Luke 9:21-23: I like to call this passage (and its parallel in Matthew) the “Sledgehammer” because it strikes like a massive mallet at the heart of false “Christianity.” The passage may be so familiar to you that you don’t even need me to quote it for you to know to which passage I am referring. In this passage, though, we see that Christianity is not about following a what, or a how, or even a why, but a who—it’s about following a person.
I want to examine the previous verses before we get into Luke 9:23-26. In Luke 9:18-20, Luke records Jesus’ question about his identity and also Peter’s confession that Jesus is the “Christ of God.” Luke is telling us that Jesus is the Anointed One, the one sent by God to accomplish the purposes of God in redeeming sinners. Immediately after establishing Jesus’ identity, Luke links this with Jesus’ mission (verses 21-22). Jesus came to suffer, to be rejected, to be killed and to be raised. So Luke quickly tells us who Jesus was and why he had come.
Then after that we read what is required of those who would come after Jesus:
(1) They must deny themselves.
(2) They must take up their cross.
(3) They must follow Jesus.
“IF ANYONE DESIRES TO COME”
I want to pause for a moment and acknowledge this one particular phrase because Jesus says “if anyone would come after me” then they must do what he commands in the rest of the passage. It’s interesting that if you look up the Greek word for “anyone” you’ll find that it means anyone. In grammatical terms it’s called an “indefinite pronoun” meaning that there are no inherit limitations to whom or to what that word applies. It’s inclusive and applicable to anyone and everyone.
There are no restrictions. Jesus doesn’t have one set of commands for a certain people for following him and a different set for a different group of people. These commands apply to male or female, any race, any social, political or cultural background, to any economic status and to any age. The words of Jesus are the words to anyone who would follow after him.
This includes students.
We have to be careful not to think there are somehow fewer or less radical precepts for students when it comes to following Jesus. That these are the requirements for us today (and by implication students) is born out in the grammar of the text. To flesh this point out, it will require a little more technical analysis of the text but I plead that you bear with me.
The ESV reads, “If anyone would come…” and this is a fine translation. The only problem is that it seems to make “come” the main verb of the verse when it is not. In the Greek, “come” is simply an infinitive. In Lk 9:23, the main verb is “wants” or “desires.” Notice how different translations handle this word in Lk 9:23):
Then He said to them all, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. (HCSB)
And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. (NAS)
Then He said to them all, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” (NKJ)
What’s my point? Well, I’m getting there. Hang with me. One more thing we should note is that the verb Jesus uses for “wishes” or “desires” is, in grammatical terms, a present tense verb but more importantly it is likely what’s called a “gnomic present tense verb,” that is, it “conveys either actions that are omnitemporal (always happens) or concepts that are timeless (lie outside the limitations of time). The latter refers to ideas that are universally accepted as true.”
“Okay, enough grammar!” you’re probably thinking. The point I’m making here is that we sometimes put emphasis on the “come” though grammatically it’s not “the main thing.” The desire to follow is the central idea in Jesus’ words. This desire is to be accompanied by the three commands Jesus lists out. Since this desire is something for “anyone” then the commands and requirements are for anyone of any time period who wants to follow Jesus.
All this means is that Jesus’ requirements for his followers have not changed since he first gave this charge. These are universal and applicable to anyone who would follow Jesus.
So Jesus issues this same invitation to students and teenagers: “If you desire to follow me, student–if you want to follow me, teenager–than you must deny yourself. Take up your cross and follow me.”
GROUNDING IMPERATIVES IN THE INDICATIVES
The temptation, however, is to start pounding into students that they need to deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow Jesus and, in a sense, we should admonish them to do so. The problem is that we sometimes too easily divorce the imperatives (the commands/that which we are supposed to do) from the indicatives (that which has been done for us in Christ). Yes, students are to do all those things but question we never asked or answered is this: Jesus talks about the desire to come after him, but where does that desire come from?
I think it comes from the previous verses in Luke 9. In Luke 9:18-22 there are two important things that happen. First, there is Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ. This is certainly Luke’s point in recording this. He wants the reader to reach the same conclusion. Second, in vv. 21-22, Jesus essentially summarizes the gospel (not unlike 1 Cor 15:3-8).
Jesus’ commands are to seen in light of God’s saving and redeeming work in and through Christ. The gospel is what makes the three commands agreeable to the one who desires to follow Christ.
The last thing student ministry needs is another behavioral modification model. We don’t need to substitute “Don’t drink, smoke or have sex” with “deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus.” All we are doing is trying to force obedience from a different angle. No matter how much we tell students to do these things, if they do not desire to follow Christ, they will not do them.
In other words, what students need are hearts radically transformed by gospel with the knowledge that this means to follow Christ means to die to self and live for Him. Students need the gospel.
STUDENTS WILL RESPOND
If I’m honest with myself, and if you are too, part of you probably thinks this is the last thing a student or teenager wants to hear. The truth is, however, that those who want truly want to follow Jesus will answer Jesus’ invitation. There will be students are so radically gripped by the gospel that they will answer, willingly and joyfully, the call to die daily and follow Jesus.
How can we know students will respond? Well, why wouldn’t they? Do we think that the gospel cannot penetrate teenage hearts and minds? Do we think the gospel cannot grip a 14-year-old the same way it can grip a 35-year-old? For 2000 years people have been so gripped by gospel and in love with Jesus that they have followed the Lord’s commands. So what’s different about 2013?
Students will respond. Keep focused on calling students upward and showing them the worth of Jesus and they will answer.
 In English, we use infinitives and they usually have the word “to” with it. So, for example, we say “to go,” “to run,” or “to read.” In most languages, and in English, infinitives do not make complete sentences but rather usually serve a complementary role to the main verb. In other words, “To walk” is not a complete sentence in English but “I love to walk” is. The infinitive “to walk” complements and makes explicit what I love. It’s easy to think of it in terms of weight. In any sentence, usually the main verb carries most of the weight while infinitives, although important, carry much less weight than the main verb. The point I am making is that the real focus is on the desire to follow.
 Richard Young, Intermediate New Testament Greek: A Linguistic and Exegetical Approach (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 110. There are, of course, other nuances to the present tense but most of them do not seem to fit the context. Also, as discussed in this post, Luke’s use of the indefinite pronoun “anyone” opens the application to any who would want to come after Jesus regardless of whether it was in the 1st century or in the 21st century.