"Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves ... " (Luke 9:23)

"Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me." (Luke 9:23)
Jesus' statement is being mistranslated and thus misunderstood here. Let's examine the translation and the real meaning of Jesus' words:

"Whoever wants to be my disciple..."


Some translations, such as the King James Version, have translated the Greek phrase θέλει ὀπίσω μου ἔρχεσθαι to desires to come after me..." This miscommunicates what Jesus is saying.

Rather, Jesus is speaking of those who would become his follower. To "come after" means to follow. A disciple is a follower.

Jesus had many disciples 


We know from other texts that Jesus was often surrounded by hundreds of people - many clamoring to be healed or see some other miracle performed. And of these, Jesus also had a number of followers who became disciples. Earlier in Luke 70 disciples were identified.

So becoming one of Jesus' followers - students or disciples - was of importance, to distinguish between those who simply clamored after Jesus or just wanted to be part of the big crowds.

In other words, Jesus is speaking of a follower as someone who hears his teachings and then follows those teachings.

"let him deny himself"

What does this mean? Does Jesus literally mean they need to deny themselves? Let's say that a person named George wants to follow Jesus. Does he have to now tell himself and others that he is no longer George? He's now someone else? That he is not himself anymore? Isn't this what denying oneself means?

This is not what Jesus was talking about. These words "deny himself" are being translated from the Greek phrase ἀρνησάσθω ἑαυτὸν. And yes, ἀρνησάσθω can mean "deny" either "someone" or "oneself" according to the lexicon. However, specific to this context, the lexicon explains that the word can mean "to disregard his own interests."

In this context, because Jesus is talking to people about becoming qualified to be one of his followers, we can know that Jesus is talking about giving up one's self-interest.

Yes, this was Jesus' prime qualification for becoming pleasing to him and to God: Giving up one's self-centered motives and living in such a way that is pleasing to Jesus and the Supreme Being.

What is this?


Let's say that a young man wants to travel the world. Then he meets a girl and they "fall" for each other. Soon the young man finds that the girl doesn't want to travel. She wants to stay at home and have a family. What will the young man do? It depends. It depends on how much the young man cares about the girl. If he doesn't care that much, he'll go off traveling anyway. If he cares deeply about the girl, he will stick around.

What is this called? The young man would be giving up his own interests because he cares enough about the girl to do what she wants: Stay at home and have a family.

In its purest form, this is called love. But in the more mechanical view, he is giving up his own interests in order to please the girl. As to whether he truly feels love, that may be debatable.

But this notion of giving up one's self-interest - this is what Jesus is talking about. Jesus is saying that in order to follow him, one must be willing to give up their self-centered interests. While in the beginning, this may be mechanical, the intention is that it can develop into love - just as the sacrifice the young man makes for the girl could become love.

In other words, Jesus is requesting the person wanting to follow must begin making the effort: To give up their self-centered goals, intentions and aspirations as they begin to follow Jesus' teachings.

"... and take up their cross daily..."


Now what about the cross? Is Jesus saying that to follow him they must be willing to pick up a cross? Let's look at this more closely.

The word "cross" is being translated from the Greek word σταυρός (stauros). Is its primary meaning a cross? No. As used in context by Greek philosophers, the word refers to an upright stake with a point at one end.

Yet it could certainly be translated to "cross" if someone wanted to force it. But Jesus never actually picked up the cross. It states later in Luke:
As the soldiers led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus. (Luke 23:26)
So we find that Jesus did not carry the cross. Rather, a man was seized and forced to carry - rather, drag, as these crosses were heavy - the cross to where Jesus' body was to be crucified.

So is Jesus now really asking his followers to pick up and carry a cross every day?

No. The word "cross," is being translated from the Greek word σταυρός (stauros). The more precise translation, according to the lexicon, is "stake with a point." This might be compared to a stake used to prop an olive tree, or a grape vine - these have been traditionally single straight poles with a sharp end on one end so they can be struck into the ground: a grape vine stake or a tree stake.

Let's now look at the words around this and see how they work. The words after σταυρὸν include καθ’ - from κατά (kata) which means "everyday" "daily". This means that whatever Jesus is referring to, they will need to be doing that every day.

So is Jesus saying that his followers will need to think of being crucified everyday?

Don't be ridiculous.


What kind of teacher would this be?


Let's say that a new - even radical - teacher came on to the scene and suddenly announced that if someone wants to follow him they better be prepared to carry around an instrument used to murder himself. Perhaps putting this in modern-day perspective - this could mean a violent end of their life is necessary in order to follow him.

What would happen? The FBI would likely raid the teacher's compound and arrest the teacher as a possible terrorist.

And of course, Jesus wasn't saying that in order to follow him his students need to be prepared to end their physical lives on a daily basis.

Plus Jesus didn't say the word "carry" here as many have assumed "take up" to mean.

The verb or action word used here - αἴρω (airō) - does not mean to carry at all. It means to "pick up" or "elevate" or "lift up."

So is Jesus saying that to follow him a person has to become a weight-lifter? Crosses certainly were extremely heavy and they could not be lifted up by the user - they were partly lifted but then dragged along.

Rather, Jesus was speaking about a stake, not a cross - as identified above. Planting stakes were typical among farming communities like the ones Jesus traveled through. A stake is used to hold up a vine or a small tree as it grows.

And a stake is typically lifted up as it is taken out of the ground when one needs to move the stake to prop up another plant - or moved to another farm or vineyard.

Jesus often spoke of agricultural terms in his parables - such as the farmer and the seed, the slaves and the harvest and so on. Why? Because these were terms that his audience could relate to.

But why would Jesus be talking about lifting up a stake out of the ground?

The analogy is when a person is growing a vine, tree or other crop and they pull up the stakes in order to move the stakes to other trees - or even another farm.

Yes, we even have an English saying that is derived from this notion:


"Pull up stakes."


To "pull up stakes" typically refers to giving up our current place and moving elsewhere.

And this is what Jesus was talking about. Just consider what he was doing, and what many of Jesus' disciples and students were doing: They had given up their jobs and families and were now dedicating their lives to the Jesus' service of preaching the glories of God throughout the region.

They had each effectively "pulled up stakes" from their respective families, jobs, homes, and towns and began following Jesus. And Jesus "pulled up stakes" from his own home and was traveling on his mission to serve the Supreme Being.

Thus we can see that in this context of time and circumstance, Jesus is talking about them giving up their attachments - as one becomes attached to one's family, job, and so on.

And yes, this is not only practical, but it would also be appropriate to say: That if someone wanted to follow Jesus, he better be prepared to leave their current attachments related to the material world - and follow Jesus' teachings.

"... and follow me."

And this is what we see among Jesus' close followers. Many but not all had left their homes and villages and were literally following Jesus around the countryside

Is this what Jesus was talking about? Physically following him by walking behind him? When we say a person "has many followers" is it that their followers will always be walking behind the teacher where ever he or she goes?

No. A follower doesn't necessarily physically follow the teacher around. They follow their teachings. They follow their instructions. They change their lives to be in sync with their teacher's teachings.

So a person can be anywhere physically and still follow their spiritual teacher if they are living their lives in such a way that is pleasing to the teacher. And we know from his exchanges with some students such as Martha that some of Jesus' "beloved" students remained in their villages and simply made the appropriate changes in their lifestyles in order to follow Jesus' teachings.

Because Jesus is saying that in order to follow his instructions they will need to give up following their own instructions - their self-centered goals and desires - and give up their attachments.

Let's relate this again to the notion of "pulling up stakes." The metaphorical action of "pulling up stakes" in the context here means to basically give up one's attachments in life and follow Jesus.

Because spiritual life opposes a self-centered physical existence, one must give up one to follow the other. Consider this statement by Jesus:
"No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money." (Luke 16:13)
Of course this word "money" is a mistranslation of the word μαμωνᾶς (mamōnas). The word μαμωνᾶς (mamōnas) refers more generally to wealth or specifically to "mammon" according to the lexicon - and "mammon" is how the word is translated in the King James Version.

In other words, "You cannot serve both God and mammon." The word "mammon" not only refers to the prospect of wealth, but it refers to the various attractions of the material world.

So we can relate this statement to Jesus' statement above and arrive at the clear conclusion that Jesus was saying that in order to follow him a person must give up their self-centered aspirations and attachments.

And we must note again the word "daily" here - κατά (kata). This means Jesus is putting the emphasis on the fact that it is an ongoing process. It is not as if we can say "I'm saved" and we're done.

Giving up our self-centered aspirations and attachments and actively following Jesus' instructions - centered around loving and serving the Supreme Being - is a daily struggle. We have to contend with the illusory nature of the physical world and our self-centered desires every day that we dwell within these physical bodies. Therefore it is not easy. We must have determination. We must continue the process even if we slip and fall: We must get back up, dust off ourselves and continue to follow his instructions as best we can.

Let's say that a building was on fire and a fireman climbs into the window of a burning apartment to find a woman inside sorting out her clothes and shoes - preparing to pack them up so she can take them with her as she escapes the burning building.

When the fireman comes through the window he will have one thing to say: "Drop all of that stuff and follow me to the window so I can get you out of this burning building!"

And in order to prevent being killed in the fire, the woman will have to strictly follow the fireman's instructions. She can't dawdle around a little - and grab just a few pairs of shoes. She has to drop everything.

This is what Jesus is essentially saying. We are each stuck in the physical world - blinded by our identification with these temporary physical bodies, and their various attractions and attachments. In this way, we think the house we live in is our home and the people we call our family belong to us and the money we have in the bank and the goodies around us are all our possessions.

But they are not. While these things we are attached to exist, they do not belong to us. They will each be here in one molecular form or another after our body is long dead and decomposed.

We are each being hosted within a temporary physical body. Soon our body will die and we will leave it. And with that, we will lose everything we thought we owned or thought were ours: Everything will be gone - as if all blown away - at the time of death.

Where will we go when our bodies die? We will continue to suffer in another physical body (that is the meaning of "going to hell") unless we have made the proper preparations to return to the spiritual realm.

If we remain attached to the things of the world and our self-interested aspirations, we will not be prepared to return to the spiritual realm.

This is what Jesus is trying to teach them. He is trying to prepare those around him - and all of us who try to follow his teachings - to return to the spiritual realm. He is trying to lead us out of hell and back to our home in the spiritual realm so that we can once again be fixed in our loving service relationship with the Supreme Being.

We can thus offer a the translation of this statement from the Gospels of Jesus:
hen he told them all, “If one wants to follow me he must deny himself and pull up his stake daily and follow me."