What does it really mean to follow Jesus?

following jesus take up your cross

During my formative years, I was always a big fan of popular music.  I enjoyed just about every genre you could imagine including some that might surprise you.  I was also highly influenced by some of my musical heroes.  I paid close attention to their lyrics, their lives, and their opinions on many of the issues of the day.

 When I was in high school, one of the most popular bands of the era was Nirvana.  The influence that group had on music at the time was vast.  They had a sound that was both edgy and melodic.  They had a look that ignored preppy and popular fashion, and their lyrics addressed issues that many teenagers who felt jaded by the cultural priorities of the day found relatable.

 Amazingly, they went from being an obscure band to the most dominant and influential band of the era, and many other bands started copying their sound, their look, and their attitude.  Nirvana sold millions of albums, plenty of merchandise, and packed out music venues wherever they performed.  By the worldly standards of fame, influence, and money, they had certainly arrived, but their ascendency came to a crashing halt.

 In April 1994, two months before I graduated high school, Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of the group took his life.  He had been dealing with addiction issues, as well as spiritual and emotional issues stemming from past trauma and unresolved grief.  It was all very sad, and I remember hearing the unfortunate news on the radio while driving to work after school.

 Soon after that, several of my friends made t-shirts with his picture on them, and under the picture they included this quote:  “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”, the very words Jesus said to His disciples in Mark 8:36.

 This world will offer each of us many things, but as Cobain’s life illustrates, it only takes a moment to lose it all, and even the best things in this world aren’t things that can be kept forever.  This is a fact Jesus wanted all who chose to follow Him to understand.  In fact, He made a point to share additional details about what it really looks like to follow Him in the midst of this fallen world.

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)

 As we read through the gospels, we can see that there were certain moments when Jesus taught His disciples privately and other moments when He wanted what He was teaching to be heard by larger groups of people.  The teaching of Jesus that Mark records in this passage was one of those moments that was meant to be heard by the larger group.

 At the time, crowds of people were flocking to Jesus.  He amazed them.  They had never seen anyone with the wisdom and abilities He possessed.  In some respects, it seems like they couldn’t get enough of Him.  They also knew He possessed the power to meet some of their greatest needs like food and physical healing.  He even demonstrated that He possessed power over the grave.  But as they came to Him, their minds were almost exclusively on what they could get from Him, not what might be eventually asked of them.

 As Jesus was making preparation for His crucifixion and speaking more publicly about what was about to happen to Him, He started explaining what it really looked like to be one of His followers.  There are great benefits a person receives through following Jesus, but there are costs that need to be considered as well.

 Jesus explained it this way.  For starters, if someone really wants to be one of His followers, they need to understand that following Him will require self-denial.  In practical terms, what does that look like?  If we’re really going to practice denying ourselves, that’s going to involve things like sacrificing our selfish ambitions, over-reliance on material gratification, and over-dependence on worldly security.  The very things we’ve been told to spend our lives attempting to obtain are the very things Jesus tells us we may need to set aside in order to make Him our top priority.

 Does that mean we shouldn’t care about the resources the Lord has made available to us in this world?  Does it mean we shouldn’t pay attention to things like our education, training, and personal finances?  Of course, it doesn’t mean that.  Those things have some value, but we need to understand that there will be times when we will be asked to put those things aside or give them away because the privilege to follow Jesus and live for His glory is our top priority.

 Jesus also told the crowd that His followers would need to take up their cross when they followed Him.  Keep in mind that He was saying these things before He had gone to the cross.  These words, however, would have gotten the attention of the people living during that era when the punishment of crucifixion was highly familiar in their culture.

 When a person was crucified, they were ushered into the most painful and humiliating form of death known to man.  It was a death penalty that was reserved for the worst of criminals.  They were forced to carry the cross they would be nailed to to the place of their execution.  All along the way, they would be insulted and mocked as they were paraded before the crowds.  They experienced the mental torture of knowing what they were about to endure before they experienced the physical torture crucifixion did to their bodies.

 Jesus wasn’t trying to present a rosy picture of what it might look like to follow Him.  A true follower is willing to experience mockery, humiliation, pain, and even physical death as they follow Jesus in the midst of a fallen world.  That’s exactly what Christians have experienced at the hands of their persecutors throughout the centuries, and there are multiple ways we might taste what it means to “take up our cross” to follow Jesus.

 Following Jesus might initially cost you relationships, worldly opportunities, freedom, and even your life under certain circumstances, but that’s the price a true follower of Jesus is willing to pay because of the price Jesus already paid to secure their redemption.  A false or insincere follower of Christ would never be willing to endure such costs.  It’s the testing that comes when a cost must be paid that actually demonstrates the sincerity of a person’s belief.

“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.”  (Mark 8:35)

 I’m grateful for the fact that since I’m assured eternal life in Christ’s kingdom through faith in Jesus, I don’t need to go through life gripped by the fear of death.  I know I’m going to experience it someday (unless the rapture of the church occurs during my lifetime).  I also know that the only way I can actually keep my life is to give it away.  If I selfishly hold onto it for myself, I’ll lose it.  If I submit my life over to Jesus for His glory and for the sake of the spread of the message of the gospel, my life will never be taken from me even when my body is placed in the grave.

“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?”  (Mark 8:36-37)

 This may sound a little bit morbid, but I’ll mention it anyway.  Not long ago, I was watching the annual State of the Union address here in the United States.  As the camera panned around the room, I saw lawmakers of all perspectives, many of which (statistically speaking) are in the very last moments of their earthly lives whether they realize it or not.

 I watched some of those political leaders cheer for a variety of policies that are in direct opposition to the teaching of Jesus and the total counsel of the Word of God.  Many of these leaders support these policies because in doing so, they are rewarded with votes, and with those votes, they also receive power and influence.  But in the blink of an eye, their power and influence will one day end and they will find themselves before the throne of God giving an account of how they used the life they were blessed with.

In that moment, what benefit will their power, earthly influence, or riches be to them?  When they’re cast away from the kingdom of God for all eternity, what can they offer the Lord in return for their soul?  Nothing.  The only thing that will count in a moment like that is whether or not you received new life, the gift of righteousness, and forgiveness of sin through faith in Jesus.  Your titles and treasures won’t be able to buy you a place in God’s kingdom like you may have enjoyed during your short stay on this earth.

“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.”  (Mark 8:38)

 When speaking to the crowd, Jesus explained a connection that exists between our lives at present and the future reality that’s in store for humanity.  He made it clear that those who are ashamed of Him now will one day see Him in His glory, but when that day comes He will be ashamed of those who didn’t value being associated with Him presently.

“And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, 25 and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26 They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27 But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life.”  (Revelation 21:22-27)

 Why has Jesus revealed these things to us ahead of time?  He has graciously made these things known to comfort us while we wait for Him to restore all things.  He has also mercifully made these things known as a caution to those who remain distant from Him.  Only those who truly know Him, whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life, will live forever in the glory of His presence.  Only those who trust Him enough to follow Him now, whatever the cost or inconvenience, will share in the blessings He has in store for those who overcome the allure of this world.

“Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”  (1 John 5:5)

 Embrace the truth that Jesus revealed to His disciples and the crowd.  Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Him.  Place your entire faith in Jesus Christ without reservation, and overcome the world before being eternally overcome by it.

© John Stange, 2024


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