“Summoning the crowd along with His disciples, He said to them, “If anyone wants to be My follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me and the gospel will save it. For what does it benefit a man to gain the whole world yet lose his life? What can a man give in exchange for his life? For whoever is ashamed of Me and of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels. “Then He said to them, “I assure you: There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God come in power.” (Mark 8:34-9:1 HCSB)
Life and scripture are full of paradoxes. Things that don’t seem to make sense together but somehow work. Eyes that see but somehow don’t actually see and ears that hear but don’t really hear. Some of them have become so commonplace to us, we hardly think about them. Like the planting paradox, seeds must be buried in the ground and die in order to actually live and grow. Or the love paradox, life’s greatest treasure (love) is lost when it is hoarded and multiplied when it is freely given to others. Or how about one my parents told me, medicine works and is good for you because it tastes bad. Well, as Mary Poppins sang, “a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.”
This week’s focal passage is full of scriptural paradoxes. These paradoxes cause us some frustration and a lot of personal struggle. They put our personal desires and selfish ambitions in direct confrontation with God’s will and Word. Last week, Simon Peter experienced this confrontation first hand and experienced Jesus’ immediate rebuke. As you’ll recall, Peter didn’t like the path Jesus indicated He must follow towards suffering, rejection and death. Peter’s flawed understanding of the Messiah and his personal ambitions and goals caused him to collide with God’s will and Jesus’ rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan, because you’re not thinking about God’s concerns, but your own (or man’s)!”
After confronting Peter directly and taking his rebuke and turning it back upon him, Jesus then summons the crowd along with His disciples to learn a critical lesson. It is, perhaps, the greatest paradox in all of life: in order to save your life you must die. Really? Die? To live, I have to die. That makes no sense, from a human perspective. Which is precisely why Peter struggled with the idea and rebuked Jesus when He initially told them. Everything I’m going to share with you this week, absolutely everything, is in direct conflict with what our world and culture tells us is true. This isn’t anything new, it has always been in conflict with what we believe to be true about life. That’s why it is so hard to hear, understand, believe and live out on a daily basis.
First, let’s start with the basics. To follow Jesus is to go in a direction and to make hard life choices that are in opposition with what our world believes and teaches. Jesus calls the crowd and His disciples together and tells them, “If any of you want to follow Me, you must deny self, take up your cross, and follow Me.” I think it is important to note that He didn’t just tell this to Peter, James and John. He didn’t just tell this to the twelve. He didn’t even just tell this to the larger group of His followers. He summons the crowd and tells all of them, “If ANY of you want to follow Me, you must deny self, take up your cross, and follow Me.” This is a statement that is made to ANYONE and EVERYONE who follows Jesus.
Notice, a REQUIREMENT to following Jesus is that the person must deny him or herself. In other words, to follow Jesus means you must be willing to FOLLOW Him and not YOU. You must follow Him, not your own will, not your own choices and not your own desires. This puts Jesus’ demand in conflict with the cultural mantra of “personal identity, self fulfillment and satisfaction”. Put simply, there is nothing in modern culture that is more important than ME. And, to put it just as simply, there’s nothing more in conflict with God’s perfect will for my life than ME.
By the way, and your aren’t going to like this part, it also puts Jesus in direct conflict with your personal rights. In America, we’ve become so self-centered that there’s virtually nothing that ranks higher than one’s personal rights. Here’s the irony, we even note that these are “God given” rights. I know, I know. I’ve got your ire rankled a bit. How can I even suggest that your personal, God-given rights can EVER be anything less than that, God-given and YOUR right? Well, let me remind you that at the very heart of scripture lies the struggle wherein a holy and righteous God gave man the ability (or right) to love, obey and walk with or “follow” Him and man chose to walk away, to rebel against God and follow his own path.
So, I want to be very clear and very, very direct here. When I say that this is in direct conflict with our culture I suspect many of you see how and where this is in conflict with our modern identity, liberal, left leaning, sexuality/sexual identity and gender identity culture. I would remind you, it is easy to see the speck in a brother’s eye and ignore the beam in your own. Jesus’ words are also in direct conflict with our modern personal rights, me first, shoot first – sort it out later, personal success, satisfaction, entertainment and achievement culture. Well, if I haven’t offended all of you then let me also remind you that Jesus’ words are also in conflict with much of what we cling to. Wait, what? Yes, just like Peter, much of what we cling to is in direct conflict with what God really wants in us and what He wants flowing out of us.
Think I’ve gone too far? Try denying yourself and see how much resistance you get. It runs deep, really deep.
Next, Jesus says that to be His follower means we must be willing to take up our cross. This is a literal reference to the beam of the cross that was carried by the person being crucified to the place of execution. The upright post would have been left in place, but the cross beam would have been carried by the prisoner to place of execution and was a sign of great shame and fear. Now, this has been often used as a means of encouraging believers to recognize and embrace the idea that our beliefs may be culturally rejected and our values might not be valued by others. In other words, to carry our cross was a personal inconvenience or cultural struggle. WRONG! To take up and carry one’s cross is the ultimate step down away seeking self and to accept personal shame, cultural rejection and death as the path to seeking and finding God.
Yes, we need to let that last part get through our thick skulls and penetrate our hard hearts. The path of God is the path of humility, the path of personal denial, the pathway of shame and IS the path of physical death. When you read those words your spirit will likely immediately react and begin questioning and even denying the truth of what I’ve said. But remember, I didn’t say it, Jesus did. That’s your sinful reaction to His sovereignty. That’s your “personal rights” rising up and declaring their sovereignty. That’s your personal identity rebelling and displaying itself in opposition to God. That’s you stepping away from following Him and trying to blaze your own path.
You can’t truly follow Jesus and veer off down your own path. At least, you can’t without God beginning to severely discipline you. (See Heb. 12)
I started our study by talking about paradoxes. Jesus now presents us with a big one and then poses some related rhetorical questions: “When you try to save your life your way you are going to lose it, but when you lose your life because of Me and for the sake of the gospel, you will save it. How does it benefit a man to get all the world has to offer and yet lose his life? What can a man give in exchange for his life?”
The personal efforts you go through to save your life are actually causing you to lose it. Yet, losing your life (denying self) for Jesus and in service to Him and the gospel will actually save it. You lose your life by trying to save it through self effort and you save your life by losing it through self denial and sacrificial service to Christ and His purpose, the gospel. I can assure you, that is the exact opposite of what our culture tells us. They tell us that we find ourselves through self realization, self identity, and self fulfillment. However, God says we find ourselves through self denial, sacrificial service to Christ and proclamation of the gospel.
Now, to Jesus’ questions… What benefit is there in a man gaining all the world has to offer, fame, fortune, wealth, power and all the things they provide, and yet lose his life? You can’t take any of it with you. It all stays here. The second question plays off the first. What can a man give in exchange for his life? Wealth and power might extend life a few minutes, days or maybe even months longer than others less fortunate but, in the end, we all die regardless of what we possess, who we know or what position of power or influence we hold. What benefit is there? Absolutely none. Nada. Zilch. Zero. What can he give in exchange for his life? The same, nothing.
Here’s the catch, we know these things to be true but we tend to ignore them or, at least, suppress them as best we can. We know that wealth, power and position might get us a little pleasure, comfort and entertainment in this life but it has no impact on life, life that counts. Real life. Eternal life. So, why do we choose those false things SO much of the time over what really matters? Several reasons, to be honest, but one reason is the lie is so prevalent and culturally pervasive that it invades every waking moment and thought. That means our thinking needs to be radically transformed to overcome culture’s conforming influence on us. (See Rom. 8 and 12:1-2 – better yet, go read and study all of Romans)
With those thoughts in mind, consider Jesus’ next statement very, very carefully: “For whoever is ashamed of Me and of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father and the holy angels.”
Shame and glory. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus puts both of those contrasting ideas into a single, terrifying statement. Jesus has called upon us to follow Him as we deny self and take up our cross as we do so. We must endure the shame the path of suffering and cultural rejection brings in this life or we will endure the shame of His rejection for all eternity.
Oh, what about the glory? I told you last week that Mark was taking a turn. Wait for it….
“…the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He (Jesus, the Son of Man) comes in the GLORY of His Father and the holy angels.”
The Son of Man is Jesus’ favorite name/title that He uses for Himself. It can mean either a human being (as Ezekiel does, over and over or as the Psalmist does in several Psalms) or it can reference the divine ruler/king in Daniel (see Dan. 7). But to fully understand, you need to pay very close attention to what Jesus says in this passage. The turn Mark makes is in this verse. Did you miss it? Up until now, he has been telling us who Jesus is based on His fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. He’s the one who would come and set the captive free, give sight to the blind, make the lame walk, the deaf hear and the mute speak. Unclean spirits would flee from His presence and the dead would be raised to life. Still not see it? Let me highlight it for you…
“For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words… the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of HIS FATHER!”
Who is the Son of Man? He’s not just an ordinary man, Mark has given us evidence of that. Who do the crowds say I am? John, Elijah or one of the prophets. But you, who do you say I am? You are the Messiah. But who does Jesus say He is?
He is the Son of Man who will come in the glory of His Father and the holy angels. The Son of Man is the Son of God!
That’s why He can say, “Follow Me! Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow ME! If you try and save your life, you will lose it but if you lose your life because of Me and the sake of the gospel you will save it.” The Son of God, the very ONE who spoke all of life into existence, says that if we will die for Him and His gospel then He will give us life. Eternal life! Life like it is meant to be! Life with Him, forever. If your life is lost in obedience to Him, He speaks and gives you eternal life. If you are ashamed of Him and of His words, He will be ashamed of you and He will not speak life into you after death. The things you have in this life make no difference but who you live for in this life makes all the difference. Are you willing to die to self so you can live, truly and fully live?
Listen, He’s calling to you… Follow ME!
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