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February 25, 2024|Unashamed|Mark 8:31-38

JD Cutler

Click here for the sermon audio

This past week our daughter Lilly participated in her first track meet for White Oak. She ran in two relay races as a part of a team of young ladies. The thing that I love about relay races is that the outcome depends not on individuals, but on a team. 

The author of Hebrews uses a race as an illustration for the way we live our lives in Christ. Running, surrounded by witnesses who have run before us. There is a sense in which each generation passes the baton onto the next generation so that the gospel advances towards the last day when Jesus returns. Having run our leg of the race faithfully, the picture is we now participate in watching and cheering on those who come after us. This is a great picture and the author exhorts us to steadfastly run the race that is before us, straining forward, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith. 

I think what we see there is that if we choose to participate in this thing called the Christian life, there is a way we are supposed to do so and by implication, there is a way that we are not supposed to do so.

To go back to Lilly’s race, each individual knows to participate in the race they have to do so according to the instructions. They have a lane they stay in, they have a leg they are responsible for, etc…You see, there are things that we participate in that we get to choose how we do so and there are things if we choose to participate we have to do so in the way prescribed for us. If Lilly wanted to simply go running, she is free to do so wherever and however she wants to, but if she wants to participate in the race, she has to run where and how she is told to. 

Another good example of this is going to the gym. You can sign up, pay your fee and have access to pursue your fitness goals in any way that you choose as long as you follow the general rules of the facility. But if you choose to participate in a class or group that is led by a trainer, you have to follow the trainer, participating in the way prescribed for you. 

Here is the problem I see with many who name the name of Christ today. They have failed to understand which way we are called to participate in following Jesus. Too many of us treat it like the first. We sign up, if you will, and then we go about following Jesus the way we want to, we do a little of this, a little of that, we avoid things we don't want to do, etc… We treat it like it is our choice in how we follow Jesus.

The reality is following Jesus is not something we have freedom to pursue anyway we want to, because Jesus prescribed for us very specifically what it looks like to follow him. 

It is that prescription that we turn our attention to this morning. 

We find this prescription in between the disciples confession of Jesus and his transfiguration before them.

Interestingly, it follows Jesus’ sternest rebuke of anyone in the New Testament, directed at one of his closest disciples.

What prompts this rebuke of Peter, where Jesus calls him satan?

To put it simply, Peter tried to lead Jesus instead of following him. He tried to prescribe what it would look like to follow Jesus.  

Let’s look at the first part of this encounter to get our bearings. 

Mark 8:31-33 (ESV) 31 And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

So if we are not free to follow Jesus anyway that we want, as Peter here learned, how are we supposed to follow him?

Jesus takes this opportunity to address just that. Let’s pick up with his instruction in verse 34. 

Mark 8:34-38 (ESV) 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. 

To put it in the simplest terms possible, Jesus says the only thing we have freedom to choose in following him is whether we want to or not. That is where the freedom ends. If we want to follow him, then there is a specific way he says we must do so. Notably this is addressed to his disciples as well as the crowds. That is whether you already consider yourself a follower or you have yet to do so, this prescription is for you. If you are following me currently, this is how you do so, and if you want to follow me, this is how you do so. 

And while his words are plain and straightforward, unpacking what it means and how to ensure we have embraced it are slightly more complicated. I pray this morning as we look more closely and think more deeply together we will plainly see the call on our lives as disciples, we will clearly proclaim what it means to follow Jesus, and that we will all together be drawn to this high and holy calling to pursue Jesus in our lives in the way he has commanded us. 

This morning I want to look at the prescription of Jesus in two divisions, the what and the why. 

What Jesus says following him is and why he says we should do so. The first division is…

Jesus describes for us what following him looks like.

This is found in the verses we just read in Mark 8. 

For the first time, Jesus clearly and plainly begins telling his disciples, his followers, where he is going. 

To this point, he has called them to follow him and they have been doing so. In the previous scene we see that God has revealed to them that this Jesus, this Rabbi that they are following is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one. 

But, the immediate problem they have is that they think they know what that means for Him and therefore what that means for them. 

If Jesus is the Messiah, they know that his future is a throne, a crown, he is the conquering king promised in the line of David who will sit on the throne. Therefore, in their minds, to follow Jesus is to follow him to victory, success, and triumph. 

While that is technically true, Jesus knows that they do not understand the path that will take him there. It is not one of military might, it is not one of a unified nation of Israel standing behind their king. 

The victory parade they envision into Jerusalem, will end with Jesus being driven out of Jerusalem, with a cross on his back to a hill called Calvary, where he will be put to death. 

He clearly says this will not be the end, but that he will rise again after three days. However, all that Peter seems to hear is that this pathway of Jesus’ does not sound like he thinks it should. 

We previously looked at his rebuke, but to briefly remind you of it, we find it detailed for us in Matthew. (Matthew 16) He takes Jesus aside and says two things, roughly translated, God be gracious! This by no means will happen. 

Peter is trying to correct in Jesus what he sees as a mistaken view of his mission. This is not the way Peter thinks it will or should happen, which leads us to the rebuke. 

Mark uses vivid language when he paints the scene for us. 

33 But turning and seeing his disciples- Jesus turning to address Peter sees the disciples standing there, watching, listening. Peter is often their spokesman, and it is certainly probable that they all believe the same way and they are all in agreement with Peter's statement. 

See this is not a Peter problem, this is a discipleship problem. So Jesus takes this moment, to make sure they understand that this kind of thinking is not only incorrect but wicked. After establishing that, he calls the whole crowd together to make sure that, both his disciples and anyone who wanted to be a disciple, understood what it looks like to follow him. 

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 

If anyone would come after me- This word ‘if’ carries a few different shades of meaning, so what does Jesus mean here in particular when he says, if anyone?

The word can mean to either be determined or resolved to do something or simply to desire to do something. I lean towards understanding Jesus talking about the desire. 

That is to say, if anyone intends to come after me… 

The word translated ‘come’ in ‘come after me’ shares similarities with the word that Jesus used when he called his disciples to ‘follow’ him.

If anyone would answer the call to follow me, this is the manner in which they must do so. 

Let me be absolutely clear so that you understand me. I do not believe that anything about what Jesus says here to these first century men and women is any different than what it means for us today. The statement that follows these words applies to each one of us in the same way that it did to them. The reason I stress this, is to hear many of the sermons in the churches today, or to listen to gospel presentations we would think that Jesus’ prescription had changed. That while he calls disciples here to a self-denying, suffering-laden pursuit that today he calls us to experience our best life now because we follow Jesus.

Just for a second, imagine Jesus here in this scene, speaking about his suffering, rejection, and death, rebuking Peter, and then turning to this crowd and saying, whoever wants to come after me, just invite me into your heart, attend church once a week, and don’t do anything really bad. 

If that seems foolish to you in this context, it ought to be foolish to you in any context. 

That is not what Jesus says, is it? He says, if anyone desires to follow me, to be a disciple of mine, he must, he must what?

Jesus gives three imperatives or commands, which is where the language comes from that many modern translations use, like the NASB, NIV, or CSB when they translate this as ‘he must’, while ESV retains the much less impactful, ‘Let him’.

But whatever language your translation uses, we have to understand that King Jesus is issuing commands, not suggestions here. 

What does he command? 

First, Jesus says a disciple must deny themselves. 

What does it mean to deny, in this context? And to what extent are we called to deny ourselves?

The word used here is a combination of two words- to deny and to separate, used together they indicate a complete and utter denial. 

To deny someone in this way is to affirm that one has absolutely no acquaintance or connection with the person in question. This word is used for Peter's thrice denial of being associated with or even knowing Jesus on the night of his arrest.

Matthew 26:69-75 (ESV) 69 Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. And a servant girl came up to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” 70 But he denied it before them all, saying, “I do not know what you mean.” …72 And again he denied it with an oath: “I do not know the man.” … 74 Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man.” And immediately the rooster crowed. 75 And Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.

Understandable enough, right? To deny Jesus is to deny that you know him or have anything to do with him. 

But when you couple the idea of denying someone with the word yourself, what does that mean?

How can you claim to not know yourself or claim to have nothing to do with yourself?

Is Jesus calling us to some spiritualized amnesia? When we come to Jesus are we to abandon all sense of self, of who we are? Of course not. God created us all as unique and different image bearers. 

When Jesus says let him deny himself, he is communicating the idea of removing ourselves from the highest position in our life. It is the dethroning of self. 

Our interests, our goals, our desires. 

To be a disciple of Jesus is to quit fighting for a position that is not rightfully ours. 

Following Jesus is not the way to enhance your life, to further your agendas, or to gain what you want, it is a full surrender to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. 

Second, Jesus says a disciple must take up their cross.

To Take up something is to take it upon oneself and carry what has been raised. To bear something.

I think, as the church, we often misunderstand this reference. We say things super-spiritual sounding like this is just my cross to bear, or maybe that is just your cross to bear. 

We refer to our cross as something laid on us that we must endure. An extended sickness, a less than desirable circumstance, etc…

There are surely times that God lays things on us we are called to bear. Think about Paul’s thorn in his flesh, given to him by God for the purposes of God. But this is not that. 

Our cross is not something we passively endure, but an intentional shouldering of a burden for the benefit of others and in obedience to God. 

In addition, according to Jesus’ words here, everyone that follows him has a cross to bear. This is not reserved for the spiritual elite, but for all those that follow him. If you are not bearing your cross, you are not following Jesus.

What is the cross Jesus speaks of?

In Jesus and the disciples' day the cross was a well known instrument of cruel and shameful capital punishments. It was reserved for the guiltiest criminals, robbers, and rebels. Rarely used on Roman citizens. It was an intense, usually multi-day, excruciating experience that the Romans used to not just humiliate and ultimately kill the condemned, but to discourage others from following in their footsteps. 

During the Easter season we have a large wooden cross in the front of our worship center. It is a reminder of the suffering of our Lord, a reminder that the cross is not merely a symbol, not just a beautiful stained glass, but a real life instrument of death. 

Think about it this way, the cross is the world’s method of punishing those operating outside of its rules. 

How are we to understand what carrying our cross looks like?

We need to look no further than Jesus, who in less than six months of saying this would literally carry his own cross on his way to Calvary where he would be nailed to it and would ultimately give his life while on it. But Jesus began carrying his cross far longer than the day they laid it on his shoulders and drove him to Calvary. 

Remember he began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 

Suffer many things- insults, being struck repeatedly, mock trials, having a crown of thorns pressed onto his head, and being flogged were all part of his suffering. Rejection of his message and his messiahship were also part of this suffering. 

From the very beginning of his ministry, when Satan tempted him to avoid suffering and grasp the glory that was rightly his, Jesus marched steadily towards the suffering he would endure. Every time he chose to rebuke the Pharisees, to reject the erroneous religious laws, every time he chose to break a commandment of man to honor the commandment of God, he was ultimately bearing the cross that would lead him to his death. 

We are not called to carry his cross- his cross accomplished salvation in its entirety, a once for all, finished sacrifice for sinners to be redeemed, but we are called to carry our cross. 

What does that look like? In the same way we must be willing to obey the commandments of God regardless of the suffering, loss, or cost of doing so. We must intentionally do what we are called and commanded to do, knowing that doing so will put us at odds with the world, knowing that they will hate us, that we will face persecution and suffering, and yet daily, we must choose the way of the cross, because this is the way Jesus calls us to in following Him. 

It is hard to follow Jesus, it will cost you, and potentially it will cost you everything. But, unlike many people today, Jesus did not save this until later in the life of a disciple, there is no bait and switch. 

I want you to hear what I say next in the way that I intend it. I am not saying this out of condemnation or superiority, but there are some of you here today that are intentionally rebelling against what you know God desires for you because you do not want to face the difficulties associated with it. Jesus doesn’t call us to obey him when it is easy, but to follow him even though it is hard. 

Thirdly, Jesus says a disciple must follow him.

To follow him encompasses the first two commands, to deny ourselves and to take up our cross, so we will just look at this command briefly.

In the context of Mark and of scripture, to follow Jesus is to conform our life wholly to his example, in living and if need be in dying. It is to believe all that he says and to make his life a pattern for our own.

Here is what I want us to see this morning about this final command. 

We do not blaze the trail of self-denying, cross-bearing living, we follow in the footsteps of our Lord. He invites us, not to do something that he did not do, but to follow him in what he has already done. 

The tense of this command is different from the first two, it is the present active tense, indicating an ongoing action. This is something we continue to do. Following Jesus is not a one time decision, it is an ongoing action. 

Paul says it this way in his letter to the Philippians. 

Philippians 2:5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

This is the way of the cross, the way of following Jesus, who pioneered it when he accomplished his work of salvation. 

Paul says, think this way, conduct yourself this way, or pattern your life this way. However we state it, the idea is the same, Jesus is the pattern by which we live our lives and his pattern is the way of the cross.

In some ways, it is much easier for us to hear this today than it would have been for the disciples in this day. We get the benefit of seeing the whole picture, we have a risen Savior, whom death and the grave could not hold, we see a victorious Jesus after his suffering, rejection, and death. 

But although they have not seen it yet, Jesus does point them to this truth, just the same. He doesn’t just stop at telling his disciples that this is the way of following him, denying themselves, taking up their cross, and following him, he goes on to explain to them why they should follow him in this way. 

The first statement was ‘Jesus describes for us what following him looks like’, the second is…

Jesus explains why the way we follow him matters.  

Let’s pick up in verse 35 with the first of four ‘Fors’. Jesus is going to walk us through, step by step on why his way is the only way. 

35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 

With this statement, Jesus reminds us that the opposite of denying ourselves and losing our life for the gospel’s sake is to try and save our life. 

It’s important to our understanding for us to fully appreciate what Jesus is talking about here. What does he mean by whoever would save his life?

Both the tense and the word in Greek are important. The word save can have the literal meaning of rescue, as in when Peter is sinking and yells out “Lord, save me”. It can have a spiritual sense in the way men are saved from their sins, as in when the Bible says that “Christ will save people from their sins.” 

In addition to understanding this word as a rescue from something, it also can imply to keep safe and sound, that is to prevent danger and destruction, or the need for rescuing in the first place. 

I think the best way for us to understand it is that Jesus is saying there is such a way to live that our focus is on avoiding suffering, to keeping our lives free from struggle and suffering. In essence, it is a self-satisfying, self-preserving way to think about life. 

To further emphasize this, I will point out that the tense of this word implies an action in light of a desired outcome. That is to say, someone who would save his life in this sense, is the one who orders their lives, their actions, and their priorities in such a way as to avoid suffering, specifically for the name and cause of Christ.

This person that rejects the call to self-denying, sacrificial following of Christ in order to preserve their life will reach the end of it and realize that they have lost the very thing they were trying to save. 

But what about the person that surrenders their life fully to Christ and follows him into suffering, potentially even death, the loss of their life? Jesus says, when they get to the end of their life, they will realize that it has actually been saved. 

Jesus says we can either temporarily avoid suffering by not following Him only to lose the very thing we were trying to preserve, or we can abandon all effort to preserve and save our life by following Him with all of it and even if we lose it temporarily, we will save it for eternity.

It is worthy to note that this flies in the face of all that is the current iteration of the American dream. That if you work hard enough you can have all the comforts of life, you can experience everything life has to offer, and in doing so, build a future that you can enjoy for all your days. 

Jesus’ first reason for his call to follow him in the way that he prescribes is to remind us that this life is not it. We, each one, are headed for an eternal destination. The soul, which by the way, the same word is used for life and soul here, is eternal. Although our physical and natural bodies die, the real life, the life of the soul, goes on after we are parted from our bodies. 

So spend all your time trying to make sure your body is comfortable that you experience no suffering and no pain, but understand that in the end, you still die, and then what? Or understand that real life is not the things of the body and that suffering is a part of following Jesus and when you inevitably come to the end of your earthly life, find that you have invested in real life.

Jesus knows that in our natural body, our flesh, a call to deny yourself, to take up a cross, and to follow a savior who willingly goes to his death goes against our natural tendency to protect ourselves, to guard against suffering and difficulties. There is a deep sense in which our natural desire is wired for self-preservation. So why follow Jesus? Because the natural desire of self-preservation is misapplied when we think in Earthly terms only, we need to think beyond the physical and remember that real life is more than that. 

Jesus, being the great teacher that he is, presses on. He doesn’t just want us to understand that this life is not it, but he wants us to understand the value of our soul, our life. Let’s pick up with the second and third ‘for’.

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? 

With this statement, Jesus invites us to put aside our emotional response for a moment and think logically about what he has placed before us. Using the metaphor of a profit and loss ledger, Jesus asked is there anything we can possibly put in the profit category that would balance out the loss of our soul?

Can a lifetime of safety here, possibly balance out the loss of your soul?

Can a lifetime of prosperity here, possibly balance out the loss of your soul?

Can a lifetime of achievement here, possibly balance out the loss of your soul?

Can a lifetime of security here, possibly balance out the loss of your soul?

Whatever you place in that sentence, is there anything that would balance it out?

Of course not. Jesus asks this question rhetorically, knowing that the answer is a resounding no. 

Here is the problem, we do not take this seriously. This goes back to a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to follow Jesus in the way that he prescribed. We think that we can follow Jesus and…

And keep focusing on self, and keep pursuing our goals, and keep chasing what the world offers, as though there won’t be a day of accounting on how we spent our life. On that day, everything you gained by not following Jesus will not even make a dent in the great loss of your soul. 

Can I just say, you cannot fool Jesus? We talked about this on Wednesday night a little in our Bible study concerning salvation.  

You say, but I gave my life to Jesus, I said a prayer, I was baptized, doesn’t that mean I can kind of do whatever I want and I don't have to worry about losing my soul? 

And while you may not articulate it that way, is that what your life reflects?

You can fool men, you can even fool yourself, but you cannot fool Jesus. The evidence of a life lived in pursuit of self is evidence that you have never given your life to Jesus. A ledger full of the pursuit of wealth, comfort, safety, and satisfaction is not consistent with what the bible says someone who has been radically and fundamentally changed in salvation looks like. 

If you have been born again, if you are a follower of Jesus, then you know that there is nothing in this world that is worth your soul and you would pursue nothing else but the one who gave his life for you. 

To take it a step further with the profit-loss imagery, Jesus says, having come to the end of your life and having lost your soul, having thrown away true life for the temporal, is there anything that God would accept to buy it back?

Jesus says it this way, What shall a man give in return for his soul? We could read this two ways. 

First, is there anything that you would trade your soul for? Is there anything on this side of heaven worth your everlasting life? If the answer is no, then why would you chase after getting it knowing you could lose your soul in the process. 

Second, is there anything that you could earn or acquire that you could give in exchange for your soul? Jesus invites us to think about whether there is anything God would accept in exchange for everlasting life, our soul. The answer is of course not. 

Jesus asks both of these questions with the understanding that the answer is obvious. 

What advantage is it to you to acquire everything if you lose your soul? The answer- no advantage

What could a man give in return for his soul? The answer- nothing is worth it, nothing could purchase it

This world and its things will pass away, the only thing that has any lasting worth are the things of God, things concerning the soul. This is where true worth is found. These questions confirm the incomparable value of the soul. 

So far Jesus has told us that seeking to save our life will cause us to lose it, he has invited us to think about the worth of our soul and if anything is really worth losing it for, and now he reminds us that each of these is intricately connected with following him. Let’s pick up this morning with the last ‘for’.

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.”

Admittedly, this word ashamed seems to come out of nowhere. What does shame have to do with what he has been telling us?

The way that I understand it, Jesus is drawing a line in the sand for these disciples. 

His call is to embrace a suffering savior, one that would be rejected and put to death for the sins of the world.

His call is to follow his pattern and be willing to live a life that includes suffering for His name and the gospel. 

The same world that rejected him will reject you, the same world that hated him will hate you. 

You can either embrace this and follow me, and I will not be ashamed to call you brethren, or you can reject it and when I come in the glory of the Father, I will be ashamed of you. 

To be ashamed of him and his teaching then is to choose the other way. It is to either not follow him or to try and follow him in our own way, according to our desires. 

The last ‘for’ reminds us again that there is coming an end to this adulterous and sinful generation, Christ will come again and usher in the kingdom of God fully and finally. There is no middle ground in following Jesus. You either follow him or you are ashamed of him, and according to His own words, there is only one genuine way to follow him.


On this day, before the crowds and his disciples, Jesus clearly described what following him looked like and then he explained why it matters that we follow him accordingly. 

As I said before, I believe that this still applies to those who would be disciples of Jesus today. So here is the challenge before us. 

Jesus has prescribed what it looks like to follow Him, will we be obedient to him or will we not?

There are a few applicatory statements that I want to share with you as we close. 

For some of you, you are all in, you are following Jesus with your life and although it has cost you and is costing you, you are faithfully following him. I pray that today would be an encouragement to you to keep going. That you have chosen the better thing and as Paul says, nothing we can suffer here can even compare to the glory that shall be revealed in us when we see our Savior face to face.

For some of you, you would say that you are a Christian, but your life does not reflect this description Jesus gives. I hope that today, through the proclamation of His word and the work of His Spirit, that you would repent. That you would turn back to your first love and resume the race of self-denying, cross bearing following of your Lord. 

For some of you, you don’t know whether you want to follow Christ or not. I pray that although you have heard about the difficulties it brings, you have also heard about the surpassing worth of following Jesus with your life, and that if you desire to follow Christ you will do so with a fuller understanding of what that means. 

As we all stand in a moment and sing the glorious truth that we sang earlier that Christ alone is our only hope in life and death, I pray that as we do that each one of us will fully embrace that beautiful and gracious truth.

Let us pray. 


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