If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. ESV This sentence in Mark is found almost word for word in Matthew 16:24 and Luke 9:23. Here in Mark it follows Peter’s attempt to get Jesus to listen to reason and stop talking nonsense about dying. ‘You are the Messiah, you can’t die.’
All three Synoptics include Peter’s statement that Jesus is the Messiah followed closely by Peter’s plea that Jesus should not die. All three have Jesus answering with, Get behind me Satan.
We tend to give Peter some sympathy, after all, he was just trying to protect his master. Peter has to be thinking, ‘I just said you are the promised Messiah from God. God cannot die.’ This point is the same one we often get hung up on. Jesus; human or God? When we have to say that he is both, our brain cells start snapping and shorting out. It’s like telling someone that tree bark tastes much better than milk chocolate. No…I don’t think so.
But Jesus is both. For 33 years he walked the earth as a human, and he died as a human. In all that time, except for his death, Jesus was in perfect communion with God. He always knew what God wanted him to do and he always did it.
Now, Jesus tells everyone who is thinking about following in his footsteps there is only one way to do it, think only of God.
If anyone wants to come after me, let him say ‘No’ to himself, take up his execution-stake, and keep following me. CJB
If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. NJB
If anyone wants to follow in my footsteps, he must give up all right to himself, take up his cross and follow me. Phillips
Two thousand years later how are we to take these words? The answer is, take them the same way the disciples did.
We need to understand what it meant in the First Century to be a disciple. The tradition came from ancient Greece. When Socrates was born some five centuries before Jesus, the pattern was already in place. When Socrates was the right age, he became a disciple of Parmenides (probably). For the next few years, he lived with his teacher, cooking, cleaning, and learning by listening to Parmenides. When Socrates was ready, he became a teacher and had Plato as one of his students.
Jewish rabbis copied the pattern. We know from the scriptures that Saul/Paul traveled to Jerusalem to become a disciple of Gamaliel. Generally, that happened at age 13. There were no set age limits, so when a disciple demonstrated his proficiency he could go out on his own. For many that was 8-10 years of schooling. But there was more work to be done. Generally, a rabbi could take on disciples about the age of 30. In between, he could teach students who would come and go as they pleased. That meant the young rabbi had to fend for himself.
It is interesting to consider that Jesus called his disciples when he was about 30. Does that mean he was a disciple before then? There is no hint in the Gospels, but it is certainly possible. The story of him in the Temple at the age of 12 should suggest that any of the great rabbis who heard him would have rushed to get him signed up. I think the old image of Jesus growing up in poverty working as a carpenter is wrong. If nothing else, carpenters earned good money.
All right, what does it mean for Peter, et. al. to follow Jesus? They took turns washing clothes, cooking meals, running errands, but always listening to what Jesus had to say.
The key here is that Peter had no other life. He was married. He had a family. He owned a business. Yet, he spent three years traveling with his master. The same was true of several of the others, if not all. What did the wives think? Most likely, they kept the homes going.
But remember that those three years were the learning years, and it was much shorter than most students had to learn their master’s teachings. It is not likely that any of the Twelve were boys. They were probably twenty and older.
It is in Acts and the letters that we get the true picture of what it means to follow Jesus. There is no time off. Paul is the most complete picture of the life of discipleship. Peter, John, and James give us some more information. We only have legends about the others. If we believe the legends, Thomas is buried in about thirty different towns in India.
Paul worked for a living and preached and taught when he could. It is likely that he taught while he was making tents. He was always on call. He would leave his tents to go to anyone who needed him.
All of them were willing to suffer when it was necessary. James was beheaded. Stephen was stoned. Jesus’ brother James was executed. Peter was crucified. We know those and others died rather than deny Jesus.
Where does that leave us? Most of us will need to spend forty years earning a living, but we should be doing it in a way that God will approve. Any occupation which can cause people harm should be avoided. That may be too vague but that is the standard. Yes, as a teacher, I harmed some students. Hopefully, most were unharmed and even built up. You need to listen to what God says about your own job.
We who live in the USA need to put away money for retirement because on average we can expect to live to age 80. Does that mean we never give money for hurricane relief? No, but it does mean we have to pick and choose who gets our money. There are thousands of charities. Pick the one, two, three that you most want to help.
More importantly, give your time as much as possible; remembering that raising children is a Christ centered duty, so don’t stint on them.
Take care of yourself. Eat and sleep right. Relax as you can. If you take a cruise, don’t forget that the people who pamper you are paid below minimum wage; tip generously.
In other words, figure out what God wants of you.
Be righteous and do good.