Featuring the text of the New Living Translation

The Gospel According to Mark: Chapter 8 Key Terms

(Greek mathētēs) To those who were weighed down by an endless list of man-made religious rules, Jesus offered: 'Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn [manthanō] from Me ...' (Matthew 11:29, NASB). [ref] Jesus' was a call to discipleship. In its most basic sense, a "disciple" is "a learner or pupil" [ref] - someone who follows the teachings of another. It comes from a word (manthanō) that means "to learn" in an active, personal sense. [ref] Hence being a disciple involves much more than passively receiving facts for later regurgitation; rather, to be a true disciple is to have one's entire life altered by what is learned. The words "disciple" and "discipline" are closely related, and being a disciple requires two types of discipline: self-discipline to help us pursue what is right, and God's corrective discipline when we pursue what is wrong.

The term "disciple" is noticeably absent from the Old Testament. This is because in Israel the individual was secondary to the group, and individuals were called and commissioned to "perform special tasks on behalf of the whole." [ref] This is in keeping with the nature of the covenant relationship between God and his chosen people in which God called men and women to represent him before a watching world, "be with him in every circumstance of life, [and be] transformed in personal character to be like him." [ref] At the heart of this relationship was God revealing himself through human speakers who proclaimed God and his will. Rather than individuals seeking disciples, the teachers, leaders, and prophets of Israel were intended to serve as human instruments through whom God could speak. [ref]  

This same pattern continues in the New Testament. As God incarnate, Jesus calls people to a personal relationship of trust in, and obedience to, him. A study of the twelve disciples closest to Jesus, whom he commissioned as his personal representatives ("apostles"), helps us understand the cost and commitment of discipleship. Coming from a wide variety of backgrounds, they had one thing in common: they were willing to follow Jesus. Being a disciple of Jesus meant seeking: to be like him; to serve others in his name; and to tell others about him. [ref]

Leaving everything to be with Jesus was not all that unusual, since it was common practice for a disciple to leave his home and take up full-time residence with the rabbi under whom he would study. [ref] What distinguished Jesus' call from that of the other religious teachers of his day was the fact that:

  • Jesus chose his disciples, they did not choose him. Being a member of the ever-present crowd required nothing more than curiosity. Being a true follower, however, meant being called out of the crowd into a personal relationship with Jesus.

  • Jesus called his followers not to a cause or creed, but rather to himself. This meant complete commitment to the person of Jesus.

  • Jesus called his followers not to scholarship, but rather to obedience. This meant choosing God's definition of greatness over the world's - i.e., seeking to serve rather than to be served.

  • Jesus called his followers not to a life of ease and comfort, but rather to a life sure to be filled with hardship and pain. This meant being willing to suffer for the name of Christ. [ref] (paraphrased)

The word "disciple" is found only in the Gospels and Acts. This is because Jesus came to establish an entirely new community based on personal commitment to him, and discipleship was and is the means by which individuals become a part of that community. Having entered into that faith-based fellowship, it now remains for us to discover and work out what it means to follow Jesus in a world utterly opposed to him. Employing such images as a family, a temple, and a body, the remainder of the New Testament helps us do precisely that. [ref]


Originating as an upright wooden stake, with time the cross (Greek stauros) evolved into a vertical pole with a horizontal beam attached. Although several ancient nations employed crucifixion, it was the Romans who turned it into a macabre art form of public humiliation, torture, and death. It was reserved for the lowest and worst criminals, and "Roman citizens could be punished in this way only for the crime of high treason." [ref]

Those condemned to die on a cross were first severely beaten with a whip, then made to carry the wooden crossbeam to the place of execution where it was attached to a waiting vertical pole. Along the way a herald walked out front, loudly announcing the crime(s) of which this person was found guilty. Crowds packed the narrow streets in order to gawk, jeer and spit. Having reached the place of execution, the victim was stripped naked, stretched out and tied and/or nailed to the cross. Raised upright, the cross became a hard and unrelenting instrument of torture. Death, coming in inches, would take days to arrive. In the meantime passersby stopped long enough to hurl their verbal stones. Finally, after the victim could no longer hold out against the starvation, agonizing pain, exposure, shock, and suffocation, death made its claim. The now lifeless body, left to rot on the cross, became food for the birds. [ref] [ref] [ref]

It strains the limits of our imagination to think that the Lord God Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, the supreme ruler of the universe, became a human being and willingly subjected himself to the agony and humiliation of death on a cross. Why did he do it? The answer to that question is the message of the entire New Testament. The cross, a cruel and vicious instrument of death, becomes the only way whereby we can experience real and lasting life.

All four Gospel writers record the crucifixion of Jesus. The book of Acts then shows how, like seed scattered on the wind, the apostles, now emboldened and empowered by the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, carried the message of the cross to all the world. But it's the apostle Paul, whose writings comprise two-thirds of the New Testament, who time and again comes back to the cross as the essence of what it cost God to redeem us, and of what it will cost us to follow Jesus.

For Paul, the cross was a constant call to the here-and-now reality of life in a world that is literally dying for want of God's love. The cross of Christ was and is the means by which God justifies the unjust and forgives the unforgivable. How? By uniting us with Christ both in his death and in his life. Having experienced that reality for ourselves, the cross then becomes a constant reminder of how we are to live out the new life God has given us: We are to put to death anything that would prevent us from living fully and completely in God's will.

[F]or for Paul, the cross stands, immovable, as the fundamental reference point of faith. It is from here that faith began, and to here that faith will continually return, to be nourished by the crucified Christ. ... Believers may catch glimpses of the heavenly realms, they may even hear the distant voices of angels - but they remain here, committed to Christ crucified, in the midst of a suffering world. The heavenly realms remain in the future, even if their distant music can now be heard. The cross stands as the image of the Christian life in the world, just as it stands for the hope beyond this world, which believers share with Paul. [ref] (quoted verbatim)

The cross is a poignant symbol of what it means to follow Jesus. When he told his would-be followers, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me" (Luke 9:23, NASB), immediately they would have imagined a condemned person carrying his cross-beam to the place of execution. The way of Jesus is the way of power, joy and peace - but only after the humiliation and suffering of the cross. [ref]

What did Jesus mean when he said a person must deny him- or herself? Here the words of John R. W. Stott, in his classic The Cross of Christ, prove especially helpful. As he notes, we are both to affirm and value whatever we are by creation and deny or repudiate whatever we are as a result of the Fall.

So then, whatever we are by creation we must affirm: our rationality, our sense of moral obligation, our sexuality (whether masculinity or femininity), our family life, our gifts of aesthetic appreciation and artistic creativity, our stewardship of the fruitful earth, our hunger for love and experience of community, our awareness of the transcendent majesty of God, and our inbuilt urge to fall down and worship him. All this (and more) is part of our created humanness. True, it has been tainted and twisted by sin. Yet Christ came to redeem it, not to destroy it. So we must gratefully and positively affirm it.

Whatever we are by the Fall, however, we must deny or repudiate: our irrationality, our moral perversity, our blurring of sexual distinctives and lack of sexual self-control, the selfishness which spoils our family life, our fascination with the ugly, our lazy refusal to develop God's gifts, our pollution and spoliation of the environment, the anti-social tendencies which inhibit true community, our proud autonomy, and our idolatrous refusal to worship the living and true God. All this (and more) is part of our fallen humanness. Christ came not to redeem this but to destroy it. [ref] (quoted verbatim)

As Max Lucado reminds us in his best-selling book, God's number one goal for us is to become Just Like Jesus. Being more of a journey than a destination, we can expect to cover lots of ground on some days and much less on others. Always on the horizon ahead of us, however, is the cross of Christ. For anyone willing to follow Jesus, the cross is both a symbol of death and a promise of life.