.1742
7 Philip Yancey, “Where is God when it hurts?”, Zondervan 1990, p.57, 58