Anything that Jesus said, even if spoken but once, must be important to have been preserved in the biblical record (cf. John 12:48-50). And if he reiterated something or communicated the same message multiple times, surely it deserves our careful attention. There are at least three separate accounts of the Lord making a particular statement, referenced no less that five times in the Synoptic Gospels.1 What could be worth repeating so many times?
Early in his ministry, around the year 28, Jesus was in the district of Galilee near Nazareth when he spoke these words to the twelve: "And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me" (Matthew 10:38, NKJV). What would this have meant to those who first heard it? Jesus had not yet predicted his death, and the concept of a "cross" had absolutely no religious connotation at this time. What was the Lord trying to communicate to these new recruits?
The following year, in the spring of 29, Jesus was in the region of Caesarea Philippi, northeast of Galilee. This time he spoke to a larger group of people, including his immediate disciples. All three Synoptic Gospels record the statement: "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me" (Matthew 16:24; cf. Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). This was spoken not long after Jesus had, for the first time, informed his disciples that he would be "killed" (Matthew 16:21), although he had not yet specified the manner of his death. Without knowledge of the Lord’s crucifixion, how would they have understood this teaching?
The third time Jesus is reported to have employed this metaphor, he was east of Judea in Perea in the winter of 29. On this occasion, as he spoke to a multitude about the importance of counting the cost of discipleship, he declared: "And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple" (Luke 14:27). Once again, the idea of Christ dying on a cross had not yet been communicated,2 so with what frame of reference were they to interpret such an obscure admonition?
Long before the words in question were spoken, Palestinian Jews were quite familiar with the cross as an instrument of public execution. As far back as the second century BC, Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes crucified Jews who resisted his oppressive decrees (see Josephus Ant. 12.5.4). Later, the Romans perfected this form of capital punishment as a means of humiliation and torture and a deterrent to insurrection. The condemned was forced to carry the implement upon which he would die to the place of execution. Seeing that an entire Roman cross weighed over 135 kg (300 lb.), it was the crossbeam, weighing approximately 35-60 kg (75-125 lb.), that was typically carried.
When Jesus called upon each listener to "take," "take up," or "bear" his own cross, what image would this have brought to their minds? Few would have continued following him asking, "What’s in it for me?" or "What can I get out of this?" None would have gone away thinking, "It’s all about me!" Whatever this message implies, it is abundantly clear that such is necessary to be worthy of Christ (Matthew 10:38), requiring self-denial (Matthew 16:24), without which one cannot be the Lord’s disciple (Luke 14:27).
There are at least four applications to consider. First, as cross-bearing always ends in death, the Christian walk is to last for the remainder of one’s life. It was never intended as a temporary lifestyle to be tested on a trial basis and then abandoned at will. Genuine discipleship involves a lifetime commitment (Revelation 2:10).
Second, to be a committed follower of Christ means that there is a tough road ahead. Cross-bearing was not designed to be pleasant. Anyone looking for the "easy life" will not find it in the Christian experience. In fact, as long as there are fallible human beings living in an imperfect world, the hypothetical "easy life" is not possible for anyone! Rather than promising earthly comfort and ease, the Lord realistically assures just the opposite for the faithful (Matthew 5:11; John 15:20; 16:33; Acts 14:22; etc.).
Third, the journey is never taken alone. The cross-bearing expected by Christ involves following after him. Not only will he be the supreme example (1 Peter 2:21), he offers guidance (John 8:12), strength (Matthew 7:24-25), and the assurance that he is with his fellow-cross-bearers each step of the way (Matthew 28:20).
Finally, Jesus never asks his followers to do anything he is unwilling to do himself. He goes on to literally carry his own cross (John 19:17). Moreover, when extreme blood loss and fatigue seem to render him incapable of completing the journey alone, someone else is compelled to provide assistance along the way (Matthew 27:32; Mark 15:21; Luke 23:26). While cross-bearing is first an individual responsibility, in the way of Christ help is available as needed (John 13:34-35; 15:12-14; etc.).
Whatever else might be involved in being a Christian, cross-bearing is an indispensable component. A grave injustice is committed against prospective converts by failing to inform them of this essential truth (Luke 14:26-33). It is a lifelong commitment, with great challenges throughout, but not an isolated or lonesome journey. As each bears his own cross and follows in the footsteps of Christ, he is empowered by the Lord’s abiding presence. Beyond that, other cross-bearers are on hand to help shoulder any seemingly unbearable loads.
"Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. . . . For each one shall bear his own load. . . . But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Galatians 6:2, 5, 14).
–Kevin L. Moore
1 With textual variation among ancient manuscripts, the same teaching also occurs in Mark 10:21 in the Greek text behind the KJV, NKJV, and RAV.
2 It was not until the following year that Jesus would reveal his impending death by way of crucifixion (Matthew 20:19; 26:2).
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