Mark 8:34–38 (ESV)
34 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.”
It is interesting how this command is heard most often. It is sometimes understood to entail heroic stands against titanic foes. Such heroism provides its own reward. For others, “cross” carrying means bearing any sort of daily annoyance or perhaps putting up with a garrulous great aunt. However, cross-bearing is far more pervasive, far more profound than either of these. Many heroes, men and women, have given their lives for some cause. Many people bear with quietness the daily discomfort of other people.
Bruce makes plain that cross-bearing means something far more profound. Bearing the cross requires conformity of the disciple to the master, the believer to his Lord. Cross-bearing is the gracious act of the Holy Spirit in accordance with the plan of the Father:
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion …according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you. 1 Peter 1:1–2 (ESV)
There is an exegetical dispute as to whether “obedience” is the believer obeying Jesus or Jesus obeying his Father. While there are arguments made on both sides, the stronger arguments all lie with the obedience being of the believer to the command of Jesus Christ:
Although ὑπακοή and ῥαντισμός αἳματος are closely joined together as objects of the same preposition, the genitive Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ depends only on the latter. To attempt to link “Jesus Christ” both to “obedience” and “blood” would create difficulty by making it an objective genitive in relation to the first (i.e., obedience to Jesus Christ) and a possessive in relation to the second (i.e., Jesus Christ’s blood). Instead, obedience is used absolutely in the sense of a willing acceptance of the gospel.
J. Ramsey Michaels, vol. 49, Word Biblical Commentary : 1 Peter, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002), 11 (There are additional arguments in favor of the ESV’s translation, but Michaels’ point creates an insurmountable problem at the level of the construction of the sentence and the permissible use of language).
The gracious act of the Holy Spirit is to conform us to the image of the Son who was obedient to the Father. None of this means that obedience is the ground of our belief and rebirth. Faith is a gracious gift of God which does not stop at the recognition that Jesus is God incarnate who gave his life as a ransom for many. But the effect of grace does not stop at belief. Grace begins at the first instance of belief and continues to change us throughout our lives.
The gracious act of the Holy Spirit is to conform us to Jesus (Rom. 8:29). “The Spirit alone brings the cross of Christ into our hearts with its sin killing power; for by the Spirit are we baptized into the death of Christ” (John Owen, The Mortification of Sin).
Cross-bearing is a fundamental work of discipleship. Bruce explains:
Our perplexity, on the other hand, is apt to be just the reverse of this. Familiar with the doctrine that Jesus died on the cross in our room, we are apt to wonder what occasion there can be for our bearing a cross. If He suffered for us vicariously, what need, we are ready to inquire, for suffering on our part likewise? We need to be reminded that Christ’s sufferings, while in some respects peculiar, are in other respects common to Him with all in whom His spirit abides; that while, as redemptive, His death stands alone, as suffering for righteousness’ sake it is but the highest instance of a universal law, according to which all who live a true godly life must suffer hardship in a false evil world. And it is very observable that Jesus took a most effectual method of keeping this truth prominently before the mind of His followers in all ages, by proclaiming it with great emphasis on the first occasion on which He plainly announced that He Himself was to die, giving it, in fact, as the first lesson on the doctrine of His death: the first of four to be found in the Gospels. Thereby He in effect declared that only such as were willing to be crucified with Him should be saved by His death; nay, that willingness to bear a cross was indispensable to the right understanding of the doctrine of salvation through Him. It is as if above the door of the school in which the mystery of redemption was to be taught, He had inscribed the legend: Let no man who is unwilling to deny himself, and take up his cross, enter here.
In this great law of discipleship the cross signifies not merely the external penalty of death, but all troubles that come on those who earnestly endeavor to live as Jesus lived in this world, and in consequence of that endeavor. Many and various are the afflictions of the righteous, differing in kind and degree, according to times and circumstances, and the callings and stations of individuals. For the righteous One, who died not only by the unjust, but for them, the appointed cup was filled with all possible ingredients of shame and pain, mingled together in the highest degree of bitterness. [Emphasis added.]
To bear the cross, we must become like Jesus. We must become obedient to the Father in all things and must willing bear all things which flow from that obedience.
In discipleship, we are to leave aside our prior life; we are to give up the commitments to our own ease, to happiness according to our disposition, to any desire except to please or God who loved us and bought us with his own blood (Acts 20:28).
Jesus provides three reasons for bearing the cross: (1) the reward for such work is life. In this we should then see that cross-bearing and the mortification of sin are of one piece:
For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. Mark 8:35
For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. Romans 8:13 (ESV)
(2) The second rationale: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36). The refusal to bear the cross is a refusal to receive happiness and love and redemption at the hand of our Creator – it is madness to refuse such a thing. And yet discipleship is madness to the world.
(3) The third rationale: Jesus will return and there will be a judgment, “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” (Mark 8:38).