Following Jesus in his death

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I don’t know if you’ve ever stopped by Northumberland Street because of a performance that was so unusual you had to find out more. You ask an onlooker what’s happening, but they don’t know any more than you. Nobody understands until after the story unfolds. Well, that’s the picture we have on Palm Sunday where Jesus stages his arrival in Jerusalem, but people didn’t really understand why he was arriving on a donkey or what he was going to save them from. And before his death and resurrection, nobody could understand what Jesus was about to do or what it meant for them. Till this point in John’s gospel, Jesus has been saying that his hour has not yet come – ‘it’s not time yet’, he hasn’t disclosed the full plan. But now marks a turning point, as he enters Jerusalem the Pharisees observation is right (John 12.19):

…the world [Jews & Greeks] has gone after him.

Finally, Jesus says in John 12.23:

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.

Jesus explains his mission and what it means for those who would follow him. And that’s what we’re going to look at today: Following Jesus in his death. We’re reading this on the other side of Jesus’ death and resurrection, so we know a little bit more than the people back then, and we have the Holy Spirit which helps us understand. But how often do we still forget what Jesus came to do or have a blurred idea about what it means to follow him today? So, we need God’s help to understand before we go further.

1. Jesus had to die to save many (John 12.23-24)

Turn with me to page 899 of your Bibles where you’ll find John 12. The first thing Jesus tells them (and us) is Jesus had to die to save many. From John 12.23:

And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified…”

The King is coming for his glory. Not glory from an army, a crown, or a throne, but glory from death on the cross. Why? Jesus gives them a picture of farming:

“…unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Take a grain of wheat, keep it in your study drawer and it will stay there by itself. The next time you check on it, it’s still going to be there (probably) just as it was, a single grain of wheat. But throw a grain of wheat into the field (under the right conditions), and it grows and multiplies more and more wheat overtime. Just as the wheat has to fall into the earth and die for there to be fruit, Jesus has to die on the cross to save many. What happens if Jesus didn’t go to the cross to die? Jesus becomes just another good teacher. Christianity becomes just another faith about doing good and everyone is doomed because no one is saved from the eternal punishment of death and sin. Early Christians wouldn’t suffer for Jesus because there was no certainty they would be saved after death. We wouldn’t be gathered here today. Or perhaps some of us might, but we’d be here just trying to be better people so God might accept us. There isn’t a gospel worth living for or telling others about. Without Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can’t come to God. There’s no hope in anything beyond this life.

But if Jesus does go to the cross to die, he bears much fruit. And thank God he has died and rose again to save all who would believe. This saving wasn’t from the immediate dangers of the Roman Empire, or sickness and disease in this life. This was a saving from sin which causes eternal separation from God if left untreated. And not just saving the Jews during that time but the world – Jews and Greeks, and later people from all nations across time who would trust in Jesus. Looking around the world and in our church today we can see that fruit that has multiplied over centuries as more have come to trust in Jesus as their Lord and Saviour.

Fruit is borne in the lives of you and me when we come to faith and grow in faith in Jesus, when that love flows out from us to tell our families, friends, and colleagues about what Jesus has done. As God uses those conversations and invitations to draw our friends and neighbours to find out more, some of them will turn to trust in Jesus. And as they start living for Jesus, they will start to do the same in sharing the good news with their friends and families, adding to the fruit born because of one man’s death on the cross. Jesus had to die to save many. So, have you responded to Jesus’ death on the cross for you? Maybe you’re like the crowd back then who heard a bit about Jesus from friends and have some idea of him. Jesus tells you through his word today that he had to die to save sinners like you and me because that’s the only way for anyone to be accepted by God. Would you accept Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for you today?

And if you are trusting in Jesus’ death and resurrection, has fruit been born in your life? Simply put, are you growing in your faith in Jesus? And are you telling others about Jesus? Growing in your faith as you know God more, love him more, and are shaped by Jesus more each day. And a life that is being shaped by Jesus will want to share Jesus with others.

The first thing Jesus explains about his mission was he had to die to save many. Now people were still trying to make sense of what that meant. Naturally the disciples must’ve been wondering ‘That’s some sacrifice he’s about to make, but what would it mean for us as his disciples?’ While the Greeks who were interested were probably thinking ‘What would it mean for us if we were to follow you?’ Well, Jesus tells them (and us) that:

2. Following Jesus means following his way of dying to self (John 12.25-26)

Have a look at John 12.25-26:

Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honour him.

At this point, if anyone was thinking ‘At least I don’t have to do that – suffer like Jesus would’, they would have felt a dagger right to the chest. Jesus knows the heart of man that wants to live for himself in this life. Jesus knows the temptation of the world that makes this life appear to be all there is. So, he says that if you love your life (or prioritise your life); your family, your job, your comfort, you will lose your life in eternity because you haven’t truly lived for me. The Jew back then who claims to follow Jesus but hides it from his boss and neighbours out of fear of losing his job – he has loved his life in this world more than Jesus. He has kept his job but lost his life in eternity. On the flipside Jesus says, if you hate your life in this world, you will save your life in eternity. Now, Jesus often used hate in a way that was relative to loving something else. If you follow Jesus, he is your biggest love. He occupies the largest portion of your heart that makes the way you see everything else in this world (your family, job, comfort) seem like a hate. And if you hate life like that because you love Jesus the most, you may have lost your job, family, and your very life in this world, but you’ve kept your life in eternity. Then Jesus connects his mission to the cross to the path his disciples must follow (John 12.26):

If anyone serves me [as King], he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also.

These days, we tend to have a different idea of what it means to follow someone. If you’re a fan of a player on your favourite football team, you might say you follow them. You listen and read any news about to them. You buy and wear the team’s gear. You watch the matches in support whenever you can – sometimes from home, and sometimes in person. But there’s always a distance between you and them. You can’t be out there competing with them on the same pitch because you’re not at that level – physically or talent wise. So, you don’t have to go through what they do in the vigorous trainings or the high demands of being a borderline top-ten team. But with Jesus, when he says if ‘you serve me, you must follow me’, he’s not talking about following from a distance. He’s talking about following him on the pitch, playing right behind him as he goes ahead. Any opposition and suffering he faced, you will face too. And likewise, those following him will share in his glory from victory. Now you might say ‘How am I going to play on the same pitch?’ Well, that’s what his disciples would have been feeling when Jesus said they must follow him just after announcing that he would have to die. Jesus could have turned away from the cross at any moment, but he denied himself for the sake of many. His disciples would only later understand that in a similar way, they were to deny their desire for self for Jesus’ sake. If the Master faces persecution and suffering, then so must the servant who follows him.

A big part of international student work is teaching about the cost of following Jesus that many will face when returning home: Countries and cultures where to be a Christian means rejection from family, losing job opportunities, physical attacks from going to church on Sunday, or denying yourself the chance to marry where Christians are few. The challenges are different and often harder in some places, but it’s not just the cost of following Jesus for Christians in those countries. Wherever we are following Jesus, we are called to follow him in dying to self and not prioritising life in this world. And that’s something that I’ve constantly been challenged myself – am I loving life on earth more than Jesus? I know it can be easy here to live the comfortable Christian life that’s free of having to make big sacrifices for Jesus. All I have to do amidst all the church gatherings and time with God, is carve out enough time for myself, give money to the work of the church and others, but make sure I’ve got enough for myself. Not spend time getting to know my neighbours so I don’t face the challenge of being rejected for Jesus’ sake. I don’t have to try to do those things, living for myself comes easy.

We need to take a hard look at ourselves, corporately and individually to ask are we loving this earthly life more than Jesus? Where loving Jesus would mean having some from the church family over in your home, but you decide no because that would disrupt that part of your personal or family life. When there are opportunities to serve the many needs in church, but you think someone else can do it because I would have to give up two weeknights of my time that need to be reserved for studying. What about the colleagues at work who you’ve known for years but when the opportunity or even the thought of talking about Jesus comes up, you think it’s better to not say much because that could change the way they think of you and relate to you at work. Or they might actually be interested in what you have to say, in which case you would have to find the appropriate time outside of work to continue that conversation. Time which could otherwise be spent with the family, sorting the house, or the much deserved me-time that you worked for. Following Jesus means following his way of dying to self.

So, what does it look like to die to self for Jesus’ sake? Well, it starts with our thoughts, decisions, and actions each day. Will we choose to live for self or for Jesus? Choosing not to overwork because our approval and trust is in Jesus. Learning to put our pride aside to love and forgive someone because Jesus has done the same. Whatever situation God has placed you in whether single, married, stay at home, dealing with difficult relationships – all requires self-denial to not choose ‘the easy way out’ that would put ourselves before Jesus.

Another area we can be dying to self is in our evangelism. Going out of our way to not just find the time but make the time to meet those neighbours or parents from school that God has placed us next to. Praying for them and telling them about Jesus despite any rejection we might face. That’s dying to the desire to be approved and accepted by man so that we can proclaim Jesus. For some of us prioritising Jesus might mean moving to a different part of the city or world where not many people trust in Jesus: A place like Hope church in Wallsend who need faithful Christians to join in the great gospel work, even if that means big sacrifice of leaving the comfort and familiarity of life here. Or the close relationships formed. Or settling for a lower paid job. That’s denying self-comfort for the sake of Jesus and his kingdom. And especially in times of suffering deep loss and enduring great pain, you are loving Jesus most when you hold onto his eternal plans more than your hope in this earthly life. Living for this life blames God for any misfortune and does everything humanly possible to make sure nothing else is taken away. So, even in your suffering you are putting to death your desire to hold onto to the things of this world when you trust in the eternal life to come. Our priorities and efforts for Jesus’ sake don’t earn us eternal life, but they are the fruit that show if we’re truly living for Jesus as King.

Well, if following Jesus means following his way of dying to self in all those ways and more, the natural question to follow is ‘Is following Jesus really worth it?’ Absolutely not if he didn’t die on the cross and rise again because nothing beyond this life would be guaranteed. But since he has died and risen, anyone who follows his life of self-denial will keep life for eternity where they will share all glory and honour that the Father bestows on Jesus. Still, that doesn’t make it easy. Because we do live in this world for now that so often appears to be all there is to life. And we will feel the pain and suffering that comes with following Jesus if we haven’t already. But thank God that Jesus has gone ahead of us to suffer and die the worse death. And on Easter Sunday we’re reminded that he has defeated death in his resurrection for all who would trust in him. He only asks to follow his way of life. So, will you follow Jesus by dying to self?

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