What does it mean to take up your cross and follow Jesus?

The phrase "a cross to bear" is a popular derivation of the words of Jesus: "Take up your cross and follow Me." While the phrase is commonly understood to mean acceptance of some burdensome task, the command to take up the cross is much more than a symbol of the difficulties experienced by humanity. Any person, whether a follower of Jesus or not, will suffer frustration and pain in this life. Taking up one's cross and following Jesus is something completely different.

The cross was an instrument of death. What Jesus is referring to is commitment to Him, even unto death—obedience to the extreme measure and willingness to die in pursuit of obedience. Death on a cross was not pleasant. It was painful and humiliating. The implication is that even if obedience is painful and humiliating, we should be willing to endure it for Christ.

By saying, "Take up your cross and follow Me" Jesus was giving us a word picture of the concept of "death to self," which originates in another saying of Jesus, "For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?" (Luke 9:24-25). The idea is that nothing in this life is worth keeping if it means losing eternal life, not a job, not a family, not a group of friends, not even our very identity. The call is tough, but the eternal reward is well worth the temporary pain.

The multitudes that followed Christ were convinced that He was going to bring a glorious kingdom to earth, freeing them from the oppressive Roman rule. Even His own disciples were thinking this way (Luke 19:11). Misunderstanding the prophecies, they were shocked when He began to talk about death to self and carrying the cross (Luke 9:22). They left Him in droves because of these teachings. Similarly, believers today misunderstand the call of Jesus as a call to health, wealth and prosperity. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The call of Jesus is a call to die, but today many of His followers, unwilling to accept a call to die, leave Him or simply change His message to something more pleasant.

But His message never guaranteed a pleasant life. Jesus instead guaranteed that trials would come to His followers (John 16:33). Discipleship demands sacrifice, and Jesus never hid that cost. He also promised that He would be there to us give us the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit (John 14:15-19), comfort us in our trials (James 1:12), and act as a faithful high priest who understands our struggles (Hebrews 2:17) and accomplish for us peace with God by His blood (Romans 5:1).

In Luke 9:57-62, three different men expressed a willingness to follow Jesus. When Jesus asked them a few more questions, He revealed that their willingness was ill-considered. They had not counted the cost of following Him. None of them was willing to take up his cross and forsake his own interests for Christ's. It seems clear that then and now, people always struggle to put their own ideas, plans, ambitions and desires to death and exchange them for His.

Have you ever wondered if you would be like these men? Consider these questions:

• Would you still follow Jesus if it meant losing your closest friends?
• Would you still follow Jesus if it meant alienation from your family?
• Would you still follow Jesus if it meant the loss of your reputation?
• Would you still follow Jesus if it meant losing your job?
• Would you still follow Jesus if it meant losing your life?

In some places in the world, actual death is a real possibility when a person becomes a Christian. In other places, the consequences are different. The cost may be exacted emotionally rather than physically. But the lesson is clear: although following Jesus doesn't necessarily mean actual death, we should be willing to go to death, or suffer anything rather than deny Him. Many times the temptation is more subtle. For most of us, there comes a point in our lives where we are faced with a choice—Jesus or the comforts of this life—and which one we choose speaks volumes about our love for Him.

Taking up our cross to follow Christ means, simply, commitment to the point of giving up our hopes, dreams, possessions, even our very life if need be. This is the attitude – the only acceptable attitude – of a true disciple (Luke 14:27). Jesus' followers regard the reward as worth the price. Jesus set the example for us in His death, to give us the gift of life: "For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 16:25).


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