“And calling the crowd to Him with His disciples, He said to them, ‘If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (Mark 8:34). I wonder how many people have read this and noticed something strange about Jesus’ words. The conditional statement that begins with “If” is followed by three imperatives, which are “deny himself,” “take up His cross,” and “follow Me.” You may say it makes perfect sense, but remove the second and third imperative and reread it.
“If anyone would come after Me” (follow Me), “he must take up his cross and follow Me.” It seems redundant, but before coming to any conclusion, let’s look at what Jesus is saying more closely. He begins with, “If anyone would come after Me,” meaning, “be counted as a disciple.” Why would anyone want to do that anyway? Let’s read John 14:6-7 and find out, “Jesus said to him (Thomas), ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Those who are willing to follow Jesus know that He is the only way to heaven. There is no man, no alternative religion or teaching, and no idea or ideology that will secure a place in heaven for us. It therefore follows that Jesus is expressing the conditional statement to people who have heard Him and are wondering what to do next. And always remember the duality of scripture and how the message also applies to us.
The first thing we would have to do is deny ourselves. That may seem weird to the uninitiated, but it does not mean that we must say, “I am not me,” but rather that we should deny our claim to the world and the things thereof. You see, before we truly can follow Jesus, we need to understand what that entails exactly. An easy way of describing that is Matt. 6:24, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” Our carnal self wants to sin, and we need to deny that part of us. And by the way, that will not be easy. The devil will not give up a lost soul without a fight.
The second thing we would have to do is take up our cross. But what does that mean exactly? It is not as if there is a wooden cross by the front door of our house that we have to hoist up and carry through the streets of our town. I would guess Jesus really got the crowd’s attention when he uttered those words because that would typically have led to a crucifixion. That would have been no less scary than what Jesus said in John 12:25, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Luckily for us, Jesus is not speaking of a physical cross or death. This point is a furtherance of denying oneself. Once we have done that, we have to commit to it by putting those things aside, or as Gal. 5:24 so succinctly puts it, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” In other words, we cannot only give it lip service by denying it, but we have put to death the things of the world.
The last thing is to follow Jesus. The first “follow” was directed at those who want to follow, while this “follow” is the action taken when we have denied ourselves and are carrying our cross. Since He is the good Shepherd, we are to follow him with the same loyalty and reliance as a sheep. We have already read that Jesus is the way (John 14:6), so the only way we will get to heaven is to follow Him actively. What that means is that we will follow not only His commands but also His example. We will walk with him as we are told to do in 1 John 2:6, “whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” If Christians would only follow Jesus with the same zeal they follow their favorite sports team, actor, singer, or Television series.