Course: 52 Major Stories of the Bible
After probably two years of public ministry, Jesus was ready to ask his disciples the central question, and that is, "Who do you think that I am?" The answer in Mark 8 starting at verse 27 has come to be known as "Peter's Confession" because Peter confesses, he answers the question, most likely answering for all of the disciples. So Mark 8 starting at verse 27 we read, "And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi [probably up north at the base of Mt. Hermon]. And on the way he asked his disciples, 'Who do people say that I am?' And they told him, 'John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.' And he asked them, 'But who do you say that I am?' Peter answered him, 'You are the Christ.' And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him." After two years of watching Jesus do miracles and hearing Jesus preach, Peter was willing to confess, he was willing to admit, that Jesus was the Christ, that he was the Messiah. Yet it becomes very quickly apparent that Peter didn't even understand his own confession. See, Peter was a Jew and as a Jew he would have expected the Messiah to be a victorious general. Peter would have expected the disciples to live in God's kingdom as earthly rulers. And instead Jesus continues by telling them that he is going to die. Starting at verse 31, "And [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man [Jesus] 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. And he said this plainly. [In other words, it wasn't in parables or metaphors. He just flat out said it.] And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. [It is a very strong word, to 'castigate him'] But turning and seeing his disciples, [Jesus] rebuked Peter and said, 'Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.'" See, not only does what Jesus say contradict all of Peter's expectations about the Christ, but what Jesus says has significant repercussions in terms of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. And that's what Jesus is going to continue to talk about in the next paragraph. He will talk about what it really means to be a disciple, to live as a disciple in the kingdom of God.
Thesis statement (v 34)
“Come after me...follow me”
The thesis statement for the whole next paragraph is verse 34 and it's the key verse for this morning's message. "And he called to him the crowd with his disciples and said to them, 'If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." Come after me and follow me. Jesus thinks in terms of discipleship. He thinks in terms of people following him. Sometimes the emphasis is on becoming a disciple. When Jesus is talking about becoming a disciple he will say things like, "Count the cost," "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back again is fit for the kingdom of God." Sometimes Jesus talks about being or living as a disciple of Jesus Christ. And so you'll say, "That you must hunger and thirst for God's righteousness." At other times he will talk about dying as a disciple. So in Matthew 24 Jesus says, "It is he who perseveres to the end who will be saved." But the important thing to note is that Jesus thinks in terms of discipleship, becoming a disciple, living as a disciple and dying as a disciple. Paul thinks exactly the same way. He uses different terms, but he is thinking of the same things. So when Paul starts talking about "justification by faith," when he starts saying that we are justified, that we are made right with God, not by what we do, because of what God has done for us and our faith in what Christ did on the cross; when he starts talking about justification by faith he's talking about what it is to become a disciple.
Yet there are other passages like Romans 12, starting at verse 1, "I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God [because of what God has done for you in his mercy] 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." He is talking about living as a disciple. In different terms, Paul talks about dying as a disciple: the necessity of persevering, the necessity of living out all your life as a disciple. One of the strongest passages in Colossians 1:21-22, "And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he [God] has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him." We want that, do we not? We want to be holy and blameless before God when he returns again. We like knowing that we have been reconciled, but we tend to stop at verse 22. But it continues, "if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard." These are all different ways that Paul is repeating what Jesus is interested in, which is that you and I be disciples of Jesus Christ, that we become disciples by faith through God's mercy and grace poor in spirit, that we live as disciples and we persevere and we die as disciples. That is how Jesus thinks about us.
Much of the American church has adopted terminology and a way of thinking that is foreign to the Bible, Jesus and Paul. I say the American church because I know it is true, and I cannot imagine anyone in a third world country thinking this. Americans have adopted a terminology, sometimes unconsciously, as a result our skewed understanding of what it is to be a Christian. For example, we often talk about making a profession of faith. We often talk about raising our hand. I know of a church where their invitation is, "Do you believe?" We talk about professions of faith, raising our hands, saying the sinner's prayer, of joining the church, but the problem is that we think that is all there is, that God does not necessarily require anything else. Yes, these are all ways in which we can talk about becoming a disciple, but there is more to discipleship than becoming a disciple, as important as that is. There is being a disciple, there is living as a disciple, there is dying as a disciple. We must learn to speak and to think in biblical categories, not in theologically erroneous categories. Jesus thinks in terms of discipleship. If you want to come after me, if you want to follow me: becoming, being and dying a disciple of Jesus Christ.
"If you would come after me you must deny yourself." Now, what does that mean? Well it doesn't mean that we are to deny ourselves things in general. This is not a call for asceticism. This is not Lent stuff where some people give up something for God. That is not what this verse is talking about. To deny myself means that I say "No" to my very self. To deny myself means that I say, "I will not live for myself. I will not pursue my goals, my ambitions, my desires." To deny myself is to say, "I am not on the throne of my life. It is not all about me." Or conversely, to deny myself means saying "Yes" to God, saying I will not live for myself but I will live for God and pursue his goals, his ambitions, his desires. It is why we pray in the Lord's Prayer, "May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." It is why we find ourselves agreeing with Jesus in Gethsemane, "Not my will, but yours be done." To deny yourself is to say "No" to the very core of your being and to replace it with saying "Yes" to God. We probably all have stories along these lines. I had to make this choice four or five years ago in my own life. I was teaching at a seminary on the east coast and I very clearly heard God say, "Bill, are you willing to give up all of your goals, all of your ambitions, and all of your desires for me?" And I thought that it was an odd question to ask a seminary professor because the things that I was being asked to give up were all good things. But it was as clear as a bell asked, "Will you give up programming computers?" I said, "But God, I am programming computers so that people can learn Greek, the language of your Word. Why would you want me to give that up?" And the answer was, "That's none of your business. Will you give it up?" He said, "Will you give up writing books?" I said, "Why would you want me to do that? I'm writing books about you so that people can understand you." "It's none of your business, Bill. Will you give it up? Bill, will you give up your website project?" "But God, I'm trying to create an entire online seminary that we can give away to the world for free. Why would you want me to give that up?" And God said, "It's none of your business. Will you give it up?" It was a hard struggle because these are things that I love to do, things that were important to me personally and, I thought, important to the cause of God's kingdom. And after an extended struggle with him, I said, "Okay. Fine. Whatever. Whatever." And it's really amazing because it wasn't that I wasn't supposed to be doing these things, he wanted to know if I would give them up. And if I would say, "Whatever my desires and goals and ambitions are, it's your goals, and your ambitions and your desires that are most important to me." So I said, "Okay. Whatever." God has given back to me some of these things, and it has been very interesting. We are about 14 months away from having an entire free, first-class seminary online for the entire world, so that you can get a complete seminary-level education anywhere in the world for free. Some of the things were not given back. Instead, I was given some things I was not expecting, like the message that I was supposed to leave seminary and go be a preacher somewhere. It was and continues to be a difficult struggle. Weekly, sometimes daily, I have to reassert that I will give up my goals, my desires, my ambitions, whether I understand them or not if God so asks me to do so. And the question is, will you deny yourself? What would that look like in your life? I hesitate to use examples about myself, but what would it look like in your life? What would it look like to live a life that is fully dependent upon Jesus, one in which you are pursuing his goals, his ambitions, and his desires?
"Take up your cross"
If you want to come after me, Jesus says, if you want to be one of my disciples, you must deny yourself and then you must take up your cross. The parallel passage in Luke 9:23 helps us by adding, "we must take up our cross daily." The cross was a well-known instrument of execution and death. Jesus had just said that he was going to die and evidently so must his disciples. What does it mean to take up the cross? It means that you and I must daily live out the fact that you and I do not live for ourselves. To take up the cross means that you and I will daily live out the fact that I am no longer central in my life. It means that you and I, in fact, have died to ourselves and that we live to God. That's was Galatians 2:20 is all about: "I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me." This is how we follow Jesus. You must deny yourself, take up your cross and in this manner, follow me. We follow him by making a decision, a decision that is always followed by action. It is not enough to talk the talk. It is not enough to say, "Well, I've denied myself." It is not enough to say, "Well, I'm a Christian." Disciples must walk the walk. That is what taking up the cross is all about. The Great Commission has two parts. It is to make disciples, baptizing them (that is evangelism), but it is to make disciples by teaching them to obey absolutely everything that they have been taught (that is discipleship). If we are going to be a Great Commission-driven church then we must evangelize and we must disciple, not just talk the talk but walk the walk.
Cost of Discipleship
Jesus continues in Mark 8, and in verse 35 he spells out the rationale behind verse 34. He says, "For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it." In other words, He is saying the same thing but with different terms. If you attempt to save your life, in other words, if you refuse to deny yourself, then you will lose your life and will end up in hell. But if you lose your life for the sake of the gospel, if you do deny yourself then you will, in fact, save your life (God will save your life) and you will end up in heaven. In verses 36 and 37 Jesus emphasizes that there is nothing more important than your life. "For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life?" The answer is nothing, obviously. Then we get to verse 38 where Jesus is going to close by spelling out the results of living a self-centered, non-denying life, as it were. Jesus says, "For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation…" In this context of a pack of sinners, how can anybody be ashamed of Jesus? But if we are "…of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels." Son of Man is Jesus' favorite name for himself. It comes out of a prophecy in Daniel. The Son of Man is one who comes to judge. So the context of verse 38 is our final judgment. To be ashamed of someone means that we do not want to be connected with him, right? We want to distance ourselves from them. We want to disassociate ourselves with them. So in this context of Mark 8, what does it mean to be ashamed of Jesus? It means that you and I would live in such way that we distance ourselves from him. And how we do that? How do we distance ourselves from him? How do we live a life that is ashamed of Jesus? We live it for ourselves. We refuse to deny ourselves. We keep ourselves on the throne of our lives. And if we do that, we are living a life of shame of Jesus. What does it mean then for the Son of Man to be ashamed of you and me? It means he will distance himself from us at our final judgment. And we end up in hell when the Judge distances himself from us at final judgement. It is absolutely critical that we not water down what it means to have the judge of the universe ashamed of us. When we stand before the throne of judgment, Jesus is not going to ask us if we raised our hand. It is not in the Bible anywhere. He is not going to ask us if we said the sinner's prayer. That is not anywhere in the Bible. He is not going to ask us if we made a profession of faith. He is going to ask, "Were you proud of me? Did you live a life for me or were you ashamed of me?" When the Bible talks about judgment, do you know what the judgment is based on? This is always one of those theological doctrines that can catch people. What is your judgment and my judgment based on? It is all over the Bible, both New and Old Testament. It is based on our works. Are you aware of that? Not in the sense that we earn salvation, because of course that is foolishness and heresy. You cannot earn your salvation. I cannot earn my salvation. It is a gift given to me by the mercy and grace of God through Jesus Christ that is made real in my life when I confess my sins and I believe that Jesus died on the cross as a penalty for my sin. That is what saves me. I am not saved by works. Do not leave this building thinking that. In conversion, when I do that by the power of God, he also changes me. He makes me into a new creature. He gives me new birth and I am called as a disciple of Jesus Christ to live out that changed life so much so that God looks at the changed life as the basis of our judgment.
This is why our statement of faith says, "Sanctification is the necessary and certain fruit of salvation, yet not meritorious; it is God alone who saves. Through the work of the Spirit, saints [you and me that are disciples] are called and enabled to live lives of holiness; 'in' but not 'of' the world, fully dedicated disciples of Jesus Christ, persevering to the end." Let me just give you a couple of passages. There are many we can look at, and you may want to take time to reflect over them. One of them is Revelation 20. This is the throne room scene, the final judgment, and in Revelation 20 starting in verse 12 we read John's words, "And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done." Romans 2 starting at verse 6, "[God] will render [will pass judgment] to each one according to his 'profession of faith' [it's not what it says] He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress…" If you want a sobering passage, turn to Matthew 25.
It is the scene of the final judgment, starting at verse 31, "When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. [That's the final judgment] Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.'" It sounds like Ethiopia. If you would be a disciple of Jesus Christ you must deny yourself and then daily take up your cross and live out the fact that you have died to yourself and that you live to God. Because when he changed us, that same power that made me who was dead into Bill Mounce who is now alive in Christ is the same power that is in me and he has changed me and that change will have an affect in my life.
I had a great opportunity once to pick up John Piper from the airport. He had come to the seminary to speak, one of the only times we could have a quiet conversation, and I said to him, "John, you are the most driven person I've ever known in my life. I thought I was driven but I'm lazy compared to you. What drives you? What pushes you so hard?" And quite quickly he said, "I am convinced that our churches are full of people going to hell." I thought that he was a little harsh, but as we talked and I came to understand what he was talking about, I think he is absolutely right. When the gospel is not taught in its fullness, when we are not taught about becoming, being and dying as a disciple; when Jesus no longer says, "Come and follow me," then people simply don't know what God requires of them. They have raised their hand and joined a church, but then gone out and lived any way they want still thinking they are on their way to heaven. That is not what Jesus says, is it? I think that every preacher should have to stand by the seat of judgment and watch the people in his church go past the judge. I think that he ought to spend his entire life preaching with that image in his mind, because I cannot imagine anything more painful then standing and watching you walk past judgment and have one of you be condemned as a goat to live forever in hell. I cannot imaging having you turn and look at me and say, "But I did everything you asked." I will always preach the full gospel and the guilt of your blood is not on my hands. Does that sound strong? I think that Piper is right. I think churches are full of people going to hell because they have not been taught the gospel. Do you want to be Jesus' disciple? Remember, only disciples are in heaven. Then you must become a disciple. You must confess your sin, your separateness from God. You must make that wonderful profession of faith that on the cross Christ died for your sins and make the commitment to him and God's power will come in and change you and then you must live as a disciple, to daily deny yourself and to daily take up your cross and to live as one who has been crucified to himself or herself and that same power of God that took what was dead and made alive is at work in you to transform your life by the renewing of your mind so that you, your life, your body, everything you are is a sacrifice acceptable to him. I urge you; give yourself wholly to him. Put out your hands and say, "Whatever. I give myself to you," because that is the only true freedom, that is the only true joy that you will ever know in this life. Psalm 16:11: "You [God] make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore." The only place to find the pleasures and the joy that we crave deep in our soul is in wild abandonment to God as our Lord and as our Savior.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).
- I believe this is one of the most important set of reflection questions I will ever hand out. Please be sure to think through the issues raised by the biblical passage. What terminology do you use to describe the process of becoming, being, and dying as a Christian? Are they biblical? Are they accurate?
- How can we help ourselves and others think through the fact that as Christians and believers we are primarily “disciples,” “follower”?
- What are the hardest things in your life to deny?
- What does it look like to “take up your cross”? Do you think we really do this?
- Discipleship is a matter of life and death (Mark 8:36-37). Why do you think we tend to gamble with our life by sloughing off on our discipleship?
- I am sure that in all of us there are unbiblical notions floating around, especially when it relates to this issue of discipleship and salvation. How can we become sensitive to this?
- How can this type of passage lead you to despair? How will you prevent that?