Towards the end of Mark 8 the Lord was speaking to very ordinary people and very ordinary disciples, and through them to us. But, as is so frequently true, these very simple statements of the Lord Jesus are found, on examination. to be very profound.
The command to deny oneself and take up the cross, Mark 8. 34, is firmly rooted in the statement of the Lord concerning His own suffering and death, v. 31. But that gave offence to Peter who, with the best will in the world, tried to deflect the Lord from that course of action. By so doing he became the instrument of the evil one to tempt the Lord, the speaker of Satan’s words Mark tells us that Peter “began to rebuke” the Lord when He spoke of His death, while Matthew gives Peter’s actual words, “Be it far from thee. Lord: this shall not be unto thee”, Matt. 16. 22. The word which Matthew uses, literally rendered, means “gracious”, “merciful”, so the implication is, “God forbid”, “May God in His mercy spare you (from that)”. It is here that we find the key to the meaning of self-denial.
There are certain basic instincts essential to human life, of which perhaps the strongest is that of self-preservation. That was the course of action to which well-meaning Peter tried to urge the Lord: it was, indeed, a natural attitude, but the Lord rightly diagnosed the source of the suggestion. Let us not forget the reality of the Manhood of the Master. As we approach the end, we see the poignancy of the situation, the Lord speaks of His state of heart. His soul is troubled, John 12. 27. There is an apparent choice, to cry “Father, save me from this hour”, or “Father, glorify thy name”, and as the Lord indicates the choice had already been made as was shown by His purpose in coming; in the agony in the garden that choice was re-iterated. Here was real Man facing the fact that He must deny this primary instinct of any man, for by His own volition He was to die. Of course there was far more to it than that. This was to be a unique death, for in dying for man He was submitting Himself to the judgment of God, with depths that we can never plumb nor understand. But we stress that it was a very real self-denial for Him. Peter did not understand this; he must learn something of the significance of this death, in fact of the cost of the Christian way as a whole. So he is warned that Christian discipleship means the same sort of path. As Peter himself told us later, Christ died, leaving us an example that we should follow His steps, and Jesus Himself reminded His followers that the disciple is not above his Lord.
What is the actual meaning of the word “cross” in Mark 8. 34? If tradition is correct, it did mean a literal cross for Peter, and literal death for many other disciples involving an element of shame though not necessarily crucifixion. Down through the ages, even to this present century, it has meant death to thousands of His followers. For many others of us, who live in more comfortable circumstances, this has nqt been the case, and as we gladly escape the physical suffering that it would have involved, we may well miss the principle it seeks to inculcate. The principle is stated in Mark 8. 34, 35. It is a principle of life and death: (i) life retained for myself, for my own interests and desires, means death, while (ii) the true following of Jesus, which alone means real life, must involve death in some way, even if not physically. This is the truth which Paul sets forth in Galatians 2. 20. It is death, i.e„ the end or cessation of life lived my way, for the furtherance of my pur poses, desires and profit. An illustration may make this clearer.
The sun shone, there were crowds oy the seaside, and one young man moved along the front interested in his photography. He sat on the seawall near to me and we got into conversation. He came, it appears, from a famous Public School. He was aged nineteen, happily settled in a job and now on holiday He quite readily accepted some Christian literature, at the same time openly stating that he managed to live without “religion” (while I tried to speak of a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ). But he was prepared to keep the literature for the occasion when his need might arise. The details of that conversation are not relevant here, except for one question he asked me. “Do you do this (i.e., speak to others and give Christian literature) to benefit other people, or for the personal satisfaction it gives you?” I don’t think I have ever been asked such a question before, though I have met thousands in such personal contact: in fact I thought it a good and profound question for a nineteen-year-old I had to answer him honestly: I admitted I did enjoy doing it, but the object was to help others. We parted on friendly terms, he, I hope, soon to look at my little book for I suggested the realit y of a present need, while I have pondered his question. He was not altogether wrong, for if one is at all burdened with a sense of the need around us, there is a little easing of conscience if one feels that one has made even so slight an effort.
He was a likeable young chap, and it was a pleasure to talk to him. Of course I should try to help him; there is a Christian duty to witness. Vet there is but little self-denial involved where duty and desire run in parallel lines, where they may seem to focus on the same person (except perhaps finding the courage to start at all). But suppose instead of this clean, intelligent individual it had been one unkempt and dirty, far gone on drugs or the worse for drink? I am sure that then rationalization would have worked overtime I I should have found plenty of reasons why this could not be the Lord’s will; the time was not convenient, or it needed someone with specialized training to deal with such! Now that might well have been true; not everyone is suited to tackle every type of person by any means. It might well be advisable for someone with experience of this type to act in such a case. But also it might not have been true. Or supposing this was in another land where lack of political liberty meant the possible risk of police interference. Again one might rationalize to explain away human unwillingness, and it might well be inadvisable to act in such circumstances. But the converse might be true. If in either of these two latter cases there had been clear leading from the Lord (and one would need to be sure of that), what then? In the one case a sense of distaste, in the other a risk of danger: would self-denial have operated? It involved the instinct of self-preservation, literally of life, if there were grave danger implied, or of wellbeing. good taste and sensibility if distaste threatened. It made me think seriously, for that is what self-denial is all about.
Following the Lord Jesus may involve something which threatens my life, or my established way of life, my amour propre, my position; the shame of the cross may bring real suffering even if it is not physical. Does this seem tough? But so were the terms of discipleship as laid down in the closing verses of Mark 8. Many years ago I consulted a well-known Christian who had remarkable experiences in personal work. I told him that I would never have the nerve, the courage, to face up to such experiences. His reply was nothing if not brief and to the point. “Do you really love Him?”, he asked, “for there is no fear in love: but perfect love casteth out fear”, 1 John 4. 18. So clearly self-denial, or a lack of it, is in no small measure dependent on the reality of love. Let us revert to the earlier illustration about tackling someone the worse for drink. I must admit that when I have been on the underground, travelling in the same coach as such a man, I have been much relieved when the time has come for me, or him, to alight. I have a shrewd suspicion that some of my Salvation Army brethren would go across and sit where he sits, to see if it is possible to render any assistance Clearly they have much more experience than I, but perhaps also I have a tremendous amount to learn from others about real self-denial.