Over the past two weeks, we have been challenged by Jesus with some strong teaching regarding the cost of following him. It is difficult teaching because it is so uncommon in current-generation Christian thought to speak of costs when following Jesus. The more prevalent teaching is saturated with ideas regarding how easy it is and how great the blessings are. But judging by the words that fall from the lips of Jesus, nothing could be further from the truth.
This week we continue that investigation with Part 3 by looking at Jesus’ statements regarding “carrying the cross.” This will be a bit gruesome, but it is important, I believe, to understand what Jesus means when he tells us to take up our cross.
Jesus is recorded in both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospel accounts as saying anyone who is unwilling to take up their cross and follow him is unworthy of him. The term “unworthy” lands like a gut-punch because the last thing we want to hear Jesus say is, “You are not worthy of me.” He makes an almost identical statement later, midway through Matthew’s gospel:
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 16:24b-25, ESV
The concept of cross-bearing is often presented, or perceived, as the simple, dutiful endurance of various trials and difficulties that enter one’s life. I often picture two elderly ladies in their rocking chairs on the front porch, busily knitting or crocheting while discussing their woes. One remarks to the other how much her bursitis is hurting today, and the other responds, “Well, Bessie, you know we all have our cross to bear.” Is that what Jesus has in mind? Was the cross, for Jesus, a case of bursitis, a nasty boss at work, or thinning hair?
The cross is a death sentence. For the first-century audience, the concept of the cross was horrifying, gruesome, and offensive. This is why the apostle Paul refers to the preaching of the cross as “foolishness to the unbeliever.”1 What right-minded person would glory in such a thing? To do so is foolishness. It is an absurdity.
The cross was far more than a pagan mode of capital punishment. It was agonizing – brutal. Thayer describes the cross, the σταυρός (stauros), as “the well-known instrument of most cruel and ignominious punishment, borrowed by the Greeks and Romans from the Phoenicians.”2 Crucifixion was reserved for the basest of criminals, and occasionally served as an arbitrary amusement for provincial governors. Once adopted by the Greeks and the Romans, crucifixion was typically limited to slaves and aliens, because it was considered too barbaric for citizens, and even then it was limited to crimes against the state.3
In its root form, the term stauros depicts a pointed stake for impalement of the offender. Observing such a punishment would be immensely satisfying for a sadistic individual, and equally agonizing to endure for the one being punished. Impalement was the mode of execution chosen by the Persian king Darius for any who would violate his decrees, and added emphasis and insult is seen in the fact that the impalement stake was to be taken from the framework of the offender’s own house.3
Variations on the impalement stake allow for a horizontal beam to be affixed to the top of the pole, forming the shape of a T, or through the middle, forming what is commonly thought of, in contemporary culture, as a cross.5 The latter configuration allowed the punished to be attached to the instrument with cords or nails, rather than impaled upon it. In both cases those sentenced to such a death were humiliated by being put on public display.
In Western crucifixions, the humiliation of the condemned was amplified by including a pre-crucifixion scourging, followed by the victim being forced to carry the crossbeam to the location of the upright stake. A tablet announcing the crime of the individual was hung about the neck, and later affixed to the cross.6
A crucifixion victim could take many days to die, and in non-Jewish cultures the bodies were typically left to rot in the open air; though in some cases the dead body was given to family or friends for proper burial.
In Jewish culture, however, crucified bodies were not left on the cross beyond nightfall, because the victim was considered accursed by God, and as such, must not be left in place, because this would defile the land. It surprises me that the Romans would honor this for the Jews. Disrespecting their belief system would be an effective “poke in the eye.” Perhaps the Romans made this concession to avoid a disruptive outcry.
Jesus’ call for us to take up our cross and follow him is no small matter. He is calling us to a crucifixion of self – a brutal, ruthless dealing with our own drives, desires, and self-serving impulses. When Jesus spoke of the cross, those who heard him knew precisely to what he was referring. They witnessed people dying on crosses on a regular basis.
The self-denial to which Jesus calls his disciples is a practice so foreign to the world that the world cannot comprehend it. It is completely nonsensical. It is not that the world is opposed, but rather that those in the world cannot even begin to understand such selfless living. In contrast to the call of Jesus, the world denies itself nothing it can afford, or borrow to acquire.
Taking up the cross to follow Jesus is a concept the apostle Paul understood and embraced. It is the idea of bearing one’s cross that caused Paul to write to the churches in the region of Galatia, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”6 The beauty of crucifying one’s self while embracing full allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ, is that it prepares us mentally for the inevitable trials of walking with the crucified and risen Lord.7
It is quite a different story for those who attempt to serve both self and Jesus. The apostle Peter describes the effect of conflict and trial on the believer who is simply testing the waters. He speaks of the deeply troubling times that enter the life of a Christ-follower, and then explains the purpose of such trials:
These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory, and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
– 1 Peter 1:7, NIV-1983
Not only does the endurance of trial prove my faith genuine, the apostle Peter says our trials are a constant reminder that I have something so much better awaiting me on the other side – an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade, a salvation that will be revealed in the last time.9 The Christ-follower stands confident in the midst of trial and persecution, while the pretender bails out because the heat is too much to endure.
The call of Christ is the call to a firm, standing conviction that would prefer to take a bullet from ISIS than to renounce my King. It is the courage to suffer imprisonment, beatings, and personal loss rather than compromise my testimony. It is the willingness to be sued to the point of losing my business, rather than deny a conviction of truth. It is offering forgiveness and witness to a disturbed youth who previously entered our prayer meeting and gunned down my family members and friends. It is refusal to bow to an oppressive state that says, “No, you may not honor Jesus, or speak in his name within our borders.”
The decision to follow Jesus is essentially a death-wish wherein I forfeit my life to another. While that is a seemingly high price, it yields an eternal reward. From both angles, the decision to follow (or not to follow) Jesus is a decision unlike any other we will make in our entire lives, and as such, it is one we dare not make lightly.
Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?
– Matthew 16:24-26, NASB
The paradox inherent to this reality is that my physical body lives on. I have chosen to die to my own ego, yet I live. It is with that reality in mind that the apostle Paul makes his enigmatic Galatians 2:20 statement, saying he has been crucified with Christ; he no longer lives, but rather Christ lives in him. As a disciple of Jesus, I am dead, yet I am alive.
Evangelist and author, Leonard Ravenhill, had a rather poignant take on this paradoxical state for the believer:
Any man who has so assessed himself filth of the earth, has no ambitions and so has nothing to be jealous about. He has no reputation, and so has nothing to fight about. He has no possessions, and therefore has nothing to worry about. He has no rights, so therefore he cannot suffer any wrongs. Blessed state! He is already dead, so no-one can kill him – and in such a state of mind and spirit can we wonder that the apostles turned the world upside-down?
The cross makes one thing abundantly clear and that is that I no longer live. Christ lives in me. I no longer run my life. My Captain runs it. I am no longer in charge. My King is in charge. My decision to die to self and follow Jesus cost me everything. It is the wisest decision I ever made.
1. 1 Corinthians 1:18
2. Thayer, D. D., (1979). The New Thayer’s Greek English Lexicon. (p. 586). Lafayette, IN: The Book Factory
3. Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J., (1988). Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (pp. 555–556). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
4. Ezra 6:11
5. Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J., (1988). Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (pp. 555–556). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
7. Galatians 2:20
8. 2 Timothy 3:12
9. 1 Peter 3:9