“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’” (Matthew 16:24). Disciples are followers. In going to the cross, Jesus was denying Himself and suffering for the will of the Father. If anyone will be the Lord’s disciple, they must likewise deny themselves, take up their cross, and then they can follow him.
The word deny is translated from the Greek word aparneomai. This is a compound word: arenomai, which means “to deny,” joined with the prefix apo, which serves to intensify the meaning. The idea is to deny utterly or fully. This is the same Greek word used to describe Peter’s denial of the Lord (Matthew 26:75). When Peter said, “I do not know the man,” he was completely disowning the Lord. In our text, Jesus is calling for this same action to be applied to self.
Although they are related, denying self is not the same as self-denial. We practice self-denial or self-control when we give up things or activities for a particular cause or benefit (we diet to lose weight, cut back on spending to save money, etc.). Although this action has application to the life of a Christian, this is not what Jesus is calling for in our passage. He is calling for us to deny self — totally and completely; to surrender our entire being to Him.
Not Limited. Denying self is not something that can be compartmentalized and applied to various aspects of our lives as we see fit. This instruction must be understood and observed in its fullest extent. Matthew Henry gave the following comment regarding the application of this requirement: “We must deny ourselves absolutely, we must not admire our own shadow, nor gratify our own humour; we must not lean to our own understanding, nor seek our own things, nor be our own end” (p. 192).
Not Optional. Denying self is not a characteristic of a “super” Christian or an extremely devoted disciple. It is not an optional path to a closer walk with Christ, nor a means of taking one’s relationship with God to a higher level. Denying self is, in fact, the most basic step of discipleship. It is universal in its application. Anyone who would become a disciple of Christ must first deny self, otherwise they cannot be a disciple. Yet, this essential element is sorely lacking among many who see themselves as Christians today.
Not Easy. Denying self is difficult because it involves a price that few are willing to pay. It requires the surrender of self. Paul described it as crucifying self (Galatians 2:20). We must acknowledge that we are not our own (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) and admit we need guidance from One higher than ourselves (Jeremiah 10:23). Such is a steep price for many in today’s world. We are taught that our ideas matter, our voice deserves to be heard, and our dreams deserve to be fulfilled. Some simply are not willing to give that up and allow God complete control over their lives.
Denying ourselves shifts the focus of our life. It is no longer about us. This old self must be denied and disowned. God is to become the center of our lives, which is accomplished only when we center our lives around Him. The implications of Jesus’ demand to deny self are life changing and far reaching, but they are not easy.