What must God be like when He demands that if I desire to follow Him I must take up my cross and follow? What does that even mean? Ask a group of believers to explain the phrase and answers will likely spread across a wide spectrum. Have we thought about the cost of discipleship? Is God’s demand too harsh? Does He expect too much from us? Is the price of following Him too high?
Leaders often demand much from their people. I’ve worked hard most of my life and worked even harder for those rare individuals who asked no more from their followers than they expected of themselves. Scripture offers so many places where we can drop in to learn about God, what He is like, and how He interacts with us, but I want to visit John 10. These verses might be called the Good Shepherd passage because that is how Jesus describes Himself to us. Notice these vital qualities of this Good Shepherd:
- Jesus came to lead us into abundant life (vv. 10, 15)
- Jesus laid down His life for His sheep (v. 11)
- Jesus knows His own (v. 14)
- Jesus gives eternal security to His own (v. 28)
With that backdrop of information let’s consider the command to take up our cross. The phrase is given in all three of the Gospels. I repeat myself sometimes because I cannot remember if I’ve already uttered the words I want to share. Mix in the selective listening habits of long-time spouses along with declining hearing capacity and the conversations in our home would likely provide some entertainment to outsiders. Often, though, I restate the same message to remind myself (or my wife) of some important content. Repetition helps with retention. Given that God created humans, and given that He understands us better than we understand ourselves it should come as no surprise that He repeats many important messages in His Word.
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”Matthew 16:24-26 NASB
And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? For what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”Mark 8:34-37 NASB
And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself?”Luke 9:23-25 NASB
Much has been written about the torturous aspects of Rome’s method of executing criminals, namely crucifixion. Warren Wiersbe, in his second compilation of the works of A. W. Tozer, offers Tozer’s insight (The Best of A. W. Tozer Book Two, page 149), “The man with a cross no longer controls his destiny; he lost control when he picked up his cross. That cross immediately became to him an all-absorbing interest, an overwhelming interference. No matter what he may desire to do, there is but one thing he can do; that is, move on toward the place of crucifixion.”
Latch onto this thought – Jesus allowed Himself to be crucified. He stood in complete innocence before His accusers and gave up His right to life. Now recall the qualities of the Good Shepherd. He lay down His life for the sheep. When Jesus asks us to bear our cross He is asking no more from us than He expected of Himself although our cross will not carry the eternal impact that His did.
Paul’s writing to the Romans can help us understand what Jesus is asking when He commands that we take up our cross.
Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.Romans 12:1 NASB
For the sacrifice the trip to the altar is one way. The sacrifice is an offering to God, a permanent gift, one that will not be taken back. We make that commitment, one described by the church of my childhood as “dedicating your life to God.” (And right beside that came the term “rededicating your life to God” because most of us wiggled off the altar at some point. Ouch!) Luke, the physician among the Bible writers, added a word in his statement of the expectation, the word “daily.” Yes, we will struggle, and our commitment to take up our cross will demand that we often revisit the choice and reorient ourselves toward God’s purposes. That is one motivation driving this author to a pre-breakfast quiet time with God and His Word. I need a daily vision correction for my life.
What exactly is my cross? What happens when I decide to follow Jesus and voluntarily offer my life in sacrifice to Him? What can I expect? Only God knows, and for each believer the journey is different. We can know for certain that not one of us will have a cross experience even remotely like that of Christ. Each individual believer has “his cross” as the verses in the Gospels tell us. Mine will not look like yours. Yours will not look like that of your neighbor. But all of us will mature spiritually and bring glory to Christ as we carry our cross.
We face a life-changing choice. Quoting Tozer again (Wiersbe, page 152), “…(Christ) placed the matter in the hands of the Christian. He can refuse to take up his cross, or he can stoop and take it and start for the dark hill. The difference between great sainthood and mediocrity depends upon which choice he makes.”
The bottom line is… God demands that I take up my cross and follow Him. This will be a walk of faith. Do I believe that a God who would sacrifice everything and give up His life for me is One I can trust to take control and lead me to abundant life?