Mark chapter 8 is the fulcrum or pivot point of the whole gospel. This is true not just because it is textually in the middle but also because it marks a turning point in both the disciples' education and also the Lord's ministry. Following seven chapters of fairly consistent good works we get a chapter of extremely divisive theology. I believe an understanding of this chapter is really the basis for understanding Mark's Gospel of the perfect servant.
The context for verses 34-38 is the preceding 5 verses which form one of the most condensed and mind-blowing parts of scripture for anyone reading a gospel for the first time.
Firstly in verse 29 it is revealed to Peter that Jesus is the Christ. As Matthew tells us this was not a logical deduction or an inevitable conclusion but a direct revelation. This alone has immense implications. The Jews were fully versed in the concept of itinerant rabbis and for one of those to rise to the status of national prophet was not at all unknown in Jewish history although it hadn't happened for four hundred years. But suddenly the disciples were faced with the fact that Jesus was not just another installment in Jewish theology but actually the fulfillment of it.
Secondly in verse 31 the Lord immediately begins to teach that he is going to be rejected, killed and resurrected. Arguably the Jews should have known at least some of this but clearly from Peter's reaction this was not something they were looking for and expecting.
What has thus happened is that the cost and benefit of following Christ has become significantly polarized. No longer is Jesus one of a number of superstar religious leaders whose disciples could be viewed as the religious heavy hitters of their generation. Jesus is now the Messiah, the be-all and end-all of the Judaist religion and his disciples are to be faced with total self sacrifice.
It is interesting that after these two incredible revelations the Lord then had to call his disciples over to discuss the verses at the end of the chapter. I suspect that they would have preferred some form of denial that dampened down the extremity of the claims they were faced with. The Lord then leads them through a series of consequences and questions for them to consider.
The first he brings in verse 34. The literal meaning of 'deny himself' is say 'no' to himself. Following Christ is counter-intuitive, it requires obedience because His ways are often not our ways. Further it requires sacrifice and possibly shame; this is pictured in the cross. Mark does not bring it out but other gospels show that the cross is to be picked up daily; each day we have to choose to follow Him.
Having established the need for earthly sacrifice the Lord progresses to show that this decision is a life or death one. In v35 He states that the act of attempting to preserve ones life actually causes it to be lost. Yet the act of total self sacrifice for Christ or the Gospel in fact preserves life. For me this is a word play on 'life'. It is our decision about the value of our physical life down here that effects whether or not we have eternal life in heaven.
Verse 36 brings the physical and spiritual nature of man into view in asking the value of gaining total physical possessions if it is at the expense of your spiritual nature. V37 drives this home by asking the question: "What would you swap for your own spiritual existence?" If we could really view these questions open mindedly it is obvious. The 'I' that really matters to me is the one that lives within: even as a non-believer I should only be concerned with the physical 'I' insofar as things happening to it can affect the internal one. However what the Lord is adding is that following Him is the only way to ensure our spiritual future; therefore nothing but following Him should matter.
Thus we land upon verse 38 which is probably the controversial one that inspired this essay subject. What does it mean to be ashamed of the Lord and His words and what does it mean that the Son of man will be ashamed when He comes with His angels. There are at least three and possibly four times the Lord comes to the Earth and so we need to know which occasion the Lord is referring to here. I believe this is made a little more obvious when we look at the fuller quotation from Matthew:
For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works:
Matthew's extended quotation shows that this is the occasion when the Lord will reward works. This is the return at the end of the millennium to set up the great white throne. Therefore we know that the 'ashamed' piece is happening to those that were not part of the church; but instead referring to those who had rejected Christ.
Given this verse 38 simply becomes an extension of the previous verses. Some people will reject Christ because He is counter intuitive (V34). Some because they don't want the self sacrifice (V34), some because they love their physical existence too much (V35) and others because being a true Christian is humiliating (V38). All of these, whilst understandable, count as 'no' votes from the Lord's perspective. The only true follower is he who is totally obedient, willing to sacrifice anything and everything and proud to own their allegiance to their Lord and savior.
Looking at the message the Lord delivered to these people it really is a pretty tall order. I don't think it any co-incidence that it was only delivered after the revelation to Peter that Jesus is the Christ. Perhaps as we go through our Christian existence and the cost from time to time forces itself upon us we need to take time to just stop and remember: Jesus is the Christ the Son of God. Only our vision of Him is enough to justify the walk He calls us to tread down here.