How much is eternal life worth?—Mark 8:34-38

“If anyone wants to follow after me, let one deny oneself and pick up one’s cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it; but whoever will lose their life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it! For what good is it for someone to gain the whole world at the expense of one’s life? For what should someone give in exchange for their life? For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of that person the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his Father’s splendor with the holy angels!”—Mark 8:34-38

Toward the beginning of his Gospel, Mark provides what looks like a model (1:16-20) of embracing Jesus’s preaching about the kingdom (1:15). Prospective disciples abandon their livelihoods and leave behind families to follow Jesus. So far, so good: they count Jesus and his kingdom as worth more than possessions and other relationships. But whether they truly value Jesus and the kingdom more than their own lives (cf. Luke 14:26) remains to be seen.

Jesus’s disciples immediately (euthus)“abandoned” (aphientes) their nets to follow him (Mark 1:18); though not using the same Greek term, others also left behind their livelihoods to follow Jesus (2:14; cf. 10:50-52). Peter reaffirms that they left everything to follow Jesus (10:28-29). But in 14:50, when following Jesus may entail sharing his cross, they all abandon (aphentes) Jesus and flee. They are in such haste to flee that, despite Judean abhorrence of nakedness, one leaves his outer cloak in his potential captors’ hands in haste to escape (14:51-52). They were willing to forsake other things, but not life itself (8:34-38).

Jesus had warned them; his disciples would stumble (skandalizô, 14:27); Peter, however, insisted that he would not stumble (skandalizô, 14:29). Jesus warned that true disciples must deny themselves (8:34), but that Peter would deny Jesus (14:30; fulfilled in 14:72). Peter insisted that he would never deny Jesus (14:31), but perhaps underestimated the power of the fight-or-flight response of his nervous system; he and his colleagues had been afraid before (4:41; 6:50; 9:32; 10:32), a reaction that should have been tempered by faith (cf. 5:36). Those who abandon other things for Jesus will receive rewards—but also persecutions (diôgmoi, 10:30).

Simon Peter, who insisted that he would never deny Jesus, should have been ready to take up Jesus’s cross (8:34); but his triumphalist theology that militated against suffering (8:31-33) left him unprepared, and Rome had to draft another Simon to carry Jesus’s cross (15:21). (Simon was the most common Judean male name, so this could be coincidence, but Mark might play on it anyway.)

Peter, whose name means “rocky,” acted, with the other disciples, like the rocky (petrôdes) soil in 4:16-17, who immediately (euthus)embrace the kingdom message joyfully—but when hardship (thlipsis) or persecution (diôgmos) comes, they immediately (euthus)stumble (skandalizô) from the way (4:16-17). Mark may use this as a warning for coming tribulation (thlipsis; 13:19, 24).

Disciples might be ready to fight the world’s way (14:47) or even follow “from afar” (14:54), but are we ready to follow to the cross? Do we design our theology for what we can get from Jesus, or are we loyal to our Lord for himself? Are we rocky soil, like the first disciples? Thorny soil, like the rich young ruler? Or will we be good soil, through whom the seed multiplies many times over through making other true disciples?

This would not be those disciples’ last chance (16:7), and we may still have other opportunities to show that we will be loyal to Jesus even in the face of a world that despises him (8:34). Insisting that we will never deny him is no guarantee that we will not. By contrast, learning to temper our fear with faith, with confidence in Jesus, helps prepare us for potential harder times ahead.

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