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Jesus' Instructions on Discipleship: Who Was a Disciple? (Mark 8:34-38)

Analysis and Commentary

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Jesus Teaches his Apostles

Jesus Teaches his Apostles

    34 And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. 35 For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.
    36 For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? 37 Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? 38 Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.
    Compare: Matthew 16:21-28; Luke 9:22-27

What is a Disciple for Jesus?

After Jesus’ first prediction of his passion, he describes the sort of life he expects his followers to lead in his absence — although at this point he is speaking to many more people than his twelve disciples, so it is unlikely that most of the listeners could be aware of what he means by the phrase “come after me.”

Sometimes these verses are treated as exhortations to martyrdom, and there is no question that they have been used in such a manner; yet at the same time there is also something more subtle going on here. If, as some scholars still believe, Mark was written in Rome, then the author might have had first-hand experience with the persecution of Christians under Emperor Nero following the great fire in 64 CE. Even outside of Rome, though, Christians who knew that other Christians were being persecuted would have experienced no small amount of fear and concern.

In such a context, taking up one’s cross would have resonated very strongly with the local Christian population — and it would not have been regarded as entirely metaphorical. It would have instead reflected both the current realities facing Christians as well as common apocalyptic expectations that those who suffer for the sake of the gospel will be rewarded in heaven.

The basic idea Jesus is addressing here is that his message and the messages promoted by others in the world will be in conflict — we are returning, I think, to his earlier comments about being wary of the “leaven” of the Pharisees and Herod. When people actually heed his message and do as he says, then they will inevitably have to deny “themselves” — deny material desires, deny ego, deny pride, etc. In place of all that, they must “take up their cross” (assume the burdens of one who is separate from the rest of the world) and act like Jesus. Sometimes, that means suffering and martyrdom.

It’s curious that he would use the image of taking up one’s cross here — readers know that he would be crucified, so for them this would appear normal. He, however, would not likely be able to say that he would be executed by crucifixion as opposed to some other means. Thus it seems likely that this passage was a creation of the gospel author rather than anything like a verbatim report of someone’s actual words.

The image of taking up a “cross” to follow Jesus would have made some sense in the early Christian communities, but it wouldn’t have made any sense to any listening to Jesus here. The Roman method of execution by crucifying people was certainly well known, but there would have been no reason to associate it with Jesus, much less regard it as a symbol of the path a Christian must follow.

The same is true of Jesus’ referencing the gospel: “...whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s...” The concept of a “gospel” existed long before Jesus, but in secular contexts — for example, births or victories. The idea of a “gospel” in this context was a creation of later Christians and would have been foreign to anyone listening to Jesus at the time.

For Mark’s audience, however, it would have had immediate impact — remember that the text is identified at the very beginning as a “gospel,” so now we find Jesus recommending that his followers be willing to give up their lives for the sake of the text they are listening to.

It’s worth noting that verse 38 seems to set up a distinction between Jesus and the Son of man: whoever is ashamed of Jesus, the “Son of man” will be ashamed of them. If Jesus really thought of himself as the Son of man, this is an unusually awkward way of phrasing things.

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