34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” – Mark 8:34-38
The cave system was intricate. The cool, dark shade provided some relief from the intense, muggy summer. Thailand’s monsoon season was upon them, but the soccer team, wishing to celebrate one of the player’s birthday, gathered with their assistant coach at the cave after a soccer practice and did what any 11-16 year old boy would do: they began to explore. Before long, they were 4 kilometers into the cave when suddenly a flash flood from the rain fall surged into the mouth of the cave, sealing the team in pitch blackness. By nightfall, it had become apparent what had happened and expert cave divers and rescue teams began to work to find the team. But the task was nearly impossible. The cave was an intricate labyrinth of tunnels, the divers had no idea where the team was, and the muddy flood waters made the visibility in the water nearly impossible. It took nine days for the team to be found. It took another eight days, thousands of workers, hundreds of divers, before all of the boys and the coach would be rescued. But the rescue was fraught with danger. The journey out of the cave was a maze of murky water and razor sharp rocks, with passageways sometimes as narrow as 2 feet in diameter and because of this, the oxygen tanks the divers had to wear had to be small, so they were very limited on time spent underwater—one Navy Seal tragically died after running out of oxygen. None of the boys or the assistant coach would have been able to make the 3 hour long dive to escape out of the cave, and would most likely have a panic attack and suffocate if they attempted to swim out on their own power following the divers. So, the professional divers explained to them that they would sedate them and would push them along, guiding their unconscious bodies out of the cave. They would run out of oxygen and the sedatives would wear off halfway through the journey out, but the divers would find a place where they could reattach more oxygen and readminister the sedatives to them.
Could you imagine being in their position? What a terrifying prospect! The only way for me to survive is if I let you drug me, and just trust that you can guide me through this murky, deadly water? When the first diver had found the boys they had dug a 5 foot hole into the side of the wall, hoping to bore their way out, unaware that there was thousands of feet of digging left before they would be free. But you had to wonder if any of the boys, while hearing the plan laid out by the divers, though maybe they should take another crack at the digging option. But, miraculously, one by one, over the period of a couple of days, the boys were ferried along through the underwater cave system and brought to safety.
Now, more than just an evocative anecdote to open a sermon with, this story of rescue serves as a helpful parable of what Jesus has to teach us today. What was offered to each of these young soccer players by the divers sounded like the opposite of safety, it sounded deadly. And friends, what Jesus has to offer us today is far from safe, is far from comfortable. But, like these young boys trapped in the cave, it is Jesus’ daring and perilous offer that is our only option for salvation, for rescue.
Peter has just (rightly) confessed that Jesus is the Christ but has (wrongly) attempted to rebuke Jesus once He began to explain that He was going to go to the cross to die. Last week we talked about how Jesus is recalibrating the disciples understanding of what the Messiah is—He is not coming as military leader who has come destroy the Romans and establish an earthly kingdom. He has come to redeem His people from their sins, which He will accomplish through His substitutionary death on the cross and resurrection. He rebukes Peter, explaining that He has missed this because Peter has set his mind on the things of man, not on the things of God (Mark 8:33).
Jesus launches directly off of this misunderstanding about the Messiah to then correct a misunderstanding about what being His disciple means. Jesus is going to do this by showing His disciples the cost of being a disciple, and the reward of being His disciple, and the warning of not being His disciple.
Jesus, directly after rebuking Peter, turns to the twelve and summons the crowds of onlookers to Him and explains, “If anyone would [follow] after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” Mark 8:34.
So, Jesus is explaining to His disciples and the crowds: So, you want to be my disciples? Here is what that means: deny yourself, and take up your cross as you follow my example. That is what it means to be my disciple. So, we know that “follow me” means to pattern our lives after Jesus, to do what He did, to let Him be the One who guides us in our lives. But what does Jesus mean by “deny yourself, take up your cross”? Well, it simply means that there is a cost that comes in following Jesus.
In Luke’s account of this (Luke 14:25-33) Jesus is actively encouraging people to stop and consider the cost of following Him before they join Him. Following Jesus is not like following someone on social media, its like entering into a marriage. It is a radical commitment that will ask things of you, that will push you, and will require you to set aside your preferences. Perhaps you are not a Christian listening today and you are contemplating the claims of Christ. You should know that we would be thrilled if you became a Christian, we pray that you do. But, it would be dishonest and deceptive if we were not up front with you about what would be entailed in being a Christian. You know what its like when you sign a phone contract or some TV service and they advertise how low their prices are, but then when the bill arrives next month you are shocked to find all of these extra charges that you didn’t know about. So you call and plead your innocence to a sales representative; you explain that you were never told about this and that charge and there must be some mistake. And with a razor-thin veneer of apology in their voice, they let you know that all of those charges were on your contract, but were just buried in the fine print, so tough luck, buddy. Jesus isn’t like that. He is going to tell you up front, He is going to treat you like an adult: there is a cost to becoming my disciple and you should consider it seriously.
Becoming a Christian, a disciple of Jesus, is not primarily a program of self-improvement, but of self-denial. Maybe when you became a Christian you had an idea in your mind of how God would improve your life: get rid of those bad habits, provide happiness, some measure of comfort and peace. And that does happen, in a way. But God has come to do something far, far more radical, far more disruptive. We are not told that following Jesus means denying certain things the way someone may give up chocolate for Lent—no, we are told we to deny ourselves. To “deny yourself” is to say, in effect: God, you get to decide what is good for my life, not me. You have control over my life, not me. You see, if you come to Christ thinking: Okay, I know what He will do here: He is going to help me get rid of this addiction I have, this bad temper, that nagging guilt over my previous marriage, etc. you, unconsciously, are brokering the terms on which Jesus is your Lord. It’s great to have you in my life, Jesus! Here are the areas I would be happy to let you have total control over. But that isn’t what Jesus has in mind at all. What happens when Jesus begins to push beyond your preconceived boundaries? What happens when He begins to point out things you didn’t think were a problem at all, or summons you to do things that you had no intention whatsoever of doing? What will you do? Who will you listen to?
In Eden, Satan’s first temptation was for Adam and Eve to decide for themselves what good and evil was, not rely on God’s definition, but define it themselves. Satan does the same thing today. Jesus’ call for us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus is a call to reverse what happened at the Fall—it is an admission that God is God, we are not, so He decides what is good and what is evil. Our job is to submit ourselves to that definition, which is hard, which requires self-denial, which sometimes feels like death.
This is why He compares discipleship, self-denial, with a cross. It is unfortunate that we use the phrase “bearing our cross” to refer to frustrations or inconveniences, like an obnoxious mother-in-law or a bad back. No one listening to Mark’s account would have thought of that when hearing Jesus tell them to “take up their cross.” As we discussed last week, a cross was the symbol of Roman terror. It was a ghastly, terrible way to die, reserved for the lowest of criminals: slaves who disobeyed their masters, or revolutionaries who sought to resist Rome. Classics scholar Tom Holland writes: “No death was more excruciating, more contemptible, than crucifixion. To be hung naked, ‘long in agony, swelling with ugly weals on shoulders and chest’, helpless to beat away the clamorous birds: such a fate, Roman intellectuals agreed, was the worst imaginable.” – Dominion, pg. 2.
The phrase “take up your cross,” of course refers to the practice of having the condemned criminal carry his crossbar through the city as a public spectacle of humiliation, bearing one’s own instrument of torture and death to the place of execution. This, Jesus tells us, is what you must be willing to do to be His disciple. Why would Jesus use such a repugnant and barbaric metaphor for discipleship?
Undoubtedly, this had to do with the fact that this was to be Jesus’ own fate. If we are to “follow” Jesus, than we should not be surprised to be treated by the world as Jesus was. “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you,” Jesus explains (John 15:20). As Mark is writing his gospel, the first Christians in Rome to read it would have likely been suffering under the persecution of Nero, seeing many of their fellow Christians being nailed to crosses. There would have been no confusion in their minds: following Jesus might cost you your life. And that is still true in many places today.
But it isn’t restricted only to a literal death on the cross. Luke’s gospel tells us that we must, “take up [our] cross daily” and follow Jesus (Luke 9:23). If we are to “daily” take up our cross, it must also refer to a metaphorical kind of death: a dying to your own autonomy and self-rule; a willingness to suffer embarrassment, scorn, shame for following Jesus; a willingness to surrender to God, even when it is uncomfortable, perplexing, or painful. Which, of course, if you are going to be taken to a literal cross, you must have already done.
Aside from the costliness and difficulty of following Jesus, this assumes two things:
1. That submission to Jesus will be hard, even embarrassing. A criminal forced to carry their cross through the city on their way to the execution was meant to humiliate them. Sometimes, as we follow Jesus, we will receive the jeers and scorn of the world around us. I think this is the primary means of persecution Jesus is considering here, since he bookends this teaching with this idea of shame: “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels,” Mark 8:38.
But it provides a good question for us: Christian, will you follow Jesus even when it becomes difficult? Will you follow Jesus when it runs the risk of you being misunderstood by others, when it leads to friends and family laughing at you, mocking you? Is there anything that Jesus teaches that you are tempted to feel ashamed over?
2. That when you come to Jesus you will have desires that will feel normal and natural to you that must be “denied.” So, just because you have a strong inner urge and desire to do something, it does not mean that it is right. We live in a world that strongly disagrees with that sentiment, and so is at direct odds with Jesus Himself. The highest good for many is the idea that you should be uninhibited to be true to yourself, express yourself, love yourself, follow your dreams, and above all don’t let someone else tell you how to live your life or who to be.
Now, this is such a central issue in our culture today that it is worth thinking about. First, we should realize that no one in our culture functionally lives like this. Our culture looks at evangelical Christianity as ridiculous because we say that you shouldn’t look inward to define who you are, but you should align your life with God’s design for it. How oppressive, how intolerant! Well, our wider culture is actually doing the same thing, just with a different set of dogma. And this is widely evident by just looking at what our culture condemns. If I begin spewing racist propaganda, no one in our culture is going to say to me: Well, you just need to be true to yourself! Follow your heart! Not a chance! They are going to say that I have a wicked heart—which would be true. So, when they sat “follow your heart,” they really mean, “follow your heart…so long as it doesn’t break these rules” which sounds a lot like the religions they are so quick to denounce. You see, they can’t escape the fact of holding people to a standard, a set of norms. And, we Christians, likewise want to hold people to a certain set of standards. But where do those norms come from?
Awhile ago my wife and I housed an international student from Tanzania. He grew up in a village where polygamy was widely practiced and his own father had two wives. He had since become a Christian and intellectually knew it was wrong, but found it amusing how flabbergasted I was at the idea of polygamy still being practiced somewhere. One day, while we were out getting groceries somewhere, Samson saw two men holding hands while walking in front of us. He was visually repulsed and began to, literally, laugh out loud at them. I had to pull him aside and inform him that he could not point and laugh at people who lived differently than he did. Now—why was I so outraged at the idea of polygamy, but Samson was so outraged at the idea of homosexuality? Where did we get those intuitive, unconscious responses from? We picked them up from where everyone picks them up: the culture we were raised in. Our different cultures have different value systems and we imbibe them without thinking. But this is precisely why Jesus is telling us to “deny ourselves.” We are not reliable guides for determining what is right or wrong, praiseworthy or wicked. This is why we need to “deny ourselves” and follow Jesus and His moral compass for our life. All cultures have values that run in contradiction to Jesus’ values, so all cultures need to be submitted under His Lordship. But for us to do that, we have to be willing to let Jesus confront us, willing to set aside our immediate assumptions, and be willing to undergo the painful process of relearning what is good, true, and beautiful.
Following Jesus is difficult, but it is worth it. Jesus explains, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it,” Mark 8:35. This matches Jesus other paradoxical teaching: to become first, you must become last; if you want to be great, you must become a servant. Even the most basic principle of self-preservation is reversed: to save your own life, you must lose it. To live, you must die. But if you clamor to preserve your life, you will die. What does this mean? If you refuse to cede control over your life to Jesus, if you look at the cost of what He is asking you and say Oh no, that is far too dangerous, far too painful for me, you think you are saving your life, you think you are protecting yourself, but you unwittingly are dooming yourself. You are like the soccer players in the cave saying, “I’m not going to trust you to guide me through this cave, no sir. I’m going to stay here where I’m safe.” You must trust Him, You must follow Him, or you will perish. Yes, there is a cost, yes it is dangerous, but what other option do you have?
But notice, Jesus isn’t just threatening the danger, He also is enticing the disciples with the value of their souls. Jesus explains: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” Mark 8:36-37. “Soul” here doesn’t merely refer to physical existence, but refers to our whole personhood, our immaterial “life” that persists even when our physical life is extinguished. And Jesus is wanting you to see the infinite value of your soul. Jesus says that you could gain the whole world, yet if it resulted in the damnation of your soul, it would be a ridiculous exchange. Heap together all of the pleasures, thrills, comforts, applause, and power that this world has to offer—make yourself richer than any billionaire, more powerful than any sultan, more beloved than any figure in history, and more beautiful than any movie star, and all of that pleasure will pale in comparison to the worth of your soul. Goethe wrote of the classic tale of Faust who sells his soul to the demon Mephistopheles in exchange for any worldly pleasure he desires. He is given anything he wants, yet the more he receives, the more miserable he becomes. Ecclesiastes tells us of the king who had all the wealth of the world at his fingertips, only to find that it was like smoke and vapors, leaving him empty and despairing. Don’t trade what is eternal for what is temporary. Don’t exchange a birthright for a bowl of stew. Don’t put your treasure where moth and rust can destroy.
1. The paradox of life.
Jesus explains that “life” can only be found when we stop clamoring for it. If we truly want to live, we must die. But if we are obsessed with keeping our life, we will die. Friends, true life, a full life, the good life is only found when we stop making it the center of our existence. If we make our main aim trying to live as happy of a life as possible, we will never be happy. We will constantly be peeking back inwards at ourselves, evaluating whether or not we are happy, and so spoil it, like the lover of flowers who keeps deconstructing his lilies, trying to figure out why they are so beautiful. But, if we make our aim in life faithfulness to Christ, obedience to Him, and glorifying God, if we submit to the knife of dying to ourselves, we will, ironically, find true life, true happiness. Aim at heaven and you get earth thrown in, aim at earth and you get neither.
2. Look to Jesus, your captain
Submitting to this “death” is hard, but we can look to Christ our captain. Jesus, through His death on the cross has experienced the ultimate death. He surrendered over His life to pay for our sins and ensure our forgiveness, but He has also punched through the other side and emerged victorious over sin and death! So now, as we follow our captain, we know that our sins will not condemn us, and our suffering under this process of dying will, as it did our Lord, result in our resurrection, in newness of life.
3. Overcome desire with desire
Jesus appeals to our desire for life. We can die to ourselves, deny ourselves, because it is through it that we find real life. We want life! We want satisfaction, we want fulfillment. And Jesus is offering it to us. Sin, is offering us a deceptive offer. It says: You want life? I’ll give you life. I’ll make you happy. If you go to Jesus, He will kill you! He will rob you of joy! So both sin and Jesus are offering you life. The trick to submitting to this kind of discipleship Jesus is offering is to (1) realize that sin is a liar and Jesus is telling you the truth, and (2) overcome your sinful desires with deeper desires. You want to be fulfilled and sin is offering to satisfy that craving; the answer isn’t to deny that craving, but to turn to Christ instead to fill it! Kill your sinful cravings, deny yourselves, put it to death, and in its place find life.
C.S. Lewis, in his wonderful fictitious story, The Great Divorce, imagines shades from Hell taking a trip to the outskirts of Heaven and being offered an opportunity to stay, if they like. (Lewis is not making a theological point about post-mortem salvations, it is just an imaginative story meant to illustrate deeper truths). Lewis imagines himself walking among these ghosts and seeing them interact with angels from Heaven who are offering them an opportunity to stay, if they would like. Nearly all of them hate it and decide to turn around and go back to Hell. But, Lewis notices one that sticks out that demonstrates what Jesus is trying to teach us here:
What sat on his shoulder was a little red lizard, and it was twitching its tail like a whip and whispering things in his ear. As we caught sight of him he turned his head to the reptile with a snarl of impatience. ‘Shut up, I tell you!’ he said. It wagged its tail and continued to whisper to him. He ceased snarling, and presently began to smile. Then he turned and started to limp westward, away from the mountains.
‘Off so soon?’ said a voice.
‘Yes. I’m off,’ said the Ghost. ‘Thanks for your hospitality. But it’s no good, you see. I told this little chap’ (here he indicated the Lizard) ‘that he’d have to be quiet if he came – which he insisted on doing. Of course his stuff won’t do here: I realize that. But he won’t stop. I shall just have to go home.’
‘Would you like me to make him quiet?’ said the flaming Spirit – an angel, as I now understood.
‘Of course I would,’ said the Ghost.
‘Then I will kill him,’ said the Angel, taking a step forward.
‘Oh – ah – look out! You’re burning me. Keep away,’ said the Ghost, retreating.
‘Don’t you want him killed?’
‘You didn’t say anything about killing him at first. I hardly meant to bother you
with anything so drastic as that.’
‘It’s the only way,’ said the Angel, whose burning hands were now very close to
the Lizard. ‘Shall I kill it?’
‘Well, that’s a further question. I’m quite open to consider it, but it’s a new point,
isn’t it? I mean, for the moment I was only thinking about silencing it because up here – well, it’s so damned embarrassing.’
‘May I kill it?’
‘Well, there’s time to discuss that later.’
‘There is no time. May I kill it?’
‘Please, I never meant to be such a nuisance. Please – really – don’t bother.
Look! It’s gone to sleep of its own accord. I’m sure it’ll be all right now. Thanks ever so much.’
‘May I kill it?’
‘Honestly, I don’t think there’s the slightest necessity for that. I’m sure I shall be able to keep it in order now. I think the gradual process would be far better than killing it.’
‘The gradual process is of no use at all.’
‘Don’t you think so? Well, I’ll think over what you’ve said very carefully. I honestly will. In fact I’d let you kill it now, but as a matter of fact I’m not feeling frightfully well today. It would be most silly to do it now. I’d need to be in good health for the operation. Some other day, perhaps.’
‘There is no other day.’
‘Get back! You’re burning me. How can I tell you to kill it? You’d kill me if you did.’
‘It is not so.’
‘Why, you’re hurting me now.’
‘I never said it wouldn’t hurt you. I said it wouldn’t kill you.’
‘Why are you torturing me? You are jeering at me. How can I let you tear me in pieces?’
Then the Lizard began chattering to the Ghost. ‘Be careful,’ it said. ‘He can do what he says. He can kill me. One fatal word from you and he will! Then you’ll be without me for ever and ever.
‘Have I your permission?’ said the Angel to the Ghost.
‘Damn and blast you! Go on, can’t you? Get it over. Do what you like,’ bellowed the Ghost: but ended, whimpering, ‘God help me. God help me.’
Next moment the Ghost gave a scream of agony such as I never heard on Earth. The Burning One closed his crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken-backed, on the turf.
‘Ow! That’s done for me,’ gasped the Ghost, reeling backwards.
For a moment I could make out nothing distinctly. Then I saw, …what seemed to be happening to the Lizard. At first I thought the operation had failed. So far from dying, the creature was still struggling and even growing bigger as it struggled. And as it grew it changed. Its hinder parts grew rounder. The tail, still flickering, became a tail of hair… Suddenly I started back, rubbing my eyes. What stood before me was the greatest stallion I have ever seen, silvery white but with mane and tail of gold. It was smooth and
shining, rippled with swells of flesh and muscle, whinnying and stamping with its hoofs. At each stamp the land shook and the trees dindled.
The new-made man turned and clapped the new horse’s neck. It nosed his bright body. Horse and master breathed each into the other’s nostrils… Turning in his seat he waved a farewell, then nudged the stallion with his heels. They were off before I knew well what was happening….
…What is a lizard compared with a stallion? Lust is a poor, weak, whimpering, whispering thing compared with that richness and energy of desire which will arise when lust has been killed.’