To Follow Jesus

Jesus admonished his disciples that if anyone wished to come after him, “let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” This was more than metaphorical or hyperbolic language. It was said at the very time he was on his final journey to Jerusalem where he would demonstrate to the world just what it meant to “deny oneself and take up the cross.”

The historical context shows just how challenging his words were. At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus began telling his disciples that he “MUST go to Jerusalem and suffer many things of the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed and raised up the third day.”

In the preceding statement, the Greek term rendered “must” represents the verb dei, meaning, “it is necessary, ought, needful, obligatory, it must happen.” This points to his messianic mission. He was under divine compulsion to walk into a situation that he knew meant certain death - (Matthew 16:21-23).


To this, Peter took great exception. The very idea of a suffering Messiah was contrary to popular expectations, and no devout Jew would tolerate even the suggestion that the king of Israel might suffer death at the hands of his enemies.

Adding to the offense was the idea that the machinations of the religious leaders of the Jewish people would cause the execution of Yahweh’s anointed king.

Recognizing Satan’s hand in Peter’s words, Jesus rebuked him. “Get behind me, Satan!” The name “Satan” is derived from the Hebrew word that means “adversary,” and the Devil was using him to thwart Christ from following the path set for him by his Father.

As he would show at Gethsemane, death by crucifixion was not what Jesus desired. But in the end, he submitted to it and “denied himself,” knowing it was the will of God for him to die for the sake of others (“Not my will, but yours be done!”).

It was at this very point when the Devil attempted to steer him away from his mission that Jesus declared to the disciples - “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever would save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it” – (Matthew 16:24-25).


An incorrect understanding of what it meant to be the Messiah would result in a misunderstanding of what it means to be his disciple. Just as God called His Son to a path of self-denial and suffering, the Messiah summons his disciples to follow his same path. The call to take up the cross and follow Jesus is applicable to every disciple.

This does not mean every disciple must be persecuted and endure martyrdom. But his use of the Roman cross to illustrate how one follows him would certainly have shocked his first-century audience where the cross was a repugnant image of suffering and shame. Moreover, nothing symbolized the irresistible power of Rome more than crucifixion.

Execution by crucifixion was a form of capital punishment inflicted on the lower classes, especially rebellious slaves and political revolutionaries. Romans were so horrified by it that by law citizens of Rome were exempt from crucifixion (Roman citizens guilty of capital crimes were beheaded).

Thus, to follow Jesus in THAT WAY meant submitting to something that was offensive to Jewish sensibilities and despised by the Gentile world.

In the Greek text of Matthew, Jesus uses the present tense form of the verb rendered “follow,” and this stresses an ongoing action. This is not just a call to pick up the cross once but to do so continuously. The version of his words in Luke stresses the point by adding the word “daily” – (Luke 9:23).

The image of a disciple taking up the cross “daily” would strike a grim chord with his disciples, even more so since the Roman practice was to force the condemned man to carry the same cross on which he was to be hung to the place of execution.

Despite his explanation and the strong rebuke of Peter, the disciples did not yet comprehend what it meant to follow Jesus. Later, after the “sons of Zebedee” asked to sit on either side of Jesus “when you come in your kingdom,” he asked in response, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” And, of course, they replied, “Yes! No problem. We are well able. Bring it on!” However, they had no idea what his words meant. As he explained:

  • You know that the rulers of nations dominate them, and their great ones tyrannize them. But it will not be so among you. Whoever would become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever would be first among you shall be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”


And Jesus used his own death to illustrate his point. The Greek term rendered “servant” referred to household servants that waited on tables, a lowly position most often assigned to a slave. And the Greek noun rendered “slave” means exactly that.

Hence, the Messiah of Israel summons his followers to serve others in ways viewed by the world as menial and humiliating. Only in this way do they become “great” in his kingdom.

His description of the “Son of Man” who gives his life as a “ransom for many” echoes words in the book of Isaiah about Yahweh’s “servant” who suffers for the sins of his people – “because he poured out his soul unto death and was numbered with the transgressors, yet he bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors” – (Isaiah 53:12).

And so, following Jesus means humility, self-denial, and self-sacrificial service to others. And for his disciples, this is not optional. As he warned, the one who “does not take his cross and follow me, IS NOT WORTHY OF ME. And he that finds his life shall lose it, but he that loses his life for my sake shall find it.


His Superior Word

The Mission