10. Taking 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. Our takings up of the cross will result in damage- the plucked out eye, the cut off foot. And notice that the Lord says that we will enter lame into the eternal life, or enter the Kingdom with just one eye (Mk. 9:45-47). Surely this means that the effects of our self-sacrifice in this life will in fact be eternally evident in the life which is to come. 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 From Milk To Meat 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 God.
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 the grain.
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 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 (Am. 7:14,15).
Real 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.
- 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 picking up of 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 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 own pleasure.
- 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 Catholic; or the sister storming out of a meeting because a brother says 'You' rather than 'Thee' in his prayer. In these rather exaggerated examples, love of the Truth's 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.
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 (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. 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. Paul was sent to the Gentiles and Peter to the Jews, when we’d have thought that naturally speaking, they would have been far more comfortable in the reverse roles. Judas was put in charge of the money amongst the twelve; when Matthew the tax collector would presumably have been the obvious man for the job. 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.
Ex. 38:23 seems to imply Aholiab was used to working with materials but had to work with metals (cp. Ex. 31:56), in the same way as in the building of the temple, the goldsmiths had to build. But (v.18), they were not only confirmed in their natural talent but also confirmed in going against the wind of natural inclination. Ex. 35:34,35 seems to imply Aholiab was best at embroidery, Bezaleel at metal work – but both had to do the other’s work too.
" 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. 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.
And so the cross is realistically intended to be lived out in daily experience. The record of the crucifixion and trials of the Lord are framed in language which would have been relevant to the first hearers of the Gospel as they too faced persecution and suffering for their faith. John's account of the interrogation of the Lord by the Jewish leaders, accusing Him of being a false prophet, was surely written in the way it was to provide encouragement to John's converts [the " Johannine community" as theologians refer to it] to see how their court appearances before the Jews were in fact a living out of their Lord's cross (1). They too were to 'speak openly to the world' and 'bear witness to the truth before the world', living out the cross in the way in which they responded to the great commission.
Do you see what I'm saying? Do you hear the call of your Lord to take up that 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. The cross is attainable. It’s not just an awful thing that happened in a few hours of history so long ago, the details of which we flinch from, excusing ourselves that it’s just too terrible. Look how Paul alludes to it, and arose to the point where he could truly claim to us that he was living the crucified life. The Lord predicted in Mk. 10.44,45: " and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many". And Paul alludes to this in 1 Cor. 9.19: " I have made myself a slave to all..." ; and later in 1 Cor. 10.33: " just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of the many, that they may be saved". Through his sharing in the cross of the Lord Jesus, he, the very human Paul, became an agent in the salvation of all men. He too became a ‘slave of all’ after the pattern of the Lord in His time of dying. We may make excuses about Jesus not being exactly in our position, because God was His Father etc. Valid or not, those excuses disappear when we are faced with Paul’s challenge. The cross is attainable for us, as it was for Paul.
(1) For more on this see R. Kysar, John (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986) p. 273; R. Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to St. John (New York: Seabury, 1983) Vol. 3 p. 238.