2-1 Taking Up The Cross
2-1 " Take up the cross"
The Lord Jesus spoke several times of taking up the cross and following
Him. This is the life you have committed yourself to by baptism;
you have at least tried to take up the cross. The full horror and
shock of what He was saying doubtless registered more powerfully
with the first century believers than with us. They would have seen
men in the agony of approaching death carrying their crosses and
then being nailed to them. And the Lord Jesus asked men to do this
to themselves. The idea of taking up the cross suggests a conscious,
decided willingness to take on board the life of self-crucifixion.
Taking up the cross is therefore not just a passive acceptance of
the trials of life.
" Take up the cross, and follow me" is inviting us to
carry Christ's cross with Him - He speaks of " the cross"
rather than 'a cross'. The Greek translated " take up"
is that translated 'to take away' in the context of Christ taking
away our sins. Strong says that it implies " expiation"
(of sins). This connection, between our taking away / up the cross,
and Christ's taking away our sins, suggests that the efficacy of
His cross for us depends upon our daily 'taking up the cross'. It
is vital therefore that we " take up the cross" if our
sins are to be taken away by Him.
Of course we cannot literally take up the Lord's cross. Taking up
the cross must therefore refer to an attitude of mind; it is paralleled
with forsaking all that we have (Lk. 14:27,33), which is surely
a command to be obeyed in our attitudes. " Take up" is
translated 'take on' when we read of 'taking on' the yoke of Christ,
i.e. learning of Him (Matt. 11:29). To take up Christ's cross, to
take on His yoke, is to learn of Him, to come to know Him. Yet do
we sense any pain in our coming to know Christ? We should do, because
the cross was the ultimate symbol of pain, and to take it up is
to take on the yoke, the knowledge, of Christ.
The Context Of " Take up the cross"
Consider the contexts in which Christ spoke of taking up His cross:
(1) In Luke 9:23-26 He tells the crowds that
they have come to His meetings because of the intriguing miracles
of the loaves and fishes. The Lord is saying: 'Don't follow me
because of the loaves and fishes; take up my cross'!
(2) The rich young man was willing to be obedient in everything
apart from parting with his wealth. In this context, of asking
the most difficult thing for him to do, Christ spoke of taking
up His cross - in the man's case, giving up his wealth.
(3) The command to take up the cross in Matt. 10:38 is in the
context of Christ's description of the family problems which would
be caused by responding to His word. Presumably some were willing
to follow Christ if they didn't have to break with their families;
but Christ asks them to take up the cross in this sense.
In all of these cases people were willing to follow
Christ - but only insofar as it didn't hurt them. They were unwilling
to take on board the idea of consciously deciding to do something
against the grain of their natures and immediate surroundings. Yet
this is what taking up the cross is all about, and it is vital for
our identification with Christ. It is very easy to serve God in
ways which reinforce the lifestyles we choose to have anyway; it
is easy to obey Divine principles only insofar as they compound
our own personality. By doing so we can deceive ourselves into thinking
that we are spiritually active when, in reality, we have never walked
out against the wind, never picked up the cross of Christ. Israel
were an empty vine, without fruit in God's eyes- because the spiritual
fruit they appeared to bring forth was in fact fruit to themselves
(Hos. 10:1; see Study 2.13 for more on this).
Against The Grain
Solomon is an example of this. He loved building
and architecture (Ecc. 2:4-6; 2 Chron. 8:4-6), therefore his building
of God's temple was something he revelled in. But when it came to
obeying the clear commands concerning not multiplying horses or
wives, Solomon simply disregarded them. Likewise Israel were so
sad to lose the temple because “Our holy and our beautiful house...is
burned...and all our pleasant things are laid waste” (Is. 64:11).
It was God’s house, not theirs. They only mourned for the loss of
it insofar as it was a reflection of what they revelled in anyway,
as an expression of themselves, rather than a means of worshipping
By contrast, Paul says that the proof that he had been given a command
to preach the Gospel was in the fact that he preached against his
own will; he says that if he did it willingly, i.e. because it coincided
with his own will, then he had his reward in this life (this is
a paraphrase of 1 Cor. 9:17 and context). It seems strange to think
that Paul had to make himself preach, that he did it against his
natural will. But remember his poor eyesight, ugly physical appearance,
his embarrassing early life spent persecuting and torturing Christians
- no wonder public preaching of Christ was something he had to make
himself do. It may be that the reason he went to the wilderness
of Arabia after his conversion was that he was running away from
the command to preach publicly (Gal. 1:17,18). Several times he
speaks of how he fears he will lose his nerve to preach, and thereby
lose his salvation; he even asks others to pray for him that he
will preach more boldly. It also needs to be remembered that Paul
was a passionate Jew; he loved his people. It seems that he "
preached circumcision" (Gal. 5:11) in the sense of being involved
in actively trying to proselytize Gentiles. But it was Paul the
Hebrew of the Hebrews who was called to be the apostle to the Gentiles.
It might have sounded more appropriate if preaching to the Jews
was his specialism, and fisherman Peter from half-Gentile Galilee
went to the Gentiles. But no. Each man was sent against his grain.
And more than this. It seems that the Lord set up Peter, James and
John as some kind of replacement to the Scribes and rabbis. Peter
was given the authority to bind and loose on earth, with Heaven’s
assent (Mt. 16:19); and binding and loosing were terms widely used
amongst the Rabbis with respect to the force of their commandments
and judgments having God’s agreement (even in the NT record, ‘binding’
means ‘to decree’ in Mt. 23:4). They had the keys to the Kingdom
(Mt.23:13), and shut it up against men. Now, in the Lord’s new Israel,
Peter was to have that power. An uneducated fisherman was to have
the place of the learned Scribes; it would have seemed so much more
appropriate if Paul took this place. And James and John were to
be the “sons of thunder” (Mk. 3:17), another Rabbinic phrase, used
of the young trainee Rabbis who stood at the left and right of the
Master of the Synagogue during the Sabbath services (hence the later
appeal for confirmation as to whether they would really stand at
the Master’s right and left in His Kingdom). These uneducated men
were to take the place of the learned Scribes whom they had always
respected and lived in fear of...truly they were being pushed against
This all confirms the suggestion that Paul had to make himself preach;
it was against his natural inclination - and yet this was exactly
why Christ had called him to preach (1 Cor. 9:17). In refusing funding
for his work from the Corinthians, he abased himself that they might
be exalted- all language of the crucifixion (2 Cor. 11:7 cp. Phil.
2:8,9). Thus his refusing of legitimate help to make his way easier
was an enactment in himself of the cross. The Lord Jesus, in His
ministry, had forbidden the extroverts from publicly preaching about
Him, as they naturally wanted to (e.g. Mk. 8:26). To keep silent
was an act of the will for them, something against the grain. It
was to take up the cross. It is hard to find any other explanation
for why He told Jairus not to tell anyone that He had raised his
daughter (Lk. 8:56)- for it would have been obvious, surely. For
they knew she had died (8:53). By contrast, those who would naturally
have preferred to stay quiet were told to go and preach (e.g. Mk.
5:19). Perhaps Paul was in this category. He had to warn Timothy
against the tendency to think that a man can attain the crown of
mastery without striving for it according to the laws (2 Tim. 2:5).
We can have an appearance of spiritual progress towards the crown,
as did the man who quickly built his house on the sand. But it was
the man who perhaps didn't finish his house (we are left to imagine)
but who had hacked away at the rock of his own heart, striving to
seriously obey the essence of his Lord's words, who was accepted
in the end. And let’s not forget Amos, too. He defended his prophetic
ministry, as Paul defended his, by saying that it was something
he had been called to quite against his nature. He was not a prophet
nor a prophet’s son, and yet he was taking from following his flock
of sheep to be a prophet to Israel- quite against his will and inclination
Christian Crosses- ?
It is not difficult to see the relevance of these
principles to our lives. Consider the following possibilities:
- A young brother loves the idea of travel,
as many young men in the world do. So he travels, preaching as
he goes. He may reason that he is obeying the command to preach
world-wide; actually he is doing what he wants to do.
- A brother or sister may have no desire to marry - an attitude
shared by some in the world. It may seem they are rising to the
heights of 1 Cor. 7:32 - staying single for the Lord's sake -
but actually they may be doing just what they want to do anyway.
That's not to take up the cross of singleness.
- A brother in (e.g.) China may enjoy writing letters to brothers
in England because he likes to have friends in England and to
improve his English - like many Chinese. But he may kid himself
that he is writing those letters only because he likes fellowshipping
his brethren in Christ, although he may be much less enthusiastic
about contact with his Chinese brethren.
- Some people like to be in a group; they are social people. For
them it is easy to attend ecclesial meetings; they like going
out and meeting people. But for the single sister who has had
her life wrecked by a series of bad relationships, and has four
young children...to get out to a meeting full of those she perceives
to be happy-clappy people with no problems: this is a real taking
up the cross. She would much rather stay at home, in her own world,
and break bread alone.
- Some will reason that they marry and have children because this
is what God commands, but actually this is only doing what most
human beings throughout history have desired to do. Most human
parents enjoy giving some of their time and money to their children.
The fact that Christian parents feel the same doesn't necessarily
mean that they are being spiritual or Godly in doing so; it's
not in itself a taking up of the cross.
- It has often been observed that a reward of righteousness can
be self-righteousness. Especially is this to be seen in public
acts of generosity. L.G. Sargent coined a powerful phrase: "
Self satisfaction at the emotional gluttony of giving" .
The fact we make sacrifice, however great, is not necessarily
the sacrifice of true love of Him and His Son which God looks
for (cp. 1 Cor. 13). Remember how Israel made such great sacrifices
to their idols, when ultimately they were only doing it for their
- All of us have a certain amount of anger and aggression in our
souls. All too often we can use the Truth as a vehicle to express
this, whilst we deceive ourselves that we are actually standing
up for the Truth's doctrines. Consider the young well-versed brother
triumphantly, aggressively debating the trinity with a Biblically-ignorant
misbeliever; or the sister storming out of a meeting because a
brother came over as too familiar with God in his prayer. In these
rather exaggerated examples, love of purity is made an excuse
for expressing the anger and aggression that is within every human
soul. To defend purity without such anger coming out is indeed
a spiritual art form. It is another way to take up the cross.
And so each of us could go on finding examples,
drawn from our own deeply private lives. But by now the point is
clear: we are called to take up the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.
If only the picture and spirit of Him and His cross were more permanently
with us! We would be the more sensitive to our need to serve until
it hurts, to truly sacrifice ourselves, not to fake our fellowshipping
of His sufferings. Like David, we must recognize that there is no
point in offering a sacrifice which has cost us nothing. Sacrifice
is essential if we are to have a covenant relationship with God
and to take up the cross (Ps. 50:5).
It seems to me that the Lord asks each of us to do that which is
essentially difficult for us personally, something against the grain
of our very nature and personal understanding of and position in
life. This may explain why sometimes He asked those He cured to
spread the message (perhaps the introverts, or those whose past
lives had been notorious?), whilst others (perhaps the extroverts?)
He asked to remain silent about what He had done. When the Lord
asked Peter to go out fishing, for example, this was totally and
exactly against every grain of Peter's natural self. He was a fisherman,
he'd been fishing all night, he knew it was absolutely pointless
to try again. He knew that a carpenter didn't know what a fisherman
did. The Lord's request was a blow at the justifiable pride in his
specialism which every working man has. It was a call to take up
the cross. If the Lord Jesus had asked let's say Paul to go out
fishing, well, I guess he'd have obeyed with no real difficulty.
But He asked Peter to do that, at that very moment, because it was
a real cross for Peter to pick up. Likewise it would have seemed
logical for Paul to preach to the Jews, and Peter to the Gentiles
(note how the Gentiles approached Philip, from semi-Gentile Galilee,
in Jn. 12:20,21). Yet in fact the Lord God used those men in the
very opposite way, right against the grain of their natural abilities.
He asked goldsmiths to do the manual work of building the wall of
Jerusalem, bruising their sensitive fingers against lumps of rock
(Neh. 3:8,31); and Barak’s victorious warriors were civil servants
and writers (Jud. 5:14), not military men. Naaman wanted to do some
great act, but was asked to do the hardest thing for him- to dip
in Jordan. And Abraham was asked to do what was so evidently the
hardest thing- to offer up his only, specially beloved son.
" Him that overcometh"
The Lord Jesus, in His final words to us, keeps
repeating a theme - " To him that overcometh..." runs
like a refrain throughout Revelation 2 and 3. Many of those to whom
He wrote in Rev. 2 and 3 were fitting a few convenient commands
into their lives, but ignoring, doctrinally and practically, what
did not appeal to them. There is reason to think that in our own
lives, personally and collectively, there is this same tendency.
" To him that overcometh..." is therefore a call to us
too. To take up the cross. The one who overcomes will eat of the
tree of life, as will he who does Christ's commands (Rev. 2:7; 22:14).
To overcome is to do the commandments; to overcome is therefore
to overcome ourselves - our natural resistance to God's principles.
All of us are weak-willed, vacillating by nature - although we may
cover this through making dogmatic statements of one sort or another.
All too many of us (and thousands out in the world) live lives full
of fine intentions, deep realizations of where we need to change
- yet failing, time and again, to actually take up the cross. For
myself, this is an agony of my soul. I speak, I talk, I think, I
decide, so much. Yet when it comes to doing it, I fail utterly.
" Well, we're all like that" , I can hear you saying.
Whether or not 'we're all like that' is irrelevant- to me. And it
should be to you too; for perhaps you know exactly how I feel. Our
failure to actually do what we resolve to do, what we know we ought
to do in the light of Christ's example, in response to Him who loved
us and gave himself for us, should be an agony of your soul too.
Long term attitudes, entrenched habits, things we feel we just can't
do without; rejecting these things is taking up the cross. The Lord
almost mocked the Pharisees for tithing herbs but not showing true
mercy and love. It's as if He were saying: 'Of course it's easy
to be religious in things like tithing herbs. But the really essential
issues, love, mercy, justice- that's not so easy. But they are crucial'.
We become experts at manipulating our understanding of God's commands
so that we keep what we should reject, and hive off those parts
of our lives which ought to be the subject of close self-examination.
Do you see what I'm saying? Do you hear the call of your Lord to
take up the cross to serve, as an act of the will? Ten minutes'
self-examination will show how alarmingly much of our spirituality
is only compounding our own natural personality and preferred lifestyle.
If we can at least grasp the spirit of taking up Christ's cross,
there will be a deep sense of fellowship with others who have reached
the same realization; and a deep joy and calmness in confidence
of sharing His resurrection.