During the Easter season each year, we take time to reflect on Jesus’ sacrificial atonement. Because He loved us so much, Jesus willingly endured the shame and suffering of the cross in order to redeem mankind from their sin. By giving Himself as our substitute, the Lord secured our forgiveness and made salvation possible for all who would receive it. Though I have celebrated Resurrection Sunday many times in my life so far, every year I am amazed anew when I consider the great depths of God’s love for humanity - particularly His love for me.
Most Christians, myself included, love to talk about what Jesus did on the cross. There have been countless messages preached on this topic, hundreds of books written about it, and numerous hymns and/or spiritual songs dedicated to it. The cross of Jesus Christ is at the very center of Christianity itself. It is the emblem of our faith, as well it should be. Believers everywhere delight in the wondrous story of the cross - as long as it is Jesus’ cross that is…
We aren't nearly as enthusiastic when we begin to consider our own cross. That’s right… Jesus told His followers that we each have our own cross to carry. Many Christians don’t want to acknowledge this uncomfortable truth. The thought of us having to carry our own cross, like Jesus did, is extremely unpleasant to most of us. Yet Jesus bluntly told His disciples - which includes all of us - that if anyone wanted to come after Him they would have to take up their own cross and follow Him.
What does it mean to “take up your cross”? How are we supposed to do it? When does Jesus expect us to do it? Why would someone want to? These will be the questions we seek to answer this morning as we discuss to Lord's directive to His disciples.
What does Jesus mean when He says to “take up your cross and follow Me”?
My first semester at West Texas State University, I had a US history class. The professor loved to lecture, and would often make some type of wisecrack or clever comment during his presentation. Back in those days I wore a maroon cap that had the Texas A&M emblem on it. One morning, as I was leaving class, the professor noticed my Aggies cap. Cringing he quipped, “We all have our crosses to bear”. He was jokingly insinuating that my devotion to Texas A&M was a burden that I would have to carry for years to come…
Over the centuries, the phase “to carry your cross” has come to mean something much different than it did when Jesus said it. Today we use these words to refer to such things as past mistakes we’ve made that will continually haunt us, arduous and sometimes unwanted responsibilities that we must bear, or even personal weaknesses that we must learn to overcome. While all of these burdens are difficult to deal with, in Jesus’ day the phase “carry your cross” meant only one thing - death. The Romans crucified hundreds, if not thousands of Jews, during their oppressive reign over Israel. The Jews hated Rome, and longed for a Savior to liberate them. When Jesus spoke these words to His disciples, He was calling them to die.
The death that Jesus requires of His followers is not necessarily a physical death. It is a death to “self”. Notice that Jesus prefaced His statement by telling them to deny themselves. He is teaching us that, if we truly desire to be disciples of Christ, we must forsake our own selfish will and fleshly desires and instead take up the righteous will of God. We must make His burden for this world our own, and His compassion for humanity ours. To take up our cross means to die to ourselves, thereby allowing Jesus to live in and through us.
II. HOW - Galatians 2:20
Practically speaking, how exactly are we supposed to die to ourselves?
Simply put, “dying to self” means that we are to yield ourselves completely to the priorities of God. This doesn’t mean that we can’t have our own personal dreams and goals. However, our will must always be secondary to God’s, and in the event of conflict His way should always prevail. In order to do this, we must identify and have some basic understanding of what God desires of His children. How can we hope to live in submission to the LORD's will if we don’t know what it is?
Jesus taught His disciples to love one another and to share the gospel message with the entire world. He instructed us to forgive those who have wronged us and to live obediently, honestly, and morally. We are to strive for holiness and purity. We are to pursue eternal things rather than material possessions or fleeting wealth. We are seek peace, live in unity, encourage and build each other up, and avoid judging or condemning each other. In all things, we as His disciples are to glorify God by giving our very best.
Dying to self begins with self-denial, but over time should become something more. While choosing God’s way over our own way is extremely important, it reveals that we haven’t completely died to ourselves yet. As long as your way differs from the LORD’s way then a part of your old self still lives. The true indication of someone who has totally died to themselves is not their ability to place God’s will ahead of their own, but the fact that God’s will has actually become their own. In this instance, there is no longer an distinction or disparity between the two. Self-denial is no longer necessary. A person who has fully surrendered to the LORD personally desires the exact same things that He does. The things that make God happy make them happy. As Paul explained, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me.”
III. WHEN - Luke 9:23-24
Is “taking up your cross” an isolated event, or is it something one must do more frequently?
In Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ life, He adds a single word to the Lord’s quotation. Do you see it? It is the word “daily”. This one additional term sheds new light upon the nature of our commitment to God. As born-again believers, we have a personal relationship with God. Like all good relationships, this one requires maintenance and renewal in order to strengthen and grow. Our devotion to Him must be reaffirmed through our words and deeds day after day.
Dying to sin is something that happens only once - at the moment of our conversion. When we are saved we die to our old, carnal selves and are made alive in Christ. But dying to self is different than dying to sin - it is an ongoing process. It involves choices we must make each and every day, sometimes many times throughout the day. We must repeatedly chose obedience to the LORD's commands and submission to His will in every circumstance of our life. We must make the conscious decision each day to take up our cross, to die to ourselves, and to live for Jesus.
IV. WHY - Luke 14:27
Why would anyone want to “take up their cross” and follow Jesus?
“Taking up your cross” doesn’t seem very appealing does it? No wonder we don’t like to talk about it. There is seemingly nothing attractive about denying ourselves and submitting our will to God’s. Dying to ourselves seems pretty ominous, doesn’t it? Such wholehearted surrender to Christ would no doubt bring about heavy persecution, scorn, ridicule, hardship, and perhaps even physical death. Why would someone willingly face these difficulties?
First off, we don’t have another choice. Jesus said that if we wanted to be one of His, we “must” take up our cross and follow. This is not optional - it is mandatory. All true disciples carry their own cross, some more successfully than others. This is the cost of discipleship.
Secondly, it is because by dying to ourselves we discover real life. The deep contentment and satisfaction of life that all people long for can only be found in Jesus. When we selfishly cling to our own pleasures, lusts, and desires the inner joy and peace of our life fades. If we truly wish to live life to the fullest, we must first die to ourselves; and if we refuse to die to ourselves, we will never truly live life to the fullest.
Jesus has made it perfectly clear… if we wish to come after Him we must deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Him. This means that we must die to ourselves, by putting God’s will before our own. Ideally, our will should mirror His will. This will require a daily commitment to the LORD's purposes and desires. Though this will surely bring about temporal suffering, carrying your cross is the key to living the life that God created you for.
Jesus died so that we might have life in Him, and He calls us to die so that He might have life in us. Are you willing to take up your cross and follow Jesus?