What Did Jesus Teach about Discipleship?
This article is part of the What Did Jesus Teach? series.
Mark 8:34 recounts Jesus’s most pointed teaching on the nature of discipleship. This instruction applies to all (i.e., not simply the twelve) who want to follow him and includes three elements:1denying oneself, taking up one’s cross, and following him. Mark narrates instances of each of the three elements, allowing us to see what they look like in practice. The first is perhaps the most radical. One must deny not “things that the self wants, but the self itself.”2In 2 Timothy 2:13, Paul speaks about the impossibility of God denying himself, which would entail acting “contrary to his own nature, to cease to be God.”3 Calling his followers to do what is impossible for God, Jesus requires a “a radical abandonment of one’s own identity and self-determination.” They are to join the “march to the place of execution.”4
The second element, to take up one’s cross, is Mark’s first reference to “cross” (stauros) and the only reference outside the passion narrative (Mark 15:21, 30, 32). It foreshadows the manner of Jesus’s death and graphically illustrates the cost of following him—all the way to his death. A note of willingly sharing Jesus’s shame is also present (cf. Heb. 12:2).5 Although this summons includes a literal sense—that is, being willing to endure physical death—the breadth of discipleship experience in the Gospel suggests that it also includes the broader, metaphorical sense and “serves to reinforce and intensify what it means to deny oneself.”6
The Beginning of the Gospel
In this addition to the New Testament Theology series, scholar Peter Orr offers an accessible summary of the theology of Mark, examining its relationship to both the Old and New Testaments.
The final requirement generates a circular statement: “If anyone wishes to follow after me . . . let him follow me.”7 The sense is that following Jesus must be an ongoing process.8 Peter’s claim that the disciples have “left everything and followed” Jesus (Mark 10:28) elicits a positive response (Mark 10:29–30). By the time that Jesus goes to the cross, however, Peter has abandoned him.
Jesus expands on his threefold call by providing reasons and consequences in Mark 8:35–38. His paradoxical statement shows that this life of self-denying discipleship seems like loss of life but actually saves it. To deny Jesus’s call to discipleship, to cling to one’s life and avoid his summons to death, is really to lose one’s life. “The one for whom the way of Jesus is more important than his own existence will secure his eternal being; but the one whose existence is more important than Jesus will lose both Jesus and his existence.”9
Not to be overlooked is Jesus’s insistence that his followers lose their life not just for his sake but also for the gospel’s sake (Mark 8:35). Discipleship as imitation of Jesus finds its counterpoint in mission.10
Cross-shaped discipleship, however paradoxical it might sound, is the way to life. In economic terms, gaining the whole world is worth nothing if it costs one’s soul (Mark 8:36), and a person can give nothing to purchase his or her soul (Mark 8:37). That is, it is impossible to regain your soul once you have lost it.11 Mark 8:38 moves from economics to eschatology as Jesus speaks of the end of the age and the coming of the Son of Man in glory. When he comes, Jesus will be ashamed of whoever has been ashamed of him and his words (cf. a reference to the gospel in Mark 8:35) in “this adulterous and sinful generation.”12
Jesus has moved from predicting his death to reflecting on a life of following him and carrying one’s own cross. Mark illustrates this negatively and positively throughout his Gospel. The twelve model it negatively as Jesus’s own death approaches. Rather than deny himself, Peter denies Jesus three times (Mark 14:30–31, Mark 14:72). While the others do not deny him verbally, neither do they follow him to the cross. They, too, abandon him (Mark 14:50). However, we also find positive models in the two Marys and Salome, who remain with Jesus to the end, even if they watch the crucifixion “from a distance” (Mark 15:40).
This is not Jesus’s only teaching concerning discipleship. We have seen that one of the most common titles applied to Jesus is “teacher.” Significant teaching in the first half of the Gospel includes his parables (Mark 4:13–34), his clashes with the Pharisees and scribes over the nature of purity (Mark 7:1–23), and his warning to the disciples to avoid the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod (Mark 8:11–21). But the middle section of the Gospel—from when Jesus begins to teach on his death and resurrection (Mark 8:31) until he enters Jerusalem (Mark 11:1)—forms the most concentrated section of teaching. Mark 8:31–10:52 forms a coherent section of the Gospel as indicated by its framing with accounts of Jesus healing blind men (Mark 8:22–26; Mark 10:46–52) and the repeated use of the phrase “on the way” (en tē hodos in Mark 8:27; Mark 9:33; Mark 9:34; Mark 10:32; Mark 10:52).13 As Jesus approaches Jerusalem, “the themes of self-sacrifice and willingness to serve become even stronger, even as Jesus’s predictions of his impending death become even clearer.”14 He calls his disciples to give up everything—riches, homes, and families (Mark 10:17–22, 23–30).15 Disciples are to be servants. In fact, “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43–44)—illustrated most powerfully in the life of Jesus himself who, as the Son of Man, came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Jesus’s countercultural teaching thus “is not simply a blueprint for others but forms the basis for how Jesus will conduct his own life.”16
This central section is structured around Jesus’s three passion predictions (Mark 8:31; Mark 9:30; Mark 10:33–34). The pattern of Jesus’s first passion prediction repeats in the other two. Each is followed with teaching on the shape of discipleship—as it is exemplified in the narrative of the Gospel.17 As Aernie points out, the disciples react negatively to Jesus’s passion predictions with “insolence (Mark 8:32–33), fearful silence (Mark 9:32), and misplaced arrogance (Mark 10:35–41).”18 However, in each case Jesus corrects their reaction by teaching on the nature of discipleship— “cruciformity (Mark 8:34–38), inversion of social hierarchies (9:35–37), and self-sacrificial service (Mark 10:42–45).”19 Each failure to grasp the significance of Jesus’s death proves that “a wrong view of Messiahship leads to a wrong view of discipleship.”20
Disciples are to be servants.
In the midst of this section about following Jesus to death, about selling everything one has to follow Jesus (Mark 10:21), about leaving family for Jesus’s sake and for the gospel (Mark 10:28), Jesus teaches that divorce opposes God’s original intention for marriage (Mark 10:7–9) and that remarriage following divorce equates to adultery (Mark 10:10–12). As Mark Strauss notes, “Jesus’s followers must not abandon difficult marriage relationships simply because they are not meeting their personal needs. Authentic discipleship is not about self-gratification, but about giving oneself in sacrificial service for the kingdom of God.”21 He also suggests that the whole section “connects to the passages before and after with the theme of God’s love and concern for the lowest members of society, since in the ancient world women (Mark 10:5–9) and children (Mark 9:36–37, 42; Mark 10:14–16) were among the most vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.”22 Furthermore, this passage domesticates (in the non-pejorative sense of this word) Jesus’s radical teaching of Mark 8:34–38. Following Jesus, denying oneself, and carrying the cross for Jesus’s sake and for the gospel does not mean abandoning one’s marriage or children.
In fact, discipleship means more than sacrifice—those who leave earthly ties will find them replaced “a hundredfold now in this time” and will receive “in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:30). The list of things abandoned for the sake of Jesus and the gospel is matched a hundredfold—except for one’s father (since God is to be their only Father)23 —with the addition of persecutions (Mark 10:29–30).
This teaching widens discipleship beyond the experience of the first disciples. For the twelve, discipleship meant literally following Jesus to his death. They failed utterly as all of them abandoned him and Peter denied him. But physically following Jesus to the cross is no longer possible. This change thus qualifies how we should apply the call to leave family (Mark 1:16–20) to contemporary discipleship. The call to discipleship, however, remains radical. It still contains the call to death, but this is expressed differently now that Jesus is no longer physically present. Mark 9:38–41 anticipates the post-resurrection experience of discipleship. The disciples recount how they tried to stop someone casting out demons in Jesus’s name because “he was not following us” (Mark 9:38). As Robert Stein wryly observes, “This may be the first time, but certainly not the last, in which ecclesiastical leaders have sought to hinder those who would minister in the name of Christ independently of their authority.”24 However, Jesus insists that no one who does a miracle in his name can speak against him, and then he lays down the principle, “The one who is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). He promises a reward for anyone who gives even a “cup of water” to one of the disciples because they “belong to Christ” (Mark 9:41). This last phrase is important. Jesus speaks not simply of “benevolence and charity” but of aiding his followers because “they belong to and work for Jesus the Messiah.”25 Supporting God’s servants leads to reward.
- Eckhard J. Schnabel, Mark: An Introduction and Commentary, TNTC (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), 202
- Schnabel, Mark, 202.
- R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 340.
- France, Mark, 340.
- Robert H. Stein (Mark, BECNT [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008],, 407.
- Stein, Mark, 407.
- My own translation.
- Stein, Mark, 407.
- James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 47; Robert A. Guelich, Mark 1–8:26, WBC (Dallas: Word, 1989), 257.
- France, Mark, 341.
- Mark L. Strauss, Mark, ZECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2014), 374.
- Although in light of Dan. 7:13 this could be referring to the ascension (since it describes the coming of the Son of Man into the presence of the “Ancient of Days”—i.e., God), the mention of shame more naturally refers to his coming in judgment at the end of time. The various “comings” of the Son of Man can be tricky to relate. On their use in Matthew, see Ben Cooper, “Adaptive Eschatological Inference from the Gospel of Matthew,” JSNT 33, no. 1 (2010): 59–80.
- Helen Bond, The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2020), 151.
- Bond, First Biography, 152.
- Bond, First Biography, 152.
- Bond, First Biography, 153.
- Jeffrey W. Aernie, Narrative Discipleship: Patterns of Women in the Gospel of Mark (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2018), 32–33.
- Aernie, Narrative Discipleship, 32.
- Aernie, Narrative Discipleship, 32–33.
- Edwards, Mark, 256.
- Strauss, Mark, 419.
- Strauss, Mark, 419.
- Edwards, Mark, 316n42.
- Stein, Mark, 446.
This article is adapted from The Beginning of the Gospel: A Theology of Mark by Peter Orr.
Popular Articles in This Series
What Did Jesus Teach about Homosexuality?
In a 2012 article for Slate online, Will Oremus asked a provocative question: Was Jesus a homophobe?
What Did Jesus Teach about Hell?
No Bible spokesman places more stress on hell as the final consequence of God’s judgment of condemnation than Jesus.
What Did Jesus Teach about Politics?
If we take the lordship of Christ in our lives seriously, then we should seek to apply that lordship to our participation in politics.
What Did Jesus Teach about the Devil and Demons?
There is an enemy of God and humanity. That enemy needs to be known.