If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” Mark 8:34
These rightly famous words were spoken by Jesus at a key moment within His public ministry. Up until this point, Jesus’ ministry had been characterised by clear demonstrations of His great power and authority – power and authority over sickness, over evil spirits, over nature, over sin and even over death itself. The logical, but also God given, response to such authority was to recognize, as Peter did, that Jesus is indeed the Christ (Mark 8:29). This response, made on behalf of all the disciples, must have been really encouraging to Jesus. Less encouraging was Peter’s response to Jesus’ plain teaching that as the Christ, it was His mission to “suffer many things, be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, be killed and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). Mark tells us that Peter “took Jesus aside and began to rebuke Him” (verse 32), only to receive a strong rebuke himself. The heart of Jesus’ rebuke and instruction was first to affirm His own mission as a cross-centred one (in contrast to Peter’s diabolically inspired and worldly view of the Messiah’s calling) but then to teach that this same way of the cross was (and is) also the path for each true disciple. For Jesus then the call to discipleship is a calling to a cross-shaped life.
In looking at Mark 8:34 in greater detail it is tempting to begin with Jesus’ call to self-denial. Such self-denial is of course fundamental, but it is not actually the point at which the cross-shaped life of a disciple begins. The starting point is in fact the desire to ‘come after’ and to ‘follow’ Jesus. The starting point for the disciple is to want to be a disciple. Jesus’ statement “if anyone would come after me” implies both a realization that given the pathway some will not want to follow, but that there will indeed be those who will want to follow Him. In the final analysis the decision to become a follower of Jesus is a personal decision, made on the basis that such following is both right and indeed worthwhile whatever the cost. Such a decision, in the context of Mark 8, must thus be based both on Jesus’ demonstrated authority as the Christ, but also on His own clear determination to go to the cross. It is both who Jesus is and what He has done that provides the motivation for others to want to follow Him along such a difficult path.
Given the desire to follow Jesus it is essential to understand what such following will mean in practice. This is where Jesus’ teaching about self-denial is of the greatest importance. Since Jesus was perfectly God-centred and therefore perfectly other-person centred, even to the point of laying down His life for sinners, His example leaves no room for any self-centredness among His followers. To be a disciple of Jesus is thus to embrace the path of self-denial, saying No not only to those things which we know displease God, but also No to those things which, while not wrong in themselves, are not in the best interests of those whom we seek to serve as Jesus served us. Thus, for example, a father may choose to give up his golf game in order to watch his son play rugby or his daughter take part in a concert. A husband may give up a ‘boys’ night out’ to take his wife to dinner as a thank you for her service to the family. A child may skip or delay hanging out with friends in order to help around the house. None of the things given up are wrong in themselves, but the self-denial for the sake of others which is expressed in these choices is a mark of a true disciple of Jesus, evidence that one is living a cross-shaped life. And, as Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1, every disciple is called to this way of life in order to reach others for Christ.
Of course, for those who first heard Jesus’ call to the cross-shaped life of the disciple, there was a real chance of actual death. The early Christians were fiercely persecuted and some were killed for their faith. In their case they were literally called to take up the cross and follow Jesus. This is a reminder to us that as Christian disciples we should not be surprised if we are persecuted for our faith. For some of our brothers and sisters such persecution still involves actual imprisonment or even torture and death. For most of us however persecution takes the form of insult or misrepresentation or scorn or discrimination – not life threatening but still painful to bear. Either way, whenever we face various kinds of trials because of our faith in Jesus, or when we are called upon to put aside our rights in the service of others, we are to remember that we have been called to self-denial and the cross-shaped life. This is the path our Master trod and it is the path along which we are privileged to follow.
Written by Mervyn Eloff. Original article can be found here.