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What did Jesus mean when He said, “Take up your cross and follow Me”?

CW: graphic descriptions of crucifixion; torture; capital punishment; violence

Many are confused about what Jesus meant when He said, “Take up your cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23). The biggest misconception is thinking Jesus meant that the “cross” is a difficult struggle or a burden that we are bound to carry in life. Have you ever heard someone say, “This is just my cross to carry”? Statements proclaiming one's "obligation" to a personal struggle or burden are rooted in self-pity and pride. Taking up our cross and following Jesus has nothing to do with the things weighing us down in life. So if this is not what Jesus meant when He said to “take up your cross and follow Me,” what exactly did He mean?

The Meaning of the Cross

During Jesus’ time, the cross symbolized the worst kind of death—a death preceded by the most excruciating and humiliating torture imaginable at the time. The Romans specifically designed crucifixion to be horrendously painful. Crucifixion was the worst punishment anyone could receive, and it was reserved for only the worst criminals.

A part of crucifixion was making the criminal carry the heavy timbers they would soon die upon—all by themselves. The walk to the place where they would be killed was long and tiresome and shameful. Onlookers would shout insults and throw things at the condemned.

The wooden cross was the means of their execution, so they essentially carried their own death on their back. Once the criminal arrived at the appointed place, the Roman guards would make them lie on the crossbeams, then they'd drive coarse nails into the person's hands and feet. The cross would be lifted so all could witness the intense suffering of the condemned. It was not uncommon for days to pass before the person succumbed to death.

Pretty horrific.

So in the time when Jesus spoke those words, "carrying your cross" was no small thing. The thought of carrying a cross was alarming and fraught with fear because it meant you were going to die an unimaginable, violent death. When Jesus said, "Take up your cross and follow Me,” He meant that we must be willing to die if we truly want to follow Him.

Dying to Self

Physical death isn't all Jesus was referring to though. There is also dying to "self." Right after this statement about taking up our cross, Jesus said, “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” (Luke 9:24-25; Matthew 16:25-26).

Being willing to die for Jesus means that we choose to give God control by surrendering our whole lives to Him. This doesn't mean we have to erase our personalities or ignore the interests and gifts God has given us. "Dying to self" is not a command to forget who we are as individuals. After all, God made us uniquely and specifically for His glory (Ephesians 2:10; Psalm 139:14).

When we "die to self," we let go of our selfish nature and instead choose to live for God with those unique interests, gifts, and personal traits He gave us. We let go of the unhealthy desires our sinful nature yearns for. As the apostle Paul puts it, "...those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires" (Galatians 5:24).

Counting the Cost

In Luke 14:25-33, Jesus talks about the "cost" of being His disciple. He gives the example of a person who intends to build a tower and how that person would determine how much it would cost them to complete that tower, lest they cannot see the project to its end. Jesus says that the cost of following Him is a willingness to lose everything if asked—your wealth, your family, your possessions, your very life. Jesus calls us to a life of sacrifice.

After Jesus taught these things, people stopped wanting to follow Him. Can you see why? They expected their Messiah to free them from governmental oppression—not willingly give up his life. The people were not willing to die to themselves and refused to give control to Jesus. They wanted Jesus to accommodate their plans—not follow His (Luke 9:57-62).

Those who follow Jesus are not promised a comfortable life, free of pain and struggles. Trials and hard times often reveal the authenticity of a person's dedication to Christ. Bad things are inevitable, and Jesus will be with us through them all (John 16:33).

Are you willing to count the cost?

While we may be asked to sacrifice everything, Jesus is worth more than the cost of all those things. There is no deeper love than Jesus' love for us, and we can only truly experience that love by following Him (Romans 8). If you're ready to count the cost, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Are you willing to follow Jesus if it means you lose your friends?
  2. Are you willing to follow Jesus if it means you must give your finances over to God?
  3. Are you willing to follow Jesus if it means your loved ones may disown you?
  4. Are you willing to follow Jesus if it means you give up certain pleasures?
  5. Are you willing to follow Jesus if it means you may lose your life?

We aren’t saying that all of these things are guaranteed to happen. Being willing doesn't mean that you've got a sacrificial checklist to complete. In some parts of the world, those who choose to follow Jesus will actually lose family, friends, and even their own life due to their decision. In some religious cultures, if someone becomes a Christ follower, their family would likely disown them. If an atheist decides to follow Jesus, their friends may mock them. Every believer must choose between Jesus or the acceptance and pleasure of the world.

Jesus asks us to take up our cross and follow Him every single day (Luke 14:27). Jesus also promises that when we die to ourselves, we will have eternal life in Him (John 5:24; John 17:3).

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TL;DR

When Jesus spoke of "carrying your cross" (Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23), those who heard Him were alarmed and fearful because the cross was synonymous with an unimaginable, violent death. Those who wish to follow Him must be willing to die if they truly want to follow Him (Matthew 16:24). Jesus says that the cost of following Him is a willingness to lose everything if asked—your wealth, your family, your possessions, your very life. Jesus calls us to a life of sacrifice. When we follow Jesus, we "die to self" and are given a new and greater life in Christ (Ephesians 4:22-24; Romans 6:4).

By: Vivian Bricker

Vivian loves learning, studying the Word of God, and helping others in their walk with Christ. She is dedicated to helping people learn more about Jesus and is ready to help in any way she can. Her favorite things to do are spending time with her family and friends, cooking, drawing, and spending time outside. When she is not writing, you can find her soaking up the sunshine or going on an adventure.

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