Thomas Lambie, a medical missionary to Ethiopia, wanted to buy land for a mission station. Ethiopian law did not allow land to be sold to foreigners, but Lambie found a way to buy the land. Ethiopians could purchase land. So Lambie gave up his American citizenship, became Ethiopian, and bought the properties needed. Later, in honor of Lambie’s great work in Ethiopia, the United States restored him his citizenship. How typical is Lambie’s undaunted spirit?
For the many who think of Christianity as a way to wholeness and happiness in life, here is a somewhat arresting claim: the first great principle of Christianity is negative.1 Consider Jesus’ words: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24).2 In Matthew’s account Jesus speaks to Simon Peter at a time when Peter becomes carried away, whether by a compliment from Jesus sent in his direction (see verses 17-19), or simply by ebullience, fairly standard for him. Peter has undertaken to turn Jesus away from the idea of suffering and dying. He begins to rebuke Jesus: “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You” (verse 22). The rebuke draws an appropriate denunciation from Jesus: “Get behind Me, Satan. You are an offense [stumbling block] to Me” (verse 23).
Instead of being a building stone, Peter is a stumbling stone, a rock in Jesus’ way, a stone out of place. Those who would like to follow Jesus soon learn that the journey is no slick, smooth trip.
Verse 24 of Jesus’ response to Peter includes three third-person imperatives—“deny,” “take up,” and “follow”—that emphasize the definite and terminal nature of the action. The first verb, “deny,” carries comprehensive import, indicating total disowning.3 The verb can signify “to disclaim any connection with,” “to repudiate.” Jesus is not speaking of giving up certain selfish benefits, but of rejecting all links with our selfish nature. This total repudiation is how we begin to follow Jesus: “The decision to renounce the self and to take up one’s cross stands at the beginning of the disciple’s journey.”4 It is one way to describe the miracle of conversion, and it clearly is not trivial.
Jesus’ third verb, “follow,” is a present-tense command, signifying the continuous action a convert undertakes, the lifelong task of following Christ.5 Such following involves looking to and behaving like Jesus—walking His walk that honors God and serves humanity (see 1 John 2:6). Multiple Christian authors have sought to express the categorical character of this demanding truth.
Howard Marshall conveys its intimidating force: the person so committed “is already condemned to death”; their life in this world is “already finished.”6 John C. Fenton writes: “The condition of discipleship is therefore the breaking of every link which ties a [person] to self.”7
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, hanged at 39 years of age in a Nazi concentration camp, penned this compelling statement: “Just as Christ is Christ only in virtue of his suffering and rejection, so the disciple is a disciple only in so far as he shares his Lord’s suffering and rejection and crucifixion. Discipleship means adherence to the person of Jesus, and therefore submission to the law of Christ which is the law of the cross.”8
William Barclay explains: “It is obliterating self as the dominant principle of life in order to make God that principle.”9
Ellen White summarizes its nonnegotiability: it demands even to “the laying down of life itself, if need be, for the sake of Him who has given His life for [ours].”10
Evidently, denying oneself as Jesus requires means living without a self-centered thought, with the mind devoted to Jesus and His work exclusively. The options are clear: “whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matt. 16:25).
Just like the Ten Commandments, then, the requirement to follow Jesus involves much exclusion and negation. Willingness to follow Him means embracing the negatives with all our heart: no entertaining or worship of other gods; no images to which to bow. Self-indulgence holds no fascination for us. Instead, we savor the privilege of adoring Jesus completely. For us, “duty becomes a delight and sacrifice a pleasure.”11
Reports of Old Testament champions of faith testify extensively to their embrace of the negatives of self-denial and self-sacrifice. Joseph, the savior of his brothers, “was maligned and persecuted” for choosing virtue and integrity;12 Daniel was flung to the lions for being “true and unyielding in his allegiance to God” (Dan. 6:10-16); Jeremiah, for speaking only what God put into his mouth (Jer. 1:9), “so enraged the king and princes that he was cast into a loathsome pit” (Jer. 38:1-6).
The dynamic did not change when Jesus came to earth. His followers continued to embrace the negatives of abuse, rejection, and execution for believing the good news of their personal salvation, and determinedly sharing that truth of redemption for all humanity with everyone else—“every creature under heaven” (Col. 1:23).
Stephen was stoned for proclaiming the resurrected Jesus as Israel’s Lord and Redeemer, the antitypical Joseph (Acts 7:9-16) and wilderness sanctuary, as well as the fulfillment of the spiritual purposes and promises of David’s and Solomon’s Temple (verses 44-50).
Acccording to tradition, Matthew is said to have suffered martyrdom by being slain with a sword in a distant city of Ethiopia. Mark expired at Alexandria after being cruelly dragged through the streets of that city. Luke was hanged from an olive tree in the classic land of Greece. John was put into a cauldron of boiling oil, but escaped death in a miraculous manner and was afterward banished to Patmos. Peter was crucified at Rome with his head downward. James, the Greater, was beheaded at Jerusalem; James, the Less, was thrown from a lofty pinnacle of the Temple, then beaten to death with a fuller’s club. Bartholomew was flayed alive. Andrew was bound to a cross, from whence he preached to his persecutors until he died. Thomas was run through the body with a lance at Coromandel in the East Indies. Jude was shot to death with arrows. Matthias was first stoned, then beheaded. Barnabas of the Gentiles was stoned to death at Salonica. Paul was jailed, battered and abused, stoned, and finally executed—beheaded at Rome by Emperor Nero—for taking salvation’s good news to the Gentiles faithfully, and preaching truth everywhere (Acts 20:18-27; 28:17, 23, 25-28; 2 Tim. 4:1, 2, 6).
Traditional, extrabiblical statements about the fate of Christ’s apostles13 sound quite similar to that of careful historical reportage on the treatment Jesus received for us, and what His known followers received for Him. Indeed, documented historical cases are sufficient to demonstrate that following Christ consistently involves embracing the negative. We embrace the negative and stay in the passion of that embrace by staying in Jesus’ arms, held so closely that we can hear Him whisper into our ear again and again, “My grace is enough; My grace is all you need; I can be strongest for you when you are weak” (see 2 Cor. 12:9). The privilege of following Him is the privilege of being in His company all the way and all the time along the lifetime road of discipleship.
Our time on earth may be limited; our sojourn may be temporal. But the principles that started us out at the beginning of our walk with Jesus are eternal. One day soon all earthly journeying will end; our corruptible will put on incorruption; and sorrow, crying, death, and pain will cease.
But the spiritual dynamics of selfless living will not change when our mortal puts on immortality and death is swallowed up in victory. Rather, the delights we anticipate when we enter into glory will only taste delectable because self-denying, self-sacrificing living in time will have taught us the secrets that make eternity taste just right. Following the self-sacrificing Lamb wherever He goes will only bring us joy in eternity, because, in time, unselfishness has become our daily bread.
Youssry Guirguis teaches Old Testament theology at the Asia-Pacific International University in Muak Lek, Thailand.