Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” (Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23)
Have you ever known or heard of someone who had a sick loved one say, “I would gladly take their place to save them from the pain”? The motivation for such a statement is love. It is a willingness to be a substitute and to take upon oneself the burden, pain, or even death of someone else. The Bible tells us, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
The cross is one of the universally accepted symbols of Christianity and the Christian life. Why? While it is true that Jesus died hanging on a cross, the cross represents more than the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus was born in the flesh as the Son of God and lived a sinless life. He “was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). His purpose for leaving the glory in heaven with the Father was to take upon Himself the wrath of God that each of us deserve because of our sin. He was the blood sacrifice to atone for (cover) the sins of man. Anyone who acknowledges and repents of his sins, and believes that Jesus is the Savior who God raised up from the dead, shall be saved from eternal damnation in hell. Jesus surrendered Himself to do the will of the Father and to be the ultimate example of love by laying down His “life for his friends.” You and I are the object or focus of God’s love, but we will not experience that love until we repent, believe, and receive the salvation He has provided.
The Apostle Paul summed it up this way:
For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement. (Romans 5:6-11)
Jesus preached repentance and the kingdom of God. He lived according to the ways of the kingdom and He instructed us to do likewise. To do this we must surrender the direction and purpose for our life to the Savior. Jesus died that others may live. He Himself was raised from the dead and became Lord of the kingdom of God. If we are going to live in the kingdom of God and be disciples of Jesus, we must “die” or “take up our cross” that we may live. So, the cross is not just a symbol of death, it is a symbol of life. Consider the context of the command to “take up his cross.”
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works. (Matt. 16:24-27)
Jesus’ life was not taken from Him; He gave it up voluntarily. In the context of describing Himself as the “good shepherd,” Jesus said:
I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep. … Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father. (John 10:14-18)
In a similar way, Jesus will not “take” our life and force us to follow Him. He will not violate our free will to love or not to love Him. But if we believe in Him and love Him, He tells us how to live in the kingdom of God to experience His life and light, which draws others to Him. To be a clear vessel for the Light we must die to the fleshly desires of self. We must lay down our life or take up the cross and follow Him. Dying to self and self-centeredness takes time because it is so pervasive in our carnal nature. Here are just a few examples.
Do you ever have conflicts with people? That is pride (Proverbs 13:10). Do you ever get discouraged because you want something like what another person has? That is covetousness and lack of contentment (Hebrews 13:5; I Timothy 6:6). Are you ever anxious? That is a lack of trust and faith (Philippians 4:6-7). Are you easily offended by others? That is not considering others better than oneself (Philippians 2:3). These negative emotions and attitudes can be overcome only if we take up our cross and reckon ourselves “to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:11). Consider the attitude of Jesus when He was crucified, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), or Stephen when he was stoned, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” (Acts 7:60). A “dead” person does not react in the “flesh” even when persecuted or martyred. Such a person exalts Jesus and denies self so that the light of Jesus shines bright in their life.
The Apostle Paul gave us practical instruction on how to live out the command to “take up his cross.” Children are to “obey your parents” (Ephesians 6:1) and fathers are to “provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Husbands are to “love your wives even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it” (Ephesians 5:25). Employees are to “be obedient to” their employers “as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart” (Ephesians 6:5, 6). With respect to other individuals, we are to “recompense to no man evil for evil” but “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17, 21). As subjects to civil rulers, we are to honor them as they are ministers “of God to thee for good” (Romans 13:4).
Remember, we do these things because we love Jesus and we want to be empty vessels through which His light and life can shine through us. We do not attempt to do these things to earn God’s love or salvation. By obeying His commands we demonstrate our love for Him; we do not do them in an effort to be righteous in ourselves. Our righteousness is only in Christ.
Taking up our cross is not a onetime thing. It is a daily decision. In Luke’s account, Jesus said, “take up his cross daily, and follow me.” The Apostle Paul affirms the importance of continually choosing to deny oneself for the sake of Jesus and the gospel of the kingdom of God.
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. (Romans 12:1)
I protest by your rejoicing which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily. (I Corinthians 15:31)
We take up our cross daily by submitting to God through prayer, studying His Word, and by praising Him. Each morning we should pray, surrender our lives to Jesus, and ask to be filled with the Holy Spirit who mortifies the deeds of the flesh (Romans 8:13). If we daily give our lives to Him, He promises to manifest Himself to us (John 14:21). Giving out of love for God and other people is also rewarded in other ways, as we will see next time with the command to “Give” (Luke 6:38).