Question 1: Jesus offers the greatest challenge to self-denial to his followers in Mark 8:34-38. Here he explains what Christians must do to become his followers.
What are the three things he says his followers must do in this passage to be his disciple?
Mark 8:34-38 (CSB)
34 Calling the crowd along with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.
35 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me and the gospel will save it.
36 For what does it benefit someone to gain the whole world and yet lose his life?
37 What can anyone give in exchange for his life?
38 For whoever is ashamed of me and 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.”
In verse 34, Jesus commands that those who wish to be his followers must:
- deny themselves
- take up their cross
- follow him
Jesus commands the same three-step course of discipleship in the gospels of Matthew (Matthew 16:24) and Luke (Luke 9:23).
The call to discipleship is summarized in three commands in the Greek text:
- arnesatho (to deny oneself)
- arato (to take up)
- akoloutheito (to follow)
The tense sequence of these three verbs (two aorist followed by a present indicative) demonstrates that the essential decisions made regarding the self and about day-to-day living i.e. bearing of one's cross, "emerge in a continual following of Jesus. The disciple's life consists of basic self-denial." 4
Question 2: Jesus offers the explanation that if someone wants to follow him he must lose his life. But then he explains that if he does lose his life, he will in fact save his life (verse 35).
How can this be explained? The cross signified crucifixion and the Jews living during Jesus' time were very familiar with this cruel method of execution. To help us understand the context of this passage, the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary offers the following insights:
"In the first century, crucifixion was one of the most feared forms of execution, used effectively by the Romans as one of the strongest forms of deterrence against insurrection or rebellion. It was a dreadful way to die.
Condemned victims were often forced to carry a cross-beam to the scene of the crucifixion. They were nailed to it, which in turn was nailed to the upright beam, which was then hoisted into place.
The horror of the cross will be Jesus' own tragic fate, but in what must have been to the disciples a shocking shift of emphasis, Jesus uses the cross and crucifixion as an image of discipleship." 5
How could the disciples have made sense of this command by Jesus; and equally as important, how can modern day Christians make sense of this command to "take up our cross" every day?
Obviously, the command is not a literal one. Our bodies can't be put to death every day by crucifixion. Although we may suffer a terrible death for our faith like Jesus did, it wouldn't be a daily occurrence - we can only die once.
It's a metaphor that signifies "one is to live on a daily basis as though one has been sentenced to death by crucifixion." 6 Luke's gospel helps us understand this with the addition of the term "daily" - Jesus commands his followers to pick up our cross "daily" (see Luke 9:23).
Darrell Bock offers that:
"The call to follow Jesus continually. One can go the route Jesus goes if one recognizes the need to place oneself in God's care and submit to him. Such submission includes a willingness to enter into the suffering of rejection. Jesus makes it clear that the essence of discipleship is found in this attitude." 7
Jesus gave his up his life voluntarily and we need to do the same. As we read further in the gospel of Mark, we see in verse 35 that we must deny ourselves to save ourselves. Ironic isn't it? But it's a must!
Jesus says in Luke 14:27 that whoever doesn't bear his own cross and follow him can't be his disciple. Moyer Hubbard offers this insight on the difficulty some assume the original disciples may have had in being Jesus' disciples:
"The logic of the cross demands a life lived for others. One of the appeals of the gospel, I suggest, was not that it was easy but that it was difficult and entailed hardship and sacrifice. It appealed to humanity's higher instincts and intuition, which understands that a life consumed with self is not a life that consumes itself." 8
Day Four of the Self-Denial Bible Study
The Bible teaches us that Christian life involves three deaths. One is legal, one is moral, and another is physical.
Research these Scriptures.
Identify exactly how the Christian is to be involved in these three different deaths.
The First Death:
- Romans 6:6, 11
- Colossians 3:5
The Second Death:
- Matthew 16:24
- Colossians 2:20
The Third Death:
- II Corinthians 4:7-12
- II Corinthians 4:16
John Stott in his book The Cross of Christ provides the following on the three deaths. He notes that they aren't just three deaths, because they are accompanied by three resurrections. He states all three are integral to the Christian experience. Here's an excerpt from his book to help us understand this:
"The first death is the death to sin and subsequent life to God, which happens to all Christians by virtue of our union with Christ in his death and resurrection. By it we share in the benefits both of Christ's death (its forgiveness) and of his resurrection (its power). This is inherent in our conversion/baptism.
The second is the death to self, called variously taking up the cross, or denying, crucifying or mortifying ourselves. As a result, we live a life of fellowship with God. This death is not something that has happened to us and that we are now told to 'reckon' or remember, but something we must deliberately do ourselves, though by the power of the Spirit, putting our old nature to death.
Indeed all Christians have done it in the sense that it is an essential aspect of our original and continuing repentance, and we cannot be Christ’s disciples without it. But we have to maintain this attitude, that is, take up the cross daily.
The third kind of death and resurrection . . . is the carrying about in our bodies of the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may be revealed in them. Plainly the arena for this is our bodies. It refers to their infirmity, persecution and mortality.
It is in this connection that Paul could say both 'I die daily' (1 Cor 15:30–31) and 'we face death all day long' (Rom 8:36). For it is a continuous physical frailty. But then the “resurrection,” the inward vitality or renewal from the life of Jesus within us, is continuous too (2 Cor 4:16).
To sum up, the first death is legal; it is a death to sin by union with Christ in his death to sin (bearing its penalty), and the resultant resurrection with him leads to the new life of freedom which justified sinners enjoy.
The second death is moral; it is a death to self as we put to death the old nature and its evil desires, and the resurrection that follows leads to a new life of righteousness in fellowship with God.
The third death is physical; it is a death to safety, a 'being given over to death for Jesus’ sake,' and the corresponding resurrection is Jesus’ strength which he makes perfect in our weakness. The legal death was a 'death unto sin once and for all,' but the moral and physical deaths are daily—even continuous—experiences for the Christian disciple." 9