Matthew 16:24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. 25 For whoever wishes to save his life [this life right now, I'm not going to change; I'm not going to give up anything] will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it."
This is not how we're saved. This is a call to discipleship to Jesus; learn from Jesus, follow Jesus. If you want a closer walk led in life by Jesus, though, you must deny yourself.
"Deny Yourself." These are foreign words. For the one thing our culture instills in us is that you NEVER deny yourself nor let Jesus or anybody have that much control.
But Jesus has already taught that something already controls you, and he wants to free you.
John 8:34 … "Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin.
Then He talks about how the son in the house has more authority than a slave and says,
John 8:36 So if the Son sets you free, you really will be free."
Why deny yourself? Because your flesh sucks. And it enslaves you in the sin you wish to escape. And to the degree that you do not deny the autonomous will of your flesh which was crucified with Christ, and you make your decisions based on its whims, you won't be able to follow Jesus or experience the abundant life that Jesus offers you.
So Jesus exhorts you to DENY YOURSELF. Yet our culture idolizes the self:
"Look within and find your-self. Express yourself. You do you! And don't worry about anyone else."
And as normal as this may feel to you, it's important to realize this is totally at odds with Jesus.
So whenever we hear Jesus' call to follow Him, we face a crisis of faith. Who will you trust, Jesus Christ or yourself? Who will you serve, Jesus who gives you life, or sin which leads to death?
Will you deny yourself and follow Jesus or will you deny Jesus and obey your desires without confronting them first with the truth?
In the opening chapters of Mark's Gospel four individuals are called to follow Jesus. From this account, we can learn the context for following Jesus and discuss how it looks to follow Jesus today.
Mark says the good news of Jesus Christ began with the ministry of John the Baptist. John is the messenger that Isaiah promised would go before the Messiah to prepare Israel for the coming of YHWH, the LORD. So the gospel begins with an OT prophet, but it's all about Jesus…
Then we're told,
Mark 1:4 John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And all the country of Judea was going out to him, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.
John was an old school prophet. And this was an incredible period of fierce ministry, spiritual revival, of John preparing the nation for Christ's appearing.
Mark 1:7 And he was preaching, saying, "After me One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to bend down and untie the straps of His sandals. 8 I baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
Everything is about Jesus.
John is this really impressive man who fears no one, calls sinners to account, attracts huge crowds out to the desert, yet deflects all of the attention off of himself onto Jesus Christ. "You came out to hear me but I point you to Him. I baptize you with water but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
John 1:29 The next day he saw Jesus coming to him, and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is He in behalf of whom I said, 'After me is coming a Man who has proved to be my superior, because He existed before me.'"
Look at the testimony of John the Baptist: Jesus is superior to him. John isn't even worthy to tie Jesus' shoes. Even though John was born before Jesus, Jesus existed before John.
John came to prepare the way for YHWH, the God of Abraham, Moses, and David. And when he sees Jesus he says to his own followers, that's Him. He's come as the Lamb of God to take away our sin.
Then, Jesus came from Nazareth and was baptized by John,
Mark 1:10 And immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon Him; 11 and a voice came from the heavens: "You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased."
What an amazing event. And still, Jesus is the focal point.
Here is God the Father bbeing all doting and fatherly, proud of His Son who's about to embark on His mission to reconcile us to God. Here's the Holy Spirit expressing His delight and His partnership with Jesus. And here is Jesus of Nazareth, at the very center of it all.
We heard John's testimony, yet here is God's testimony: "You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased."
But since Jesus pleased the Father, why did He have to be baptized by John into a baptism of repentance? Because Jesus didn't identify with the righteous but with sinners. Starting this day, Jesus identified with you and I, not at our Sunday best but you in your sin and shame. The Lamb of God…
Mark 1:12 And immediately the Spirit brought Him out into the wilderness. 13 And He was in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by Satan; and He was with the wild animals, and the angels were serving Him.
In thirteen verses we are introduced to John the Baptist, the Father, the Holy Spirit, and to the Son our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He is said to be greater than the greatest of men. He identifies with sinners. He's led by the Spirit into a duel with the devil in the desert. Surrounded by wild animals, and He's served by angels. Who is this man who calls us to follow Him?!
Mark 1:14 After John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel… 15 and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel."
The OT promises over and over that one day YHWH will come to live on Earth as our King. On this day, Jesus said it's time; the fulfillment of every OT prophecy of the kingdom is in my hands. And I offer it to you. But there's ONE CONDITION: Israel must repent and believe Jesus for this.
If the nation would accept Jesus as God's promised King, the Son of David, YHWH Himself, He'd set up God's throne on earth, He'd vanquish Satan to the Abyss, and establish God’s righteousness, justice, and peace on earth… If, that is, they "repent and believe the gospel."
Yet rather than repent the leaders and many others fought Jesus every step. Harassed Him. Hated Him. Tried to kill Him. Tried to trick Him. Expose Him. Finally arrested and crucified Him.
Yet you do believe in Him and you have eternal life in Him. This promise of the kingdom still awaits His return but in the meantime, Jesus calls YOU to follow Him.
Mark 1:16 As He was going along the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew, the brother of Simon, casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, "Follow Me, and I will have you become fishers of people." 18 Immediately they left their nets and followed Him.
Notice, the sheer grace in Jesus' call. They did nothing worthy of His calling them to be with Him. God gives righteousness to the ungodly, life to the dead, forgiveness to the undeserving and He calls the least of men to follow Him. Well, the least and the great. The weak and the strong.
Jesus' call is to intimacy with Him and christlike character building, but it's also a call to mission. Jesus appeals to their values as fishermen in order to embrace His values: people! reconciling people with God and changing their lives.
Mark 1:19 And going on a little farther, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and his brother John, who were also in the boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately He called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and went away to follow Him.
These four men literally followed Jesus. And each day looked different but we know they walked with Jesus. In the very next scene, Jesus demonstrates His authority and he casts our demons. Later on, these four are in the boat with Jesus when He calmed a storm. They were on the mountain when He was transfigured, and His face shone like the sun. They saw Him raise Lazarus…
In all of this, they got to know Jesus, which is what it's all about, knowing Jesus, who He is, what He cared most about, and being willing to do what He says, go where He leads each day.
So they literally followed Jesus but what does it mean for us to follow Him?
It's a lot the same. We can do just as the early church did,
Acts 2:42 They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
We can't sit at Jesus' literal feet but we can spend time with Him in His Word and in prayer, and worshiping and serving in a community of believers.
Following Jesus today still means getting to know Him. Growing to trust Him. Being influenced by Him. And maturing to love Him.
Without loving Jesus, we'll find it difficult to follow Him whenever a choice presents itself between Him and something else we love, for we'll choose that which we love most.
Following Jesus may look different every day. Choosing wisely, expressing love when it's hard to love, serving when it's inconvenient, forgiving someone not canceling them, speaking the truth in love, or sharing Jesus.
yet it may at times includes struggling with our unbelief and selfish pride, and struggling to deny our desires and our way of thinking. It means failing at times, hardly looking like His followers at all.
Yet being assured by Jesus, restored. So even in our failures, we are close with Him.
So fill your hearts with the knowledge of Christ. Understand and value His will. Love Jesus and allow yourself to be led by His Spirit. For following Jesus is a moment by moment trusting Him and letting His Spirit lead to you now.
To follow Jesus today is to behold the glory of God in the face of Christ, and to delight in Him and to know His Word, and in whatever challenge you face, say Yes to His Will, so long as you go before me, Lord.