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.
Too often we don't realize very well the consequences of following Jesus. We praise those who make public profession as though they have already crossed the finish line; in fact, they are only at the beginning of the race.
Following Jesus is not like a walk around the block or a stroll through the park; instead, it is more like a battle royale! We tend to forget or ignore stuff like this.
What is the Cross? What does Jesus have to say about being one of His disciples? He says, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."
Mark's audience knows exactly what these words mean. They know the cross means persecution, pain, suffering, and death. We know that Mark's gospel was written to Christians living in Rome during the time of Nero's reign as Caesar. During Nero's reign, Christians were persecuted and killed for their faith.
We must walk the same path as He. In fact, the Apostle Peter encourages us to be like Jesus:
(1 Pet 4:1) Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin.
(1 Pet 4:13) But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.
Denial and cross-bearing is very real. This is what happens when people believe in and identify with Jesus. They become like Jesus.
The worldly man or woman interprets the words of Jesus literally. When they hear Jesus speak of taking up one's cross they think of a piece of jewelry, an ornament, or a decoration. Those Roman Christians knew what He meant: the electric chair, the gallows, the most cruel punishment the world has devised, a form of horrible torture used only for the worst of criminals.
Some Christians fail to understand what Jesus says here. They talk glibly about some physical pain, ache, or deformity as the cross they have to bear. The Apostle Paul, for instance, speaks a couple of times about the thorn in his flesh – some sort of physical affliction that tormented him. But that was not Paul's cross. His cross was the humiliation, the pain, the suffering he endured for the sake of Christ. He talks about this cross when he says:
(2 Cor 11:24-27) Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. (25) Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, (26) I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. (27) I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.
All of this suffering the apostle went through for the sake of Christ and the Gospel.
The cross we are called to bear is not arthritis, poor eyesight or hearing. It is not cancer, diabetes, a cold or flue. It is not a personal disability or a disabled child. It is not an unhappy marriage or a sick marriage partner. Instead, what is meant is suffering that has to do with our relationship to Christ. Let me emphasize this: the cross we Christians are called to bear is suffering because of our relationship to and with Christ.
Jesus 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.
"Who bears this cross? Was it, is it, only a select few? We know Jesus was talking to His disciples. Consider, for a moment, what happened to them: Matthew suffered martyrdom by being slain with a sword at a distant city of Ethiopia; Mark perished at Alexandria, after being cruelly dragged through the streets of that city; Luke was hanged upon an olive tree in the land of Greece; John was put in a pot of boiling oil, but escaped death in a miraculous manner, and was afterward branded at Patmos; Peter was crucified at Rome with his head downward; James, the Greater, was beheaded at Jerusalem; James, the Less, was thrown from a lofty point of the temple, and then beaten to death with a club; Bartholomew was whipped to death; Andrew was bound to a cross, from where he preached to his persecutors until he died; Thomas was run through the body with a lance in the East Indies; Jude was shot to death with arrows; Matthias was first stoned and then beheaded; Barnabas of the Gentiles was stoned to death at Salonica; Paul, after various tortures and persecutions, was beheaded at Rome by the Emperor Nero.
Each of the apostles had to deny himself and take up a cross.
Jesus was talking not only to His disciples but also to the crowd. We are told that "Jesus called the crowd to him along with his disciples." You and I and those who confessed their faith are considered part of that crowd. To you and me and everyone who professes their faith Jesus says, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." Usually we aren't told this when we first become a Christian. When first faced with the Christian religion we are told that Jesus died for our sins and that we are to believe in Him; but no one may have told us that following Jesus means denying ourselves and taking up a cross.
Christianity will not enhance your life as some may preach. Jesus makes no such promises; He wants people to follow Him, but He also wants them to know that following Him means self-denial and a cross.
To our self-indulgent culture this sounds odd, something that happens overseas or in a third-world country. It doesn't happen to us here in America, does it?! Jesus' point is that it does. Everyone who has a relationship with Jesus – the disciples, the first century believers, you, and me – can expect and should expect this.