Self-denial and Its Reward

“Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”
—Matthew 16:24

THESE WORDS OF THE Master were addressed to his disciples on the occasion when Peter attempted to dissuade the Lord from risking his life by appearing in Jerusalem. His enemies were lying in wait to arrest and put him to death. Jesus had said to Peter, “Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.” (Matt. 16:23) To paraphrase this rebuke, Jesus simply told Peter that his advice not to go to Jerusalem, because of the danger involved, was contrary to his own purpose in coming to the earth. It was a human viewpoint of self-preservation and, under the circumstances, out of harmony with the will of God.

Then he addressed all of his little band of disciples in the words of our text, extending to them an invitation to suffer and die with him, adding, “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” (Matt. 16:25) To the disciples this philosophy must have sounded very strange indeed. How could one save his life by losing it?

It was strange to them because, in their acceptance of Jesus as the promised Messiah, they had no thought that it would lead to suffering and death. Basing their convictions upon the promises of God, they believed that the Divine purpose through the Messiah was to give health and life. They understood furthermore, that he was destined to establish a powerful government in Judea, one which would free the Jewish nation from its Roman captors. It would extend its sphere of influence until all the world came under its control, and through its righteous administration receive the promised blessings of peace, joy and life.


They were not wrong concerning the ultimate objective of the Messianic purpose, but Jesus had a deeper insight into the Divine will and plan, and knew that what they expected was to be accomplished in a future age. Nor did he leave them entirely uninformed concerning this wider expanse in the Divine plan. Seeing that they erroneously expected the kingdom of the Messiah to be established immediately, he gave them the parable of a “certain nobleman”—speaking of himself—who went into a “far country” to receive a kingdom and then to return. (Luke 19:11,12) This parable was designed to prepare them, at least in part, for the fact that he would be taken away from them.

They learned from the parable that he was going away and returning later to set up his kingdom. We gather this from the questions they asked him on the Mount of Olives. (Matt. 24:3) But the parable did not say that their Master would go away in death, so it was the manner of his leaving them that constituted such a test upon their faith.

True, Jesus had, on various occasions and in different ways, indicated to them that he expected to die. On one occasion he said that he would give his flesh for the life of the world. (John 6:51) Toward the close of his ministry, when “certain Greeks” desired to see him, Jesus said to his disciples, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone.” (John 12:20,24) In the upper room on the occasion of the Last Supper, Jesus invited his disciples to partake of the “cup,” which, he said is my “blood of the new testament.” (Matt. 26:27,28) They undoubtedly knew that shed blood meant death.

Still they could not bring themselves to believe that these various sayings meant what they seemed to imply, for, as they viewed the matter, how could he possibly be the Messiah who would rule the whole world if he surrendered to his enemies and allowed them to put him to death? So it was to their consternation and confusion that he actually did this. We who know that God raised Jesus from the dead, cannot fully appreciate the bitterness of their disappointment when finally they realized that their Lord, their Master, their Messiah, was dead upon the cross.


As noble men, having great confidence in the promises of God, they sought for the answer. Vaguely they remembered something which Jesus had said about being raised up in three days. This probably bolstered their faith to some extent. But later, after the three days had passed, two of the disciples, while journeying to Emmaus, were joined by the resurrected Jesus. They had heard reports of his resurrection, but considered them to be “idle tales,” so they were sad.—Luke 24:11

They did not recognize Jesus, and he asked, “What manner of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad?” They asked him if he was a stranger in Israel, and did not know the things which had “come to pass there in these days.” He then asked, “What things?”—vss. 13-32

Replying to this question, they related some of the facts concerning the great prophet who had visited Israel, and that the chief priests and rulers had put him to death. “We trusted,” they continued, “that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel.” (vs. 21) Then they added, “to day is the third day since these things were done,” seeming to indicate that they had hoped that he would be raised from the dead on the third day.

True, they also reported to Jesus the fact that certain women had gone early to the tomb on the third day, had found it empty, and that angels had informed them that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But they related this in a manner which indicated their doubts that the report was really true.

Jesus, speaking to them as “fools,” or unlearned ones, and “slow of heart to believe,” also said, “Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?” (vss. 25,26) Then, beginning with Moses, and from all the prophets, he expounded to them many things which the Old Testament scriptures had foretold concerning the necessity of his suffering and dying, that he might be the Redeemer and Savior of the world.

Doubtless in this discourse he called their attention to the typical lessons found in Israel’s Day of Atonement services in which a bullock and a goat were sacrificed, and their blood taken into the Most Holy and sprinkled upon the mercy seat to effect reconciliation for the people. He probably also reminded them of the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, and how its blood was sprinkled upon the lintels and doorposts of the Israelites’ homes, sparing thus the firstborn from death, and preparing the way for the deliverance of all Israel from Egypt and bondage during the next morning. He may have quoted from the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah’s prophecy, which had foretold the suffering and death of the Messiah, showing that he would be led as a “lamb to the slaughter.”

Hearing this wonderful explanation concerning the necessity of Jesus’ death, the disciples were given a new vision. They saw, temporarily at least, that the death of Jesus did not mean a failure of the Divine plan, nor did it indicate that Jesus was not the Messiah. In other words, their faith in him, and in the Divine plan centered in him, was restored. Telling of the experience later they said, “Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?”—vs. 32


A few days before this, after Peter was determined that his Master should not be put to death by his enemies, and after the last supper, Jesus said to him, “I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” (Luke 22:32) It required much instruction, discipline, and finally the revealing power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to ‘convert’ Peter so he could understand and appreciate the necessity of Jesus’ death. To him, it seemed wrong that a man who had done no evil, whose only aim in life was to help and bless others, should be put to death.

With the aid of the special instructions of the Lord and the help of the Holy Spirit, Peter did comprehend. Jesus had said to him that he who would lose his life would save it. He could not understand this, but when Jesus was raised from the dead, special instructions were given that Peter should be informed, as though to emphasize to him that while Jesus had voluntarily lost his life, it had now been saved, in that the power of God had raised him from the dead.

In one of Jesus’ last appearances to his disciples—on the shores of the Sea of Galilee—he told Peter that when he was young he “girdedst” himself, and went and did as he desired, then added, “But when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.” The explanation is given that Jesus said this to Peter to indicate the manner of death he would die in order to “glorify God.” Then Jesus added, “Follow me.”—John 21:18,19

Peter did not grasp the full import of these words until the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost. He realized that Jesus’ statement concerning the time when he would stretch forth his hands and allow another to gird him, meant that he would fully surrender himself to the Divine will, and would be girded for Divine service, a service that would lead to sacrificial death. When one stretches forth his hand it implies surrender, and it is just this that full consecration to the Lord means. It is a surrender to the Lord and to the doing of his will. Tradition has it that Peter died head downward upon a cross. Whether this be true or not, we know that he died a sacrificial death, because he voluntarily surrendered to the will of his God. He permitted himself to be led in the narrow way of sacrifice to follow Jesus as he had been invited to do by the Master.


Most professed Christians who accept the inspired testimony of the Scriptures readily agree with the fact that Jesus voluntarily suffered and died for the sins of the world, however much their viewpoints might differ regarding the things involved in this work of redemption. But very few seem clearly to realize that the true followers of Jesus are invited likewise to lay down their lives in a voluntary sacrifice which is described by the Apostle Paul as being “planted together in the likeness of his death.”—Rom. 6:5-8

This is what Jesus meant when he told his disciples that they should take up their cross and follow him. They were to follow him into death. Paul echoed this thought when he said, “I am crucified with Christ.” (Gal. 2:20) Throughout the Scriptures, Jesus is portrayed as the “lamb” of God, the lamb that was slain for the sin of the world. (John 1:29,36) In Revelation 13:8, he is shown as the lamb “slain from the foundation of the world.” In Revelation 14:1 he is shown exalted on Mount Sion, and there are “with him an hundred forty and four thousand, having his Father’s name written in their foreheads.” Verse 4 declares, “These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth.”

Jesus died for the sin-cursed and dying race. He died that the way might be prepared for the children of Adam to return to life. Human reason would tell us that since this is so, those who accept the provision of Jesus’ shed blood, and obey his laws of righteousness, should have life, should escape from pain and sickness and death. But the Bible reveals that God has a plan that goes beyond the natural conclusions of human reasoning. True, the Bible reveals that the time will yet come when those who believe in Christ and obey the laws of his kingdom will indeed live; they will be restored to perfection of human life, and will not become sick and die at all. This will be true of all sincere believers during the age to come, the millennium.

Prior to the millennium, during the present age, another feature of the Divine plan is being accomplished. God, in his wisdom, knew that it would be good to have representatives of the human race associated with Jesus in the great future work of restoration. He designed that those who would be chosen to this high position in his plan should be tested severely as to their heart-harmony with his great and loving redemptive program, so he is giving them the opportunity of demonstrating their love and loyalty to him, and their love for the human race, by their willingness to suffer and die sacrificially as Jesus did.


First, as stated by Jesus, these are invited to deny self. During the Lenten season each year, millions practice what they term self-denial, and no doubt they receive a certain blessing from their little sacrifices. They deny themselves pleasures, or delicacies, or other things of which they are especially fond. Self-discipline along any line is a good character builder, and in principle should not be condemned.

But this is not what Jesus meant when he invited his disciples to deny themselves. He meant that they should deny themselves completely—not merely to forego the privilege of eating candy, or of refraining from some other enjoyment especially appealing to them—but to deny themselves the right to govern their own way of life, and, instead, by giving up their own wills, to accept the will of God through Christ.

Jesus expressed the opposite to this attitude when he told Peter that when he was young he girded himself and ‘walkest whither thou wouldest.’ This describes the self-assertive, the self-determined life. This we are invited to give up, to deny, and instead to surrender ourselves to another, even to the Lord—not for a day, not for forty days during Lent, not for a year, but for life—that we might be planted together in the likeness of his death. It is this thought that Jesus expressed in his invitation that we take up our cross and follow him. Those in Jesus’ day who literally carried a cross, no longer had control over their own lives. They were in the hands of the Roman law, and were on their way to death.


Evidently Peter wrote his first epistle in obedience to his Master’s commission to ‘strengthen the brethren’ in their voluntary suffering and death. In the opening chapter of this epistle, he lays the scriptural foundation for this doctrine by asserting that the prophets had foretold “the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow.”—I Pet. 1:11

This, of course, is in full harmony with Jesus’ discourse to the two disciples on the way to Emmaus. But Peter carries the thought further than Jesus did on that occasion, for throughout the epistle he makes it clear that the followers of Jesus partake with him in the sufferings of the Christ which the prophets had foretold, and that they will also—those who are faithful—partake with him in the promised glory to follow. Note a few of his statements in this connection:

“If, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps.”—I Pet. 2:20,21

“It is better, if the will of God be so, that ye suffer for well doing, than for evil doing. For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit.”—I Pet. 3:17,18

“If any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.”—I Pet. 4:16

The word ‘also’ in the statement, ‘For Christ also hath once suffered for sins,’ indicates that from the Divine standpoint Christian suffering is also for sin. The explanation is in the further assertion, ‘that he might bring us to God.’ Paul explains that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself; that is, bringing the world to God. Then Paul adds that the Lord has given us the “word of reconciliation,” and thus has made us ambassadors for Christ.—II Cor. 5:19

Those who follow Christ are invited to participate with him in the work of reconciliation, of bringing the world to God. They do this by their faithful use of the ‘word of reconciliation’ now, thus proving worthy of association with him in his future glory, when, through the Divine Christ, the knowledge of the Lord will fill the whole earth “as the waters cover the sea.”—Isa. 11:9

Thus those who deny self and die with Jesus are reckoned by the Lord as dying for sin because they lay down their lives reconciling the sinful world to God. Paul expresses a similar thought when, after saying that we are “planted together in the likeness of his death,” he explains what that likeness is, saying, “For in that he [Christ] died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”—Rom. 6:5,10,11

Jesus did not die ‘unto sin’ as a sinner under condemnation to death, but as a sin offering. ‘Likewise,’ admonishes Paul, ‘reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin.’ Jesus died that he might bring the world to God and we are invited to share in this work of reconciling the world so when sacrificing our lives in this great purpose Paul authorizes us to reckon it as an offering for sin.

The world of mankind is sin-sick and dying, and Jehovah, the great Physician, purposes to heal the sick and to restore life to all the willing and obedient. Before this can be done, the Divine penalty of death must be set aside by the Redeemer. This was, and is, the work of Jesus. He is the corresponding price, the substitute, the “propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”—I John 2:2

Thinking of Jesus as the Chief Physician who came into personal contact with the dying patient, we might say that he is the one who removes the malignant cancer of sin and thereby makes possible the recovery of the patient. But, as in a great hospital, the underphysicians and the nurses and other attendants help to nurse the patient back to health after the cancer is removed; so we are invited to share in the work of reconciling the world to God, and restoring the sin-sick and dying to health and life.

That is why Paul says we are to reckon our dying with Jesus as being unto sin. It does not add to the purchase price by which the world is ransomed from death, but, in the Divine plan, is necessary in the actual restoration of the ransomed world. It is God’s design to make provision for the blood of Christ to cleanse us in his sight from all unrighteousness, and thus make us acceptable as sacrifices. Hence, Paul invites us to present our bodies a “living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.”—Rom. 12:1


The blood of the bullock and the blood of the goat on Israel’s typical Day of Atonement pointed forward to the blood of Christ. In the type, the blood of the bullock was first carried into the Most Holy and sprinkled on the mercy seat. This seems clearly to point forward to the time when Jesus ascended to the heavenly courts, and as the apostle says, appeared “in the presence of God for us.”—Heb. 9:24

Jesus’ blood is sufficient to be a propitiation, not only for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world, even though when first sprinkled it was only for ‘us.’ This suggests that the blood of Christ has been utilized through the present age to make acceptable the sacrifice of the church, which is represented by the slaying of the goat on Israel’s typical Day of Atonement. In Hebrews 13:10-13 Paul shows clearly that the followers of Jesus were typified in that service.

Natural things do not represent spiritual truths in every detail. There is nothing in the type to indicate that the blood of the goat was actually the same blood as that which flowed through the veins of the bullock, but antitypically that is the lesson. Blood is symbolic of life, and we, as members of the fallen and dying race, have no life of our own—no life, that is, which is not under condemnation, no life that we could offer to God in sacrifice. However, through faith in Christ we receive his life, and this is what makes it possible to offer ourselves in sacrifice to God.

Paul wrote, “The life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God.” (Gal. 2:20) We have no life outside of Christ. So, in the type, it is as though the blood of the bullock was given to the goat as a basis for life that could be offered in sacrifice. Hence, when the blood of that typical goat was taken into the Most Holy for sin, it pictured a second sprinkling of the blood of Christ, not for us, but this time—antitypically— for the whole world.

Hebrews 9:24-28 sums up this thought well. Here the apostle emphasizes that Christ offered himself but once. Then he explains that he entered into “heaven itself” to “appear” in the presence of God for us. In the twenty-eighth verse he adds that unto those who look for him, Christ shall “appear” the second time without sin—that is, not as a sin-offering in the sense of having again offered himself personally in sacrifice.

The Greek word translated ‘look’ in the expression, “them that look for him,” is the same one which is rendered ‘waiteth’ in the text which says that the “creature,” or creation, “waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.” (Rom. 8:19) The ‘sons of God’ are, of course, Christ and his church, those who deny themselves and follow him. These will be with him when the glory of the kingdom is manifested and then the whole creation, waiting in pain and sorrow until now, will receive the blessings purchased for them by the blood of Christ.

What marvelous grace, that in return for self-denial and faithfulness in dying with Christ, we may have the signal honor of being associated with him in that glorious future work of extending human salvation to all mankind! We are not worthy in our own merit, nor could we be faithful in our own strength. But just as the Heavenly Father in Isaiah 42:6 promised to hold the hand of his beloved Son Jesus to give him strength, so in Isaiah 49:8 he has promised to “preserve” us. We can surely depend upon this promise and thus attain the great objective for which our denial of self, and our sacrifice unto death, is designed.

Dawn Bible Students Association
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