Mark 8:31-38 follows on from the story of Peter’s declaration that Jesus was the Messiah, the son of God. Jesus commended him, and then went on to say the things recorded in our reading – a significant promise about his death and resurrection, which Peter could not accept.
Peter’s problem was that he was not able to see how God could possibly allow his anointed Saviour, the Messiah, to suffer and be put to death. That would be terrible for Jesus, and he imagined that it would be a disastrous end of Jesus’ mission and a disaster for Jesus’ followers. (He obviously did not take on board Jesus’ statement about rising to life again.) Peter was hoping that the promises to Abraham would now at last be fulfilled through Jesus; but Jesus seemed to him to be destroying that hope.
Jesus’ reaction to Peter’s rebuke shows just how great a temptation it was to avoid the cross. Peter had said exactly what Satan wanted Jesus to hear. Jesus was just as human as the rest of us; the last thing he wanted, humanly speaking, was to be rejected and killed – especially in such a way. But over-riding his human feelings was his desire to do his Father’s will and to fulfil the mission he had been sent to accomplish. He knew that was the only way to bring full salvation to the world and that nothing less would do. Nevertheless, knowing and wanting what is right does not lessen the temptation to give in to the desires of our human nature. Sometimes the only way to win is not to argue with the temptation but simply to face it down.
Jesus went on to make even more surprising statements. The Messiah is not the only one to take the road that leads to a cross. His followers need to follow him down that road – and unless we are prepared to do so, we cannot follow him. ‘Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.’ What did he mean?
Self-denial is the first step. If we are following Jesus we cannot go our own way, we have to go his. That in itself is a form of self-denial. But it is more than simply choosing between two similar routes. Self-denial involves choosing a route that is bound to involve some kind of suffering, a route that will lead us into situations we do not find comfortable, to put it mildly. If we want a comfortable life, do not follow Jesus!
Jesus goes further. We are to ‘take up our cross’ – a thing only criminals or brigands condemned to crucifixion would expect to do. ‘Our cross’ is not a small inconvenience. It is an instrument of death. Those carrying a cross had no rights, no hope for better things in this life. Not the sort of thing Peter was looking for when he responded to Jesus’ call! For us it means giving up our lives – our bodies, brains, wealth, talents, plans, ambitions – to God.
‘Follow me.’ That meant not only going the road Jesus went, it meant keeping close to him and learning to imitate him and to do the work he did. It involved growing an ever deeper relationship with Jesus – and that was what most attracted his disciples.
The reward? The result? Life! Salvation! The topsy-turvy spiritual reality is that we can only gain human fulfilment by ‘losing ourselves’ – submitting to Jesus as Lord. If we ‘save our lives’ by choosing an easier option or by giving in to our natural human desires, the result will be disaster. What Jesus wants – what he died for – is for us to be with him now and in the age to come and for ever. How much is that worth?
1) In what ways does following Jesus involve self-denial for us?
2) What temptations do we face and how do we resist them?