This morning I was working in Mark 8, where, after extracting a confession from his disciples through Peter as to his identity (8:29) and then explaining his impending passion (8:31-32), Jesus addresses the multitudes along with the disciples regarding the nature of discipleship. In 8:34 Jesus declares, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.” Jesus had just finished rebuking Peter by stating, “Get behind me, Satan” (8:33). It is likely that the expression “behind me” (ὀπίσω μου) is an exhortation to Peter for him to get in line behind Jesus so as to take his position as disciple. This is so because the very next verse has Jesus saying, “If anyone wishes to come after me” and the expression “after me” is identical to the previous verse (ὀπίσω μου).
However it is the expression, “take up his cross” that is so challenging. The cross has no real contemporary referent for us. Perhaps this is where a good commentary can help us. James Edwards, in his commentary on Mark in the Pillar series has a helpful discussion. He writes,
Modern culture is exposed to the symbol of the cross primarily in jewelry or figures of speech (e.g., “bearing a cross” as putting up with an inconvenience or hardship). How vastly different was the symbol of the cross in the first century! An image of extreme repugnance, the cross was an instrument of cruelty, pain, dehumanization, and shame. The cross symbolized hated Roman oppression and was reserved for the lowest social classes. It was the most visible and omnipresent aspect of Rome’s terror apparatus, designed especially to punish criminals and quash slave rebellions. In 71 B.C. the Roman general Crassus defeated the slave-rebel Spartacus and crucified him and six thousand of his followers on the Appian Way between Rome and Capua. A century later in Mark’s day, Nero would crucify and burn Christians who were falsely accused of setting fire to Rome.
The image of the cross signifies a total claim on the disciple’s allegiance and the total relinquishment of his resources to Jesus (256).
Perhaps with this description about the Roman cross, it is a bit easier to understand what Jesus says next: “and follow me.”