READ : Luke 9:23
And he said to all, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.
Luke 9:23 rsv
“Anyone who wants to be a follower of Mine,” said Jesus, “must renounce self. Day after day he must take up his cross.” That’s my theme: Jesus calls us to take up our cross.
THE MEANING OF THE CROSS
Let’s think now about what that word cross meant to those who first heard Jesus speak. A cross to them was not something vague and mysterious, as it might be to us. It was a grim reality of which they were chillingly aware. Probably all of these men had witnessed crucifixions. In the ancient world, this form of execution was remarkably widespread. It occurred in various forms in a host of cultures. The chief reason for its use was its alleged power as a deterrent to crime. It was usually carried out publicly at a crossroads, on a hill, or at the scene of some grave wrongdoing. Crucifixions somehow satisfied a bent toward revenge and cruelty, both among rulers and the masses. They were usually associated with other forms of torture, especially flogging. At relatively small expense and to great public effect, a criminal could be tortured to death for days in this unspeakably terrible way. If anything ever manifested the demonic character of human cruelty, it was a death like this.
By the public display of the victim in a prominent place, crucifixion also represented the utmost in humiliation. It had an eerie, numinous quality about it. This form of execution, more than any other, had links with the idea of human sacrifice, a practice abhorred but never completely suppressed in the ancient world.
Quite often the victims of crucifixion were not even buried. Crucified ones sometimes served as food for wild beasts and birds of prey. In this way, their humiliation was made complete. What it meant in ancient times for a man to be refused burial can hardly be understood by any of us today.
Because the cross of Jesus has such symbolic power now as a sign of suffering love, it’s easy for us to forget its meaning for first-century hearers. There was nothing beautiful or noble about crucifixion for them. It was all ugliness and terror. From the third century B.C. onward, the word cross was used as a vulgar taunt. Nothing could be more contemptible, then, more worthy of scorn, than someone who carried a cross. It was a badge of the most revolting dishonor. It was the worst thing you could wish upon your bitterest enemy.
TAKING IT UP
What could it mean then to Peter and Andrew, James and John, Philip and the rest, to hear Jesus calling them to take up their cross? Surely not what that means to many of our contemporaries. It wasn’t simply to have a nagging physical complaint or endure a painful difficulty. It wasn’t even a humiliating thorn in the flesh, such as Paul described. It was certainly more than facing inconvenience or deprivation. It was risking literally everything. It meant carrying a wooden cross-piece to the place of execution. Jesus was calling His followers to be prepared for death by crucifixion.
This cross-bearing was not unknown in the Jewish world. Remember the Old Testament account in which Abraham was called to offer up his son Isaac? Here’s how one Jewish commentator describes the event, “Abraham took the wood and laid it on his son Isaac, like a man who carries a cross on his shoulder.” Abraham and Isaac were trudging up Mt. Moriah. Abraham bore with him the knife and the makings for a fire. Isaac carried wood for the blaze on his back. He looked for all the world like he was headed up that hill to die. He was “like a man carrying a cross on his shoulder.”
The disciples had seen spectacles like that on feast days in Jerusalem. A bent, bloody figure struggled up a hill under a heavy crossbar. The crowds watched him, transfixed with curiosity and dread. What made the scene horrific was the certainty of what lay ahead.
It’s hard for us today to gain a sense of what that was like. Methods of capital punishment have changed. In American culture, it’s now the electric chair or the gas chamber. It’s difficult to imagine a man walking toward his death with a symbol of those on his person. Maybe the closest, starkest image for us would be that of a man with hands tied behind his back, walking toward a gallows or a tree with a noose around his neck. No question in the minds of watchers about what was soon to take place.
Some of the disciples, tradition tells us, actually went through this cross experience. Simon Peter was crucified head downward. Possibly several others met a similar fate. They carried their crosses to death. But that wasn’t true for all, nor has it been so for multitudes of Jesus’ followers since. His words, then, are not to be read as a prophecy of what will befall every Christian.
This word daily is intriguing to me. “Day after day, he must take up his cross.” Obviously that can’t refer to martyrdom itself. We can only go through that once. Jesus is calling for an attitude of mind, a settled purpose, a readiness each day to risk all. It’s a choice that a follower of Jesus makes again and again throughout life.
It’s as though He said, “If you want to be My disciple, take up the position of one who is already condemned to death.” You’re to regard your life in this world as already finished.
What does a man think about, do you suppose, as he’s carrying his cross toward a place of execution? Life’s possibilities have suddenly shriveled down. He hasn’t the freedom any more to go where he likes or do what he will. He’s cut loose from his old surroundings, from his occupation, from his responsibilities. The reality of impending death becomes all-absorbing. Perhaps he thinks about those he loves and longs to say his good-byes to them or do what he can for them in his last moments. If only there were time! But there isn’t. For him, it’s all over.
“I’m a dead man!” he says, facing the inevitable. “I’ve lost control. My old way of living is done with.” Can that be also how a person looks at things when he renounces self to take up his cross daily? Yes, he holds everything with a light grasp now. What does a man have to lose when he’s condemned to die? He’s already lost it all.
THE CROSS OF JESUS
But we can’t really understand this cross-bearing of a disciple apart from the cross of Jesus Himself. The Lord had just been telling His followers that He was headed for Jerusalem, toward rejection, suffering and death. He had already settled it in His own heart that He was marching toward crucifixion. The cross was not on his back yet, but it soon would be. Already, in mind and heart, He had stooped beneath it.
The disciples are being called then to a deep and radical identification with Jesus, especially with His death. Notice how prominent that is in the letters of the apostle Paul. “We were therefore buried with him by baptism into death . . . We have been united with him in a death like his . . . Our old self was crucified with him . . . We have died with Christ” (Rom. 6:4-8). Or again, the apostle makes it acutely personal, “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20).
When Jesus died for the sins of the world, He died as a substitute for sinners. He gave His life, we read, as a ransom for many. He bore our sins. He suffered in our place. He took the stroke of judgment due to us. As the prophet says, “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5). Every believer can say of Jesus in grateful adoration, “He took my place. He died for me. Jesus paid it all.”
But there’s another sense in which Jesus died as our representative. He, the Son of God, taking on human-ness for us, became the head of a new humanity. He not only died for us. He died with us. He took us down with Him into the depths of death so that we might be raised with Him to a new life. This is the mysterious, wonderful reality of the Cross. In Jesus’ death, we all died.
That divine perspective on the event, that way of looking at it from God’s point of view, is now to become ours. We are to see ourselves in that way. As the apostle puts it, “Consider yourselves, therefore, to have died to sin” (Rom. 6:11). Here’s an image that helps me to get that charge in focus. Suppose that I’m a slave, living in the household of a cruel tyrant named Sin. He dominates my life, drives me, beats me, kicks me. One day, after living constantly under his dominion, I don’t wake up. The tyrant yells at me, yanks me out of bed, beats me, but all to no avail. I’ve died. His power over me is broken forever.
Next I imagine that I am transported to the home of a new master, kindly, gracious, one who cares so much about me that he’s willing to give his life on my behalf, one who always wants my good. And there, in his household, I’m raised to life again. I owe nothing now to that old tyrant. I owe everything to the new Lord who has won me by His grace. I consider myself dead to my former master and his service, and alive to my new one.
You see, friends, renouncing self and taking up one’s cross day after day makes no sense at all unless it is to follow Jesus. Why dethrone King Self except to enthrone King Jesus? Why take up the attitude of a man or a woman on the way to death unless we know we’ve already died with Christ and have been raised again to a new life? The key to cross-bearing is what Thomas Chalmers once called “the expulsive power of a new affection.”
My thoughts come back to the passage about which Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5, “The love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (vv. 14-15). The apostle has become deeply convinced of this great reality; namely, that one (Jesus) has died for all (us). Out of that tremendous fact, another truth emerges for Paul: all of us have died. All of us, in Him, have gone down into death. We’re obviously still alive, but now in an entirely different way than before. We’re alive as people whose lives have been forfeited. We’re alive as those who have somehow already passed through death.
How did this come about? It happened through God’s astonishing grace toward sinful people. It happened by the self-giving love of Jesus Christ, who willingly carried our burden and tasted death for us all. So what am I alive for now, according to Paul? I’m alive to serve that new Master. His love is the constraining power that captures my heart and governs my life. Now, because He died for me and I died with Him, I will no longer live for myself. I will count myself dead to that old way of living and refuse to give in to it again. I will live instead for the One who died for me and was raised again, and is now exalted to be my Lord. Will you say something like that? Oh, yes! Say it today: I choose now to take up my cross, for love’s sake, for Jesus’ sake, and follow Him.