Posts Tagged ‘Discipleship’

Death – An Essential Condition For Discipleship

April 28, 2015

Discipleship and death are inextricably intertwined. Discipleship is not possible without death. A disciple should, first and foremost, learn how to die – learn to die to some of the inherited legacies, traditions, assumptions and worldview.

The Greek term for “learning” or “education” is Paideia. This term denotes deep education, not cheap schooling, with an attention to what is authentic and important, not what is fleeting. So Paideia has to do with the formation of attention so the student moves from focusing on frivolous things to serious things, from superficial things to substantial things. In order for a student to do that he/she has to adopt a philosophy of Socratic questioning – Socratic unwillingness to accept convention without reflective evaluation. A student’s (or disciple’s) critical education should challenge his/her inherited legacies, traditions, presuppositions and worldview with an aim to learn what is authentic and important. It is an attitude of critical engagement with oneself and society – a proactive process of questioning and learning. In other words, deep education or learning has to do with a radical reordering of perception.

Jesus demanded the radical reordering of perception when he rebuked Peter at Caesarea Philippi, “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mk. 8.33). This is in response to Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ prediction about his suffering, death and resurrection. Till this point, i.e. Mk 1-8.26, the disciples have witnessed tremendous displays of power and authority in the ministry of their master Jesus Christ, and people receiving new and astonishing teachings, liberation from oppression and restoration to wholeness. All of these characteristics begin to change in Mk 8.27-10.52, as Jesus makes a direct way toward Jerusalem and announces three times his impending death and resurrection.

The paradoxical yoking of Jesus’ powerful words and deeds of liberation and his self-giving powerlessness appears to be in contradiction to the disciples’ understanding of God’s Messiah. Thus far Peter and the other disciples have heard the kingdom of God announced and inaugurated only in victorious tones over nature, evil spirits, diseases and death. Not only were they awestruck by witnessing these powerful deeds, but they also participated in the same liberating ministry, having been appointed to preach the message of the kingdom of God and given authority over evil forces and diseases, just like Jesus (Mk. 3.13-15; 6.7-13). Jesus’ power and authority has corresponded well with their expectation or understanding of God’s Messiah. But the idea that the Christ is to suffer and die is in complete contradiction to their inherited Jewish tradition about the Christ of God. Also the disciples could not associate belief in resurrection with Christ (Mk. 9.9-10).

Moreover, the disciples are also the products of their environment. The standard preoccupation of the free male in the Mediterranean region is social status. The disciples of Jesus are no exception. They too seek for social superiority, namely “Who is the greatest?” (Mk. 9.35). This strong desire for personal advancement has motivated James and John, two of Jesus’ disciples, to request for positions of honor and privilege in the kingdom of God (Mk. 10.35-37).

At least on one occasion Jesus had to correct the disciples’ attitude of jealousy and intolerance. John reported to Jesus about a strange exorcist, an “outsider”, who is seemingly usurping a prerogative of the disciples. Earlier they were seeking for social status, and here they feel that their position is threatened.

In the Gospel of Mark on two occasions it is recorded that the disciples are given power to exorcise (3.15; 6.7,13). Immediately before the second passion-resurrection prediction Mark has shown the inability of the disciples to drive away the destructive spirit from a boy whose father brought him to the disciples to be cured (Mk. 9.14-19). The somewhat insecurely held prerogative of the disciples is threatened by the outsider.

Like the dispute about greatness, the episode of the strange exorcist reflects an attitude of the disciples that leads to conflict. In both cases Jesus intervenes. The disciples’ exclusiveness is rejected, as is their self-seeking!

Although the twelve have responded to Jesus’ call for discipleship and been accompanying their master for quite some time, there is so much that separates them from their master. The disciples are confounded again and again by the newness of deeds and teachings. They have repeatedly exhibited their obtuseness concerning Jesus (Mk. 4:41; 6:52; 8:14-21). Mark calls this their lack of understanding (Mk. 6.52; 8.21). The disciples’ proximity to Jesus did not automatically bring clarity about their master and their discipleship. Like the blind man at Bethsaida, the disciples too need to be restored in their vision (Mk. 8.22-26). They need to be transformed from a lack of clarity to a sharper focus on who Jesus is and consequently the nature of their discipleship. So Jesus had to tell them quite openly about the nature of his messiahship and of discipleship (Mk. 8.32, 34-38).


The Central Elements of Discipleship 

When Jesus called Andrew, Peter, James and John, he called them to “follow” him. The verb “follow” characterises the central quality of existence as a disciple. Discipleship demonstrates a close association with Jesus himself.

However, a clear distinction needs to be made between “following” and “imitation”. Discipleship means entering into a lifelong relationship with the person of Jesus, not merely to his teaching (Mk. 3.14: “to be with him”). The disciple not only learns from his teacher, but also shares his/her life with him without reservation. However, the qualitative difference between the master and disciple always remains preserved. It can, therefore, never be the goal of a disciple to become like the master.

When Jesus calls a person to follow, the focus of the follower should be the kingdom of God that Jesus embodies. Jesus has seen the embodiment of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God in his own person and ministry (Mk. 3.22-30; Lk. 11.20, 17.21). Since his own desires and ambitions are focused on doing the will of the Father, this becomes the goal of even the disciple. Discipleship is a radical way of life, radical also in obedience to the will of God, as is interpreted by the life, words and deeds of Jesus Christ.

In Mk. 8.34 Jesus seems to be saying that those who wish to follow should indeed follow. He emphasises the central elements – self-denial and cross-bearing – as constitutive of what it means to follow.


  1. Self-Denial

The term “to deny” appears in only one other context in the Gospel of Mark, i.e. Mk. 14.30,31,72. It refers to Peter denying Jesus three times. Peter’s action throws light on what it means to deny oneself.

Peter’s denial begins in response to an accusation made by one of the slaves of the high priest that he was “with” Jesus (Mk. 14.67; cf. 3.14). His response is not direct. He, rather, redirected the attention from acknowledgement of Jesus to the incredulity of the girl’s accusation: “I do not know or understand what you are talking about” (Mk. 14.68). The same slave girl utters a similar charge, “This man is one of them” (Mk. 14.69). Peter denies his membership in the company of Jesus’ followers. After sometime bystanders repeat the accusation: “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean” (Mk. 14.70). At this point Peter responds directly, getting to the heart of the question of his relationship with Jesus by denying Jesus himself: “I do not know this man you are talking about” (Mk. 14.71). Here Peter repudiates Jesus and not simply his affiliation with him. He severs himself from Jesus and all that he represents. In other words, Peter disowns the whole person of Jesus for the sake of his security in a hostile environment.

Just as Peter’s words to his accusers come to focus on the whole person of Jesus, so also the repetition of denials suggests the disciple’s intent to disown and not merely dissociate himself from Jesus. Peter moves from discrediting the content of an accusation to denying his allegiance to a group, to a profession of complete ignorance (“I do not know this man”). His confession of not knowing Jesus indicates complete separation between Peter and Jesus, and Peter’s refusal to entertain any sense of obligation to Jesus. That means, Jesus has no claim over Peter’s life either in the present or in the future.

The third characteristic of Peter’s denial is its public context and public implications. Peter’s denial consists of acts that openly declare no connection whatsoever between him and Jesus. His public denials define him and his standing with regards to Jesus within a social context.

What does it mean to deny oneself as a follower of Jesus?

  1. Just as the focus of Peter’s denial goes beyond renunciation of a relationship or obligation and targets Jesus himself, likewise Mark 8:34 calls a follower to something more radical than denying obligations to oneself or the desires that originate within oneself. Peter’s story suggests that Jesus’ imperative concerns the disowning of one’s own person. This extends beyond mere self-discipline. It calls every would-be follower no longer to live on one’s own behalf.
  1. The finality of Peter’s denial implies that Mark 8:34 calls for permanent and complete severance. Just as Peter claims not to know Jesus, so the self-denial that Jesus demands involves the renunciation of any obligation to oneself. In Eduard Schweizern words, “It indicates a freedom in which one no longer wills to recognize his own ‘I’.”
  1. Third, as Peter’s actions in Mark 14 involve a public context and public consequences, so too does the self-denial envisioned in Mark 8:34. To deny someone, including oneself, includes the public demonstration of disavowal and the willingness to enjoy or suffer the public effects.

One who follows Jesus continually enacts self-denial through living without regard for the security and priorities that people naturally cling to and that our society actively promotes as paramount. This enactment is not a matter of private piety but of public testimony.

Self-denial obviously involves the relinquishment of an individual’s autonomy, running counter to human habits of self-preservation and personal advancement (cf. 9:35; 10:42-44). In addition, the following verse (8:35) offers an explication that underscores the gravity of Jesus’ summons: the imperatives of 8:34 are tantamount to losing one’s life for the sake of Jesus and the gospel. The paradoxes of 8:35-38 describe surrendering one’s self, one’s being, in response to Jesus in order to gain or experience true and authentic life.

However, one should be clear that it is the call of Jesus to discipleship that demands the break from self-centered life, and a break from the past in order to experience a new and authentic life. But the break from the past should not be equated with discipleship.

  1. Cross-Bearing

The image of cross-bearing, which immediately follows the command to deny oneself in Mark 8:34, reinforces and complements the characteristics of self-denial.

People living in the Roman empire understand the purpose of cross. It is an instrument for a particular form of execution reserved by the Roman empire for slaves, criminals and insurrectionists – the lowest of the low in the society. It is a public spectacle accompanied by torture and shame – one of the most humiliating and cruel deaths ever devised by human beings.

Cross identifies those judged of setting themselves menacingly against the ways of the Roman empire and, by Mark’s account, against dominant and oppressive religious, political and ideological structures. In other words, cross signifies a person who, on account of his life, attitude, worldview, values and actions, set himself/herself against the standards of this world and as a consequence incurs the wrath of dominant forces.

The cross, which the followers are to bear according to Mk. 8.34, is not Jesus’ cross. Every follower is to take up his/her own cross, each declaring the forfeiture of one’s life and self-preservation. Cross-bearers embrace a way of life that threatens the existence of dominant, oppressive and exploitative systems, structures and ideologies.

Thus, cross-bearing complements the notion of self-denial, and informs the three characteristics of self-denial.

  1. As an instrument of death, cross threatens a person’s being.
  2. Cross performs its function with finality.
  3. Cross-bearing occurs in public. Just as one can not deny oneself without denouncing ways of self-interest, self-preservation and self-advancement, so too cross indicates that Jesus’ followers have devoted their lives at any cost to the public demonstration of God’s kingdom or God’s reign and its righteousness.


Thus, the demand of Jesus in Mk. 8.34 is absolute, summoning his followers away from inclinations of personal aggrandizement and from loyalty to the world’s canons of status, power, self-preservation and self-promotion, to an inclination of an authentic life of humility, neighbourly service and peacemaking (Mk. 9.33-50, 10.42-45). A disciple dies to the individualistic and self-seeking life, and lives a new, authentic life of neighbourly love (Mk. 10.42-45).

Jesus’ imperatives to anyone to deny oneself and take up one’s cross reveal a thoroughly prospective orientation – one that points ahead to the future and calls its hearers to regard their lives, securities and ambitions according to their association with Jesus and participation in God’s kingdom. It is a call to live “against the grain” of whatever is taken to be distractingly or deceptively normative in a given cultural context, in order to experience here and now an authentic life.



Hans Weder, “Disciple, Discipleship.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 2 (D-G), David Noel Freedman, ed., (New York: Doubleday, 1992), pp. 207-210.  

Harry Fleddermann, “The Discipleship Discourse.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 43 (1981), pp. 42-75.

Kent Brower, “’We are Able’: Cross-Bearing Discipleship and the Way of the Lord in Mark.” Horizons in Biblical Theology 29 (2007), pp. 177-201.

Leif E. Vaage, “An Other Home: Discipleship in Mark as Domestic Asceticism.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 71 (2009), pp. 741-761.

Marvin Mayer, “Taking Up the Cross and Following Jesus: Discipleship in the Gospel of Mark.” Calvin Theological Journal 37 (2002), pp. 230-238.

Matthew L. Skinner, “Denying Self, Bearing a Cross, and Following Jesus: Unpacking the Imperatives of Mark 8:34.” Word & World 23/3 (Summer 2003), pp. 321-331.

Sanders L. Willson, “Discipleship according to Jesus: A Sermon on Mark 3.13-19.” Presbyterian 16/2 (1990), pp. 73-80.