Throughout the majority of the disciples’ time with Jesus, they failed to recognize or understand who Jesus was or what He was doing. Even when they acknowledged Him as Messiah, their understanding of what “Messiah” was supposed to be was vastly different from Jesus in reality.
Jesus repeatedly revealed His purposes and His path as the way of the cross, and He called the disciples to walk the way of the cross with Him.
For example, in Mark 8:34-37, Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”
Yet, the disciples still didn’t understand.
Do we truly understand the way of the cross? Or have we, like His disciples, imposed our own understanding and desires on what Jesus is doing in our lives?
What does Jesus mean by “deny themselves”?
To understand His meaning, we must go all the way back to Genesis. In Genesis 3, Satan’s enticement to Eve was to “be like God knowing good and evil.” In other words, Satan offered Eve the chance to be her own god, in control of and relying on her own knowledge. The seeds of control and self-reliance were planted in mankind there.
To deny ourselves doesn’t mean to think we are worthless, we have no value, or we don’t matter. It means to deny our self as god belief; in other words, to deny control, to deny self-reliance, to deny self-judgment, to deny self-protection. We must let go of our illusion that we are our own little gods.
To be a follower of Jesus means we believe God is God and we are not. This simple statement is the definition of humility.
What does Jesus mean by “take up their cross”?
The disciples’ understanding of the coming of the Kingdom was a temporal Kingdom established by overthrowing Rome and freeing Israel, a victory on the worldly plane. Jesus overthrows this view and says the way of Messiah is the way of suffering. This really wasn’t news. Isaiah 53:3 makes it plain: “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.”
But this understanding of the suffering Messiah wasn’t the perspective of the people in Jesus’ time. In fact, even with all His miracles, signs, and wonders, the people still were reporting He was a powerful prophet, only a man. Because He had not come before them with an army to overthrow Rome, and the people were so sure of their understanding, they didn’t consider an alternative. So, He lays out the way of the cross – to love God more than we love our own lives, to be willing to walk the same path as Jesus.
Jesus ends His description with “follow me.” Follow me means walking in His ways. In the same way, Jesus said He only did what He saw His Father doing (John 5:19), we are to do what we see Jesus doing.
What does it mean to walk in the way of the cross?
Jesus tells us the way of the cross is replete with paradox. If we seek to save our lives, we lose our lives. If we lose our understanding of life for Christ and for the good news He brings, we are saved.
He further explains gaining the world does you no good if you lose your soul. We need to take this admonition seriously because when we seek temporal outcomes on the worldly plane as our focus, we are at risk of forfeiting our souls; in other words, we lose who we are, our true, God-given identity. This warning is not just an after-death caution, it is meant for here-and-now.
We would prefer to avoid suffering. We’d like a Messiah who made our paths easy and wide, instead of one who offers the narrow way of the cross (Matthew 7:13-14). But, to follow Jesus, we must walk the way of the cross. As Hebrews 12:2 states, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
If the disciples had put all the pieces together, they would’ve seen and understood. Yet, they only saw in part, and they missed the clarity of the picture of what was to come.
- How are we like the disciples?
- Do we see with clarity or do we see in part?
- Do we see Jesus as He really is?
- And if we do see Jesus as He really is, do we understand?
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Dr. Donna E. Lane is an award-winning author, professor, and Christian counselor. Her books include Strength in Adversity, Wilderness Meditations, and Restored Christianity.