I can imagine the shock on the disciple’s faces when Jesus said to them, “Take up your cross.”
I imagine the confusion they felt. The utter bewilderment.
The cross was an instrument of torture. The means of execution for the worst criminals. A humiliating, excruciating, utterly degrading way to die.
Nails driven through the wrists and feet. Slowly suffocating to death. A brutally painful, torturous death.
Why in the world would Jesus tell his disciples to take up their cross? What could he possibly mean by such a brutal analogy?
It would be like someone saying, “Take up your electric chair and follow me.” It shocks the senses…and yet doesn’t quite make sense, at least on the surface.
So what exactly did Jesus mean when he said, “Take up your cross,”?
Take Up Your Cross and Follow Me
In order to understand what Jesus meant when he said, “Take up your cross,” we need to understand the broader context in which he was speaking.
Jesus had just told his disciples that he was going to die on the cross. This was a shocking statement to the disciples.
They were convinced that, as the Messiah, Jesus was going to vanquish his enemies and establish his kingdom. He was the Son of David, and as such, they firmly believed that he was going to drive out all evil and build an earthly kingdom greater than any ever known.
This was their hope.
The thought of him dying the death of a common criminal was absolutely HORRIFYING to them.
Surely, the Messiah could not die. And especially not on a cross. After all, a person who died on a cross was cursed by God.
Galatians 3:13 makes this abundantly clear when it says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”.”
If Jesus died on a cross, it would mean that he, the Messiah, God’s beloved son, was indeed cursed by God.
With this in mind, how could Jesus possibly say to his disciples, “Take up your cross,”?
Life Through Death
What the disciples failed to understand is that when Jesus said, “Take up your cross,” he was telling them how the kingdom of God works.
In God’s kingdom, life comes through death.
Jesus, going against the opinion of everyone around him, willingly died upon the cross. He intentionally went to the cross. It was no accidental tragedy. Jesus willingly embraced the cross.
Because he knew that through the cross, he would bring life to millions upon millions who would believe in him. He knew that his death would bring salvation to a great throng of people. He knew that life came through death.
Jesus also knew that exaltation lay behind the cross. He knew that he would receive honor and glory and blessing after his death and resurrection.
As it says in Hebrews 12:2, “…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Jesus understood the profound reality that his death would lead ultimately to his great joy, both for him and for all those he would redeem through his sacred blood. He also knew that his humiliation would result in his exaltation. He eagerly anticipated the day when he would be exalted to the right hand of the throne of God.
The kingdom of God is not like the kingdoms of this world. We experience the joyful life of the kingdom of God NOT by fighting and scraping our way to the top of pile.
Rather, we follow the example of Jesus and take up our cross. And when we take up our cross, we find true, lasting, good, wonderful life.
This is why Jesus says in Matthew 16:25, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
If we lose our life for the sake of Jesus, we will actually FIND our life. In the kingdom of God, things are upside down. You lose your life by trying to save it and you find your life when you lose it.
But what exactly does it mean to, “Take up your cross?”
Take Up Your Cross and Die To Yourself
To take up your cross means to die to yourself. To die to your personal preferences and desires and to submit every part of your life to the rule and reign of Jesus.
It means to die to anything that is sinful, wicked, or opposed to the kingdom of God. To “crucify” the sinful desires that are the opposite of the kingdom of God.
This is why Paul says in Colossians 3:5, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”
Notice that Paul uses the language of the cross. He says that we are to, “Put to death,” anything that is earthly in us. Just like Jesus was put to death on the cross, so we are to take up our crosses and put to death the sinful, earthly things in us.
So, for example, let’s say that you find yourself tempted to be angry at someone. In that moment, you have two options. You can give in to the anger and explode, unleashing your words like a cannon.
Or you can take up your cross and die to your sinful desires, just as Jesus did.
Or let’s say that you’re tempted to worry about the future. When you feel that way, you can either try to figure out everything yourself, mapping out every detail of what possibly might happen. Or, you can put worry to death and choose instead to trust God with all your heart.
Are you starting to get the picture?
To take up your cross means to embrace the path of Jesus. To say to the Lord, “Not my will, but your will be done.” To lay aside every sinful thought, impulse, and desire and to follow Jesus with all your heart.
Hebrews 12:1 puts it this way, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…”
John Piper, speaking of the difference between our new identity in Christ and our old identity as followers of the world, says this:
But the new, denying self says to the old world-loving self, “You are not in charge any longer. I love Jesus more than human approval, honor, comfort, and life. So, I am ready to endure opposition, shame, suffering, and death. There is more gain in following Jesus, even with suffering, than there is in walking away from him, even with ten thousand earthly benefits.” That’s the way the new self talks.
Let Us Take Up Our Cross Daily For The Joy Set Before Us
To take up your cross is not a one-time thing. It’s not something that you do once at the beginning of the Christian life and then never do again. Rather, it’s a daily requirement for the Christian.
Every day, we encounter fresh temptations to love the ways of the world instead of the ways of Jesus. Every day we are tempted to give in to sin rather than to live as those who are following Jesus. And so every day we must take up our cross and put our fleshly desires to death.
There’s one thing that’s crucial to remember as we seek to obey the command to, “Take up your cross.” Ultimately, we seek to take up our cross because it will bring us great joy. When we lose our life by taking up our cross, we ultimately gain true life in Jesus.
As John Piper said, Jesus is better than 10,000 earthly delights. We take up our cross because we know that’s the path to true joy.
So let us embrace the way of the cross, knowing that joy awaits us as we pursue Jesus.