The explicit logic, and the specific words, of Mark 8:34–38 leave little doubt about what Jesus was focusing on when he said, “Let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Here’s the text with the explicit logic indicators in italics (“for” used four times) along with some changes to the ESV wording to make the translation more consistent and literal:
Calling the crowd to him with his disciples, [Jesus] said to them, “If anyone desires to follow behind me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever desires to save his soul will lose it, but whoever loses his soul 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? 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.”
First, notice the near redundancy of saying in verse 34, “If anyone desires to follow behind me . . . let him follow me.” Since “let him follow me” does not inform us how to follow, I take this as a signal that all the focus is on the two commands that do indeed tell us how to follow Jesus; namely, “Let him deny himself and take up his cross.”
What Does ‘Take Up Your Cross’ Mean?
What would it signify if you were to take up your cross (not someone else’s)? At least four things:
Opposition: A cross was used to execute criminals who had the state of Rome in opposition to them.
Shame: This execution was reserved for the worst criminals, and the victim was usually naked on a cross for hours.
Suffering: This kind of execution was designed to prolong excruciating pain.
Death: The aim of crucifixion was death, not torture followed by release.
Therefore, when Jesus said that the way to follow him was to take up our cross, he meant at least this: Be willing (without murmuring, or God-criticism, or cowardice) to be opposed, to be shamed, to suffer, and to die — all for your allegiance to him. Or, to go to the heart of the matter, to “take up your cross” meant to treasure Jesus more than we treasure human approval, honor, comfort, and life. Our suffering is not a tribute to Jesus unless we endure it because we cherish Jesus. Taking up our cross means Jesus has become more precious to us than approval, honor, comfort, and life.
Denied and Denying
“Our suffering is not a tribute to Jesus unless we endure it because we cherish Jesus.”
What does it add to the command of cross-taking when Jesus precedes it with “Let him deny himself . . .”? It adds how we can do this most difficult task. Something must happen to us for us to be willing to take up our cross. Notice that Jesus introduces here a new self. If I deny myself, there is the “me” who is denying myself, and there is the “me” who is being denied. There is a denying self, and a denied self.
What’s the difference? When the old, denied self looks at the opposition, shame, suffering, and death Jesus calls for, it says, “No! I will not do that!” That old self loves human approval, honor, comfort, and life more than it loves Jesus.
But the new, denying self says to the old world-loving self, “You are not in charge any longer. I love Jesus more than human approval, honor, comfort, and life. So, I am ready to endure opposition, shame, suffering, and death. There is more gain in following Jesus, even with suffering, than there is in walking away from him, even with ten thousand earthly benefits.” That’s the way the new self talks.
That’s the command of verse 34: You are a new self. Act like it. Deny the old, comfort-craving self and embrace the superior joy of knowing Jesus, no matter how high the cost on this earth.
Logic in the Service of Love
Now comes a series of four arguments, or incentives, for obeying this command. Jesus signals these four argument with four logical connectors: “for . . . for . . . for . . . for.” This is the same as saying, “because . . . because . . . because . . . because.” Each argument is supported or grounded by the one following it. The mere fact that Jesus teaches in this logical way should make us sit up and take notice. It is a stereotype-shattering way of talking.
The stereotype is that logic and love don’t mix. Rationality and blood-earnestness don’t go together. Dying and deliberation are like oil and water. So, we are told that when we are being summoned to risk our lives, we are not being summoned to reason. It’s more passionate, more serious, more emotional than that.
Jesus does not embrace that stereotype. He is indeed calling us to die. He is indeed blood-earnest. He is indeed passionate and emotional. After all, he can already feel the horrors of his own cross weighing down on him. Nevertheless, he reasons. He argues. He treats us as whole persons, not as irrational, impulsive emotionalists. If we are not at home with the intermingling of love and logic, reason and earnestness, death and deliberation, it is we who need to grow up, not Jesus.
Argument #1: Lose Your Life to Save It
Why should the new self say, “No!” to the old comfort-craving self, and embrace the price of opposition, shame, suffering, and death for Jesus’s sake? The reason is given in verse 35:
“Because whoever desires to save his soul will lose it, but whoever loses his soul for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”
These two lines express two arguments for self-denial and cross-taking which are really two sides of the same argument. The first line is based on the assumption that we don’t want to lose our soul. The second line is based on the assumption that we do want to save our soul. Not wanting to lose the soul and wanting to save the soul are two sides of the same desire. Jesus is assuming such a desire exists and that it is good. Therefore, he appeals to it as a valid motive.
“Deny the old, comfort-craving self and embrace the superior joy of knowing Jesus.”
In the first line of verse 35, what does “desires to save his soul” refer to? It refers to what the old, comfort-craving self desires. It is the opposite of cross-taking. It is the human approval, honor, comfort, and safety that come from avoiding the cross. This is what must be “denied.” Why?
Because if the new self does not deny this kind of “soul-saving,” then all is lost: soul and everything. Jesus assumes that we do not want all to be lost. The new self does not want to perish. So, he argues, “Therefore, don’t save your soul from the cross! Lest you perish forever!”
The second line of verse 35 uses the same argument from the other side of the coin.
“Whoever loses his soul for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”
What does “loses his soul for my sake and the gospel’s” refer to back in verse 34? It refers to taking up the cross and losing human approval, and honor, and comfort, and life on this earth. If we do that, we will save our souls. We will not perish. Instead, the new self who says, “Yes!” to this cross-taking “loss” and denies the old, cross-avoiding self, will “save his soul” — that is, will live with Jesus forever.
Who Is the New, Self-Denying Self?
Notice how verse 35 clarifies who the new self is. The new self “loses his soul for my sake and the gospel’s.” So, a new person has come into being who loves Jesus and his gospel more than he loves human approval, honor, comfort, and life on this earth. This is the new self who denies the old comfort-craving self who tries to save itself by avoiding the cross.
The new self desires life no less than the old self. But these two selves find life in radically different places, and pursue it in radically different ways. The new self finds life in Jesus and his gospel. The old self finds life in maximizing this world’s affirmation, honor, comfort, and safety. The new self pursues fullness of life by losing life on this earth to “save it” forever. The old self pursues the fullness of life by saving life on this earth, and thus loses it forever.
Therefore, since saving life on earth loses it forever, and losing life on this earth saves it forever, by all means deny the suicidal, old comfort-craving self, take up your cross, and live with Jesus forever.
Argument #2: Zero Profit
“Taking up our cross means that our old praise-craving self has died.”
Verse 36 is an argument for verse 35. Why will you lose your soul, if you try to save it in this world by cross-avoidance?
“Because what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”
This is a rhetorical question. That is, no answer is given because it is assumed we all know the answer. The answer it assumes is “Zero profit.” So, converting the question and anticipated answer into a statement, it would go like this: “There is zero profit in owning the entire world, since that cannot save your soul.” The soul can’t be bought by all the wealth in the world.
How is that an argument for the statement in verse 35 that you will lose your soul if you try to save it by cross-avoidance? The assumption Jesus is addressing is that the worldly effort to save your soul (verse 35) will succeed if you can just amass enough of this world’s provisions and protections. To this assumption verse 36 says, “It won’t work! Because even if you gain all the world, you will still lose your soul.” So, verse 36 supports verse 35 by saying no amount of soul-saving effort will work, if your effort is aimed at getting as much of this world as you can.
Argument #3: Nothing Can Buy Your Soul
Now, verse 37 is an argument for verse 36. Why is gaining the whole world useless in saving the soul?
“Because what can a man give in return for his soul?”
Again, to see how this argument works, we need to convert the rhetorical question into a statement. It would go like this: “Because, there is nothing a man can give in return for his soul.” Or, to put it another way, “Nothing — absolutely nothing — can be paid to get the soul back from eternal loss.” Owning the whole world is pointless when it comes to rescuing the soul from loss (verse 36), because nothing — absolutely nothing in this created universe — can purchase the soul (verse 37).
Argument #4: Ashamed of Jesus
Finally, verse 38 is an argument for verse 37. Why is it that absolutely nothing can buy back the lost soul (verse 37)?
“Because 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.”
An unspoken assumption makes this argument work. Notice that the categories shift from being rich with this world in verse 37 to being ashamed of Jesus in verse 38. No amount of riches can save the soul at the day of judgment because Christ will be ashamed of people at the last day who were ashamed of him. How does that argument work?
The unspoken assumption that makes it work is this: The pursuit of riches in this world goes hand in hand with being ashamed of Jesus and his words. This makes sense, because it brings us back to taking up our cross in verse 35, which means embracing shame for Jesus’s sake.
Refusing the cross, and thus trying to save our lives in this world, is pursued mainly by amassing as much prosperity and protection as we can. We think that by gaining a large hunk of “the whole world” (verse 36) we can save our lives from the opposition, shame, suffering, and death of the cross. So, our deep desire to avoid being shamed in this world is a huge reason we try to accumulate wealth.
Fear of Shame Leads to Loving Money
Now we are ready to understand the way verse 38 supports verse 37. Verse 37 says, “Nothing — absolutely nothing — can be paid to get the soul back from eternal loss.” Why is that? Verse 38 answers, “Because the avoidance of being shamed for Jesus, which lurks behind your craving for money and comfort and security, will result in Jesus utterly turning his back on you at the last judgment.”
To the person who refused to take up his cross, Jesus says, “When I come on that day, all your shame-free days will be over. You will be turned away from heaven. I will be ashamed of you. I will turn my back on you, and you will enter an eternity of utter humiliation. Therefore, all your eighty years of shame-avoidance, and wealth-amassing will end with eternal shame and eternal loss.”
Don’t Forfeit Glory
To make clear what is at stake, Jesus mentions “the glory of his Father” and “the holy angels.” In this life, you refused to take up the cross of shame and suffering because you preferred the glory of man. And Jesus rubs in the utter insanity of this by pointing out that the audience you are trying to impress is “an adulterous and sinful generation”! You are choosing to forsake Jesus in order to gain the approval of adulterers and sinners!
That will prove to be a catastrophic exchange. Because in the end you will forfeit the greatest glory imaginable — the glory of God — and the greatest acclamation imaginable — the joy of a million sinless angels. In the end, that forfeit is what it means to “lose your soul” (verse 35).
Loss for Gain, Shame for Glory
“The mark of the new self is that it treasures Jesus and his words more than a lifetime of glory in this world.”
Notice one other connection between verses 38 and 35.
Verse 35: whoever loses his soul for my sake and the gospel’s . . . [will save his soul]
Verse 38: whoever is ashamed of me and of my words . . . [will lose his soul]
This parallel shows that losing our life in this world for Jesus’s sake means embracing gladly whatever shame — whatever embarrassment, humiliation, or degradation — the world heaps on us for standing by Jesus and his unpopular words. Acts 5:41 is a picture of this:
[The apostles] left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor [or to be shamed] for the name.
The deepest hindrance to following Jesus is not the love of money. It is deeper. Money is only a material means to our craved emotion. What we really want to avoid is being humiliated, being disrespected, being shamed. And what we really want is to be honored and praised and made much of.
Taking up our cross means that this old praise-craving self has died. And a new self has come into being. The mark of this new self in verse 35 is that it treasures Jesus and the gospel more than life itself. The mark of the new self in verse 38 is that it treasures Jesus and his words more than a lifetime of glory in this world.
Are You Ready to Die for Endless Joy?
But may it never be said that Jesus’s call to come and die with him has no positive incentive. Everything he says in Mark 8:34–38 is a passionate argument not to throw away our eternal lives for the sake of a few years of human wealth and glory. He is pleading with us to “save our lives” (verse 35) in eternity by losing them in this world, just like he said in John 12:25:
“Whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
He is pleading with us not to be deceived by the lie that owning all the world will do any good in the end. He is entreating us to look past the shame of the cross and see the glory of the Father and his holy angels. He is, we might say, summoning us to sing the last verse of George Matheson’s great hymn “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go.”
O cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
and from the ground there blossoms red
life that shall endless be.