For quite some time now I’ve been tossing around the idea of featuring brief sermon summaries here on the blog. Here’s the initial post:
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34 ESV).
What does it mean to take up the cross? We don’t see Christians actually carrying big wooden cross beams up and down the street. So, we clearly take Jesus to be speaking figuratively when he says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” But what is he getting at? What does it mean for a Christian to take up the cross and follow Jesus?
Taking up the cross means saying “no” to yourself.
The first thing Jesus says in parallel to taking up the cross is the exhortation to self-denial. Taking up the cross mean saying “no” to yourself. This is precisely what is at issue in the context of the passage. Peter has been trying to tell Jesus what it really means to be Messiah. For that, Jesus rebuked Peter and spoke harshly to him. He then took the opportunity to teach his disciples that following him mean saying “no” to their own preferences and agendas.
This is applicable to the Christian life in so many ways, not least as we consider the words of Christ in light of our cultural mandate for MORE. We are surrounded by voices telling us we need more of this and more of that. We constantly hear the cultural gospel of self-indulgence – “your way right away.” But this flies in the face of what it means to carry the cross. Consider the words of John Wesley on the subject of self-denial:
It is absolutely necessary, in the very nature of the thing, to our coming after Him and following Him; insomuch that, as far as we do not practice it, we are not his disciples. If we do not continually deny ourselves, we do not learn of Him, but of other masters. If we do not take up our cross daily, we do not come after Him, but after the world, or of the prince of the world, or of our own fleshly mind.
Wesley lays it out bare. Being a Christian and taking up the cross means saying “no” to yourself.
Taking up the cross means becoming a follower.
Jesus borders on redudancy to make this point: ““If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” It’s as if he’s saying, “If your going to be my follower, you are actually going to have to follow me, and I’m the one who carries the cross.” Our natural inclinations are to set our own course and make our own way. This is the idea captured in the final lines of the William Ernest Henley poem “Invictus”: “I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul.” Such a statement is profoundly unChristian. To take up the cross means Jesus is the master of my fate and the captain of my soul. It means relinquishing all control to Christ and following him.
Ultimately, this should be a great comfort to us. We go nowhere that Christ has not already gone. We tread no path that Christ has not already trod. There is no path upon which his presence does not preceed us. We are his followers; he is our waypaver.
Taking up the cross means enduring shame.
The cross was a symbol of shame in the ancient world. Those condemned to crucifixion were publicly beaten, stripped, and hung up on a cross for all to see. The goal was to deter criminal activity through a publicly humiliating death. The word “cross” was not spoken of in polite company. It was a profane instrument of torture and shame. Jesus said, “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (8:38). Jesus knew that carrying the cross meant enduring shame. Those who will not endure the shame of following Jesus, of them will he be ashamed when he comes in his glory.
The world opposed to Christ heaps shame upon those who believe his gospel. The world heaps shame on those who believe that sinful humanity is under the wrath of God. The world heaps shame on the idea that Christ had to shed his blood for the forgiveness of sins, and that faith in his name is the exclusive way to enjoy his salvation. The question for followers of Christ is whether we will endure the shame that Christ endured that we may one day share the glory that now belongs to him.
There are two kinds of people in this world – those who belong to Christ and those who do not. For those who do, the message of taking up the cross calls us to deeper reliance on Christ that his Spirit may renew us ever more in the image of the Son of God. For those who know him not, the cross of Christ calls them to renounce self-reliance and place their full confidence in him alone.