Subject 13 : The Gospel According to MATTHEW

[Chapter 16-4] If Anyone Wants to Follow Me, Let Him Deny Himself! (Matthew 16:21-28)

If Anyone Wants to Follow Me, Let Him Deny Himself!
(Matthew 16:21-28)
“From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!’ But He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.’ Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works. Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.’”
Today’s Scripture passage records a conversation that took place between the Lord and Peter. The Lord said here, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” Let’s examine why Jesus Christ said these words.
As we carry on with our lives of faith, there are times when we find it very hard to continue on. Haven’t you also had times like this, when you found yourself struggling to carry on with your life of faith even though you wanted to follow the Lord faithfully? In general, this happens often because of the fact that you love yourself too much. If we love ourselves more than the Lord, then it’s very hard for us to follow Him. This is the issue that the Lord is addressing for us in today’s Scripture passage.
After Peter made his confession of faith, the Lord said, “I will go to Jerusalem, be sold to the chief priests in three days, and be crucified to death.” Peter then objected to this and trying to stop the Lord, he said the following: “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!” Jesus then turned around and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan!” You can imagine just how embarrassed Peter must have been then. He probably hung onto the Lord’s garments and held Him back, insisting adamantly, “Lord, You must not be crucified to death! You can’t let this happen!” But the Lord just said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan!” 
On his part, Peter undoubtedly cared deeply for the Lord with all his heart, but the Lord only told him to stay away from Him. Just a while before, the Lord had praised Peter for his good faith, saying that it was the Father who had made him realize Jesus’ divinity, but now Peter was rebuked for his acting like Satan all of a sudden. The Lord said to him, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men,” and then He said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” 
What we must remember clearly when we are following the Lord is the fact that Jesus told us to deny ourselves. If we sometimes feel feeble, weak, and desperate while following the Lord and our hearts are not directed toward the Lord, then it’s all because we love ourselves too much. When we are reluctant to be led by the Lord, we lose sight of the Lord and instead we only see ourselves. When this happens, we don’t care about the Lord at all. So we end up completely clueless as to what it really means to follow the Lord, to be led by Him, and to love Him.

Do You Know Why You Must Deny Yourself?

As we carry on with our lives of faith, sometimes we find out that we love ourselves more than the Lord. In times like this, darkness envelops our hearts and our ship of faith flounders and sinks. We end up shipwrecked, crashing into the reef. Among those trying to lead a life of faith, there are some people whose ship of faith, hope, and love have withered away, because they have loved themselves more than the Lord. It’s because people love themselves too much that each of their ships of faith end up sinking. When we analyze the cause as to why so many Christians’ faith have floundered while following the Lord and are no longer able to follow Him, we see that it’s because they were mindful of the things of men, just as the Lord had said to Peter, “You are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” It’s also because they failed to deny themselves, even though the Lord had said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” 
Who among us does not love himself? Robert H. Schuller, an American pastor famous for his Crystal Cathedral, argued in his book titled Self-Esteem: The New Reformation that Christians must love themselves first. This book made a tremendous impact on not only Christians, but also non-Christians. His main point was that countless Christian believers had been abusing themselves all this time for being sinners with sinful hearts. Yet in this book, Schuller argued that even though human beings are sinful like this by nature, because Jesus has blotted out their sins, they must love themselves. That’s why his book was so acclaimed by many Christians. 
However, Schuller’s assertion was something actually standing against the Word of the Lord. Because this book’s teachings had come out of a man, although it was immensely popular for a while, it soon withered away. In contrast, the Lord’s Word is the everlasting Truth. Just as the Lord had told Peter, unless we deny our heart’s love for ourselves, we cannot follow Him. All of us must grasp this clearly. This Word is indispensable for all of us to understand clearly in order to follow the Lord. 
If we love ourselves, we will fall into self-pity without even realizing it and lose sight of the Lord to see only ourselves. We will then end up losing the Lord and our ship of faith will flounder and sink. Therefore, it’s critical that we ruminate and reflect on this issue in depth. You may find yourself wondering, “I have run toward the Lord in full sprint out of my love for Him. Why then have I fallen into a slump all of a sudden, with my love for the Lord disappearing and my desire to run toward the gospel fading away as well? What explains this? I wasn’t like this before.” In times like this, if you turn around and examine yourself, you will surely discover that it’s all because you have too much love for yourself. 
I am not saying that your self-love is wrong in and of itself. On the contrary, it is only too normal for one to love oneself. That’s because we all live in our flesh. However, even if we love ourselves, we must still deny this. All Christians ought to do this. We must deny our self-love, realize and admit that this is not a heart that loves the Lord; it’s a heart that loves oneself. We must turn our hearts around, saying, “Even though I love myself, isn’t it more proper for me to love the Lord? Isn’t it more fitting for me to love the Lord rather than myself?” Is it only proper for you and me to love the Lord? Of course it is. Yet even though this is only too proper, we sometimes forget all about it in our lives of faith without even realizing ourselves. In times like this, we have to reestablish our faith asking ourselves, “Why am I like this?” and look toward our Lord and follow Him. 
The Lord said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” This passage also applies to us living in this present age. If we really want to follow the Lord, then even though we all want to love ourselves, we must deny this desire and love the Lord first. And we must follow the Lord. If we deny ourselves and follow the Lord, He will take care of us. That is the way of life for us Christians. It’s absolutely necessary for us to deny ourselves if we are to follow the Lord. You must remember this clearly. I admonish you to deny yourself. 
Just how much love do you have for yourself? And just how many wonderful dreams do you have for yourself? It’s not as if I don’t know this, nor do I want to bind you with the Law to dissuade you from pursuing your dreams. Nevertheless, it is in the Lord that you should desire your hopes and dreams to be fulfilled. And you must deny yourself. The purpose and reason as to why you and I must do this is all in order to follow the Lord. Even though everyone loves himself, to love the Lord more than oneself is the very way to follow the Lord. In other words, although I know very well that you love and cherish yourself, because this is an obstacle that prevents you from following the Lord and serving the gospel, it’s only when you deny this self-love that you can follow the Lord. 
That is what the Lord had said to the Apostle Peter. This Word was also spoken to us today. How much do we love ourselves? All of us clearly love ourselves. We must admit this and obey the Word of the Lord commanding us to deny ourselves to follow Him. Even though we all have too much love for ourselves, the right thing for us to do is to deny ourselves and follow the Lord. Denying ourselves, following the Lord, loving Him, dedicating our hearts to the lost souls, serving the Lord, and seeking His will first—these are what are right for us to do.

We Must Set Our Hearts on the Lord

As we carry on with our lives of faith, we often find ourselves wavering back and forth between the love that we have for the Lord and the love that we have for ourselves. However, as Christians, our hearts must love the Lord without fail. Because the born-again Christians have the Holy Spirit dwelling in their hearts, they are bound to love the Lord even without trying hard, saying to themselves, “I should love the Lord.” Since the Holy Spirit, who is one with the Lord, dwells in our hearts, we do love the Lord fundamentally. At the same time, this love for the Lord is inevitably accompanied by our self-love as well. We ourselves want to be treated the same as the Lord. The ego wants to receive the same treatment as the Lord. If we want ourselves to be treated at the same level as the Lord, then we must quickly choose between the Lord and us. Whom should we choose then? We should choose the Lord, realizing that it is more blessed to think of Him first. It’s when we consider rationally what is right and we go forth by faith, that we can deny ourselves and follow the Lord first, rather than being seized by our own lust. It is then that we put on the love of the Lord and are treated well by other saints in the Lord. 
As we carry on with our lives of faith, such conflicts are inevitable for us, the born-again. Just as we love the Lord, so do we love ourselves. And sometimes our self-love is at the same level as our love for the Lord. What should we do in times like this? We should lower one side a little. Whom should we lower then? As John the Baptist said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” We ourselves must decrease. This is what is meant for a heart to follow the Lord and put on His love. However, Peter had not done this, and instead he had placed himself at the same level as the Lord. So he held back the Lord and insisted that He should never die. That’s why Jesus rebuked Peter, saying, “You are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men,” and went as far as calling him Satan. Peter was rebuked by Jesus like this, precisely because he had not denied himself. You and I, who have been born again, must break down and deny ourselves. It’s only then that we can follow the Lord unwaveringly. It’s none other than Satan who makes us follow our lust. 
However, no matter how hard we try not to, our self-love continues to arise. Even though we love ourselves, we must still follow virtue and that is why mankind suffers from so much agony. Referring to this, Buddhism calls it 108 Defilements. Self-love is aroused in us endlessly. Yet despite this, even though self-love keeps on arising endlessly, we must never allow ourselves to be completely drawn to it or continue to run toward it. That’s because it’s the path to destruction to love oneself and to love the world. Of course, we do admit that we all have self-love, but even so, the proper thing for us to do is to follow the Lord first. It’s when we have such a proper disposition of the heart that the Lord is exalted in us, and our souls, our lives, and our everything are made beautiful. That’s why it’s so imperative for you and me to know how to deny ourselves. This must be put into practice everyday and every moment in our lives of faith. 
Let me provide an illustration here. Imagine that a dog is walking with his owner, and while walking he smells something. So this dog leaves the owner for a while and follows the trace of the smell. Even though the owner continues to walk straight ahead, the dog keeps on sniffing around, going off to the side and busying with himself for a while. But after some delay, the dog eventually turns his head around and once again resumes following his owner. 
We are like this dog. Because each of us has a body, it’s our basic instinct to love ourselves, just as it is a dog’s instinct to follow the trace of smell. However, what we must be mindful of first is the work of the Lord. When we think about the Lord’s love first and follow Him, not only are we blessed, but the Lord is also pleased. That’s because it’s in times like this that the Lord can take care of everything and lead us. 
Such battles must be fought continuously, particularly for those who want to follow the Lord in their lives of faith. What, then, should we do in these battles? We can defeat our carnal thoughts and overcome them only if we have a clear understanding of our basic nature. Can we really overcome ourselves, no matter how hard we fight against ourselves? No, we are incapable of defeating ourselves. Let’s say that you resolved yourself not to touch any food in your fasting, saying to yourself, “I’m hungry, but I won’t eat for the sake of the Lord.” What would be the result then? You will in the end give into your hunger. No matter how hard we struggle against ourselves like this, we simply cannot win. Even if we prevail over ourselves, nothing is really gained; on the other hand, if we lose, then we feel completely wretched, falling into self-hatred and turning into slaves to ourselves in the end. 
In our battle against self, we have no winning chance. As such, the right thing for us to do is to say to ourselves, “You, my flesh, may want to do that. But I will first do the work of the Lord, the work of saving the soul, of serving the Lord and following Him.” We should leave our flesh alone and just follow the Spirit. The reason why we are able to say to ourselves, “Even though my flesh is like this, I will still follow the Lord,” is because it’s not just we who are in us, but the Holy Spirit who dwells in us also. In other words, it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that we are able to follow the Lord. Because we have the Holy Spirit in our hearts when we follow the Lord, we are able to surrender ourselves to Him and follow His footsteps. 
Everyday, the desire to seek the Lord’s interest and the desire to seek our own interest are in constant conflict and friction in our hearts, just like David and Saul did. Just as David had followed the Lord rather than killing Saul with his own hands, all that we have to do is just leave our own desires unfulfilled and seek the Kingdom of God and His righteousness first instead, rather than trying to seek our own interest. None other than this is self-denial. We must realize just how imperative and indispensable it is in this present age to deny ourselves and put our priority on the Lord. 
We cannot help but wage this battle constantly. Just as a dog sometimes goes off to the side and other times follows his owner closely, so do we sometimes go off to a side road while following the Lord. Even though we admit that we always love ourselves and try to ensure our own interest first, still we must not lose the Lord. There are times when we waver back and forth between the Lord and ourselves. Let’s admit this. I’m not saying here that you should not waver like this. I know very well that if I ask this from you, you will probably waver even more. Rather, what I am saying here is that we should admit honestly that this is who we really are and even though we are such people, we should never forget the Lord, never forget to follow Him, but look toward Him, discern what His will is, be mindful of the things of God first rather than the things of men, and follow His work. That is the right thing for us to do.
There are various organizations in our church, ranging from the Sunday school to youth gatherings and adult gatherings, as well as various departments responsible for different tasks such as literature ministry, Internet ministry, publication, translation, and so forth. We work through these different organizations and departments and this is all to think of the Lord first and follow Him. As we are mindful of the work of God first, it sometimes brings physical hardships, but even so we must still think of God’s work first, push this work ahead, and set our hearts on these tasks. 
Jesus said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself.” You and I must remember this clearly, think of the Lord first, be trained to follow Him first, and wage our battle against self endlessly in following the Lord’s footsteps. It is then that we can truly follow the Lord, put on His grace, and serve Him. For our ship of faith not to flounder and sink, we must think of the work of God first, deny ourselves, and carry out the Lord’s work to follow Him.
This sermon is also available in ebook format. Click on the book cover below.