‘The Jesus told his disciples, “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 16:24-25
‘And he said to all “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” – Luke 9:23-24
“Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” – Matthew 10:38-39
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” – The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Jesus calls everyone who would trust in him to take up their cross and follow him. But what does it mean for someone to take up their cross? Why should we take up our cross? And why would a God who is good call people to do something which sounds so difficult and painful? In attempting to answer these questions I hope that we will finish a little more convinced both that “salvation is free, but discipleship will cost you your life” (Bonhoeffer) and that the way of the cross is where true life is found.
Firstly then, what does it mean for a person to take up their cross?
The two parallel passages in Matthew and Luke are both preceded by Jesus foretelling his own death and sufferings. Jesus’ own death is the picture that is meant to be in our minds as we think upon these verses about discipleship. This means, as H.B Swete says, that “to take up the cross is to put oneself into the position of a condemned man on his way to execution”. If we claim to follow Jesus we should be willing to suffer, up to and including death for him. To take up our cross is to be willing to endure suffering and persecution for following Jesus.
But, as we see in the passage from Luke, it also means to deny ourselves. This isn’t a call to deny our distinct identity and become one with everyone else. Instead, it is a call to deny the ‘old man’, our natural sinful selves, and instead to serve God and others. The New Testament is full of phrases describing or calling for this kind of self denial:
– “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” Galatians 5:24
– “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” – 1 Peter 2:24a
– “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” Colossians 3:5
– “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Romans 13:14
Luke account also includes the word “daily”, showing the necessary continual nature of this cross bearing and self denial.
Another aspect of taking up our Cross then, is to die to sin, to our old selves, and to put on the Lord Jesus Christ daily, allowing us to say with Paul “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.” (Galatians 2:20)
This recognition of the cost of following Jesus is captured beautifully in T.S Eliot’s poem ‘Journey of the Magi’. The Magi travel to see Jesus’ birth, but soon realise that his birth must mean death to their old ways, to their old selves;
“were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.”
Taking up our cross, therefore, is a painful renunciation of the old self, a crucifixion of our sin, and a willingness to suffer to the point of death for following Jesus. It is to say to God, as Jesus did in the garden, “Nevertheless (regardless of cost), not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42b).
If this is the cost of following Jesus, then what is the incentive?
This first incentive is stated almost identically in all three passages- “For whoever would save his life will lose it but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Negatively, this means that those who in this life refuse to take up their cross will face eternal spiritual death. Positively, it means that the one who takes up their cross will enjoy eternal life when Jesus returns.
However, the advantage isn’t simply in eternity. Following Jesus by taking up our cross is actually the best option even now. Jesus is honest about the cost of following him, whereas sin always promises more than it can deliver. Jesus gives us freedom to live for him, whereas sin only ever enslaves us. As Derek Rishmawy says “Jesus tells us to pick up our cross & follow him yet calls his yoke is easy and his burden light. What does that say about the alternatives?” Therefore, even when life is difficult living for Jesus, knowing him as our saviour and friend is the sweetest comfort, greater even than the heights of what sin can offer us.
Another reason why we are called to take up our cross is that by taking up our cross, and by dying to ourselves we actually find ourselves. The amazing paradox is that the more we become like Jesus, the more we become ourselves. The more we follow Jesus in his sufferings the more our character is moulded into the people God would have us be, which leads to our flourishing and joy.
So taking up our cross leads to life, both now and evermore.
However, the most compelling reason to take up our cross is that Jesus, God Incarnate was willing to take up his, and suffer for arrogant rebellious sinners like us. We owe all to him, and so we give all to follow him. There is no cost too great to follow the one who died for us, who “hath given us rest by his sorrow, and life by his death” (John Bunyan).
A song that captures many of these truths wonderfully is ‘When I survey’ by Isaac Watts, and I shall finish by simply reprinting the lyrics here. I hope that with me, you will ponder them in your heart, take up your cross, and live.
“When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.”
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen – Collect for the third week of Lent