Of all things Jesus used a cross to talk about following him. A cross was used for killing criminals. A cross involved great suffering; it was an excruciatingly painful way to die. And to die on a cross was shameful. Only the lowest died this way, naked, on full display to the public. He used a cross in order to communicate a key truth about Christianity – suffering and following Jesus go together.
Jesus had to take the way of the cross – lowliness, suffering and death before God raised him up and blessed him. And the same is true for us.
This comes out clearly at a crucial transition in the center of the Gospel of Mark, in chapter 8. Jesus is rightly acknowledged as the Messiah (8:29). And so he immediately begins to teach his disciples what kind of Messiah he is. And he’s clear that he takes the lowly way of suffering and is about to die on a cross (8:31).
But Peter rebuked Jesus (8:32). This can’t be right! Peter was “seeing things merely from a human point of view” (8:33 NLT). He wanted a victorious Messiah reigning in worldly power in great pomp and circumstance.
And later James and John, the rest of Jesus’ inner circle, showed they were in the same place. In chapter 10 they saw the Messiah as one who is served, not one who serves; as one who lords it over others, not one who lays down his life (10:42-45). And they wanted the two highest seats next to Jesus in his earthly glory.
All three of Jesus’ closest disciples had their hearts set, not on the way of the cross – but on what we can call – the way of glory. The way of glory emphasizes this world and what it has to offer. It’s about moving up and gaining what you can of power, honor, wealth and comfort.
But not only did Jesus take the way of the cross, he calls any who follow him to do the same. As he said after rebuking Peter, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Jesus’ life of lowliness, self-denial and suffering is our model. Just as Jesus’ life was cruciform, our lives are to be cross shaped as well; marked by lowliness, self-denial and suffering. Suffering and following Jesus go together.
Now, our Christian lives are not just about suffering. Perhaps it’s helpful to talk about –
Three types of Christianity
Before I noted the ‘already – not yet’ character of the kingdom of God; how God’s salvation has come – but it’s not yet all the way here. This idea helps us to spell out these three types.
1. “Not yet” Christianity. In this view our current lives are only about lowliness and suffering. God gives us the grace of his forgiveness, but little changes in us, nor does God work through us in powerful ways. (This view minimizes discipleship because we are not really able to follow Jesus.)
On the “already – not yet” scale, there’s very little of the kingdom here now and almost everything is yet to come. This is, I believe, an anemic form of Christianity.
And then there’s 2. “Already” Christianity. God’s kingdom has come in power; it’s here, except for the resurrection. And the kingdom is not about suffering but about earthly power, honor, wealth and comfort.It includes these things now.
On the “already – not yet” scale, almost all of the kingdom is here now and only a little is yet to come. This is a Christianity of glory.
- The “super apostles” who boasted of their pedigree and gifts and exalted themselves over others are an example of this view (2 Corinthians 10-12).
- Another example is when Christians seek to run the world now through the State and politics, as if their nation was the kingdom of God. Jesus will rule the world, but not until he returns. (This view minimizes discipleship because we have to have a low enough ethic to run the world, which involves an eye for an eye.)
- Another illustration is when Christians teach that Jesus is the one who gives us the ‘American dream.’ God wants us to always have health and wealth here and now.
Instead of lowliness, this emphasizes being lifted up now.
If the first view overemphasizes our current lowliness and suffering, and the second overemphasizes our current freedom from lowliness and suffering, the final view presents the right balance.
3. “Already and not yet” Christianity. Yes, this life will have its share of lowliness and suffering, because suffering and following Jesus go together. But it’s also true that the Spirit is working in and through us in powerful ways to make the kingdom real now. Yes, this life is not where we should seek out power, honor, wealth and comfort, but God gives us victory in all things.
On the “already – not yet” scale, this is in the middle. Much of the kingdom is here, but much is yet to come for sure. And just to be clear, what I’m saying is that this is New Testament Christianity.
Jesus is our model right? He calls us to follow him. And no one was more lowly or suffered like Jesus. But also no one was as full of the power of the Spirit to do great things for the kingdom as he.
We have to understand that lowliness and suffering, and the power of the Spirit go hand in hand. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:7 – “We have this treasure (the kingdom or the presence of the Spirit) in jars of clay (our weak, broken bodies), to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” Here we see weakness and surpassing power together in us at the same time. God said to Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9 – “My grace (in lowliness and suffering) is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” There is weakness and there is God’s power in our lives, not one or the other.
The fullness of power, honor, wealth and well-being come when the fullness of the kingdom comes. And it comes from God, not people. And it comes precisely to those who are now lowly, deny themselves and suffer for the kingdom. (This view maximizes discipleship. We are called to take up our cross and the Spirit empowers us to do just this. Lowliness and power are held in balance.)
Jesus talks in several places about how –
A great reversal is coming
Those who are high and exalted now, will be lowered and those who are low now, will be exalted. For instance in Matthew 23:12 he says – “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled,and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Those who lift themselves up seeking power, honor, wealth and comfort will be humbled, that is, God will bring them low. But whoever is lowly now for the sake of the kingdom, God will lift up on that day.
This reversal is stated in very stark terms in the beatitudes of Luke 6:20-26. Just to take one example, “Blessed are you who are poor; for yours is the kingdom of God.”(v. 20). And“woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” (v. 24) Jesus tells us that those who compromise their faith to seek wealth (and also food, entertainment and reputation) will not enter the kingdom. But those who are lowly and suffer for faithfulness to the kingdom, that is, they experience poverty for this (and also hunger, weeping and slander) these faithful ones will enter the fullness of the kingdom.
In Mark 8:35 Jesus said, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” If we seek to save, preserve or focus on our life in this world, we will lose our life. But if we give up everything, deny ourselves and suffer for Jesus (Mark 8:34) we will find our lives in the fullness of the kingdom.
It is those who now follow Jesus in the way of the cross in lowliness, self-denial and suffering who will experience the promises of exaltation and blessing on that day.
Let me end with –
Some things to remember about suffering
We shouldn’t glorify it. Suffering is terrible and without our faith in God it can crush and destroy us. Jesus didn’t seek the suffering of the cross, but rather prayed to avoid it (Mark 14:36). And Hebrews 12:2 tells us that although Jesus “endured the cross” he also “despised the shame.”
The end we all want is peace and well-being, when there will be no more suffering or tears. We’re able to rejoice in suffering, not because we enjoy it. No, this would be a sign of sickness. We can rejoice in suffering because it demonstrates that the kingdom is ours (Matthew 5:10).
The way of the cross is foolishness to the flesh and the world. As Paul said, “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing . . ..” (1 Corinthians 1:18a). It looks like a good way to miss out on all that this life has to offer. “Lower yourself and accept suffering and then trust God to lift you up? And most of this won’t take place until the final day? That’s crazy!”
- Just as the disciples – Peter, James and John didn’t understand it and Peter tried to talk Jesus out of it, so we struggle with it today.
- Just as the powers of this world didn’t understand it when they “crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:8) so they don’t now.
Despite this, the way of the cross is how God brings about his purposes in this world. It is folly to the world, but as the rest of 1 Corinthians 1:18 says, “but to us who are being saved the word of the cross is the power of God.” The wisdom of this world is all about the way of glory – seek and strive for what you can get in this life; lift yourself up to obtain power, honor, wealth and well-being.
“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are . . ..” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28). This is God’s “secret and hidden wisdom” (1 Corinthians 2:7). This is how God overthrows evil and establishes his kingdom in this world.