18 Once when Yeshua was praying in private, his disciples were with him; and he asked them, “Who are the crowds saying I am?” 19 They answered, “Yochanan the Immerser; but others say Eliyahu, and others that some prophet of long ago has risen.” 20 “But you,” he said to them, “who do you say I am?” Kefa answered, “The Messiah of God!”21 However, he, warning them, ordered them to tell this to no one,22 adding, “The Son of Man has to endure much suffering and be rejected by the elders, the head priests and the Torah-teachers; and he has to be put to death; but on the third day, he has to be raised to life.”
23 Then to everyone he said, “If anyone wants to come after me, let him say ‘No’ to himself, take up his execution-stake daily and keep following me. 24 For whoever tries to save his own life will destroy it, but whoever destroys his life on my account will save it. 25 What will it benefit a person if he gains the whole world but destroys or forfeits his own life?26 For if someone is ashamed of me and of what I say, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and that of the Father and of the holy angels. 27 I tell you the truth, there are some people standing here who will not experience death until they see the Kingdom of God.”
This is one of the key passages in the synoptic (Mark Matthew Luke) gospels as it explains the meaning of the title by which most Christians knew Jesus: Messiah, the anointed leader from God. The wording used in Mark, which is the source for the other gospel writers is kept with remarkable consistency, doubtless because the tradition about Jesus was well known in precisely these words to most believers. Mark doubts whether the title is useful at all, recording that it was first given to Jesus by Peter who obviously misunderstood its implications for Jesus. Matthew adds the material about the keys to the kingdom, which maintains the authority of Peter, while Luke is not much concerned with leadership issues and simply records the title as given first by Peter, and then defined in a surprising way by Jesus.
Luke places this story immediately after that of the miraculous feeding which displays the compassionate kingship of Jesus. He also adds that it happened after Jesus had been praying, by which Luke always means the reader to think of Jesus’ obedience to the Father. Many different views were held by Jewish people about the expected Messiah, but military leadership that would free Isreal from foreign rule was a common element. Jesus’ prophecy of his own fate announces his rejection by his own people and death, which was clearly not what people expected of a messiah. Perhaps the precise form of Jesus’ prophecy has been influenced by subsequent events, but he would have to been very naive not to have seen where his ministry to outcasts would lead him. At this point the involvement of the Romans and the instrument of his death are not mentioned.
The execution stake is mentioned in the command to “take up the execution stake”, which means reckoning with the terrible power of the state while showing no fear of it. It is almost a mental gesture of parody: the symbol of brutal Roman power is the stake, but followers of Jesus will shoulder it daily, without fuss.(The Greek verb for taking up is just the ordinary word for this physical action) The social and political implications of the stake have for along time been relegated by commentators to the background of the notion of suffering in general. But no, the stake is never in the scripture a symbol of anything other than the death of Jesus at the hands of the Roman authority. As a religion not allowed by the Roman state, its members were never far away from official hostility and possible death. Many of Jesus’ followers had experienced persecution under Nero, so the meaning of the stake is never vague but always refers to a particular power and threat. Saying no to oneself is a powerful expression otherwise used for denying or rejecting another person. Disciples are asked to reject themsleves rather than Jesus, who throws his life away for the sake of others, while worldly leaders throw away the life of others for the sake of their own power.
A similar distinction is made using the Greek words “sozein” (save, rescue) and “apollumai” (destroy): the one who is careless with his life for the sake of Jesus and the gospel will rescue it; while the one who is careful with his life for his own sake will destroy it. It’s one thing to say this phrase but quite another to act upon it. Believers who live in the midst of contemporary persecution, as in Pakistan or Syria, have much to teach those who live in more favourable situations. Jesus urges believers to take risks with their lives so that God’s goodness may be evident to others.
I wish Jesus hadn’t said this so bluntly leaving me more wriggle room to avoid its meaning. Just because Jesus went to the stake, is that any reason for me to do so? So what’s so good about being careless with your life? I mean, has anyone done a proper risk assessment on an execution stake?
The society of the Roman Empire rested not only on power but on a culture of exchanged favours and honours. People made their way through attending to the honour of others, by doing and receiving favours. Jesus uses a word which refers to loss of honour: those who are “ashamed” of him, that is, who consider him a social disaster, will find that he considers them a social disaster when he issues invitations to the social life of the kingdom.
Is Jesus saying he will not be loyal to those who are not loyal to him? It looks like it, yet of course the story of the disciples who deserted him being forgiven and restored by the risen Jesus, points in the opposite direction. That does not make them less of a social disaster in his eyes; and he forgives and restores only those who want forgiveness and restoration; but it does give timid believers the hope that they may squeeze into the kingdom.
The united witness of the gospels is that belonging to Jesus is not for the faint-hearted. It will not look good on your CV not enhance your career prospects. It will put you on the wrong side of the most powerful forces in your society. On the other hand, it will rescue your life.