The words stare up at me from the Holy pages and I ponder their meaning. Again and again.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Matthew 16:24
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Mark 8:34
And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. Luke 9:23
Take up your cross. These words, often heard in church or just in casual conversation often left me perplexed, confused, and with brows furrowed. What exactly does it mean to “take up one’s cross?”
I think a lot of us assume that our crosses these passages speak of are our burdens. I always thought it meant we must take our burdens (whatever they may be) and learn to live with them, however painful they are, without grumbling and whining. Yep, take these burdens (which I imagined to be both physical and non-physical burdens) of ours and just follow Jesus. The physical burdens I imagined being things like breast cancer or colon cancer, diabetes, shingles, blindness, amputations, arthritis, or broken bones. You get the picture. I also imagined these crosses to be things like the frustrations we feel in our daily lives. I imagined burdens/frustrations like financial debts and family problems, car problems, lack of jobs, leaky sinks, and broken washing machines. You know the things I speak about. The things that really get under our skin and frustrate us to no end. Things we hear people griping and complaining about. And then there’s the burden of our sins– the sins of envy, pride, lust, wrath, gluttony, greed, idolatry, etc.
I guess I interpreted these verses to mean we were supposed to just find a way to live with our burdens while following Jesus. Just bear them and be brave and don’t complain about them. Do the best we can. Give them all to Jesus and all would be well.
After completing a recent bible study of Matthew’s Gospel, I learned a little more about the meaning of these verses about bearing one’s cross. I think I was interpreting them wrong all along. I’ll try to clarify.
In my study of the Gospel of Matthew, I perused several Bible Handbooks and guides and did a little research on Crucifixion as a way of death. What I read was quite disturbing. Back in Jesus’ day, physically carrying a cross meant death was coming to that person. And rest assured, it wasn’t going to be a pleasant death. Crucifixion provided a particularly slow and excruciatingly painful death. The person was tied or nailed to a cross and left to hang there until death occurred. I read that nails were used if they wanted to speed up the death process. And sometimes the legs of the person being crucified were even broken by a beating with an iron rod (this also helped to speed up the death process). It was a very humiliating death that was reserved for usually the lowest criminals. All clothes were often removed except maybe a loin cloth to cover the genitals. The bodies were left on display for the public to view, often times left to rot or be consumed by animal predators. Crucifixion was done to persuade and warn other would-be criminals to not repeat the same crimes. There was a lot of hatred and animosity that went into a death by crucifixion.
Jesus took up his cross and carried it to his death. He was weak and tired from the flogging he had received (and from the blood loss he endured) and couldn’t carry it alone. He could barely stand and fell repeatedly. In three of the Gospels, Simon of Cyrene was appointed to help Jesus carry the cross.
The verses aren’t asking us to actually pick up a physical cross and carry it to our deaths (I figured that much). The three verses above say we must also “deny ourselves” before taking up our crosses. To deny ourselves…. What does this mean? We humans, by nature, are self-centered. We’re self-seeking and self-pleasing. We want to see our own wills be carried out because we always think WE know what’s best.
But we need to end this way of thinking. “Denying ourselves” means our mission should be to please God and not ourselves. We need to set aside our own desires and plans for our life and turn our lives over to God. We need to do His will every day. Denying ourselves is not easy. It goes against our human nature. I think about Jesus as he prayed to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion. Can you imagine his grief and the heartache and misery he felt?
Jesus Prays in Gethsemane
36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” 37 And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled.38 Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch[a] with me.” 39 And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me;nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” 40 And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? 41 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” 43 And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again.45 Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on.[b] See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”
His suffering, worriment, and sorrow must have been truly overwhelming. But Jesus denied himself and chose the Father’s will. He gave us a perfect example to follow.
I think “to take up one’s cross” means to turn our life over to Jesus without one bit of hesitancy or doubt. It means giving ourselves totally to Him. We must be willing to share in His rejection, shame, and suffering. It means we should follow Him, even if that means giving up our life for His sake if need be.
What does “taking up one’s cross” mean to you?