Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
Luke 9:23 (NIV)
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Matt. 11:28-30 (NIV)
How is it that our Lord should say two such apparently contradictory things? In Luke, he tells us to take up the cross and follow him. Not once. But daily. The cross is a symbol of suffering, of the persecution of the righteous, and it is to the cross we must go if we are to follow Jesus.
I get that. So I bow my head, bare my shoulders, and prepare each day for the cross. I must grit my teeth, mutter to myself that I can handle it, and stagger forward. But wait! He also said in Matthew that he will give us rest. He tells us that he is gentle and humble in heart, and that learning about him will give us rest. For his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Which is it? One or the other, I think, in my fleshiness. It cannot be that I carry a cross across my shoulders, and find the yoke is easy and the burden is light. Can it?
Two such oppositional ideas cannot be both true, except in the providence of God. God, having made his plans before the foundation of the world, purposed to make both ideas to be the center of the Christian life. He fully intends for us to have both in our lives, as contradictory as they might seem to be at first.
There are two examples of this that I would like to remind you of, since they both are such excellent examples of lives carrying the contradictory truths. First, I will look at the example of Stephen, our first martyr, and then I will look at the example of the apostle Paul.
Stephen is chosen to be a deacon, an office which seems to be more than the apostles first intended, and resulted in a great circle of men of faith. Stephen, the Bible assures us, is “full of faith and the Holy Spirit”. His cross to bear, that the apostles bestowed upon him, was evidently to see that the Greek widows were not overlooked in their needs. Nothing more is ever said about the deacon’s service to the widows, but God takes Stephen and molds for him a great cross to bear: he becomes the first church martyr.
The cross, at that point, must have been insufferably heavy. The Jewish leaders took him captive, and all in his future must have been terribly dark. But, Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, begins to preach what is perhaps the most powerful sermon in the book of Acts. Please note that the Scripture does indeed refer to Stephen as being filled with the Spirit, and that is the key to understanding how to bear the cross that is given to us. We do not bear it under our own power, but with the very power and Spirit of God. Thus it becomes easy to bear. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Because it is God’s outworking of his Spirit within us.
Look at Stephen. Giving a powerful sermon, he only moved the haters to conspire to kill him. With practically his last breath, he looks toward heaven, asking for the Lord to receive his spirit. With his last breath, he mutters perhaps the most powerful prayer in all of Acts, saying, Father, do not hold this sin against them. Like his Lord’s cry from the cross, Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. He faithfully took up his cross, and followed his Lord in death, but not in his own power, but with the very power of God to enable him. I submit to you that Stephen may have been a very good person, and probably was, but he was utterly dependent upon God to carry such a cross. And proving willing to bear it, he found to his delight that the yoke was indeed easy, and the burden was light. Therein is the secret of the apparent contradiction.
But I am not done, for Paul is yet unexamined, and I have yet to show his taking up the cross and following his Lord. Stephen’s last prayer was for those who were so dreadfully hating him, for the very people who had gnashed their teeth in fury, and could not throw the stones fast enough to kill Stephen. One young man in that crowd of haters, was diminutive, small in size, and perhaps with weak eyesight. Nevertheless, he utterly hated Stephen, and offered to hold the coats of those who were bigger, and more able to bring death quickly. Stephen prayed for that man, a man who was to change history. He prayed with the power of the Holy Spirit for God not to hold this vile deed against him. And God saw fit to answer that prayer, bringing salvation to Saul, the apostle who brought Christ to the Gentiles. To you and to me, as an answer to the very last prayer of the first martyr. Talk about drama!
Saul must have been haunted by that prayer. I have often wondered who it was that remembered that last prayer of Stephen. There is a case to speculate that it was Paul himself who later gave the gist of that powerful prayer to Luke, who went on to record it in the book of Acts. Perhaps it was, we may never know. But I do imagine that Saul heard those words that day, and that those words began to haunt him in all of his misdeeds. Everywhere he went, did he remember those words, that prayer for his forgiveness? How it must have tortured his soul to think of the young Stephen praying for Saul’s forgiveness even as they brought him death!
I do speculate here, but not so much that it might not have been true. When Christ at last appears to his last chosen apostle, is not the reaction of Saul quick and decisive? Does he not seem to capitulate very quickly, deciding that he was wrong? I do wonder if the prayer of Stephen had not eaten away at Saul’s heart, preparing him for the truth of his later vision, the vision of the living Christ, asking, Saul, Saul, why dost thou persecute me?
At any event, we have Saul being turned into Paul, who disdained all else, proclaiming the gospel to all who would listen boldly and without fear. Paul undergoes deprivations, shipwrecks, whippings, and even a stoning (Chafer suggests that stoning actually brought a temporary death). All of what he endured he counted as naught. Can we find a better example than Paul of carrying the cross of Christ? Yet, he found it true that his yoke was easy and his burden was light, not counting himself worthy to suffer for Christ, and finally telling us in 2 Timothy that he has fought the good fight and was looking forward to getting his crown of righteousness.
What is this amazing faith, this Christianity, that it should so radically change people? From the early years even until now it has always been this way, that Christians should disdain this world because of their vision of a better world to come. Throughout history the remarkable faithfulness of God is evident, teaching these words of Jesus. We are to take up his cross and find that it is not so heavy after all. Indeed, his yoke is easy and his burden is light, but only because of the great mystery, that Christ himself in the form of the Spirit, should be found in us.