For the past two years I have said at the beginning of every other sermon that Mark is showing us what it means to be a follower of Jesus. He wants us to know who we are following and what it looks like to follow Him. We have observed Jesus calling the disciples to follow Him, Jesus revealing Himself through His actions and words, and we have seen the disciples obey and disobey, understand and be confused. We have seen them doubt and believe. We have watched them grow as followers of Jesus. They represent us.
Jesus has just finished telling them about the suffering, rejection, and death He must endure. He also told them that He would resurrect three days later. They did not understand this. They still had a lot to learn. Jesus told them about His cross, but now He is about to tell them about their cross.[i]
What Jesus is about to tell us is not about salvation, but what salvation truly leads too. Even though Jesus starts with a call to salvation, His emphasis is discipleship and spiritual growth. True salvation always leads to discipleship. You cannot separate the two. Just as someone who is born will grow, it is also true that someone who is born again will spiritually grow. This process of spiritual growth is called discipleship. Here Jesus lays out the truth about the process of discipleship and spiritual growth.
Let me give you a warning. Jesus is no longer talking vaguely about His own suffering, rejection, death, burial and resurrection. He is also no longer talking vaguely about the suffering, rejection, and death of those who follow Him. Just as His own cross is real, so is the cross of every believer. Jesus wants those who claim to be followers of Him to understand what it means to follow Him.
Here we go. Mark says in verse 34, Then, calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. 35 If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. 36 And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? 37 Is anything worth more than your soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my message in these adulterous and sinful days, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he returns in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” Jesus went on to say, “I tell you the truth, some standing here right now will not die before they see the Kingdom of God arrive in great power!” (Mark 8:34-9:1, NLT)
Before we get into the process of discipleship, let’s place ourselves in the setting. Mark says Jesus “[called] the crowd to join the disciples.”
- Even though Jesus had been talking to “the disciples” privately about His own death there was a crowd nearby. Jesus called out to “the crowd” to gather around Him and the disciples. Jesus had something important to say. What Jesus is about to say is for everyone who is considering following Him. This is for the “crowd.” This is for you and me. The people in the crowd are at all different levels of Scripture knowledge, all different stages of spiritual growth, all different levels of understanding who Jesus is, and they all have different backgrounds and different sins they all struggle with. What Jesus is about to say is for those in “the crowd” who are thinking about following Him.
- What Jesus was about to say would thin the herd. He knew that most people in the crowd were physically following Him because of the miracles. They were willing to leave their jobs, their homes, and follow Him around for a while because of all the blessing that seemed to come with hanging around Jesus.
- Jesus knew who truly believed and who didn’t. Jesus was about to draw a line in the sand between those who were genuine followers and who were not (see John 6:64-66).
This takes us into the process of discipleship.
Desire: Following Jesus begins with a desire to follow Him and this desire is given to you by the Heavenly Father
The first aspect of discipleship deals with our desire. Jesus said, “If any of you wants to be my follower….” Other translations phrase this as, “If anyone wants to come after Me” (NASB). This is the Lord’s way of saying, “If you want to become a Christian, if you want to be born again, if you want to get saved and be a part of My kingdom….” This is an invitation of salvation to the crowd. Let’s break this down into smaller pieces.
- Jesus said, “If any of you….” This invitation is for everyone. Everyone here in person and everyone online.
- Jesus said, “If any of you wants to be….” This points to your desire. Some of you here and online sense that God is drawing you to Himself. You want more of God. You want what He offers. There is a want and desire and a draw that you have on the inside to get closer to God. You are aware of your sin and you know only God can deal with it. This “want” (thelo) you have is more of a determination and decision or a deliberate choice that you are making about Jesus. This is not an interest, nor wish, nor whim, but a determine want. This is significant. When Jesus says if any of you “wants to be” He is speaking to those who have a strong sense that God is calling them to something deeper with Him.
- Listen carefully, your sinful nature and the devil’s kingdom is not going to give you that desire. You cannot create that desire inside you on your own. That desire can only come from God. Jesus clearly stated in John 6:65, “People can’t come to me unless the Father gives them to me” (NLT). This desire you have for Jesus is a God thing. It is the Heavenly Father drawing you toward Jesus by His Spirit. Pay attention to that work in your life. That is God at work in you.
- Jesus goes on to say, “If any of you wants to be my follower.” This phrase “my follower” can also be translated “come after me” (NASB). Jesus is saying, “If you want to follow in My footsteps and go where I’m going then you must let me lead.” This is the Lord’s way of saying, “If you want to become a Christian, one of My disciples, then you must learn how to follow.”
The desire to follow Jesus comes from the Heavenly Father. The Bible is very clear in Romans 3:11, “no one is seeking God” (NLT). From a human perspective and how it feels, it looks like we are seeking God, but in reality the desire and actions of seeking God is in reality God drawing and pulling us to Himself. Your spiritual growth and your discipleship begins with God drawing you by giving you a desire for Him. Something inside of you says, “I want to follow Jesus.” That’s a God thing. You didn’t choose Him, He chose you.
Deny: Following Jesus requires disowning yourself and giving Jesus complete reign of everything you have and everything you are.
God gives us a desire to come to Him and follow Him. Then Jesus mentions a second aspect of our spiritual growth… denying. Jesus goes on to say, “You must give up your own way” (NLT). Other translations phrase this as, “he must deny himself” (NASB). What does it mean to “give up your own way” or to “deny” yourself? Before we get into what it is, let’s get into what it’s not.
- Denying yourself is not detesting yourself. God created you as a man or woman, embrace that, don’t hate it. God created you red, yellow, black or white. Love that about you. Right now you are either young or old or somewhere in between, accept where you are in life. You may have a high IQ or a low IQ, that’s ok. Don’t look down and detest yourself because you think you don’t have a lot to offer God. You know the sins you struggle with, don’t hate and condemn yourself because of it. Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Denying yourself is not hating yourself.
- Denying yourself is not deserting yourself. Some believers think they have to be someone they are not. They abandon who they are. They try to be like Billy Graham, Jim Elliot, D.L. Moody, Annie Armstrong, or some believer they look up to. They start dressing like them, talking like them, and being like them as much as possible. That is deserting and abandoning who you are. That is not what Jesus is talking about. Paul said in Ephesians 2 you “are God’s masterpiece. He has created [you] anew in Christ Jesus, so [you] can do the good things he planned for [you] long ago” (Eph. 2:10, NLT). You are a masterpiece and if you desert you, you will never discover that masterpiece that God created called you. Denying yourself is not deserting yourself.
- Denying yourself is not self-denial. Self-denial says, “I’m going to stop eating this, doing this, or going to that place. I’m going to quite something for Jesus.” The Bible addresses all kinds of areas of self-denial. For example we are to deny ourselves sex until marriage (Eph. 5:3). We are to deny ourselves certain things in speech such as obscene stories, foolish talk, coarse jokes, foul or abusive language (Eph.4:28; 5:4). When you are fasting, you are going to deny yourself food. You get the idea. Even though this can be a good thing and the Bible does talk about self-denial, this is not what Jesus is talking about here.
So what does Jesus mean when He says you must “deny” yourself and “give up your own way”? To deny yourself is to disown yourself. This is a mindset of selflessness. We are giving up the right to run and control our own lives. I give up my interest. I give up my wants. I give up my way of doing things. I give up my rights for the sake of Christ. Paul put it this way in 1 Corinthians 6:19, “You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price” (vs.19-20, NLT). To deny yourself is to disown yourself. To follow Jesus is to give up yourself to Him. He controls your life. He rules your life. He is now Lord of your life.
What this means is that whatever God says about you as a spouse, you do. Whatever God says about being a parent, you do. Whatever God says about your finances, you do. Whatever God says about sex, you honor. Whatever God says, you do. He owns you. He controls you. He guides you. He leads, you follow. To follow Jesus, you must disown yourself. Paul put it this way in Philippians 2:3, “Don’t be selfish; don’t’ try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too” (vs. 3-4, NLT). Disown yourself. It’s no longer your life, it’s His life lived through you. Disown yourself.
This is going to go against every fiber of your being. You are taught to place you first, to focus on your happiness, your comfort and your rights. Yet, Jesus comes along and says, “If you want to follow Me you must disown yourself.” This is why Jesus then says you are going to have to learn to take up your cross daily. You are going to need to die daily, because that selfishness in you is going to fight for the thrown of your heart and it’s not going to give up easily.
Jesus said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way….” You must deny yourself. You must disown yourself. This is where you understand and accept that He is the potter and you are the clay, He is the Shepherd and you are the sheep, and He is the Master and you are the servant. Everything you have and everything you are belongs to Him. He leads. You follow.
Have you disowned yourself and given Jesus the ownership of you? If you have not, then you are not truly a follower of Jesus. You may go to church, read the Bible, be generous and be a nice person, but according to Jesus if you have not disowned yourself and given Him ownership of you then you are not a follower of Him.
Today, tell Jesus, “I am giving you ownership of me. I acknowledge that everything I have is yours. What you want to do with my life is your choice. I give up my selfish way of doing things and give you my life.”
[i] James Edwards points out that “A wrong view of Messiahship leads to a wrong view of discipleship.” (PNTC-Mk)