What did Christ mean when He said that we are to take up our cross, when we want to follow Him?


Christ used the metaphor of taking up the cross in numerous places, for instance, in Matthew 10:38 and in Matthew 16:24; in Mark 8:34 and in Mark 10:21; as well as in Luke 9:23 and Luke 14:27.

Especially Matthew 10:38 is interesting, in view of its context with verse 39:

“And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it.”

We may understand WHY Jesus uses this particular analogy, because He did literally bear His own “cross” as He was led to His own execution! We read in John 19: “And He, bearing His cross, went out to a place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha, where they crucified Him…” (verses 17-18).

The “Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible,” in its explanation of the cross, states: “Those sentenced to death on a cross in the Roman period were usually beaten with leather lashes–a procedure which often resulted in severe loss of blood. Victims were then generally forced to carry the upper crossbeam to the execution site, where the central stake was already set up.” We know that Jesus had even been beaten before His judgment by Herod (compare Luke 22:63-65). Then Jesus was also flogged by the Romans in preparation for His execution: “Then he [Pilate] released Barabbas to them; and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered Him to be crucified” (Matthew 27:26).

Adding to this, Jesus was further tortured by the soldiers as the account in Matthew 27, verses 27 through 31, reveals. Although Jesus evidently attempted to carry this crossbeam for a little while, He was so severely weakened by the beatings He had undergone that He was not able to do so: “Now as they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. Him they compelled to bear His cross” (Matthew 27:32).

In discussing Christ’s statement in Matthew 10:38, the Nelson Study Bible points out: “Taking up a cross here stands for commitment to the extent of being willing to die for something.” Although not incorrect, MUCH MORE is meant by Christ’s statement.

The parallel Scripture of Luke 9:23-24 sheds additional light on the meaning of the phrase, “taking up the cross.” We read Christ’s words: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him DENY himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it.”

The Nelson Study Bible comments: “Although Jesus offered salvation as a free gift (John 1:12; 3:16-18; Eph. 2:8, 9), He also warned that following Him would entail suffering and hardship (Matt. 5:10-12; see also Rom. 8:17; 2 Thess. 1:5).”

This explanation is also correct, but, again, it does not convey the fullness and richness of the intended meaning. A more comprehensive understanding has been stated in the Broadman Bible Commentary. In focusing on the fact that the cross is mentioned in the context of SELF-DENIAL (compare, again, Luke 9:24), the Commentary states:

“The cross is the utter self-denial and self-giving, first in Jesus himself and then as a transforming principle in those who trust him… The one who, under trial, seemingly saves his life by renouncing Christ actually loses it. The one who suffers martyrdom as the price of acknowledging Christ seems to lose but actually finds his life… [In] principle [one] accepts his cross or rejects it… one finds life by surrendering it to Christ or forfeits it by his self-trust, self-love, and self-assertion.”

In discussing Christ’s words in Matthew 16:24 (“If anyone desires to come after Me, let him DENY himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”), the commentary points out:

“Having accepted the disciples’ confession of him as the Christ, Jesus moved next to indicate the way which was his and theirs to follow. Matthew records that Jesus… declared that it would be the way of the cross, the way of utter self-denial and self-giving… The cross could prove to be literal for disciples as well as [the] Master. Whether literal or not, it represents a real way of life through ‘death to self’ for each disciple [Please note that Paul later said that he was dying DAILY, compare 1 Corinthians 15:31]. That the follower of Jesus deny himself is not optional within discipleship… Denying self is not to be confused with denying something to oneself, whether material things, pleasure, or whatever. Wicked people often deny themselves many things in order to achieve their selfish goals or conquer their enemies… What Jesus meant by self-denial is far more radical than denying something to oneself. He meant that one must say no to oneself. He meant the opposite of Adam’s yes to self and no to God… All man’s sin and self-destruction centers in self-love, self-trust, and self-assertion. The cross means the opposite… One for the first time becomes what he was made to be when he denies himself.”

When we are in Christ, we are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). The “old man” of selfishness and evil desires, of sin and death, died in baptism and has to stay dead (Romans 6:3-6). But the “old man” does not want to stay dead. That is why we have to continually see to it that we are taking our cross of self-denial and conquer the old man, by “putting on” the “new man which was created according to God” (Ephesians 4:20-24; compare Colossians 3:9-10). To follow Christ means to follow Him completely and without reservation. It means that we are willing to take up daily our cross of self-denial. When we look back, wanting to return to what we left behind, including our selfish desires, we are not worthy or fit for Christ and the Kingdom of God (Luke 9:62). The act of profound obedience by Jesus Christ to His Father’s will stands as our example (compare Philippians 2:8 and Hebrews 12:2). Like our Savior, we must be willing to entrust ourselves completely to God’s purpose in each of our lives–regardless of the personal sacrifice we are called upon to make!

©2024 Church of the Eternal God