I stood on the edge of the pool whose cool, green water flowed from the mouth of the dark cave on the other side. This was the site of the ancient temple to the pagan god, Pan, known as the Gates of Hell. It was to this region that, after a successful campaign around Galilee but in the face of hostility from the religious leaders, Jesus retreated with his band of disciples. Here, in Matt 16:15, Jesus posed the critical question,
“Who do the people say I am?”
Peter’s bold declaration (v.16) – that he was the Messiah - was blessed by Jesus (v.17-19). Jesus then began to reveal more of God’s plan for his death and resurrection (v.21). Peter made an equally bold declaration, “This shall never happen to you” (v.22), which received a stinging rebuke, “Get behind me Satan!” (v.23)
It was in this context that Jesus gave three marks of someone who is his disciple.
The First Mark: Self-Denial
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves” (v.24a)
What does it mean to deny yourself? The word “deny” only appears in one other story in Matthew’s gospel – when Peter denies Jesus three times (Matt 26:69-75). In this story, Peter pleads ignorance of Jesus’ identity. He rejects being influenced by him or associated with him.
Consider the parallel between Peter denying Jesus and our denial of ourselves. Peter says he is not listening to Jesus’ words or on board with Jesus’ mission. We are not to listen to the words (arguments, rationalisations) of our inner selves or take on board its fleshly desires.
When I fast, my body tells me it is craving calories. It argues that I will feel better if I have food in my stomach. My inner voice says my greatest need is the comfort of a full belly. But I deny those arguments considering a higher purpose – the pursuit of godliness and greater self-control.
Listening to Jesus, we refuse to listen to those inner voices. We trust Jesus’ words instead of our inner voices.
The Second Mark: Self-Sacrifice
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must… take up their cross” (v.24b)
What did the disciples know about crucifixion? Jesus hadn’t been crucified yet, but crucifixion itself was familiar. It was a brutal and humiliating way to die practiced by the Roman authorities, especially on rebels. After the peasant uprisings, the roads were lined with dying, crucified men.
“To take up your cross”, then, meant to be committed to the cause. It meant loyalty to the Messiah and his mission, in the face of opposition, to the point of death.
Self-denial means refusing to listen to the inner voices. Self-sacrifice means refusing to bow to the pressure of external voices. In our newspapers or on TV or in parliament, someone will take a position and make an argument that contradicts Jesus. We will be tempted to stay quiet, to protect our reputation, and avoid the conflict. But a disciple will speak up.
The wealthy or powerful will use their position to exploit the weak or the vulnerable. We will be tempted to stand on the sideline, say it isn’t our fight and avoid drawing their attention. But a disciple will step up.
To take up your cross means to speak up and to step up even when powerful external forces are arrayed against Jesus and his mission. Nothing, short of death, will stop us following Jesus.
The Third Mark: Imitate Jesus
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must… follow me” (v.24c)
What does it mean to follow Jesus? It means to obey his teaching and to imitate his actions. Later John made the same point when he wrote, “The one who says he remains in him should walk just as he walked.” (1 John 2:6, CSB)
Jesus’ primary activity throughout his earthly ministry was “making disciples.” So, it should come as no surprise when, at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ mission is fully revealed in the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20). Jesus commanded his disciples, “Go and make disciples”. Those who follow Jesus, who walk as he walked, are to make disciples as he made disciples.
How did Jesus make disciples? In the Great Commission he outlined a three-step process for making disciples:
Teach them to Obey (v.20a);
I was sitting in the cafeteria, across the dark wooden table from Richie. He was new to campus and we were meeting for the first time. He shared with me the story of his spiritual journey so far. Then I shared the gospel with him. He prayed a prayer of repentance and faith. I encouraged him to find a church where he could be baptised. It was his first step as a disciple of Jesus.
Jesus wants us to make disciples who are characterised by these three marks: self-denial, self-sacrifice and imitating Jesus.