THE WAY OF THE DISCIPLE
He called the crowd to him, together with his disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and let him take up his cross, and let him follow me.”
This part of Mark’s gospel is so near the heart and centre of the Christian faith that we must take it almost sentence by sentence. If each day a man could go out with only one of these sentences locked in his heart and dominating his life, it would be far more than enough to be going on with.
Two things stand out here even at first sight.
(i) There is the almost startling honesty of Jesus. No one could ever say that he was induced to follow Jesus by false pretences. Jesus never tried to bribe men by the offer of an easy way. He did not offer men peace; he offered them glory. To tell a man he must be ready to take up a cross was to tell him he must be ready to be regarded as a criminal and to die.
The honesty of great leaders has always been one of their characteristics. In the days of the Second World War, when Sir Winston Churchill took over the leadership of the country, all that he offered men was “blood, toil, tears and sweat.” Garibaldi, the great Italian patriot, appealed for recruits in these terms: “I offer neither pay, nor quarters, nor provisions; I offer hunger, thirst, forced marches, battles and death. Let him who loves his country in his heart, and not with his lips only, follow me.” “Soldiers, all our efforts against superior forces have been unavailing. I have nothing to offer you but hunger and thirst, hardship and death; but I call on all who love their country to join with me.”
Jesus never sought to lure men to him by the offer of an easy way; he sought to challenge them, to waken the sleeping chivalry in their souls, by the offer of a way than which none could be higher and harder. He came not to make life easy but to make men great.
(ii) There is the fact that Jesus never called on men to do or face anything which he was not prepared to do and face himself. That indeed is the characteristic of the leader whom men will follow.
When Alexander the Great set out in pursuit of Darius, he made one of the wonder marches of history. In eleven days he marched his men thirty-three hundred furlongs. They were very nearly giving up, mainly because of thirst, for there was no water. Plutarch relates the story. “While they were in this distress, it happened that some Macedonians who had fetched water in skins upon their mules from a river they had found out came about noon to the place where Alexander was, and seeing him almost choked with thirst, presently fined an helmet and offered it to him. He asked them to whom they were carrying the water; they told him to their children, adding, that if his life were but saved, it was no matter for them, they should be well enough able to repair that loss, though they all perished. Then he took the helmet into his hands, and looking round about, when he saw all those who were near him stretching their heads out and looking earnestly after the drink, he returned it again with thanks without tasting a drop of it. `For,` he said, `if I alone should drink, the rest would be out of heart.’ The soldiers no sooner took notice of his temperance and magnanimity upon this occasion, but they, one and all, cried out to him to lead them forward boldly, and began whipping on their horses. For while they had such a king they said they defied both weariness and thirst, and looked upon themselves to be little less than immortal.” It was easy to follow a leader who never demanded from his men what he would not endure himself.
There was a famous Roman general, Quintus Fabius Cunctator. He was discussing with his staff how to take a difficult position. Someone suggested a certain course of action. “It will only cost the lives of a few men,” this counsellor said. Fabius looked at him. “Are you,” he said, “willing to be one of the few?”
Jesus was not the kind of leader who sat remote and played with the lives of men like expendable pawns. What he demanded that they should face, he, too, was ready to face. Jesus had a right to call on us to take up a cross, for he himself first bore one.
(iii) Jesus said of the man who would be his disciple, “Let him deny himself.” We will understand the meaning of this demand best if we take it very simply and literally. “Let him say no to himself.” If a man will follow Jesus Christ he must ever say no to himself and yes to Christ. He must say no to his own natural love of ease and comfort. He must say no to every course of action based on self-seeking and self-will. He must say no to the instincts and the desires which prompt him to touch and taste and handle the forbidden things. He must unhesitatingly say yes to the voice and the command of Jesus Christ. He must be able to say with Paul that it is no longer he who lives but Christ who lives in him. He lives no longer to follow his own will, but to follow the will of Christ, and in that service he finds his perfect freedom.
Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MARK
Back to: Barclay’s Commentary