“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.” – Jesus
After talking to some people this week, I realized that I need to give a little more explanation of the central phrase in this statement from Luke 9:23. What exactly did Jesus have in mind when he told his followers to “take up his cross”, a sentiment expressed by Jesus several times (see Matthew 10:38 and Luke 14:27).
Many of you probably grew up hearing people talking about “the cross they had to bear.” They looked at Jesus words and applied it to their own burdens. Just about any tough thing in life could be your cross. Some looked at lifelong illness, a lousy job, or grumpy in-laws as their cross, their burden. As it goes, the lot in life that they have been dealt was the cross that they had to carry, and that act would somehow make them acceptable to God. Let me be honest and share that I don’t believe that this passage addresses the issue of carrying our burdens for Jesus. There are other passages that deal with our burdens and struggles. Paul experiences some sort of struggle, asking God three times to take it from him. God’s response is that His grace is sufficient and God’s power is perfected in weakness. Paul’s response is to boast in his struggle so that the power of Christ made be demonstrated in his life (I Corinthians 12:1-10). Peter challenges readers to cast struggles and burdens on the Lord, “because He cares for you (I Peter 5:7).” Struggles, weaknesses, persecutions, and burdens are significant in our experience of faith. Still, this is not the issue in this quote.
The followers of Jesus were very aware of crosses. The Roman government used crucifixion as a form of execution as a way of controlling people from other cultures. A Roman citizen was not supposed to be crucified, but those from other cultures who revolted would be executed on a cross in a public location. The suffering of the offenders was on public display for all to see. Not only was it a way to do away with the guilty party, but it was also an incredible deterrent. Each of the men listening to Jesus had probably walked by a crucifixion at some time, and all had heard stories. A person being crucified would first be scourged, and then they would take the cross beam and place it on the shoulders of the convicted, putting the heavy and splintered board right on top of the slashed skin of the person. This person would then carry that beam to the place where their life would be ended. The imagery of this horrible event was not lost on those who heard the words of Jesus.
In the past week, similar language has incited anger in our culture, as a golf commentator used “lynching” language in speaking of Tiger Woods, saying that the only way younger players could ever beat him was to “lynch him in a back alley.” This language was found to be offensive, and it should be. Yet, when Jesus told his followers to take up the cross, it is the equivalent in our culture of saying “take up your noose” or “take up your gas chamber”. The cross was a place of execution, of death, of paying the ultimate sacrifice. As his followers searched to define the meaning of this statement, there is no doubt that they knew it was controversial, intense, and possibly offensive.
Why would Jesus use this kind of language? Let me share a few things I think Jesus was communicating to those desiring to follow Him. First, I believe Jesus is letting people know that following Christ comes with great cost. We live in a world that is bent against God, and will also be against those who passionately represent Him. Most of us are searching for a religion that is neat, tidy, and easy to do. We want a God who will make us comfortable and give us a great life. A God who will give me a great family, a wonderful house, and no problems. Living in America, we know little of religious persecution, or really of any great struggles like poverty and disease. But for some reason, the church here is generally joyless and shallow. The call to take up the cross is the challenge to know that following Jesus may take you down a path of incredible trials and persecution, and for some, even death for the Gospel. To take up the cross means that I have made the determination that no cost is too great, no path too difficult, and no call to deep! I will follow Him. The decision to lay down my life has already been made, so whatever God wants, and wherever Jesus leads, I will go.
This leads to the second issue, that the follower of Jesus lives in the reality that trading the temporary pleasures of this life for the blessing of knowing Jesus is a very good trade. Most St. Louis Cardinal fans are familiar with the Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio trade in 1964, where the Cardinals acquired the young outfielder who would eventually be a Hall of Famer for a pitcher who was at the end of his career from the Cubs. At the time, the trade seemed like the Cubs were getting the better end of the deal, but only a few months later it became obvious that this was one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history. In the same way, at first, taking up the cross over the pleasures of this life seems like a bad deal. Yet, by taking up one’s cross, the disciple is making a clear statement that I will not hold on to this life too firmly. Jesus went on to say, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” We live in a time where people are exploring all kinds of avenues, seeking to “find themselves.” Jesus says that the only way to find oneself, is to first lose oneself, to lay down his life, to make this trade. Only when a person lives the cross life will they discover that this is the only life that fully satisfies.
Finally, I believe the call to take up one’s cross is a statement of the centrality of the cross of Christ. The context of this statement by Jesus is a discussion with his twelve disciples (Luke 9:18-22). He’d asked them who the crowds thought he was, and then who they themselves believed Jesus to be. Peter spoke up, “The Christ of God.” Jesus response to this declaration was a prediction of his suffering and death. It is almost like Jesus was saying that now that you know who I am, you must understand what that really means. The coming of Jesus, his entire mission was wrapped up in the cross. Only there would Jesus deal with our core issues of sin and rebellion toward God. At the cross, Jesus provided forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation with God, hope, and victory! A follower of Jesus living the cross-centered life becomes a link to this reality, that the only place of hope is in the cross of Christ. John Stott says, “The essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; God sacrifices himself for man and puts himself where only man deserves to be. Man claims prerogatives that belong to God alone; God accepts penalties that belong to man alone (The Cross of Christ, p. 159).” Taking up the cross means that I am identified with Christ, that he is the core reality of my life, and that my life is consumed by what He accomplished on the hill of Calvary.
May all of us struggle with what it means to “take up our cross daily” today. God bless.