There is a famous little story of a young woman who comes to Jesus and tells him that her cross is too heavy for her to carry. She asks Jesus if she can pick another cross and he agrees. So, she puts down her cross and looks at all the crosses around her. She picks each one up in turn and tries them on for size and comfort. It takes her ages to get through all the crosses but none of them feels right. Some crosses are too heavy, and others are too uncomfortable to carry but she knows she must pick one. Eventually, she finds one that feels exactly right and tells Jesus that she has made her choice. Jesus smiles at the young woman and tells her: “My dear child, don’t you realize that you just picked up the cross you came with in the first place?”
I do not know who made up this story, or how many of the details I have changed with my imagination over the years, but I often keep this little parable in mind when I feel like my cross is too heavy to carry. Each one of us must carry our cross. That is the reality of this broken world we live in, where our cross, or circumstances, are part of the journey we must travel to get to the other side. We love to compare our situation with those of others we see around us and declare their cross too light or too small, but we can never know the whole story of their journey, not even those who are closest to us.
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.Matthew 16:23-24
We started with the Matthew 16:24 last week and examined how and why we must deny ourselves as Jesus instructed his disciples. The next part of his teaching involves taking up our cross. The imagery Jesus used here was very familiar to his followers. They had all paid witness to the Roman persecution through the crucifixion and they had seen criminals carrying their crosses to Golgotha. These words would also ring in their ears again when they see their beloved Messiah carry his cross to his innocent death. Similarly, we are being offered a cross by God himself and we must take hold of it by our own accord. Jesus calls us to choose the cross. The image of the cross is meant to represent death – the death of self and sin so that we can emulate Paul’s words in Acts 20:24:
I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.Acts 20:24
The Matthew Henry Commentary on Matthew 16:24 explains that God offers us these crosses as opportunities to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and his suffering. In so doing we learn to bear our cross with patience and endurance to please God and to embrace his will for us. In week 1 we discussed that to surrender to God means laying down our will for that of God’s will. If we want to follow Jesus then we must accept God’s will for our lives and give up our earthly, sinful desires. This is a constant process and I believe it takes a lifetime of practice. With every cross, great or small, we are given an opportunity to sacrifice our own will for God and grow in holiness towards the image of Jesus Christ. The Poole commentary invites us to “willingly and cheerfully bear those trials and afflictions” God allows on our journey to salvation. To me, that seems almost impossible but that is the standard Jesus set for us on his cross.
In Matthew 16:22-23 (the verses just preceding our study verse) we read that Jesus was predicting his death and resurrection to the disciples. Peter was so shocked that he took Jesus aside and reprimanded Jesus. “Jesus turned to Peter and said, “Get away from me, Satan! You are so a dangerous trap to me. You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s.” (Matthew 16:22-23). In this passage, Jesus recognizes the influence of Satan on the situation, similarly to the temptation he experienced in the wilderness in Matthew 4. Satan wanted to tempt Jesus with greatness without dying on the cross from the beginning of his ministry and does it again through Peter. This is exactly what he tempts us with daily when we focus on the things of this world instead of the perspective of God. Yet we must understand that there is no Christianity without the cross and resurrection. When we make choices in our circumstances that go against the will of God and entertain sin in our decisions, we are succumbing to the temptation of the devil and looking at life “from a human point of view, not from God’s”.
This same instruction by Jesus to take up our cross varies slightly between the different gospel accounts. In Mark 10:37-39, Jesus tells his disciples that anyone who loves his parents or children more than Jesus is not worthy of him. Then he follows with “and anyone who does not take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me.” (Mark 10:38) By changing the emphasis of his instruction slightly, Mark shows us how important Jesus believes suffering for his sake is for our salvation. We cannot call ourselves disciples if we do not bear our trials with humility.
Similarly, we read in Luke 9:23 that Luke added one little word that changes the emphasis once again: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:23) This adverb reminds us of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:31: “I die daily.”
Luke shows us that giving up ease and comfort to bear suffering for the sake of holiness is an everyday struggle. By now we should begin to understand that natural happiness was never God’s intention for us. We are not meant to be happy and healthy on this side of eternity and the sooner we understand this reality the more bearable our suffering will be. God is predominantly concerned with the wellbeing of our soul which should not be dependant on the state of our natural body. This is the cross we carry daily.
When we truly grasp the concept of taking up our cross, we cannot accept any teaching that promises followers of Jesus health, wealth, and happiness here on this earth. If we are true disciples of our Christ, then we must want to emulate his character in every way. Yet Jesus had neither health, wealth, nor happiness on this earth. He was a poor man with no permanent home, endured blasphemous ridicule from those he came to save and died a criminal death. That does not seem like a prosperous life to me.
Taking up your cross is both the hardest part and the most necessary step in following Jesus to his kingdom. There is only one way to eternal life with him and that is the way of the cross.