What did Jesus mean when He said, “Take up your cross and follow Me?” What does this look like in our lives?
What It Doesn’t Mean
I don’t think Jesus was referring to our daily toils and trials when He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24). To take up our cross and to follow Jesus starts with taking up our cross. We can’t take it up for someone else nor can anyone take it up for us. The point is, it is “your cross” to pick up and not mine, and neither is mine for you to take up, so first we must take up our cross, and only then can we follow Jesus. Our cross is not dealing with chronic health problems, dealing with disobedient children, experiencing a relationship issue, or having one of the worst jobs on the planet. I don’t believe we can say, “That’s the cross I have to carry,” if we’re referring to things that cause us problems in life. Jesus wasn’t carrying His cross of being mistreated and beaten by the Roman guards or falsely accused and arrested. His cross meant only one thing for Him; death, but death for Him would bring eternal life for us, so His cross wasn’t about Himself, but about others.
Two thousand years ago, the cross wasn’t a shiny piece of jewelry you put around your neck or put on a church steeple, but rather, it was a symbol of shame, suffering, and death. Today we see it as symbolic of Jesus’ atonement, as He ransomed many unto God through His life, death, and resurrection (Mark 10:45), so Jesus’ carrying His cross was for the good of many who would trust in Him. It wasn’t about His day was going or something that didn’t go right, so what does it mean to take up your cross?
What it Does Mean
When Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow Me,” it was in the context of following Him, regardless of the cost to our personal lives. Christ-followers must being willing to die to self in order to follow Jesus. This “dying to self” is a call to an absolute surrender and its exceedingly hard, but He does remind us, that “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self” (Luke 9:24-25)? And part of dying to self is being public with your profession of faith in Christ, since in the very next verse, Jesus says, “whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels” (Luke 9:26). Taking up our cross involves a public profession of faith in Christ, but with a life of good works that proves it (James 2:14-17; 1st John 3), so a Christ-follower is one who doesn’t deny Jesus and is able to lay down his or her own life, or loses their own life, since “whoever wants to save his life will lose it.” It’s more than making Jesus a resident; it’s making Him president in your life; it’s resigning as chairman of the board from your own life and seating Christ there.
What it Cost Jesus
Jesus exceeds expectations for believers, but is underwhelming to the lost, and the same thing goes for the cross. It’s foolishness to the world, but it means eternal life for us. Late in Jesus ministry, the people began to see that Jesus was not going to immediately restore the kingdom, as they and the disciples had thought at the time, so when began teaching that He was going to suffer and die at the hands of the Jewish leaders and their Gentile overlords (Luke 9:22), His popularity sank, and the people who only a week earlier had been praising Him, would be screaming for His death a week later, so His popularity plummeted and many of the shocked followers followed Him no more (John 6:66). Truly, they were not able to put to death their own ideas, plans, and desires, and exchange them for His. It was a cross they were not willing to pick up for an eternal kingdom, and forsook it in pursuit of an immediate, physical kingdom, which would eventually be crushed beyond all hope in 70 A.D. Following Jesus is easy when things are going well, but when our commitment to Him is tested, like with persecution, that’s when the cross gets heavy (John 16:33), but discipleship demands sacrifice, and Jesus never hid that cost from any of His followers. He told them ahead of time to count the cost, so are you willing to take up your cross? Jesus left His glory in heaven to become a Man, and sacrificed His rank, position, title, comforts, power, and even emptied Himself (Phil 2:7) for our sake.
Today, it seems all we hear about are people’s rights. They have rights to this and rights to that, and they demand those rights in many different ways, but Jesus relinquished His rights for our sake, and He became sin for our sake (2nd Cor 5:21), but Jesus could have thought, “No, wait, I am sinless, I shouldn’t have to suffer. I am totally without fault. How could they do this to me,” but instead, He drank the cup, obeying the will of the Father, so we should not be quick to “claim our rights” but rather, esteem others better than ourselves and forgo our own agenda if it benefits another. Part of the cost of carrying the cost is it will cost you time, money, reputation, and for some in the world, it will cost them their life. Taking up our cross cannot be done until we lay down our own lives. We’ve only got two hands, and we’ll need both of them to pick up and carry our own cross, and then follow Jesus. It may result in ridicule, scorn, insults, and hate, but that’s our cross to bear. The cross isn’t about handling the day in pursuit of your “best life now,” but about laying down your own life and taking up our cross and following Jesus (Matt 16:24).
Taking up our cross is not picking up our laundry when the family refuses to use the laundry hamper, or fixing a flat tire in the pouring rain, or dealing with divorce or death. It’s not just the command to not think to highly of yourself (Rom 12:3), but not thinking of yourself at all and thinking of Christ and what He commands the church to do (e.g., Matt 25:34-30; 28:18-20). It’s dying to self and living for Christ, but it’s hard to attend your own funeral when you haven’t yet died to self, but this is why God sends us His Spirit, since we need the Word of God with the Spirit of God to make the children of God.
Article by Jack Wellman
Jack Wellman is Pastor of the Mulvane Brethren Church in Mulvane Kansas. Jack is a writer at Christian Quotes and also the Senior Writer at What Christians Want To Know whose mission is to equip, encourage, and energize Christians and to address questions about the believer’s daily walk with God and the Bible. You can follow Jack on Google Plus or check out his book Teaching Children the Gospel available on Amazon.