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Discipleship: Deny Yourself, Take up the Cross, and Follow Jesus


In order to be a follower of Jesus, he requests three steps: Deny yourself, take up the cross, and follow him.


How can a person forget himself or herself to follow Jesus? It means giving up our sinful selves and worldly aspirations for the sake of God. It is a life dedicated to building up the Kingdom of God through selfless service, of which Jesus is the best example. Paul articulates the concept thus: “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others. Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:3-11).

When a rich man approached Jesus asking what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus said, “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” That was the self-denial Jesus asked of him. “At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions” (Mk 10:17-22). He could not deny himself by renouncing his wealth. That was his hindrance to becoming a follower of Jesus and his ambition to inherit eternal life.

The apostles left their family, profession, house, and other possessions. They became examples of self-forgetfulness themselves. Peter asked Jesus, “We have given up our possessions and followed you.” He said to them, “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not receive back an overabundant return in this present age and eternal life in the age to come” (Lk 18:28-30). So, Jesus promised a reward of joy in this world and in the afterlife for those who give up the self for the Kingdom of God.

Forgetting oneself also involves risking one’s life for the sake of the kingdom. The apostles and the early Christian community took this risk, and many became martyrs. Throughout the history of the Church, and even now, we have thousands of missionaries and other Christians who leave everything to take up the mission of Jesus.


The cross was originally a symbol of curse, torture, and punishment. When Jesus accepted it in expression of his sacrificial, redemptive love for humanity, it received a spiritual dimension. Jesus’ statement about each of us taking up our respective cross implies that all have sufferings of their own in this world that we have to bear with Jesus for his mission. This cross is not what people naturally face, but the challenges one voluntarily takes up for the sake of God’s Kingdom.

A precondition to becoming a disciple of Jesus is, essentially, taking up the cross and following him (Mt 10:38; Lk 14:27). Luke adds carrying of the cross on a “daily” basis: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23). Though crucifixion was the culmination of the sacrifice of Jesus, his whole life from the time of incarnation was filled with sufferings of daily life. So also, the disciple’s daily life should be a voluntary self-sacrifice for his mission.

The Cross went on to become a well-accepted symbol of Christianity with the conversion of Constantine the Great (313 BC). Based on his vision of the cross, he used it as the standard for his army. Christians use the sign of the cross in remembrance of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The true veneration of the cross lies in the rejection of earthly ambitions, acceptance of life’s hardships, and willingness to risk life for the preservation and propagation of the faith.

Paul describes how he faced challenges for Jesus: “I am better than they with my numerous laborers; better than they with the time spent in prison. The beatings I received are beyond comparison. How many times have I found myself in danger of death! Five times the Jews sentenced me to thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with a rod, once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked, and once I spent a night and a day adrift on the high seas. On my frequent travels I have been in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my fellow Jews, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the open country, danger at sea, and danger from false brothers. I have worked and often labored without sleep; I have been hungry and thirsty and starving, cold and without shelter. Besides these and other things, there was the stress day after day of my concern for all the Churches” (1 Cor 11:23-28).

A literal example of carrying the cross was Simon of Cyrene, who helped Jesus to carry his cross on the way to Calvary (Mt 27:32). The soldiers had to press him to carry the cross because he was worried that the onlookers might misunderstand him as the one condemned for crucifixion. That Simon is remembered always in salvation history. When we carry the cross with Jesus, he will walk with us to make our shame and burden light. So, Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Mt 11:28-30).


Following Jesus, unlike becoming the disciple of the Rabbis of the time, is a lifelong commitment to dedicate one’s life to his mission. That involves renouncing personal gain, rising to the hardships of the mission, and imitating Jesus. Following Jesus involves the willingness to face the challenges, endure suffering and rejection, and even suffer martyrdom. The outcome of such discipleship is reward in heaven that no other Rabbi or leader can offer – “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Lk 9:24). Only Jesus can assure a rewarding life after death. That makes Jesus different from other world leaders.

The verse, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mk 8:34) was primarily a reply to Peter, who tried to convince Jesus to get out of his impending passion. Peter and the other disciples have to follow the same path as that of Jesus by taking up the cross, carry it throughout their lives, and offer their lives for building up of the Church. Their sacrificial lives and death led them to eternal glory.

When Jesus eschewed the very prospects of overthrowing Roman rule and establishing a kingdom in this world, the apostles were disappointed. So, Peter sought to clarify with Jesus as follows, “‘We have given up everything and followed you. What will there be for us?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Amen, I say to you that you who have followed me, in the new age, when the Son of Man is seated on his throne of glory, will yourselves sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life” (Mt 19:27-29). That gave the disciples hope.

In the past, the emperor or king led the army on the battlefield. That was dangerous for the king because he would become the primary target of the enemy. The boldness and sacrificial leadership of the king gave enthusiasm to the soldiers on the battlefield. In the spiritual battle, Jesus led the disciples from the front, risking his life. Many who followed him also took such bold steps and became martyrs. His sufferings and victory gave the Christians self-confidence and enthusiasm to fight against the spiritual enemy and to spread the Kingdom of God.

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