I’ve heard this phrase used when someone is going through a hard time or carrying a heavy burden. For example, some might say a person with a severe health issue has a “cross to bear.”
But that is not what Jesus meant when He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25)
When you and I consider the cross, we think of Jesus’ crucifixion, His sacrifice and the shedding of His blood as payment for our sins. Or, we may think of the beautiful symbol of Christianity that adorns churches around the world. But at the time Jesus spoke to His followers, the cross was the ugliest and most cruel form of Roman punishment. In fact, the word excruciating is derived from the word “crucifixion”. The death sentence of crucifixion was meant to torture a criminal and cause the most agony.
So why would Jesus say that anyone who follows Him must “take up his cross”? The cross leads to death! To His listeners, the cross meant torture and an excruciating way to die.
The way of the cross for Jesus
The way of the cross for the Lord Jesus was to lay aside His glory, come to earth in human flesh, allow sinful man to accuse, spit on and torture Him, and finally nail Him to a criminal’s cross, mocking Him as He died. The way of the cross for Jesus was an excruciating death that satisfied the wrath of God for the sins of the world. Jesus took the punishment that belongs to you and me, paying the debt of our sins and opening the way for us to be reconciled to God. Then, the way of the cross for Jesus was to have victory over death by His resurrection from the tomb three days later. For Jesus, the way of the cross was a painful death that led to resurrected life!
The way of the cross for us
You and I have it a little easier than the cross Jesus had to bear. We will never have to be nailed to a wooden cross as a criminal. But in order to follow the Lord Jesus, we must crucify and put to death our sinful habits that separate us from God. We have to “take up our cross” by resisting the sins that so easily overtake our lives. When we follow Jesus and deny ourselves the temporary pleasures of sin, we are putting those sins to death. When an appetite for sin isn’t fed with what it craves, it starves until it dies.
The cross we carry is the denial of those things that take us off the road of our Christian walk with Jesus. It is painful to deny ourselves of what we think we want, need or have a “right” to enjoy! The way of the cross for us is obedience to the Lord Jesus.
The way of the cross for new life
The obedience, pain and death of our sinful habits lead to resurrection and new life with the Lord forever. It doesn’t mean that our ability to resist sin earns a reward of salvation. No, our salvation is a free gift that God provides to us through faith in Jesus. But what it does mean is that in following Jesus every day and putting to death the sinful ways we used to live enables us to experience the resurrected life that Jesus died to give us.
Jesus tells us take up our cross and follow Him. The way of the cross is not a hopeless, painful, ugly end of life. No – it is a victorious path to eternal life!