Mark 8:34 says, “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.’”
As someone who has grown up in the church I have heard this phrase quoted at least dozens of times. “Deny yourself. Take up your cross and follow him.” If you pressed me for where that was in the Bible, I probably would have guessed one of Paul’s epistles. At the very least I have always thought of the phrase in terms of AFTER Jesus’ death and resurrection. We are to emulate Christ by taking up our cross and following him.
Jesus’ statement probably gets conflated with the saying, “It’s my cross to bear.” So we’re left with this vague notion that if we are to follow Jesus we must pick up our cross (whatever our cross is) and follow him. There’s probably a thorn in everyone’s side and they must endure that to follow Christ.
When I read the quote in context it hit me like a freight train! The original audience is hearing this without any reference to Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus called these people to pick up their cross and follow him BEFORE his death and resurrection. People were not expecting a Messiah to come and die, and especially not one who would die on a cross.
So, the question becomes, when Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” How did the original hearers understand this? The cross had no religious significance at the time. If a person was carrying a cross, they were convicted of a crime and heading to their torturous death. Jesus is basically saying, “Deny yourself, and follow me down death row to sit in your electric chair.”
In the context of Mark 8 Peter had just declared him the Messiah. Jesus tells them plainly of his forthcoming death and resurrection. Then to everyone he basically says, if you want to follow me you must follow me to death, to martyrdom. And that is exactly what many of his disciples did. They took up a literal cross and followed Christ even to their death.
Do you have that kind of faith in Christ? The kind of faith that will cause you to deny yourself and follow him, even if it means death for his sake? Do I? I pray the Holy Spirit would give me the courage if I am ever put in that situation. Let us pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world who daily live in this reality: choosing Christ means choosing death.