“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” Mark 8:34 (2011 NIV)
Some years ago, I came across John Stott’s book entitled the Radical Disciple. I love reading anything that Dr Stott wrote, but I was particularly attracted by the title of this little book. Two things struck me as I thought about it. First, I was reminded that being a disciple of Jesus is not for the faint-hearted or the half-hearted. Discipleship requires full commitment and real courage, every day. Second, I was challenged to think about my own walk with the Lord. Could I in all honesty say: “I am a radical disciple”?
The word ‘radical’ has a range of usages and meanings in our contemporary language. It in fact derives from the Latin word ‘radix’ meaning ‘root’. In this most basic sense, the radical disciple is the disciple who has taken hold of the fundamentals, the root of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. What are those fundamentals? Well, they could not be expressed in a clearer way than in the words of Jesus in Mark 8:34. A radical disciple is someone who imitates Jesus in the daily act of self-denial and cross carrying.
First, think about the radical disciple as someone who imitates Jesus in the daily act of self-denial. In Philippians 2:6-8 Paul describes a series of self-denying acts by the Lord Jesus who, though He was and is God, chose to enter our world as a human being and humbled Himself even to the point of dying on the cross for us. In the temptation narratives in the Gospels and again in the account of Gethsemane we read how Jesus constantly denied His own desires and resisted the temptations of the devil in order to offer full and perfect obedience to God and to express perfect trust in God. In the same way, as disciples, we are called to trust God in everything, to say ‘No’ to what is wrong no matter how desirable it may be, not just for the sake of saying ‘No’ but rather for the purpose of saying ‘Yes’ to something better. For Jesus, self-denial was always in the interests of doing His Father’s good and perfect will. And so, it should be for us. This is surely what Jesus meant when He said, “whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” Mark 8:35. We gain far more through the right kind of self-denial than we lose, and we lose everything if we are simply committed to self-indulgence.
Second, think about the radical disciple as someone who imitates Jesus in the act of carrying the cross. For Jesus this meant literal crucifixion for the salvation of the world. By His death upon the cross our sins are forgiven, and we are reconciled to God. Jesus the Son of Man, the One to whom all authority had been given by the Father, came “not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). For many 1st century disciples and for many disciples down the ages carrying the cross meant persecution and death. But there is more to it than this. We carry the cross when we put others and in particular the salvation of others first. We carry the cross when we give up something that we enjoy in order to serve the needs of someone else. Husbands carry the cross when they love their wives sacrificially, putting their needs above their own. We carry the cross when we risk a friendship in order to have a gospel conversation with someone. We carry the cross when we stand up for truth or righteousness in a world where anything goes or when standing up for Jesus results in ridicule and rejection. We carry the cross when we devote ourselves to prayer. We carry the cross when we give generously and sacrificially to gospel work, seeking no recognition but only to please the Lord who richly gives us all things to enjoy. We carry the cross when we decide to turn down promotion so that we can have more time for family or serving at church. We carry the cross whenever we seek the kingdom of God first and put our own agenda beneath His plans and purposes for our lives. Put in other words, we carry the cross whenever we die to self in order to live for Christ.
Self-denial and cross carrying is without doubt radical discipleship, discipleship ‘at its root’ as it were. But since it is discipleship at its root, it is also ordinary, normal discipleship. And thus, we note that radical discipleship is not for the elite, but for every disciple. It is discipleship for you and for me. May God grant that it may indeed be said of each of us: “There is a radical disciple of Jesus”.