by Barry Newton
“Grisly” and “shocking” are terms that best characterize how Jesus depicted discipleship. “If anyone wants to become my disciple, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). As repulsive as this execution language is, Jesus blazed the trail for others to follow.
Jesus gave a powerful cry of self-denial in the garden, “Take this cup away from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). With that, he trod in earnest down a path toward his crucifixion. So, too, the crucible of self-denial and death would forge the Messiah’s disciples.
Paul succinctly summarized Jesus’ demands of lifestyle transformation. “He died for all so that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:15). Paul envisions a dedicated disciple emerging from one’s own death.
Personalizing Jesus’ discipleship demands, Paul cried out, “I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives within me” (Galatians 2:20). Paul had not only picked up his cross, but he had also followed the Messiah’s footsteps to death. The nature of Jesus’ call is crystal clear: To be a disciple, Self must die.
To be sure, being crucified with Christ is not just a one-time event, but an ongoing way of life. Luke emphasizes this with the phrase, “take up his cross daily” (Luke 9:23). Nevertheless, there must be a beginning point for discipleship, a moment when for the first time I become crucified with Christ and thus become recognized by Christ as his follower.
While the nature of Jesus’ call in discipleship is clear, this initial moment when a disciple emerges from an old life might seem murky and abstract. How can someone be crucified with Christ? When or how can my death intersect or be identified with the Lord’s own death?
Paul abruptly answers. Reeking with the ominous language of Christians having been united with the Lord’s death (Romans 6:3, 5, 8), Paul outlines that moment when they died to their own fleshly wills in order to rise up to the new life of serving God!
“Do you not know that as many as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead … we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:3, 4).
Similarly, Paul’s conditional statements, “if you have died with Christ” (Colossians 2:20), and “if you have been raised with Christ” (Colossians 3:1), recall the earlier transformational moment, “having been buried with him in baptism, you also have been raised with him” (Colossians 2:12).
For Paul, baptism was not merely a religious act of piety. Baptism involved a would-be disciple being crucified with Christ, that is, dying to Self (Romans 6:3,6). The new life emerging from that watery tomb would belong to a disciple dedicated to the Lord.
It would appear that not everyone who enters the watery grave does so in order to rely upon Christ’s death, nor do they all choose to die to their old way of life. But they should. There should be a cross in the water. If we want to be his disciple, Jesus said we must die.