Jesus taught something very strange and very difficult. Jesus taught that you cannot truly live until you have truly died. Jesus said in John 12:24, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels – a plentiful harvest of new lives” (NLT). This is about the Lord’s resurrection, but there is an important truth within this. When you learn how to die to yourself that is when you learn how to live for Him. Before kingdom fruit is produced from your life you must die to your life. You cannot follow Jesus without dying to yourself. Before you can truly experience who Jesus is you must experience what it means to take up your own cross and follow Him.
Jesus is calling His disciples and you to a deeper walk with Him that is consumed with Him and empowered by Him. Jesus is not looking for fans, but followers who are willing to give it their all for His sake.
Mark says in verse 34, Then, calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. 35 If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. 36 And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? 37 Is anything worth more than your soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my message in these adulterous and sinful days, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he returns in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” Jesus went on to say, “I tell you the truth, some standing here right now will not die before they see the Kingdom of God arrive in great power!” (Mark 8:34-9:1, NLT)
Jesus is calling you to a radical commitment to discipleship in following Him. This is way beyond attending church, reading your Bible, and going to a Bible study. This is about total life transformation in following Jesus.
So, let’s take a minute and review what we have already learned and then let’s take a look at something new.
The first aspect of our discipleship deals with our desire. Following Jesus begins with a desire to follow Him and this desire is given to you by the Heavenly Father. Jesus said in verse 34, “If any of you wants to be my follower.” This is an invitation to those who have a driving desire to seriously follow Jesus. That word “wants” (thelo) is more of a determination and decision or a deliberate choice that you are marking about Jesus. You feel deeply drawn to be more like Jesus. You seriously want to learn and grow and be like Him. You are overtaken by this idea.
A second aspect of your discipleship deals with denying yourself. Following Jesus requires disowning yourself and giving Jesus complete reign of everything you have and everything you are. Jesus said in verse 34 that if you want to be His follower then “you must give up your own way” (NLT). This is also translated “deny yourself” (NASB). To disown yourself is to have a mindset of selflessness. You are giving up the right to run and control your own life. He leads you follow. He commands you obey. He is the Shepherd you are the sheep. He is the Potter and you are the clay. He is the Master and you are the servant. Your focus is not your comfort, but His character… not your happiness, but holiness. Not your will, but His will. To deny yourself is to disown yourself.
We looked at the first two principles of following Jesus last week. Let’s look at one more today.
A third aspect of discipleship is dying. Jesus goes on to say in verse 34 that if you are going to follow Me then you must “take up your cross.” What does this mean? To help us understand this, let’s begin with what it does not mean.
- It does not mean wear a cross around your neck. Jesus is not saying take up your cross neckless and put it around your neck. I think a cross necklace is find as long as you understand it represents the death of Jesus and the grace and forgiveness for your sins that you can receive from Him. I think it is important that you understand that the cross around your neck should remind you to die to yourself and to live for Christ. Jesus is not talking about jewelry here.
- It does not mean life’s burdens. From time to time you may hear someone say, “My sickness is the cross I must bear.” No, not unless you got it by serving Jesus in some way. You may hear someone say, “My marriage is the cross I must bear” or “My handicap is my cross” or “My job is my cross” or “I lost my house in the storm and that’s my cross.” When Jesus says “take up your cross” He is not referring to life’s burdens or tragedies or sufferings that come to believer and non-believer alike.
So what does Jesus mean when He says if you want to follow Me you must “take up your cross”? To understand this we need to understand execution by crucifixion. When a person was found guilty of certain crimes they were forced to carry the cross beam of the cross they were to be executed on. They would carry this cross beam through town. People would mock them, spit at them, throw things at them, and sometimes hit them. This was a “death march” for them. They were seen as not fit to live anymore. This “death march” began when the Roman soldier would tell the criminal, “Pick up your cross.” The criminal would pick up his cross knowing that he was walking to his death. To take up your cross was to be identified with the despised, rejected, doomed, and ridiculed of society.[i]
That’s the image behind the phrase “take up your cross?” So what does Jesus mean when He says, “take up your cross”?
Accept the death of self
To “take up your cross” is to accept the death of self. Just as the criminal knew that his life was over when he picked up the cross due to his crimes, the follower of Jesus knows by picking up his cross his life is over due to his faith in Christ. This speaks of dying to self for the sake of Jesus. This isn’t dying to self to be a good person, but someone who is giving up their rights and privileges for the Kingdom of God. You are crucifying your interest in the things of this world. Paul put it this way, “As for me, may I never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of that cross, my interest in this world has been crucified…” (Galatians 6:14, NLT). When you take up your cross you are not interested in conforming to the world’s values, views, or approach to life. You have lost interest in what the world is interested in. The world has become a dead thing to you. By taking up your cross you have accepted the death of self.
Accept the rejection of others
To “take up your cross” is to accept the rejection of others. Just as the criminal would face the rejection and ridicule of others while carrying his cross through town, the follower of Jesus would face rejection and ridicule from others because of their faith in Christ. Your spouse may leave you because you love Jesus. You may not get that promotion because you are a Christian. You may not be invited to certain things because of your faith in Jesus. You may be called names and made fun of because of your commitment to Christ and your belief in His Word. It involves loving your enemies and forgiving those who have hurt you. For some Christians in the world, their life is at stake. To “take up your cross” is to accept the rejection of others.
A daily occurrence
To “take up your cross” is a daily occurrence. Luke adds one word to Jesus’ statement when he wrote, “If anyone wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily…” (Luke 9:23, NLT). This doesn’t mean you take up a new cross each day, but the willingness and attitude of dying to self and facing the rejection by others is present by the believer every day. Some days that cross will be more difficult than others. Some days your cross is going to feel heavier than other days. Regardless of what that day brings, you are going to “take up your cross” and follow Jesus wherever it leads. This is a daily occurrence.
An intentional decision
To “take up your cross” is an intentional decision. When Jesus says “take up” (airo) He is saying do not hesitate and do it immediately. Spiritually speaking, you will need to bend down and pick it up. This means you will make that decision to follow Christ knowing it will cost you money. This means you will make the decision to follow Christ knowing you may lose some friends over this. This means you are going to do what is right because you want to honor God. It’s an intentional decision.
Looks different for everyone
To “take up your cross” looks different for everyone. Jesus said, “take up your cross,” not someone else’s. Your cross is different than mine. Your cross and my cross will involve sacrifice and it will cost us in different ways. Don’t start comparing your cross with someone else’s.
To “take up your cross” is an intentional decision to follow Jesus that calls for absolute surrender even if it cost you relationships, finances, comfort or your life. It is losing interest in the things of the world while becoming consumed with the Kingdom of God. It is setting your heart and mind on things above, not on things of the earth. It is an attitude that is willing to lose everything for the sake of Christ.
Jesus says, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me.” The implication is that if you are not giving up your own way and taking up your personal cross for His sake then you are not following Him. This is a radical call to abandoned yourself and the world in order to follow Him. This is a radical call to discipleship. This goes way beyond showing up to church, reading the Bible, and going to some Bible study. Those are good and needed, but Jesus is talking about something much deeper. He is talking about transformation at the heart of who you are.
Paul captures the spirit of this in Romans 12:1-2 where he says, “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you” (MSG).
A Serious Call to Discipleship
Based on Mark 8:34
Following Jesus begins with a desire to follow Him and this desire is given to you by the Heavenly Father.
“If anyone of you wants to be my follower”
Following Jesus requires disowning yourself and giving Jesus complete reign of everything you have and everything you are.
“you must give up your own way”
Following Jesus requires an intentional decision that calls for absolute surrender even if it cost you relationships, finances, comfort or your life. It is losing interest in the things of the world while becoming consumed with the Kingdom of God.
“take up your cross”
Following Jesus involves a personal invitation to journey with Jesus throughout life that directs you into His will regardless of the outcome.
“and follow me”
[i] Prior to Jesus’ resurrection, it would have been darkly strange to wear a cross as a necklace. It would be equivalent to us today wearing a symbol of an electric chair or coffin around our neck.