Take Up Your Cross and Follow Jesus
Topic: Discipleship Passage: Mark 8:34–8:38
TAKE UP YOUR CROSS AND FOLLOW JESUS
An Exposition of Mark 8:34-38
By Pastor Brian Wilbur
Date: February 28, 2021
Series: Mark: Knowing and Following God’s Son
Note: Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
THE SCRIPTURAL TEXT
Holy Scripture says:
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.”
This is God's Word, and it is for our good. Let's pray.
Father, as we return to our Saviors’ teaching this morning, we pray that you would give us ears to hear. Give us the capacity to internalize, delight in, and obey his instructions. We pray that your Spirit would come and be our teacher. In Jesus’ name, amen.
The mountainous views of truth in this passage are breathtaking. The implications are staggering. And the stakes could not be any higher.
There is a path that leads to everlasting shame. If you pursue this path, you will forfeit your life. You will perish.
But there is another path that leads to everlasting glory. If you pursue this path, then you will save your life and enjoy fellowship with Jesus forever.
In this sermon, I want to help us see these two divergent paths, understand their basic characteristics, and also understand the two radically different outcomes.
To begin with, you need to know and understand that there is no middle ground here. You can't split the difference. You will either follow Jesus on the costly path of suffering, or you won't.
And just to be clear – when we refer to the costly path of suffering, we're not talking about things like ‘the coffee was a little weak this morning’ or ‘the brownies were overdone’. We're talking about hardships, trials, and difficulties that come our way because we are following Jesus on the path of obedience.
In verse 31 Jesus said, referring to himself: “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.” When Jesus says “follow me” (v. 34), he means for you to follow him on this path.
The apostles understood this. When the Apostle Paul went on his first missionary journey with Barnabas, which is described in Acts 13-14, after they concluded their ministry in the last city Derbe, they retraced their steps and visited the churches in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch. They did this in order to encourage and strengthen the disciples. One of the things they told these new believers was this: “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Through many tribulations! If you would share in the resurrection of Jesus, the victory of Jesus, and the glory of Jesus, then you must actually and practically follow him on the costly path of suffering. You must share in his tribulations, in his being rejected by the world, and in his dying.
The Apostle Paul described his ambition in Philippians 3: “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10-11) Suffering is a pathway to glory, not just for the apostle, but for all who would name the name of Christ. It says in Romans 8: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:16-17)
So we must understand Mark 8:34 in relation to Mark 8:31. In verse 31, Jesus describes the path ahead for him – all the way to the cross and then the resurrection beyond. And in verse 34 Jesus invites people to follow him on that path. This is not ‘raise your hand and say a prayer if you like the idea of going to heaven after you die’. Instead this is ‘I'm going somewhere – I'm going to the cross, and if you're going to be mine, then you need to get up out of your seat and follow me there.’
Now let's walk through some of these verses here.
THE CALL TO DISCIPLESHIP (v. 34)
We're going to start in verse 34 – let's camp out there for a little while. Verse 34 is about the call to discipleship. Jesus offers an invitation for people to follow him, and he sets the terms and conditions. Now unlike all those terms and conditions that the world is always throwing at us in the fine print, and doesn't expect us to read anyway (click here if you agree!) – this is not fine print. What Jesus says here is visible, clear, front and center. And notice that you don't have to meet any competency qualifications to be a follower of Jesus. You don't have to be smart or sophisticated. You don't have to have a certain social IQ or any particular level of gifting. The only qualification is that you're ready and willing to be all in.
So if you're actually going to line up behind Jesus as one of his true followers, then first of all you must deny yourself. You must be done with self-rule and renounce your own authority over your own life. You're not in charge anymore. Your ambitions, comforts, opinions, and preferences are not in the driver's seat. It's not about you. It's not about your status, or your rights, or your sense of entitlement, or your plans. To embrace Christ as the Messiah means to surrender all of you to all of him. Any part of you that protests must be put to death.
Take Up Your Cross
If you're truly going to be one of Jesus’ disciples, then secondly you must take up your cross. This is a powerful and far-reaching metaphor. I'm only going to get to one part of it this morning. I plan to get to another part of it next week.
Now we have a very tame and sanitized conception of the cross. We color nice little pictures of the cross and we hang crosses on our walls. And you know, that's fine – I mean, it's a testimony to the fact that Jesus radically transformed the symbol of the cross. But nevertheless, we need to understand that the cross was an instrument of a bloody, horrifying, and violent death. Thus the call to follow Jesus is a call to die. You might ask, ‘Die to what?’ It’s not as if when we set out on the path of discipleship that we're all going to be physically killed for our faith in the next thirty minutes. In fact, some of us will never be killed for our faith in a physical sense. But you must die! You must die to anything and everything that gets between you and Jesus. You must die to anything and everything that gets between you following Jesus. You must die to anything and everything that undermines or compromises your loyalty to Jesus.
Scripture teaches us a number of things that we must die to:
You must die to yourself. This goes right back to what Jesus said about denying yourself. The Apostle Paul said in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20) No longer alive to self but dead to self, and alive to God.
You must die to your sin. Galatians 5 says that “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Galatians 5:24) This dying to sin is something that happens decisively at the moment that you are converted. Then it must continue to happen increasingly and progressively over the course of your Christian life. As temptations or sins pop up, you must be in the habit of putting them to death. The great pastor-theologian John Owen said, “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.” Sin is not to be coddled, managed, or negotiated, but put to death.
You must die to other masters. Paul talks about dying to the law (Galatians 2:19). You might have to die to tradition, or to religion, or to false belief systems.
And then also – and this is especially prominent in our passage in Mark 8 – you must die to the world.What does it say in verse 36? “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” Gaining the whole world is set in contrast to following Jesus. You have to die to worldly ambitions. If you remember when we looked at the parable of the four soils in Mark 4, there were those half-hearted folks who aren't true disciples, but those half-hearted folks – represented by the thorny soil – what happens with them? The Word gets choked within them. Because of what? Because of “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things” (Mark 4:19). Scripture teaches you that you must die to the love of worldly riches. You must die to the love of needing to be liked, admired, and applauded. You must die to the love of earthly security and comfort.
There is a powerful passage in Hebrews 10, where you really see how following Christ faithfully means having an eternal perspective – an eternal perspective in which you understand that your home is not in this present world, but that your home is hidden with God in Christ. It says in Hebrews 10:
“But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” (Hebrews 10:32-34)
Who joyfully accepts the plundering of their property? These people! And why? Because “they knew that [they themselves] had a better possession and an abiding one.”
Friends, take up your cross and die by “[presenting] your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:1-2)
In terms of Mark 8:33 – Do not set your mind on the things of man, but be transformed by setting your mind on the things of God.
What do you get by taking up your cross?
Now here's the deal. What do you get out of this? What do you get if you deny yourself? If you die to yourself, to your sin, to other masters, and to the world? What do you get if you take up your cross and die?
Well, the answer is not a what, but who? You get Jesus. You get to be with him. You get to have fellowship with him. You get to follow him. Do you see this? “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” If you don't deny yourself and take up your cross, then you can't get Jesus. But if you do deny yourself and take up your cross and follow Jesus, then he is what you get. You can come. You can be part of this. You can be part of the Messiah's family now. You can participate in the Messiah's mission now. And then beyond this earthly life, you can be someone who enjoys the favor, grace, and bright shining presence of Jesus for forever in the age to come. Jesus says in essence, Follow me through the cross to glory. But you have to desire Jesus above all else, if you're going to be a real follower of Jesus.
Actually Follow Him
First, you must deny yourself. Second, you must take up your cross. Now third, you must actually follow him. Right there at end of verse 34 – “and follow me”. This is a call to active followership. Your entire life is now focused on Jesus. Your eyes are fixed on him. You walk in his footsteps. You follow his example. Your ears are attentive to his instruction and your eyes are watching his example.
You are really called to walk in his footsteps, as we sang about earlier this morning. It says in 1 John 2: “whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” (1 John 2:6) How did Jesus walk?
He endured suffering graciously. “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” (1 Peter 2:23)
He served humbly. After he washed the disciples feet, he said to them, “For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” (John 13:15)
He lived sacrificially: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” (1 John 3:16)
He experienced opposition and persecution. And what did Paul tell us? “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).
True discipleship means being dead to self, dead to sin, and dead to the world, but alive to Jesus. Following Jesus means that we are devoted first and foremost to him and his gospel. This is evident in verse 35, which speaks of losing our lives for his sake and the gospel’s sake. Following Jesus also means that at the core of our being, we cherish him and his words. I take this from verse 38, because of what the non-disciple does. The non-disciple is ashamed of Jesus and his words. Which means that the true disciple cherishes the Lord and the Lord's words.
The truth of verse 34 is captured in a great modern hymn, which begins:
“All I once held dear, built my life upon
All this world reveres and wars to own
All I once thought gain I have counted loss
Spent and worthless now compared to this.
Knowing you Jesus
There is no greater thing
You're my all, you're the best
You're my joy, my righteousness
And I love you, Lord”
THE STAKES ARE EXCEEDINGLY HIGH (v. 35-37)
Verse 34 presented us with the call to discipleship. Now let's shift to verses 35-37. After inviting people to follow him and setting the terms and conditions, in verses 35-37, Jesus makes it clear that the stakes are high, very high, exceedingly high, infinitely high. There's another hymn which includes these words: “Sin and despair like the sea waves cold, / Threaten the soil with infinite loss”. And this is what’s going on here: infinite loss versus infinite gain.
There are two ways envisioned in verse 35. There is the way of saving your life in the here and now, versus losing your life in the here and now.
Let's think a little bit about the person who is on the path of seeking to save their lives in the here and now. What they're trying to do is – they're trying to maximize their acceptance, their respectability, their security, their opportunity, and their wealth in this present world, and they're pursuing it on their terms. If you’re on this path, then you're trying to squeeze as much stuff and as much satisfaction out of this world as you possibly can. You're operating on the world's value system and chasing after worldly comfort, worldly security, worldly treasure, and worldly honor. If you are on this path, then your heart has been captured by the desire and prospect of you having your best possible life now, on your terms, and described in terms of outward prosperity, comfort, and respectability. You want your best possible life now – with ‘best’ being understood in a worldly way – and that's what you're chasing. And Jesus says that this way leads to ruin. If you go down that path, then you will ultimately lose and forfeit your life.
But there is another path. There is the path of losing your life now in this present world and not chasing after the things of the world, but rather losing your life for Jesus’ sake and the gospel’s sake now. What is the mindset of a person who is on this path? It's not exactly the opposite of the misguided mindset I mentioned earlier. I said that the other mindset was that you want your best possible life now. Well, the mindset of a Jesus follower is not, ‘I'm chasing my worst life now! I want my worst possible life now!’ That's not the mindset. Here is the mindset: what has captured the heart of the person who is on the path of following Jesus, is Jesus. Jesus has captured their heart! They find Jesus and his gospel and his words and his sacrifice and his steadfast love utterly compelling – and this is why they are willing to lay down their lives in order to follow him. You no longer see your life as your own little self-fulfillment drama. That is how the world is living – it's all about them, it's all about how they feel today. Instead, if you're on the path of following Jesus, then you have come to know that Christ is the sure foundation of God's eternal kingdom. Your desire is to know Him. Your joy is to serve him, spread his gospel, and display his glory. This is the path that leads to eternal life. If you lose yourself for Jesus’ sake and the gospel’s, you will be saved. And if you don't, then you won't.
FREE GRACE AND COSTLY DISCIPLESHIP: FRIENDS!
Now it IS very important to understand something here. I've talked about this before, but I need to talk about it again. It is very important to understand that salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, apart from any works that we do, as is taught in a passage like Ephesians 2:8-9and salvation through denying yourself, taking up your cross and following Jesus, as is taught here in Mark 8:34-35 – these two aspects of truth are not in conflict with one another.
How do they relate? Well they relate this way: the same lively faith that receives Christ as the all-sufficient Savior, this same lively faith expresses itself in real, practical, loving obedience to Christ. And this real, practical, loving obedience to Christ is not optional. It is the necessary demonstration of faith in Jesus and it is the necessary God-appointed pathway to glory. If you make no progress on the path of obedience and of self-denial and of taking up your cross and of following Jesus – if you make no progress on this path – then you are not saved and you will not be saved.
Another way to say this is that the same divine grace that pardons the sinner also purifies the sinner and puts that sinner-turned-saint on the path of faithful discipleship.
So the reason I wanted to tell you this is because I don't want you to let the doctrine of salvation by grace alone – which we wholeheartedly affirm – I don't want you to let that inoculate you from the clear teaching of Jesus in Mark 8:34-38. Losing your life for Jesus’ sake and the gospel’s sake is the necessary pathway to final salvation and glory. And if you do not walk down that path, then you will not be saved, but instead you will be destroyed.
JESUS DOESN’T WANT YOU TO BE RUINED (v. 34-37)
Now continuing with the details of this passage, notice that Jesus doesn't want you to perish. He doesn't want you to forfeit your soul. He doesn't counsel you to deny yourself because he is against you. He doesn't counsel you to take up your cross and die because he wants to ruin you. Quite the opposite! He doesn't want you to be ruined. He doesn't want you to commit spiritual suicide. He wants you to follow him through suffering and through death to glory and resurrection.
So when Jesus says ‘deny yourself’ he means that you must renounce self-rule, self-determination, selfish ambition, vanity, and pride. But he does not mean for you to renounce self-interest. Jesus is totally appealing to your self-interest in this passage – specifically to your ultimate self-interest. It is not in your self-interest to have a decent 80-year run, and then go to hell forever. That is not in your self-interest! Jesus would have you lay down your life and side with him and fellowship with him and suffer with him these 80 years, and then enjoy him for all eternity.
Look at verses 36-37: “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?” Do the math. Assess the profit. Is it worth it to be cozy with the world for 50 or 75 or 100 years, and afterward to be ruined and shamed and condemned to unending misery? Does that sound like a profitable course of action? Is it reasonable to offer your soul to the fires of hell as the cost of enjoying some toys and trinkets and shiny silver coins and a higher standard of living and being liked by all the other people who are equally deluded and having a nice obituary written about you after you die? Is that reasonable?
Do you realize how valuable you are? Your one life is worth more than the whole world. The whole world has a shelf life. You don't. And the devil wants to distract you from this big time. The devil wants you to think and feel that the really valuable thing is your career, your car, your retirement fund, your clothes, your status, your favorability ratings, your skillset, your marketability. Those things are not the really valuable thing. You are! God has ultimate value, and you have great value – priceless value – because he created you in his image. He created you to be in fellowship with him. He created you to be in partnership with him. And even though you fell into rebellion and were hostile in mind and alienated from him because of your love affair with this adulterous and sinful world, he sent his Son to rescue you. Jesus paid the price of your rebellion and suffered the punishment that ought to have fallen on you. And now Jesus has come and says to you, I'll gladly take you back. I'll restore you in my image. I'll make you a part of my forever family. I'll give you a participation in my mission. Turn away from the suicidal path that you are on, and trust me and follow me home.
Will you really throw your life away?
Fools trade their soul for the vanishing riches and fading applause of this present world. But the wise lose everything in order to gain Christ. In the words of the 20th century martyr Jim Elliot: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
A SOBERING CHALLENGE
Now let me close with a bit of a challenge – and in a way set the stage for an even more challenging message next week as we look more closely at verse 38. But I want to close this message with a bit of a challenge to you personally.
You may have heard this past week about the former U. S. Olympic gymnastics coach John Geddert. He was the 2012 Olympic team coach – and they won the gold medal. That is pretty impressive. That is a great worldly accomplishment. Now as it turns out, he was a very abusive man and a very abusive coach. And on Thursday February 25, 2021, twenty-four criminal charges were filed against him. He was supposed to turn himself in on Thursday afternoon, but instead he took his own life. This is a vivid picture of what Jesus is trying to rescue you from.
Now you may say that Geddert’s case is an extreme example. But we are not surprised by the fact that so many people are chasing money, fame, sex and power. For those who belong to the world, all they can do is think in terms of the world and worldly advantages and worldly benefits.
And we are not surprised when we learn of corruption and scandal in high places. There is so much man-centered empire building going on everywhere – in government, in business, in sports, in entertainment, in religion. Take your pick.
I mention religion deliberately because some people think that there is a great divide between secularism and religion. Well, sometimes there is – but that's not where the real divide is. The real divide is between worldliness and godliness. And a lot of religion has a lot of worldliness in it. And there is a lot of worldliness in the visible church. And it would be easy to point fingers at the Roman Catholic Church for their big scandal, or to point fingers at the health, wealth, and prosperity preachers, or to point fingers at the liberal Protestants. But there is a lot of worldliness, empire-building, brand-promotion, and man-centeredness in the evangelical movement.
How many prominent evangelical leaders have been caught in a scandal over the past 15 years? These are writers and mentors and conference speakers. My point here is not to name these men or condemn them. That's not the point. The point is you and me. But the evident empire-building that is taking place among some within the evangelical movement is a cautionary tale for us all. Professing to be a Christian, associating with other professing Christians, being part of a church, doing ministry and even having some fun and success in ministry, or fancying yourself moral and religious, is no guarantee that you will avoid the self-absorbed path of destruction.
The only thing worse than attempting to gain the whole world is to stamp God's name and Jesus’ name on your attempt to gain the world. We follow the One who embraced the shame of the cross, and we're going to be all savvy and self-confident and triumphalistic?
Friends, religion is no safeguard from the destructive path. Jesus lambasted the religious Pharisees for their worldliness because they loved money (see Luke 16:14-15). Paul warned about those who see ‘godliness’ as a means of personal and financial gain (1 Timothy 6:5).
About 88% of our Representatives and Senators in Washington, DC identify as Christian. That is an absolute joke. Do you really think that these 88% are denying themselves, taking up their cross, and losing their lives and putting their lives on the line for Jesus’ sake and the gospel’s sake? Obviously not. But I'm not here to talk about them.
What about you? Are you trying to build your own little empire where you get to call the shots? Are you trying to build your own little platform that is all about you? Or are you learning to die, to abandon self-glory, to wash the feet of the saint, to lay down your life for Jesus’ sake – and not feel the need for any recognition or applause for doing so?
John the Baptist said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30)
And in the words of Rhea Miller:
“I'd rather have Jesus than silver or gold;
I'd rather be His than have riches untold;
I'd rather have Jesus than houses or lands.
I'd rather be led by His nail-pierced hand
Than to be the king of a vast domain
Or be held in sin’s dread sway.
I'd rather have Jesus than anything
This world affords today.”
Is that your testimony?
Father, this is a weighty passage. And I pray that your Holy Spirit would enable us to feel the weight rightly, and to respond to the weight rightly – trusting in Jesus, abandoning all for his sake. Father, I pray that you would open the eyes of everyone in this sanctuary, in the health-conscious room, on the internet – open their eyes to see the vanity of the world and to understand that the world is a dead end, and grant them the grace to see the beauty, the grace, and the eternal worth of our Lord Jesus Christ. In his name we pray, amen.
 From Graham Kendrick, “Knowing You (All In once held dear)” by Graham Kendrick.
 From “Grace Greater Than Our Sin” by Julia H. Johnston.
 From “I’d Rather Have Jesus” by Rhea F. Miller.
James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark (The Pillar New Testament Commentary). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.
William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark (The New International Commentary on the New Testament). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974.
Eckhard J. Schnabel, Mark (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries Vol. 2). Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.
James W. Voelz, Mark 1:1–8:26 (Concordia Commentary). St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2013.
Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.