What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ? What are fundamental characteristics of the Christian?
I am not asking the all-important question, how does one become a Christian? The answer to that question is clear: Repent of your sin and embrace the forgiveness secured through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But when a person does this—when they experience the new birth of which repentance and faith is evidence—something fundamental changes in their life. A renewed heart produces a new mind—the kind of mind Jesus describes in the text before us.
You will recall that, when Jesus revealed to his disciples his imminent rejection, suffering, and death at the hands of the religious leaders, Peter rebuked him. A suffering, murdered and therefore defeated Messiah? It made no sense! God forbid! May it never be! But of course, Peter was very wrong.
Peter was merely expressing the popular mindset among those who were Jewish: Messiah would come to conquer and triumph over wrongdoers. Messiah was the promised superhero. He would set things right. He would sort out their enemies. He would take care of the bad guys. “Even so, come, Messiah!” was their prayer.
But Jesus would have none of it. In fact, Peter’s rebuke was met with rebuke. Jesus issued perhaps the strongest of rebukes he ever uttered when he said to Peter, and by extension the other disciples, “Get behind me Satan!” These were strong words. Jesus characterised Peter’s response as satanic. Why? After all, what was wrong with wanting to protect the one you loved from suffering? Apparently, much!
By telling Peter, “Get behind me,” our Lord was reissuing his initial command, “Follow me” (1:16–17). You see, in rebuking Jesus, Peter assumed the position of teacher. He usurped Jesus as leader and Lord. He needed to get in his proper place. His thinking was skewed. Like the evil one, he assumed that he knew better than God. He needed this rebuke to remind him of his place. This will not be the last time he would need to hear this (see John 21:19, 22).
Jesus explained that Peter was not setting his mind on the things of God, but the things of men.
The words translated “setting your mind on” mean to be mentally disposed in a certain direction. Whereas Jesus was mentally disposed towards doing the will of the Father, Peter and the disciples were mentally disposed towards what their culture called for. The Jewish culture, at best, had a partially biblical expectation of Messiah. That is, they viewed him as coming to set things right and, of course, they assumed that they were on the side of right. They should have meditated upon Malachi 3:1–5.
Malachi foresaw the day when Messiah (“my messenger”) would “come to his temple.” But rather than this being good news for Israel, it was, in fact, a prophecy of judgement. Somehow, they missed the memo. The problem was pretty simple, and it was the age old one that arose in Eden: self-righteousness. Interestingly, in the garden, Adam should have exercised dominion over the serpent and told it to get behind him. Here, Jesus, the last Adam, who is King of all, exercised dominion when he commanded Peter to get behind him.
Peter, and most of Israel, assumed that their biggest enemy was Rome and its oppressive rule. In fact, their biggest problem was sin and its oppressive reign. They had a perverse sense of “me and Jesus against the world,” when they should have been mentally disposed towards Jesus and the Father against the sinful unfaithfulness Israel. Israel needed a Saviour who would deliver them from their sins before he would deliver them from merely human oppression. This perspective is what undergirds this whole passage.
Like Satan, Peter was not being faithful to all the words of God. Satan put doubt into Adam and Eve concerning the reliability of God’s words (Genesis 3:1ff), and even in the wilderness temptation he tried to twist God’s word to cause Jesus to sin (Matthew 4:1–11).
Yes, the Scriptures promised a conquering Messiah. The word of God revealed that Messiah would establish and rule over a glorious kingdom. But this was not all that the word had to say about Messiah. Passages such as Isaiah 53 are very transparent that Messiah, God’s servant Son, would first suffer and die for the transgressions of others. And those “others” were, contextually, very much connected to Israel!
Peter, the other disciples, the crowd, and the entire culture needed a change of mind. They needed the mind of Christ. And so do you and I.
In this study, we will consider 8:34–9:1 with a view to understanding and embracing the mind of Christ. There are at least three characteristics of the mind of Christ as revealed in these verses.
A Willingness to Suffer Humiliation
Following the rebuke, Jesus set about to correct their thinking: “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’” (v. 34). He would not rebuke and then leave them. Instead, he continued to instruct them. There is a legitimate place for rebuke, but this should lead to correction by instruction. We need to remember that patience is a virtue (and a fruit of the Spirit). Jesus continued to patiently teach those who saw, and yet did not see.
But note that he did not limit his instruction to the Twelve: He also summoned “the crowd.” This is significant.
We learn from this that the terms of discipleship (the requirements for following Jesus) are the same for every Christian. There are not two kinds of Christians. We should reject the teaching that makes a distinction between “believers” and “disciples.” If you are a believer in Jesus Christ (that is, if you are a Christian) then you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. If you have Jesus as your Saviour, you have him as your Lord. If you don’t have him as your Lord, then neither do you have him as your Saviour. Do not be deceived. As the rest of this passage will highlight, this is a matter of eternal importance.
In this verse Jesus identifies the first characteristic of Christians: They are willing to embrace humiliation for his sake. I suppose we could use the word “humility,” but what Jesus demands (as we will see in his threefold description is humiliation)—the willingness to be disregarded by the world.
These three characteristics of the mindset of those who belong to him are not “culture.” They are not time-bound. They remain characteristic of every true convert to the Lord Jesus Christ. They constitute the mind of Christ. Again, to have the mind of Christ is to have a mindset for suffering. For this to happen, we need to be willing to suffer humiliation.
Of course, this is, as they say, the rub. Who wants to suffer? I certainly don’t. In fact, I think it accurate that most of us live our lives in such a way to avoid suffering. At a certain level, this is quite understandable and legitimate. There may be a problem in the life of someone who wantsto suffer!
The early church seems to have had an unhealthy obsession with martyrdom. Even Luther was somewhat disappointed that he was not the first martyr of the Reformation. This is strange. Nevertheless, suffering is a part of following Jesus. We must make up our minds when it comes to following Jesus. And once we do, we pretty much have to make up our minds daily, choosing the vulnerability of suffering.
Jesus here identifies three things that are involved in this humiliation of suffering.
First, anyone who would “come after” him would need to “deny himself.” What does that mean?
The word translated “deny” means to deny utterly—that is, to disown or abstain. It connotes forgetting oneself and losing sight of oneself and one’s own interests.Those who follow Jesus are characterised by the willing abandonment of self-promotion. They instead promote his agenda.This is not self-loathing but the willing refusal of self-promotion for a greater good. Like Jesus.
No one had a healthier self-image than Jesus. That is one reason he lived so boldly and so counterculturally. This was manifested in many ways at many times—most recently when he spoke plainly about his imminent suffering (v. 32). He was secure in his identity. And his identity was inseparable from his mission. Paul wrote about this in Philippians 2:5–7ff: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.”
Jesus had the right to be worshipped and to be treated as the incomprehensible God. However, because he desired his Father’s glory, he denied himself this prerogative. This is the characteristic of every follower of Jesus. If we are truly his followers, we will be characterised by a rejection of self-promotion and an embracing of self-abandonment for the higher purpose of his glory—even to the point of suffering. What does this look like?
It means that we will weigh our decisions in the light of the weightiness of God rather than in the light of what makes us comfortable. It looks like putting God’s interests above our own, which means that we will often be called upon to put the interests of others above our own (see John 12:27–33; John 17:1–5). It will mean giving our time and treasures to serve others. It will mean a commitment to not being controlled by the desire for comfort but rather by the desire for conformity to Christ. It will mean that we will resist our natural desire for justice.
If we understand this, we may not be consumed with taking selfies! A recent Samsung Mobile advert boasted in the device’s ability to take amazing selfies.Imagine thirty years ago taking a snapshot of yourself, having hundreds of posters printed, and then posting them all over your neighbourhood. We would call that narcissism. Today, we call that social networking!
Self-denial looks like a local church being willing to suffer misunderstanding by exercising discipline as it holds church members accountable for living like Christians. Self-denial looks like a local church being willing to suffer scorn because of its faithful adherence to the word of God. Stories are told of prisoners of war who, for the good of the collective, were willing to assume blame for something they did not do, even to the point of death. This brings us to the next demand of humiliation.
If the call to deny self means abandoning self-promotion, then the call to take up his cross means a commitment to the abandonment of self-preservation. Jesus said that he was going to be “killed.” This shocked and horrified the disciples. But the mention of “cross” would have put them over the edge.
Jesus said that those who follow him must not only be committed to self-denial but must also be committed to “take up his cross and follow me.” How would the disciples have heard this? How should we?
This was the first time that Jesus used the word “cross.” He had said earlier that he must be killed. He would repeat that two more times (9:30–32; 10:32–34). Here, he suggests what that death would look like. And the implication was awful.
Crucifixion was a cruel method of execution, invented by the Assyrians and perfected by the Romans. Edwards writes,
An image of extreme repugnance, the cross was an instrument of cruelty, pain, dehumanization, and shame. The cross symbolized hated Roman oppression and was reserved for the lowest social classes. It was the most visible and omnipresent aspect of Rome’s terror apparatus, designed especially to punish criminals and quash slave rebellions.
To be crucified was to suffer the most humiliating of deaths. It was so excruciating and humiliating that Roman law prohibited Roman citizens from dying this way. This is why Paul was beheaded (he was a Roman citizen) while Peter was crucified (he was not a Roman citizen). Jesus was connecting his death with crucifixion. This was shocking beyond words. How in the world could Messiah possibly suffer such an ignoble death? Preposterous! And yet he would. Jesus would become obedient to death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8).
Jesus was telling the disciples that his enemies would do to them what they would do to him. To follow Jesus implies a willingness to be executed. And it means embracing shameful execution. Do we have any grasp of this? If we will follow Jesus, we must grasp it. In fact, we must joyfullyembrace it. If we will follow Jesus, we must embrace “a total revolution of outlook, a major readjustment of values and so of priorities”(Grogan).
Jesus’ would-be disciples could expect something similar. In fact, they could be expected to “take up” their cross. He expected them to commit to crucifixion. What did this mean for them? What does it mean for you and I?
The disciples would have interpreted this literally. Since they interpreted Jesus’ being killed literally, we can assume they interpreted this matter of their taking up their cross literally.
In those days, as we will see later, those condemned to die by crucifixion literally “took up” their cross. They literally shouldered the instrument of their death. This was another part of the humiliation. All who observed the condemned heading to the place of crucifixion, indicated by a cross on their back, would have no doubt about how awful this person must be. They would have no doubt about the horrific crimes he must have committed. The disciples and the crowd would have heard these words and concluded that, if they were to truly and fully follow Jesus, they would suffer the same death he did. They heard Jesus saying, “If you will follow me—if you accept me as Messiah—then forget about preserving your life. Rather, be prepared to die—literally.” That doesn’t sound much like “your best life now,” does it?
I’m afraid that we have so enculturated the gospel of Jesus Christ that we who live in the West (and heavily Western-influenced countries) have no category for such radical teaching. Yet when you read the book of Acts, and subsequent church history, you will soon discover that Christians literally laid down their lives for Jesus Christ and the gospel. They died for Christ. And millions of Christians today face the same threat. We need to face up to the very real cost that many Christians face for their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ—and the cost that we might face one day.
I imagine that this forthright warning from Jesus would have discouraged many from following him. But we must not lose sight that the “purpose of Mark’s Gospel is to help people to be clear about the kind of discipleship to which Jesus calls them, and to enable them to respond positively to the call” (English). Remember Mark’s original audience: Christians suffering under the crucifying Romans. Further, if Peter was assisting Mark as he wrote, no doubt this section would have reminded him of his conversation with Jesus by Galilee (John 21:19–22). In other words, this was not merely metaphorical or theoretical. No, it was practically a reality.
As we will see, if one did not positively respond, it was clearly because they failed to do the math.
What does this mean for you and me? It certainly means that we should be prepared to die for Jesus Christ and the gospel. But it also teaches us that, when it comes to following Jesus, “the cross signifies a total claim on the disciple’s allegiance and the total relinquishment of his resources to Jesus” (Edwards). In other words, when we follow the Lord Jesus, we drive a stake through our commitment to self-preservation. If we choose self-preservation, we won’t preserve our life. If we forego self-preservation, we will preserve our life. Or better yet, God will.
This passage contains a truth that we are daily to reckon upon. Yes, we are crucified with Christ (Romans 6; Galatians 2:20) but that reality reinforces our obligation revealed here: We are obligated to daily live as though on death row for Jesus’ sake. Rather than doing all we can to avoid suffering, we are to face the world as dead men.Dead men are not self-protective. Dead women are not self-defensive. Dead men and women are not worried about the future. Dead men and women are not obsessed with food and drink and sex.
A Crucifying “Church”
We tend to think of awful Rome when we think of persecution of the early church. Though it is true that, some thirty years after the commencement of the church, Rome under Nero (and later under other despots) would terribly persecute Christians, in her first thirty years it was the Jews who most terribly mistreated the church. The first martyr (Stephen), was put to death by those who thought they were serving Yahweh (Acts 7). And a man who was a Hebrew of Hebrews, a zealous Pharisee, and “blameless” according to the law approved of his execution (Acts 8:1; Philippians 3:5–6). Ironically, it was Rome who often protected Christians from the Jews!
Throughout history, the church’s most severe enemies have arisen from within Christendom. The Roman Catholic Church tortured and killed those faithful to the gospel during Luther’s time. Persecution against faithful Christians often arose from religious half-brothers. Sometimes taking up our cross means suffering at the hands of those who think they are serving the triune God. Sometimes taking up our cross means being “executed” by fellow church members. Sometimes, within the local church, you die a thousand deaths for the sake of the gospel. So be it. We are to embrace this cross. Rather than compromising, we are called to be crucified.
Faithful proclamation of the full gospel carries severe implications—as in this passage. Charles Simeon faithfully served the people of his church only to be rejected unjustly by them. Jonathan Edwards experienced the same mistreatment because of his faithfulness to biblical ecclesiology, including the hard thing of church discipline. Many others have shared this experience, and many more will yet experience it.
Rather than retreating through silence and denial in order to preserve ourselves, we must take up our cross and follow Jesus to the place of humiliation. As we will see, and as I trust we already know, humiliation is the path to honour.
The last demand that Jesus utters is that those who will “come after” him must “follow” him. That seems like a repetitive statement but I don’t think that it is. Rather, Jesus was emphasising that all the above constitutes what it means to truly be his disciple. Since he was characterised by self-denial, and since he was characterised by self-surrender, so those who want his benefits must follow him in such self-surrender. In other words, those who will follow Jesus must abandon their right to self-determination. Jesus determines their desires, their direction, and their devotion.
The disciple of Jesus Christ (the born-again Christian) is characterised by submission to Jesus Christ the Lord. We surrender ourselves to serve him. And how do we do that? Paul helps us when he exhorts,
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present 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, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.
We can summarise all we have said by acknowledging that the disciple is characterised by suffering, sacrifice, and serving. Note that I have not said that the disciple should becharacterised by these things, but that he ischaracterised by them. If this does not describe you, it is because you are not a disciple of Jesus Christ. Jesus said that, not me!
A Commitment to an Ongoing Calculation
The second element in true discipleship is an ongoing commitment to an ongoing calculation.
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, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
After issuing the demands of discipleship, Jesus was aware that it had been a hard saying. His words were no easier to hear then than they are today. He did not withhold any of the hard realities that accompany following him. He did not minimise the cost of discipleship. But it is precisely here where the cost is essential to consider. And as we calculate the cost of following Jesus against the cost of not following him, the decision becomes what we call a “no-brainer.” Sadly, some hear the gospel and respond like they don’t have a brain! Rather, they respond as those who do not have the mind of Christ.
In a series of four statements (two in the form of rhetorical questions), each beginning with the conjunction “for,” Jesus instructs his would-be disciples to do the math. The four statements all make the same point: “The apparently gloomy news of the cross is actually the way to total freedom and fulfillment”(English). Therefore, only a fool would not follow Jesus.
Jesus used commercial language to appeal to their minds. He was saying, “Think!” He wanted them to grasp the invaluable worth of the human soul—of their own soul. As Edwards comments, “It takes the word of Jesus to teach the infinite worth of the human soul, and he alone is sufficient to preserve it.”Oh, that we would grasp this! Oh, that we would properly calculate the cost of not following Jesus and the profit of following him!
Yes, to follow Jesus is to embrace suffering (see Philippians 1:29; Colossians 1:24). But it is such a small price to pay for such an immeasurably rich dividend: eternal life—that is, to be reconciled to God and to enjoy forever being in relationship with God and therefore forever growing in our knowledge of him (John 17:3). Only a fool would turn down such an offer.
The infinite worth of our soul should sober us to pay the meagre price of this transaction. When you look into the face of a lifeless soon-to-be eighteen old young lady, that experience has a sobering ability to produce a new perspective on life. Quickly there is a minimising of your financial and relational and career burdens. The power of your enemies to hurt you immediately becomes impotent.
When you weigh up the value of a human life, and the tragedy of its loss, the words, “What shall it profit a man if he gains the world and loses his own soul?” become very significant. You and I are going to die. Therefore, we should decide, “Take the world but give me Jesus.”
The Great Exchange
Jesus taught that the human life is of immeasurable worth. As the psalmist wrote, “Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice” (Psalm 49:7–8). But though no man can pay sufficient price to redeem another human being back to God, the God-Man can—and did!
I said earlier that the price paid by us to enjoy the treasure of having Jesus as our Saviour is small. And it is. But the price he paid was infinitely great—not because we are worthy, but because he is.
The Lord Jesus died on the cross in our place. He suffered in our place so that our sufferings would be limited to this life. He rose to secure that payment. This was the great exchange, the transcendent transaction. Jesus took our sin and gave us his righteousness. And he sealed the deal by his resurrection from the dead. Hallelujah, what a Saviour!
Non-Christian, accept the free gift today. Repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Christian, keep this gospel before you and you will share in the mind of Christ, for your eternal welfare, to the glory of God.