SERMON: What is True Discipleship? | Mark 8:34–38

What is True Discipleship? | Mark 8:34–38
Shaun Marksbury | Grace Bible Church
Sunday Morning Service | December 31, 2017

Now, Jesus calls everyone over to Himself; the words He’s about to speak are not for Peter’s benefit alone, nor just for the Twelve, but for all who have a personal desire to call themselves disciples of Christ.  He’s going to warn everyone the cost of being a follower of Jesus, as well as the high cost of continuing in one’s own way.

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I.               Introduction

We’ve been in Mark 8 for several weeks, but that much time has not transpired in the events that we’ve been studying.  So, let’s take a moment to review.  That way, we can have a better understanding of what is happening here.

The chapter begins with Jesus still in Gentile territory.  Remember, He had spent months there with His disciples, and they’ve witnessed Him deal with the Gentiles unlike anything found in the traditions of their elders.  This chapter opens with a compassionate Jesus miraculously feeding a crowd of at least 4,000 Gentile people so they won’t go away hungry (vv. 1–10).  He is the Messiah for all peoples (Gn 12:3; Is 42:1).

After He had spent these months away, one might expect that the Jewish people would be anticipating the return of their Messiah.  However, there are no crowds that welcome Him back.  Instead, the Pharisees had been awaiting Him, and they greeted Him with arguments and demands.  Jesus condemns them and promptly leaves (vv. 11–13).  The disciples are witnessing the Messiah being despised and rejected (cf. Isa 53:3).

As they depart, Jesus warns His disciples about the false teachings and the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the Herodians.  However, the disciples are focused on the fact that they lack bread.  Jesus chastises them for being focused on such temporal concerns.  Until this point, they’ve failed to fully trust in His provision for their lives (vv. 14–21).  He is the Messiah, the Great Shepherd Who feeds His flock (Ez 34:12–13).

Passing back through Bethsaida, Jesus encounters a blind man and heals him (vv. 22–26).  The disciples should have already realized the implications of the Lord’s past healings.  He makes the blind see and the lame to walk, meaning that He is the prophesied Messiah (Is 35:5–6). 

This all culminates in Peter’s glorious confession.  Jesus and His disciples travel to Caesarea Philippi, still within the borders of Israel, and He asks them what people say about Him (vv. 27–28).  He then asks, “But who do you say that I am?”—to which Peter replies, “You are the Christ.” (v. 29).  He’s the Messiah, the Anointed One.

With that, the disciples seemingly reach a point of spiritual critical mass.  They have realized Who Jesus is.  Now, they must realize His mission, so He explains the gospel path—plainly (vv. 31–32).  However, instead of accepting it, Peter pulls Jesus aside.  He begins to rebuke Him for talking about the need to die, so Jesus informs Peter that he has become a mouthpiece for Satan (vv. 32–33).  They’ve come so far since Jesus had first told them to follow Him over two years ago, but they still are missing what that means!

II.            The high cost of discipleship (v. 34)

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.”

Well, there it is.  If Jesus were trying to build support, this doesn’t seem to be the way to go about it.  This isn’t the kind of message someone could use to build a megachurch!  However, the eternal weight to the matter requires careful thought, not the whimsy that seems to characterize so much of our faith.

Unfortunately, it’s not thought that the disciples seem to have invested yet.  One disciple has just unwittingly allowed himself to become the mouthpiece of Satan in opposing the path before them.  Another disciple will allow Satan to fill his heart to betray the Lord.  And if thoughtlessness troubles the disciples, then how much more will it plague the curious onlookers now gathering around them?  Can you claim better?  We all need a lesson in the high cost of discipleship.

So, He calls any who would be a disciple.  That is, who has an actual, personal desire—not just an impulse or it strikes their fancy.  Anyone seeking to be a disciple needs to count the cost.  As the Lord says in Luke 14:27–33:

Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33 So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.

If any would seek to be a disciple of Christ, then going in, they need to know three imperatives from our Lord.  A true disciple must deny self, die to self, and direct self to follow Christ.

A.              A true disciple must deny self. 

The first requirement of discipleship is to deny or renounce oneself.  Now, this does not refer to asceticism.  We’re not talking about ceasing from bathing or taking vows of poverty.  Some of the desert monks went to these extremes, sitting exposed to the elements, so that they could say that they were truly denying self.

That is doing the opposite of what Jesus is talking about.  When you are thinking about how you can give up this habit or that comfort, you are, in fact, thinking about you!  Your mind is devoted to how you can prove that you mean business.  Remember, the point of this is to be following Christ, not your own thoughts!

Repentance means to turn from your path—your sins and your false religion.  Everybody has sinful desires and priorities.  But repentance doesn’t just mean to turn from something—it means to turn toward Christ.  Thus, the true disciple ceases to make himself the focus of his own life by replacing self with Christ.  He renounces sin, love for the world, and any self-righteousness to embrace God and the gospel. 

That means that the true disciple may be in suburban America; but that disciple makes Christ his aim, not the acquisition of wealth or anything else.  The question we must ask isn’t the self-centered, “What do I need to do to show Christ I’m committed?” but the Christ-centered, “Am I trusting in Christ and following Him?”

B.              A true disciple must die to self. 

Specifically, Jesus says to take up a cross.  That doesn’t mean to wear a necklace, although there probably isn’t anything wrong with wearing a cross.  It doesn’t mean to place bumper-stickers on your car or to wear Christian-themed clothing.  If you are going to do such things, just remember that you’re always on the clock, but that should be your attitude either way. 

This also doesn’t mean simply to keep the faith in rough times.  Sometimes you will hear people say that they have a particular cross to bear, meaning a discomfort or difficulty in life.  While it’s true that God assigns us suffering to endure, that doesn’t quite capture what Jesus is communicating. 

To take up a cross in the ancient world meant one thing—death.  And Luke emphatically adds that this is to be done daily.  Every day, one must be willing to follow Christ, no matter what.  Jesus makes this clear in the next verse: a true disciple must be willing to lose “his life for my sake and the gospel’s.”

You may remember that, the night He was betrayed, Jesus prayed for the possibility that He need not drink from the cup (Mt 26:39).  Prior to that night, Jesus asks His disciples in Matthew 20:22, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?”  When they reply that they are able, He says, “You will drink my cup” (v. 23). 

We should strive to live at peace (Rm 12:18; 1 The 4:11), but let us not fool ourselves into thinking that this life will be peaceful.  Jesus warns that the world will hate Christians, just as the world hates Him (Jn 15:18–20).  We’re told to expect animosity from the lost world for just seeking to live godly lives (2 Tm 3:12).  Many brothers and sisters lose their lives each year for nothing more than naming the Name of Christ.

Consider the cross we must bear.  The condemned hung on it beaten, broken, and naked—a symbol to shame all who would oppose the power of Rome.  Remember that the slave revolt led by Spartacus ended in 71 bc with him and 6,000 followers on crosses along the Appian Way.  Two of Christ’s disciples will know the cross, and nearly all of them will be martyred for their faith in various ways.  Many of the Christians that Mark writes to in Rome will be crucified or burned when Nero will blame them for the fire that he likely set. 

Our “persecution” may only involve shame, though that’s perhaps too much to ask.  It’s understandable to not want to be shamed, but professed disciples need some introspection this year.  Will you be willing to share your faith in our current cultural climate?  We may lose our jobs for our faith.  We may find ourselves ridiculed and blackballed. 

The real shame is that we equate discomfort with real persecution, perhaps because we’re too comfortable.  Shame is a real force, but Jesus warns, “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (v. 38).  Perhaps the problem is that we fear the shaming of the world more than we fear the shaming of the Lord.

Even so, true disciples must count all possible cost of following Christ (cf. Lk 14:27–33).  They also see light at the end of the path.  As Paul said, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor 4:17–18).

C.               A true disciple must direct self to follow Christ. 

The third requirement of discipleship here describes personal, present effort to follow Christ.  Not a pastor, not a denomination, not a movement as good as it may be.  Certainly not the ideas of the world, of Satan, or of your own personal desires.  Jesus doesn’t say, “Just follow your heart.”  He says, “Follow me.” 

Don’t be tempted to think, as some commentators, that the call to discipleship has more to do with obedience than doctrine.  Rather, the two walk together.  If you have come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah (a theological statement), then you should follow in obedience.  Orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy.  Moreover, there’s a sense in which the first two commands are prerequisites to this one, for one cannot be following Christ if not first denying himself and dying to self.

In drug court or at AA meetings, it’s common to hear people say, “I’m an alcoholic” or, “I’m an addict.”  We understand why that is an important confession.  But if you are a disciple of Christ, that is now how you identify yourself.  You’re not a gay Christian.  You’re not a lying Christian.  You’re not a murdering, slanderous, fornicating Christian.  If you are any of such, then you are not following Christ, for He says to deny and die to self. 

It’s a call with a high price—to be crucified with Christ (cf. Gal 2:20).  However, it isn’t as high as the alternative.

III.         The high cost of independence (vv. 35–38)

“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Jesus presents us with a what seems to be a paradox.  To save one’s life, he must lose it—specifically, for the sake of the gospel.  Those who seek to save themselves in their own way, however, find that they lose their souls.  That’s because of where the price is paid—the price of discipleship is only paid in this life, but the price of independence is paid for all eternity.

Independence makes one ashamed of Christ and His gospel.  Jesus specifically addresses two, overlapping categories: those who pursue their own interests, and those who experience shame over Him.  This wide range spans pleasure-seeking pagans and professing believers who deny Him to save themselves—who won’t carry their cross publicly (v. 34).  Perhaps when the fear of man outweighs the fear of God, but this is a warning sign of false discipleship. 

They will think that there is a better way.  The pagan will, of course, have his false religion.  The professed believer, though, will try to hide his faith like the talent in the ground.  He thinks he’s better than his Master, because he can make it through this life without making any waves.  The truth is that he doesn’t love the actual gospel, and the peace of this life he so enjoys will be his only reward.

Independence will never lead to the treasures of the gospel.  Again, Jesus says in v. 35, “whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”  That’s a promise in the midst of this heavy text!  Consider the treasure in the parables of Matthew 13:44–46: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45  Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, 46 who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” 

That’s quite a treasure!  And it transcends what we would all agree is good, sinner and saint alike—family.  In Matthew 10:37, Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”  We should note that it’s not possible to love someone properly unless we love Christ more, but that is a topic for another day.

A true disciple loves the gospel and is willing to lose everything for it.  He’ll treasure the gospel above all this world has to offer or can threaten.  Paul lost his position as a Pharisee for the sake of Christ, counting all the accomplishments of his former life as rubbish compared the worth of knowing Christ (Phili 3:4–8).

IV.         Final Thoughts

Christ isn’t saying that only through ridicule and martyrdom for His sake shall a person be saved (cf. Eph 2:8–9; Ti 3:5–7).  This kind of commitment is only the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s regenerative and sanctifying work.  Jesus knows His sheep and promises that they hear His voice and follow Him (Jn 10:27).  Our following gives us assurance that we’ve come to know Christ (1 Jn 2:3–6).

So, it’s a question of where your heart is.  Those who focus solely on what is beneficial for them will not have their lives saved in the end.  They may find that that they gain what they want, only to find that their souls are required of them, such as in the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:16–21.  Repent and seek that heavenly, incorruptible treasure that can’t be stolen (Mt 6:19–21).

Warren Wiersbe gives us some words to contemplate.  “Is there any reward for the person who is a true disciple? Yes, there is: he becomes more like Jesus Christ and one day shares in His glory. Satan promises you glory, but in the end, you receive suffering. God promises you suffering, but in the end, that suffering is transformed into glory. If we acknowledge Christ and live for Him, He will one day acknowledge us and share His glory with us.”[1]




[1] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 140.

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