Is anything more universal than the cross? We see it world-wide: on churches and walls, as jewelry and tattoos, and on foreheads on Ash Wednesday. For Christians, it symbolizes salvation. Jesus knew the cross was in His future. He also told His disciples that to be His follower, they needed to “take up their cross.” What did Jesus mean when he said to “take up your cross?”
What Does the Cross Represent?
The cross represents fulfilled prophecy. God revealed His plan to defeat Satan and give us salvation through Jesus in Genesis! (Genesis 3:15)
The cross in Jesus’ day symbolized the shameful and torturous death of a slave or criminal.
The cross represents the suffering Jesus endured. Psalm 22 records David’s despair and anguish over his own sufferings. It is an amazing and accurate depiction of the suffering Jesus would later endure.
To Christians, the cross represents the most incredible gift we have ever received. It is a gift we can’t truly comprehend, would never have asked for, and know there is nothing we could ever do to deserve it.
What does the Cross mean to you?
Have you ever heard someone speak of a trial or a burden as their own crosses to bear? It might be a physical illness, a misfortune, a hardship, or a difficult time in their life.
It’s true- we can suffer painfully and need God’s help to get us through the day. Using this phrase in these situations alludes to the cross of Christ, but it’s not what Jesus meant when he spoke of taking up our cross.
Take Up Your Cross
Jesus was teaching the disciples about his impending death and resurrection when impulsive Peter takes Jesus aside (a very bold move!) and said, “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” Matthew 16: 22.
Peter meant well; he loved Jesus and couldn’t bear to think of him suffering. He didn’t understand Jesus’ purpose yet.
Jesus then continues in verse 24:
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
This must have shocked the disciples. They were aware of what carrying a cross meant.
Crucifixion was for criminals. The nails, the torment, and agony were well known.
When Jesus told his followers, they must take up their cross to follow him, it didn’t sound like a pleasant proposition.
It doesn’t sound like something anyone would willingly take part in.
But Jesus had a deeper meaning in mind. He wanted them to “put to death” their own plans and desires and turn their lives over to Him, doing his will. It would require self-denial and obedience.
To be a follower of Jesus, He asks for 100% complete dedication to living a Christian life with no turning back.
No wonder we still rebel at times! It requires tamping down our ego and putting God’s purposes, will, and thoughts in its place.
Jesus tells us we have to deny ourselves and take up our cross, but it’s not something that’s forced onto your shoulders.
“Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.” Galatians 5:24.
It’s a choice; something we do willingly, as Jesus did. We belong to Him- our old passions and desires are dead. When we take up our cross, our lives are focused on Jesus and reflect His attributes.
What Does It Mean to Deny Oneself?
Just the words “deny ourselves” sound like punishment. It sounds like we have to throw away all our comforts and carry a heavy burden.
But denying yourself is not the same as self-denial.
I give up ice cream with chocolate sauce and peanuts when it becomes a habit instead of a once in a while treat. That’s self-denial.
On the other hand, when we deny self, we make the choice to replace our desires, thoughts, and plans with God’s thoughts and purposes. We live our lives centered on considering others first before ourselves.
Jesus was the perfect example of following the will of God, and when we choose to follow him we agree to live as He did. This means accepting the call to do things you normally wouldn’t do!
Our lives then produce the fruit that shows our commitment to living our lives for Christ.
But it’s not easy to deny ourselves. Our sinful human nature gives in to temptations and we sin. The desire to express ourselves in the way we want is strong. We will continue in this struggle for holiness our entire life.
The good news for believers is that we will see a progression in our lives to deny the thoughts and actions that are not Christ-like. Following the guidance of the Holy Spirit helps us along our way.
“Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.” Romans 8:5.
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Ways to Take Up Your Cross
So what has to happen to take up our cross and follow Jesus?
•Obedience to God
“He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death- even death on a cross!” Philippians 2:8.
When Jesus took up his cross, he did so with great humility and obedience to his Father. He put God’s will and His love for us above himself– to the point of death.
Taking up our cross means putting aside our selfish desires, and following His will for our lives. This doesn’t squash our personality or happiness.
Incredibly, just the opposite happens. We find our life’s fulfillment, contentment (even in trials), and “unspeakable joy!”
“Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.” 1 Peter 1:8.
•Guard Your Thoughts
The things we think about can determine what comes out as words and actions. Here’s some excellent advice from the apostle Paul regarding our thoughts:
“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Philippians 4:8 ESV.
When unpleasant, dissatisfied, grumbling, critical, and sinful thoughts enter our minds, we have a choice. We can let them rule over us, or we can deny them further access and refuse to dwell on them.
Denying these thought processes and our own desires; refusing to give in to them, is a way to “take up your cross.”
This takes practice and self control, but as long as we are consistent, it gets easier to recognize them for what they are, brush them aside and fill our minds with the positive things Paul mentions.
•Put on the New Self
Paul wrote to the Colossians from prison and gave them actionable and practical ways to take up their cross and show Christ’s love. (Colossians 3:5-17)
He reminded them they had “taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self.” Colossians 3:9b-10a.
The Greek word Paul used for “taking off” meant not only removing but complete separation. To “put on” meant to clothe one’s self. It’s as if he’s saying to remove and dispose of our old garments and put on completely new ones.
“Putting on” your new self means your words and actions should match your faith in Jesus Christ.
Paul gave them a list of sins to avoid (“put to death”) and explains the damage they cause.
He followed that up with a list of ways we can live for Jesus in our daily lives:
•Show compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness.
•Choose (yes, it’s a choice we can make!) the peace of Jesus to rule your heart, not conflict, fear, jealousy, etc.
•Be thankful. Make gratitude a priority and a daily practice and watch your focus turn towards the many blessings we receive.
•Let the word of Christ “dwell in you richly”- completely fill your lives.
Paul and the early Christians had no New Testaments to read from as we do, so they retold the stories, sang them in songs, prayed together and shared their wisdom. We have so many more opportunities to dwell in His Word!
Let Us Run the Race
When we take up our cross, we keep our eyes on Jesus. We lay aside the love of our possessions, our pride and accomplishments. We lay down anything that impedes working for God’s kingdom.
His goal for us as followers is to tell others about Him, whatever the cost.
This will look different for each of us. But for most of us, the cost won’t come near to what the early believers endured.
It might mean we feel awkward, friends back away, or we feel uncomfortable trying to defend our faith. But keep in mind the furious rejection Jesus experienced in His life.
Did it cause Him to stop speaking truth? No, He stayed true to His Father’s mission.
Whatever the cost here on earth for us, it pales in comparison with what awaits us in eternity.
“… Let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith…” Hebrews 12:1-2 NLT.
Take Up Your Cross Daily
Jesus went willingly to the cross and took with him our sin and shame. He forged a way for forgiveness to take its place.
Taking up His cross daily is expressing a willingness to endure whatever may come when we conform to His lifestyle.
When you think of “taking up your cross”, remember that we are also “taking up” His mercy, love, forgiveness, grace and humility. We raise these things high, while the things of “self” fall far down the list.
We can’t do it on our own, nor does He expect us to. He gives us His power to be his followers and His witnesses to “the ends of the earth.” It starts in our own little circle and widens out from there.
Pour out His message of love to those around you. If you need ideas, I’ve prepared a printable version of ways to show Jesus’ love to those all around you and into the world. Just click on the image below to access it.
You will be amazed at what He will do with your obedience and absolute surrender to His will.
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere- in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8 NLT.
Blessings in the journey,
Questions for Reflection:
What is the difference in coming to the cross for our salvation and taking up our cross?
We all have self interests from our human nature that need to “be crucified.” What are yours?
What price are you willing to pay to take up your cross and follow Jesus? Rejection? Persecution?
Do you become discouraged with the effort it takes to follow Jesus?
Are there times when you lay down your cross and pick it up again later? How can you be consistent in your journey?
What actions can you take to work at taking up your cross daily?
All Scripture is taken from the NIV unless specified otherwise.
Photo Credits: AnnMarie Anderson, Canva