Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Mark 8:34
"If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9:23). Who was this one to make such a bold statement? He's identified in history as Jesus of Nazareth, but Nazareth was merely the place where He grew up. One day, Jesus put the question to His disciples, saying, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" (Matthew 16:13). Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16).
In both Marxist and revolutionary circles Jesus gained new prominence as one who had the courage to be different, as one who greatly changed the course of history. Jesus laid it on the line with His followers. He didn't sugarcoat the challenge. In fact, there were times when He actually made it difficult for men to follow. He believed that a nucleus of really dedicated men and women could accomplish far more than an army of Sunday warriors who tipped their hats to Him on Sunday morning and forgot Him for the rest of the week.
"If anyone would come after me," Jesus challenged, "he must deny himself" (Matthew 16:24). In spite of religious interest today, the fact that there is very little real denial of self is one of the indications that much of what we call Christianity today is superficial and lacking depth of meaning. "Deny yourself and take up your cross!" were the words that immediately brought to people's minds the picture of crucifixion and all that it stood for. The disciples who heard Jesus were aware of what crucifixion was, for on many occasions they had watched as a helpless victim was impaled on wooden timbers affixed at right angles.
The cross spoke of death – hideous, agonizing death, and the disciples immediately recognized that if they would really follow Jesus, then He had to be first as they put their own ambitions and interests aside. Does Jesus demand less today? Does He still insist that His kingdom be put above our own kingdoms of personal gain?
Wycliffe Bible translator Ken Jacobs tried to translate the word "deny" when he was working with the Chamula Indians of Mexico. He found, however, that in their culture and language, they had no concept of self-denial. Flagellation, or beating themselves--yes, they had a word for that; but to deny self was foreign to them. Finally, Ken translated the word, saying, "If anyone wants to follow me, let him put out of his own heart what his own heart wants to do, and come take up his cross daily and follow me." And that is what discipleship is all about.
One last thought: Following Jesus is totally voluntary. He doesn't coerce men. He doesn't bribe them with "a home in the sky in the sweet by-and-by." He merely invites them to "Come, follow me." He demands one thing, though. He insists on having first place.
Contemporary Christianity seems to be afflicted with AMYF blight: "After me, you're first!" Why not be a Christian? It might even be good for business. But the message of the cross hasn't changed with the passing of time. Carved in ivory or gilded with twenty-four-karat gold, it still speaks of personal death so that Christ may live. Even nature itself teaches us that death must precede life. The seed dies and is buried in the cold earth before new life sprouts within. Today, Jesus asks no less. "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Mark 8:34). That is the beginning of life that knows no end.
Resource reading: Matthew 10:32-42