How to Save Your Life (Mark 8:34-36)
I. A Worst-Case Scenario
If you're falling out of an airplane at 100 MPH, but there's a parachute strapped to your back, what can you do to save your life?
If you're throat is closing up due to anaphylactic shock, but your hand is gripping an epinephrine injector, what can you do to save your life?
If you're riding in the front car of an out-of-control subway train, but sitting next to an emergency brake cord, what can you do to save your life?
The answers to all those hypothetical scenarios seem pretty obvious, don't they? But how about this one: if you are a spiritually dead, but spiritually hostile, spiritually wayward human being who is hurtling down a path that only leads to the just wrath of a holy God, what can you do to save your life?
For many people, the answer to that last question is less clear. And sadly, it can even be unclear to people who identify as Christians. But as scary as those first three scenarios sound, that final scenario definitely sounds like a worst-case scenario, doesn't it. Why? Because that scenario describes not simply the loss of one's physical life. It describes loss and suffering in terms of spiritual existence; even eternal existence. If that's the case, it is absolutely critical we find an answer to the question, “In that scenario, what can you do to save your life?”
Let's look for that answer together by looking together at Mark chapter 8.
II. The Passage: “If Anyone Would Come After Me” (8:34-36)
Let me read, beginning in verse 34. This is what the Gospel writer tells us...
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he [Jesus] said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.  For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”
Mark 8 was, of course, one of the chapters we read through this past week in our Bible reading plan. I pray that reading calendar has been a blessing to you so far. If you are not using that calendar, I want to challenge you to pick up a copy in back and join us. And if you are using that reading plan, I want to challenge you to look for ways to encourage others with what God is showing you through his word.
And if you have been reading with us, then you may remember something about the context here, and how helpful this context is in terms of making sense of what Jesus has revealed.
Before we break down the “how to” of verse 34, I think it's absolutely essential we establish the fact that Jesus is talking here about how you can save your life. He's not talking about a second step in the Christian life. He's not talking about going deeper. He's not talking about a spiritual extra-curricular. He's talking about eternal life. He's talking about rescue, deliverance, salvation.
This is abundantly clear in verses 35 and 36. Look again at what he said there. In verse 35, Jesus is clarifying what is, in fact, the correct way to save one's life. This can be a bit confusing at first, but Jesus wants his listeners to understand that their ideas about saving their lives will only lead to ultimate loss. But... counter-intuitively, losing one's life now, will actually lead to ultimate salvation. And verse 36 just stresses the stakes involved and the nature of this salvation: Jesus is telling his listeners, and God is telling us this morning, that we're talking about nothing short of either preserving or forfeiting your “soul”.
So when Jesus says, “If any would come after me”, yes, he's talking about discipleship. But he's talking about discipleship to the Son of Man, to the Son of God; the King of Kings and Lord of Lord. That isn't a vocational or political step. It's ultimately a spiritual decision; an eternal decision. Paul would later describe this kingdom calling with these words: He [the Father] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son... (Colossians 1:13) The call to follow Jesus is a call to new life in God's kingdom. This is how you save your life. This is how you save your soul.
But as verse 34 makes clear, there are three parts to this life-saving response: you must 1) “deny yourself”, you must 2) “take up your cross”, and 3) you must “follow” Jesus. Let's take a few minutes to look at each of those ideas.
1. “Deny Yourself” (v. 34)
First, what does it mean to “deny yourself”? Well, thankfully, the context helps us answer that question. Consider the exchange in the preceding verses. Starting in verse 31...
And he began to teach them [the Twelve] 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.  And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  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.”
Denying yourself is not the opposite of self-worth. It's the acknowledgment of and right response to self-deception. When Jesus teaches in verse 34 that you must first “deny yourself”, it is a direct response to Peter's opposition in verse 32. Do you see that? Peter's ideas about the Messiah involved conquest, not rejection; success, not suffering. What he heard Jesus describing in verse 31 sounded like defeat, not victory. But like us, Peter was deceived. His mind was set (v. 33) not “on the things of God, but on the things of man.” His ideas were fleshly ideas that made him a pawn of Satan rather than a servant of God. This is true of all of us.
But no one can serve both Jesus and “the things of man”. Because Peter would not deny himself in this way, he later denied Christ. This is why Jesus instructs us to first deny ourselves.
To deny ourselves is to deny this belief that we know better; to give up on that outlook; to daily distance ourselves from that deception. It means confessing, “O God, there is not one thing that I know better than you. And so I reject the me that believes that lie; I deny that me.”
When we consider other passages in Scripture, it's clear that this denial of self is just one aspect of what the Bible calls repentance. With that in mind, let's think more about that second idea.
2. “Take Up Your Cross” (v. 34)
How can you save your life? By denying yourself AND taking up your cross. Now remember, this is well before Jesus' own death. So what would His listeners have understood when he called them to “take up your cross”?
I believe it would have been quite common for Jews in ancient Palestine to witness the Roman practice of crucifixion. And as would later happen with Jesus, a condemned man would usually have to carry the crossbeam of his cross through the streets on his way to be crucified. This was part of the humiliation and suffering involved with this kind of death sentence.
And so when Jesus talks about “taking up one’s cross”, I think the crowds would have understood this as a willingness to endure humiliation and suffering. If denying myself is a decision to no longer identify with the me ruled by “the things of man”, taking up my cross is the other side of that coin: a decision to identify with “the things of God” in a world ruled by “the things of man”.
Of course, when you do that, there is a cost involved. There is suffering involved. As Peter demonstrated when Jesus began to talk about suffering in verse 31, he was not interested in that kind of suffering. And when the words of verse 31 began to come true, Peter continued running. As Jesus faced a literal cross, Peter would not take up his own cross. And so, at the end of Mark 14, he denied Jesus... not once, but three times.
If deny oneself is an aspect of repentance, then taking up one's cross is an aspect of saving faith. You can hear this same faith in Paul when he writes in Romans 8:18, For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. Better still, you can see this tension in verses 36-38 of Mark 8...
“For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?  For what can a man give in return for his soul?  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.”
Are you seeking earthly riches and ease now, even if it means losing your soul? Or will you embrace rejection and hardship now, knowing it will lead to everlasting blessing and comfort? The man or woman ashamed of Jesus will never take up his or her cross. Therefore, they cannot and will not save their lives. But there's one more idea here in verse 34.
3. “Follow Me” (v. 34)
A right appraisal of “the things of man”, followed by a right appraisal of “the things of God”, must lead to a right appraisal of Jesus: If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. Now, when Jesus says “follow me”, is he talking about actually walking down a path of Christ-likeness? Yes, but that would be the outward overflow of the inward perspective I believe Jesus is emphasizing here.
What do I mean? I mean that whenever Jesus says “follow me”, he issuing a call to faith, a faith that acknowledges he is Lord, and thus, should be followed before anyone else. And so we look to Him for life and in life, that is, both saving submission and daily submission to Jesus.
So again, please notice the different ways Jesus expressed the same ideas in these verses: to “deny yourself” and “take up your cross” and “follow me” in v. 34 are the same as “losing [one's] life for my sake and the gospel's” in v. 35. It means rejecting the reign of self and embracing Jesus as Lord, no matter the cost. Brothers and sisters, friends, that is the heart of saving faith.
III. Why We Need to Get This Right
As we've been reading through Mark's Gospel, God has been showing us so much about the identity of Jesus. And in some sense, it has all led up to the question we find only a few verses before our main passage. So what Jesus has provided for us in verse 34 is the right response to the right answer to the pivotal question Jesus posed in verse 29: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter had the right answer in verse 29, but he didn't understand the right response. Do you? Like Peter, you may know the right answer, but what about the right response Jesus described?
Sadly, there have been and there are many churches today that have separated the “deny [your]self and take up [your] cross and follow me” of Mark 8:34 from the “repent and believe” of Mark 1:15. And in so doing they have twisted repentance and faith. Some today seem to think Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him pray and ask me into his heart”. Others have replaced “deny yourself” with “accept yourself”. Still others seem to be saying, “take up your crown” instead of “take up your cross”.
Brothers and sisters, this is not peripheral debate among leaders and academics. We need to get this right, don't we? Remember what we're talking about. We're talking about how to save your life. We're talking about the message we are called to announce, that lives may be saved; this is the ministry with which we have been entrusted by God himself.
But the words of Jesus here also lay the groundwork for living the Christian life. As Paul wrote... Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him... (Colossians 2:6) Believer, do you hear God speaking these words to your heart? Do you hear him this morning saying to you personally, “deny yourself... take up your cross... and follow me”? As I speak those words, how is he stirring you? Maybe he's reminding you of something big about Jesus and your salvation. Or maybe, in love, he's pressing on one specific area in your life. Listen to him again: “deny yourself... take up your cross... and follow me”.
Or maybe you are hearing this message clearly for the first time, and it is your deepest desire to save your life by following Jesus. If so, it's time to reject that “things of man” mindset. It's time to let go of your old life, to “deny yourself... take up your cross... and follow me”.
When Jesus talks here about how you can save your life, it's important to keep in mind the gospel mentioned in verse 35. That's the gospel (or Good News) of the kingdom Jesus began proclaiming in chapter 1. We know, of course, from the rest of Mark and the rest of the NT that the fullness of this gospel of the kingdom was only realized when the King took up his cross. And because he did, for our sake, and then rose again from the dead, salvation, rescue, deliverance, redemption is possible. Ultimately, you can't save your life. Neither can I. But Jesus can... for eternity. And so... there is a right response in light of that right answer: “deny yourself... take up your cross... and follow me”. Let's ask God to help us truly hear that, each & every day.
More in Our Bible Reading Plan (2021-2022)
May 22, 2022The Most Important Spiritual Gift (I Corinthians 12:4-7)
May 15, 2022Sexual Morality 101 (I Corinthians 5-7)
May 8, 2022Will Christians Be Judged? (I Corinthians 3:10-15)