Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Jesus is continuing his talk about the high cost of following Him. He has to be loved above everything and everyone else in this world. We must set aside anything and anyone that might come between Him and us. The price can be a pain as excruciating as death. Therefore, Jesus spoke an image of death, the cross.
Matt. 10:38a “And he that taketh not his cross,. . .”
Crucifixion was a means of death by humiliation and torture. One of the cruelest, most barbarous forms of execution ever devised, it rose in the East among the Phoenicians, Medes, and Persians. Greeks and Romans brought it to the West.
A cross, a vertical stake with a crossbeam on or near its top, usually was not much taller than a man. Victims, who could live on a cross for days, were usually scourged in advance to hasten death. This reduced guard time required of soldiers.
Every person in the Roman world knew this imagery. The slave revolt of Spartacus ended in 6,000 of his followers being crucified. As a warning to others, their bodies were left on crosses to rot. Caesar Augustus bragged of crucifying 30,000 slaves at one time. When Judas of Galilee revolted, Rome’s General Varus crushed the rebellion and crucified 2,000 rebels along the roads of Galilee. Rome used crucifixions as a strong public reminder of who ruled and who was ruled.
Jesus, by using the image of taking a cross to describe following Him, said something painful about discipleship. It costs. This truth cannot be diluted. Jesus wasn’t talking of minor inconvenience. Discipleship hurts. Easy spiritual success is an illusion, a pipe-dream, an idea fit for laggards, not for true Christ-followers.
This is a serious subject, presenting symbolism of extreme humiliation and excruciating pain. Let’s be sure we precisely understand what Jesus meant by it.
What is this cross believers are required to carry? Scripture provides four clearly defined ingredients. First, our cross is taken, voluntarily lifted. It cannot be something forced on us by life. Ironically, this misinterpretation is what we usually mean when we speak of someone carrying a cross. We often say a person who has a huge burden in life has a cross to bear. This was not Jesus’ intent here.
A cross is none of the many burdens of life in and of themselves, such as a bad marriage, a wayward child, an unbelieving family, poor health, failing parents, loss of career, poverty, persecution, etc. Our cross is not like a load strapped on a donkey having no choice in the matter, but rather something we willingly assume.
Second, our cross is personal, no one else can carry it for us. “His” cross individualizes the issue. Christianity by proxy blights the Church. Many want to shirk their duty and leave their work for others to do. When it comes to fulfilling their rightful role, husbands abdicate to wives, children to parents, laypersons to clergy. Substitute discipleship is disallowed. We cannot worthily avoid a cross.
Third, our cross is spiritual, it deals with following Jesus. Our salvation is proved not by walking a church aisle, but by carrying a cross on the highway of holiness. Be not surprised that the true brand-mark of a believer is a cross.
It is the signature symbol of Jesus and His followers. A strange parade we make, a thorn-crowned King bearing a cross, followed by loyal subjects doing the same. The Calvary procession marches still today, on and on it goes. Christianity is the religion of the cross. We identify ourselves with One who was (is) rejected. We follow Him, glad to “accept the scandal of identification with Him” (Ogilvie).
Fourth, our cross is taken “daily” (LK 9:23). Each morning we decide whether or not to take up our cross for that day. Having to decide day by day if we will or won’t take up our cross is tough, for no one has “a velvet cross” (Flavel).
To have to make a choice everyday about this is difficult. It is to share in Paul’s dilemma, “I die daily” (1 Cor. 15:31). Every morning my brother Charles looks in a mirror, salutes, and says to the Lord Jesus, “Private Marshall reporting for duty, Sir.” Discipleship is never a once for all time decision. This Rubicon has to be crossed daily, yea often hourly, and sometimes moment by moment.
To learn what this cross we are to carry is, combine the four key ingredients: voluntary, personal, spiritual, daily. Taking my cross means everyday voluntarily setting aside whatever would keep me from drawing spiritually closer to Jesus.
We have no choice in life’s burdens, temptations, trials, tests, and storms. They come with a vengeance and aplenty. We do have a choice as to how we will spiritually respond to them. This proper response, a right reaction, is the focus of our text, the cross Jesus said we daily, voluntarily decide whether or not to carry.
Following Jesus entails making appropriate responses to life everyday. Sex, money, power, drugs, selfishness–the temptations come, we have no choice. As we daily, voluntarily say no to them we say yes to taking our cross. A controversy with God, frustration toward Him–some face this everyday. We often can’t help but wonder at His ways, but do not long nurse these thoughts, let go this baggage quickly. We can’t carry this luggage and at the same time take up our cross.
Taking up the cross entails being willing to release anger over setbacks, abrupt changes in plans, altering of the life we intended to live. We often have to set aside personal agendas and ambitions, yea even dreams, “to realize that shining things of which he caught a glimpse are not for him” (Barclay). Are we willing everyday to take God’s part against ourselves, to say His way is right, ours wrong?
Everyday we have desires, plans, and frustrations that can easily detour us from the sidewalk of spirituality. “Today I want to harbor anger toward God due to autism. Today I want to impress someone of the opposite sex, thus I will hide my profession. Today I want that job promotion, whatever it takes. Today I will spend God’s ten percent on myself. Today I want to be free of having to think about sharing Jesus with family, neighbors, friends, co-workers, fellow students.”
The most serious threat to spiritual success is love of our own life. Our greatest danger is life the way we want it to be, desiring some sin, imagining a selfish future, wanting to stay in our own self-determined comfort zones.
The choice to take our cross is painful. We would be hard pressed to find a more powerful expression for self-denial. A person carrying a cross is devoted to death, having made a commitment to die to self. Taking a cross means yielding the whole personality, surrendering anything that hinders compliance to His will.