The crowd was shocked. Maybe there were murmurs all around: “Did he really just say that? Did he really just say we have to die in order to live? How is that even logical?”
Consider the Words of Jesus in Mark 8
The shocked crowd was responding to Jesus’ words in Mark 8:34-38:
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 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? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.
We tend to look at this passage far removed from its context. We have two thousand years of history where the cross has been a religious symbol. Today people wear crosses around their necks. We go to church and see crosses everywhere. The cross has become the symbol of our faith. During Christ’s life, however, there was only one association. To take up one’s cross was to die.
The cross was an ancient torture device invented by the Romans for the purpose of cruelly murdering criminals. A person could survive on a crucifix for several days as his body weight slowly crushed his lungs. He would spend that entire time in agony as his body cried out in pain, hunger, and thirst. Jesus was, in other words, calling this crowd to die.
Self-Denial and Death to Self
Jesus’ call to die is a call to self-denial. This means we say no to our sinful desires in order to follow Jesus. And this kind of self-denial is key to discipleship.
By using this vivid illustration of the cross, Jesus gives his (shocked) listeners much to think about. He is, in effect, saying, “If you want to follow me, then come. But you will have to die to yourself so that I may reign in you.”
To clarify, Jesus’ call does not mean the gospel is something we earn through our own self-denial. We do not pay a monetary price to become a Christian, and there’s no sacrifice we can make to change our spiritual condition. Salvation comes through believing in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
At the same time, following Jesus means we must give our very lives to him. We are called to deny ourselves many of the privileges and pleasures of this world as we follow him with full dedication. We die to ourselves so a new, Christ-centered life can be lived (Galatians 2:20–21).
Though Jesus had no sin of his own to die to, he is our great model when it comes to taking up our cross. He knew the glories of heaven yet he took on a human nature and lived among us (John 1:14) with all the pains and difficulties that come with being human. He finished his time on earth by being betrayed, tortured, and brutally murdered on the cross. So when he says, “Take up your cross,” he knows what he’s talking about. He lived by his own sermon.
Self-Denial and Life Forever
Yet, this topic of self-denial is not as gloomy as it might seem. Jesus said those who try to save their lives (by not denying themselves) will actually lose them, while those who lose their lives will in the end win eternal life (8:34–35)!
There is a choice for all people in this world. We can deny ourselves some of the temporary, sinful pleasures of worldly living, only to go to hell at the end of our lives. Or we can deny ourselves those temporal pleasures for the sake of righteousness and life forever.
When we deny ourselves and take up our cross, we are saying, “I will live my life dedicated and fully for the Lord Jesus Christ. If the world kills me for it, they are only doing what they did to Him (John. 15:18). Even so, death is only the bridge that takes me to heaven.”
Surely this kind of self-denial is worthwhile! So, then, let us be courageous. The temporary things of this world are as nothing in comparison to what awaits us in heaven (Romans 8:18).
If you have never responded to Jesus’ call and come to him, then are you ready to die to yourself, to look in faith to the cross of Christ, and, by the power of his Spirit, to live a righteous life in submission to his holy lordship?