Are you a follower of Jesus? Or are you just a Christian? Hmm. What does it mean to be a true follower of Jesus? Today we want to look at what it really means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
We hear on a regular basis that Vanuatu is a Christian nation. That may be a very good thing. When we consider the history of Vanuatu, we must certainly understand that early Christian missionaries gave their lives for the sake of the people of these islands.
- In 1839, John Williams and John Harris gave their lives at Dillon’s Bay on Erromango.
- In 1848, John Geddie and Thomas Powell went to Aneityum and eventually translated the New Testament with the help of an islander named Williamu.
- Other Christian missionaries such as George Gordon and his wife and brother gave their lives for the gospel on Erromango.
- Christian missionary John G. Paton brought the good news of the gospel to the islands of Tanna and Aniwa.
- Many others came and shared the gospel of Jesus Christ, that Christ died for our sins as had been prophesied, that he was buried, and that he rose again from the dead that we might be declared just before God, just as the Scriptures had promised.
Christian foundations were laid. The gospel of Jesus Christ changed lives and with the changed lives, there were new values. The old practices such as cannibalism, infanticide, and the sacrifice of the wives after the death of their husbands were abandoned. For many, Christianity brought a new life of love and joy, of hope and peace. The foundation was laid so that the politicians who forged independence chose the national motto: Long God yumi stanap. Every time you pass a 1000vt bill, you pass the message “long God yumi stanap.”
But Christianity cannot simply be written into constitutions, or our monetary notes, or other important documents. Christianity must be written into the hearts of every individual. Declaring that Vanuatu is a Christian nation may call us back to Christian values which recognize the worth, value, and dignity of every human life, whether boy or girl, child or adult, young of old, born or unborn. That means that we will not kill widows, nor the aged, nor the unborn. And it means that we will love our enemies. But declaring that the nation is a Christian nation will not make us love our enemies. There has to be a change of heart for that to take place.
And so, we must not think that we are Christians simply because we have a Christian heritage. We must not think that we are Christians simply because our parents were Christians, or that we are deacons in the church, or that we are in a Christian nation. Jesus said to one of the most religious men of his day, “You must be born again.”
As so we ask ourselves, “What does it mean to be a Christian?” Or better yet, “What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ?”
1. The Turning Point in the Gospel of Mark
We have been walking our way through the Gospel of Mark. In this eighth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, we come to a turning point. Up to this point, Jesus has not revealed his identity as the Christ.
- Mark has told us that he is the Son of God (Mark 1:1).
- God Himself has declared at Jesus’ baptism that Jesus is “my beloved Son in him I am well pleased” (1:11).
The demons have identified Jesus as
- The Holy One of God (1:24),
- The Son of God (3:11), and
- The Son of the Most High God (5:7)
Jesus has spoken of himself as
- The Son of Man (2:10, 28), and
- The Lord of the Sabbath (2:28).
But the people have failed to grasp who Jesus actually is. They have had different ideas. The Jewish scribes, who were enemies of Jesus, said that he got his power from Satan. Some others, who thought more favorable about Jesus, thought that he was empowered by the spirit of John the Baptist who had been beheaded by King Herod. Some thought that Jesus was the one that the prophet Malachi had promised would come in the spirit and the power of Elijah. Still others thought that he was one of the Old Testament prophets.
All of those designations were woefully short of who Jesus was. Just as today, some people say that he was a great teacher and some say that he was even a god, the Bible reveals that he is much more than a great teacher or a prophet or even a god.
Jesus asks his own disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”
In Luke’s version, we read,
Luke 9:20 ESV …And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.”
Matthew’s version is the fullest:
Matthew 16:16 ESV Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ, but he had no idea that the Christ would have to suffer. He only saw Christ as a conqueror, one who had great power and who would liberate the nation of Israel from Roman rule.
Only when Peter had made his confession that Jesus was the Christ, did Jesus begin to tell his disciples about his mission as the Christ:
Mark 8:31 ESV And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.
This mission of suffering and rejection and death comes as a complete shock to Peter and the disciples. Peter rebukes Jesus for such a thought, but Jesus in turn rebuked Peter in the strongest of terms for seeing things from a merely human point of view rather than from God’s point of view.
Jesus uses the word “must.” The word “must” implies that it was a divine necessity. The word “must” controls and modifies the entire sentence: the Son of Man must suffer, he must be rejected, he must die, and he must rise again. Jesus is not simply saying, “I have come to die.” He is saying, “I have to die.” “It’s absolutely necessary that I die.” This was absolutely shocking to the disciples who thought that evil would be overcome by power, not by suffering and death.
No one knew that Jesus came to give his life away.
2. The Mission of the Christ
The Christ was the one promised by the Old Testament prophets, even beginning in the third chapter of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. When Adam and Eve rebelled against God, God himself provided a covering for them and promised that a many times great grandson of Eve would crush the serpent’s head.
Abraham offered his son Isaac as a picture of God offering His own Son as a sacrifice for our sins, and yet the God who provides provided a ram in place of Isaac.
The whole Old Testament system of sacrifices pointed to the one who would end all sacrifices, offering his own blood as a sacrifice for us.
Why can God not simply forgive? Why does there need to be a sacrifice? Why did Jesus say that he “must” die?
Suppose you come to my house and accidentally sit on my iPhone and crack the screen so that it does not work. I say to you, “That will be 100,000vt please.” Or, I can say, “That’s okay. I forgive you.” In that case, what happened to the 100,000vt? If I forgive you for breaking my iPhone, I bear the cost of buying a new iPhone, or I do without. But I am the one who suffers. But someone has to bear the cost. Either you bear the cost, or I bear the cost. When I forgive you, I bear the cost.
We have all sinned against God. The price of sin is eternal death, eternal separation from God. But if we come to God with hearts that are broken over our sin and if we repent of our sins, he will forgive us. But how does he forgive us? He bears the cost. That is why the eternal Son of God went to the cross. He went to bear our sins and the pay the price, to bear the cost and the penalty for our sins so that we might be reconciled to God and brought back into fellowship with him both now and for eternity.
The Jews had failed to see this in the Scriptures. The trusted in their animal sacrifices, but the sacrifice of animals cannot remove our sins. Animals are not created in the image of God as we are. Animals are not voluntary victims. The writer to the Hebrews tells us,
Hebrews 10:4 ESV For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
There were Old Testament passages about the Christ, that is, the Messiah. There were also Old Testament passages about the Suffering Servant such as Isaiah 53 which says that he would bear our sins and iniquities. The Jews had failed to see that the Christ, the Messiah, would also be the Suffering Servant. The Apostle Peter explains that even the Old Testament prophets tried to understand how the prophecies fit together:
1 Peter 1:10-11 NLT This salvation was something even the prophets wanted to know more about when they prophesied about this gracious salvation prepared for you. 11 They wondered what time or situation the Spirit of Christ within them was talking about when he told them in advance about Christ’s suffering and his great glory afterward.
3. The Terms of Discipleship
Once the disciples recognized that Jesus was the Christ, Jesus began to teach them what that meant. He began to teach them about the true nature of his mission, that he would suffer, and be rejected, and die, and after three days rise again.
If Jesus goes to the cross, what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? If Jesus chooses the way of the cross, what does it mean to follow him?
Beginning in Mark 8:34, Jesus calls crowd and spells out the terms of discipleship.
Mark 8:34-9:1 ESV And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 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.”
9:1 And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.”
We are looking at the question of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, what it means to be a true Christian. Jesus very clearly lays down the terms, the conditions of following him. He is not talking to a special elite group of people. What he says is not limited to his 12 disciples. Mark very clearly tells us that Jesus “called the crowd to him with his disciples.” The conditions for being a Christian are laid down not only for the 12 disciples, but also for the crowd. In fact, in addressing the crowd, Jesus uses the word “anyone.”
Mark 8:34 ESV … ”If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
That means you. That means me. Jesus spells out the cost of discipleship for you and me. He tells us what it will cost to follow him. He tells us what it will cost each of us to be a Christian.
A Christian is not one who is born of Christian parents, or raised in a Christian church, or born in a Christian nation. A Christian is one who follows in the footsteps of Christ.
4. Self-Denial and the Way of the Cross
The way of Jesus was the way of the cross. It was the way of self-denial. The Jesus way is the way of death to self. Just as Jesus took the way of self-denial and the way of the cross, he tells us that anyone who would come after him must also deny themselves and take the way of the cross. We find this throughout the New Testament:
Philippians 2:5-8 NLT You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. 6 Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. 7 Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, 8 he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
2 Corinthians 8:9 NLT You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich.
The night before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed to the Father,
Luke 22:42 ESV saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”
Jesus explains why we must deny ourselves:
Mark 8:35 ESV For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.
The instinct of self-preservation is ultimately self-defeating. Timothy Keller explains,
Jesus is not saying, “I want you to lose your sense of being an individual self.” That’s a teaching of Eastern philosophy, and if he meant that, he would have said, “You must lose yourself to lose yourself.”
This is not eastern mysticism or the loss of our personhood. It is not our absorption into the nothingness of nirvana.
Rather it is laying down our rights of self-determination at the feet of the king. We no longer sing, I did it my way.
We no longer claim to be masters of our own fate.
Rather we come to recognize that God is on a mission of redemption and he has graciously invited us to join him in that mission. We lay aside our petty agendas to embrace something infinitely greater than ourselves : the agenda of the King of kings and the Lord of lords.
We lose ourselves for the sake of Christ and in losing ourselves, we find ourselves in Christ and discover who we were created to be.
Jim Elliot was a missionary to the Auca Indians in South America. Before losing his life at the end of a spear, he wrote in his diary, “He is no fool who loses what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.”
Jesus says, “Whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Jesus tells us that the way to save our lives, is to lose our lives for Christ’s sake.
When Jesus speaks here of saving our lives, he is speaking of more than mere physical existence. He is speaking of the core of our existence, our “personhood,” our identity.
So many people are trying to find themselves. They are trying to find their identity. They do not know who they are and they are continually searching and trying to identify themselves or to carve out an identity for themselves.
Never before in the history of the world has there been so much confusion about identity. Today people wrestle with sexual orientation and gender identity. In some cultures, boys are taught to wonder if they are girls, and girls are taught to wonder if they are boys. These are questions that our grandparents would not even have understood.
At the hospital when a baby is delivered, the doctor never wonders what kind of a baby it is. If it’s a boy, the attending physician will declare, “It’s a boy!” If it’s a girl, he will declare, “It’s a girl!” No one is confused about that.
Accepting your maleness or your femaleness is recognizing God’s sovereignty in your life. He has created us male or female according to his own good will for us. And it is not hard to figure out what he created us to be.
Beyond that, some people are constantly trying to find themselves, to “discover” who they are. They may focus an inordinate amount of attention on their own selves to the point of idolizing themselves, making an idol out of their own bodies, worshiping themselves, abusing themselves, and doing all that they can to draw attention to themselves.
Others try to build their identity on gaining a place in the world.
Every culture points to certain things and says, “If you gain [these things], if you acquire or achieve [these things], then you’ll have a self, you’ll know you’re valuable.” Traditional cultures would say you’re nobody unless you gain the respectability and legacy of family and children. In individualistic cultures it’s different; the culture says you’re nobody unless you gain a fulfilling career that brings money, reputation, and status. Regardless of such differences, though, every culture says identity is performance-based, achievement-based.
To that, Jesus says,
Mark 8:36 ESV For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?
We focus on our success and will take whatever measures are necessary to achieve it. We have our agenda, our plans for our success. We may be pursuing wealth or fame, but we have our aspirations and our goals. We have our eyes fixed on some prize that will win us the applause of others, and we think that when we achieve that, we will be happy. We will have found ourselves. We will be somebody.
Perhaps we try to find our identity in our relationships. One popular song proclaimed, “You’re nobody ’til somebody loves you.” Well, someone has loved you.
Romans 5:8 ESV but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
We have a hard time understanding how people who have reached the pinnacle of success will end it all. We learn of the tragic endings of people like Robin Williams or Whitney Houston and wonder why.
For all their searching, they did not find life.
“Learning to love yourself” is not “the greatest love of all.” The greatest love of all is loving the “Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind,” Jesus said (Mark 12:30).
Mark 8:35 NLT If you try to hang on to your life, [Jesus said,] you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it.
We were created for God. We were created to serve his purpose. We were created to know him, and to love him, and to glorify him by enjoying him forever.
But this is not simply some abstract notion of God. Jesus said that if we give up our lives for his sake and for the sake of the gospel, we will save it. We find ourselves in serving others, in loving others, in sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with others.
Whether you are a father or mother, or carpenter or plumber, or secretary or company executive, you will find your life in letting Christ set your agenda. Let him be the King of your home, your work, your community service. Let his principles dictate how you conduct your business for then your business will be the King’s business. Certain activities will stop. You will no longer be engaged in those activities which destroy lives. You will give yourself to those things which promote good rather than evil, righteousness rather than wickedness.
If your agenda is the end, then Jesus is just the means; you’re using him. But if Jesus is the King, you cannot make him a means to your end. You can’t come to a king negotiating. You lay your sword at a king’s feet and say, “Command me.” If you try to negotiate instead, if you say, “I’ll obey you if . . . ,” you aren’t recognizing him as a king. But don’t forget this: Jesus is not just a king; he’s a king on a cross. If he were only a king on a throne, you’d submit to him just because you have to. But he’s a king who went to the cross for you. Therefore you can submit to him out of love and trust. This means coming to him not negotiating but saying, “Lord, whatever you ask I will do, whatever you send I will accept.” When someone gave himself utterly for you, how can you not give yourself utterly to him? Taking up your cross means for you to die to self-determination, die to control of your own life, die to using him for your agenda.
5. The Infinite Value of Your Soul
Mark 8:36-37 NLT And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? 37 Is anything worth more than your soul?
Jesus tells us that the man who has traded his soul to gain the world, has made a poor bargain indeed. Nothing compares to the value of your eternal soul. Nothing but God himself. Lose your soul for his sake, entrust your personhood, your identity, your eternal existence to him. Lose it all for him. He will preserve it for you. It is in denying ourselves, dying to ourselves, and following him, that we find out who we were really meant to be. It is in dying to ourselves, and living for Christ, that we find life.
The Apostle Paul said it like this,
Galatians 2:20 ESV I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
C. S. Lewis closes his book Mere Christianity with this:
Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, the death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and the death of your whole body in the end: Submit with every fiber of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.
Jesus invites you to follow him on the way of the cross:
Mark 8:34 NIVO … “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
 Keller, Timothy (2013-03-05). Jesus the King: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God (p. 95). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Keller, Timothy (2013-03-05). Jesus the King: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God (p. 102). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Edwards Jr., James R. (2009-10-05). The Gospel according to Mark (Pillar New Testament Commentary) (Kindle Locations 10585-10587). Eerdmans Publishing Co – A. Kindle Edition.
 Keller, Timothy (2013-03-05). Jesus the King: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God (p. 102). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Keller, Timothy (2013-03-05). Jesus the King: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God (pp. 104-105). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Keller, Timothy (2013-03-05). Jesus the King: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God (p. 106). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
See also “Gospel of Mark”: