It is nice to talk about good communication in marriage, developing your family identity, and “building a cathedral,” but without the power to make this part of our daily experience these are just romantic notions. Each of us carry inside a remnant of the old nature – somehow still active even though it’s dead – that seeks to thwart our godly efforts. The Bible summarizes its manifestation as selfish ambition. How do we find the power to overcome our nearest enemy: ourselves?
In Luke 9:23, Jesus warns His would-be disciples, “And [Jesus] was saying to them all, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.’ ” The concept, taken from this verse, of “bearing one’s cross” is a prevalent theme in the literature of Christian discipleship. We often take the term to mean putting up with some physical infirmity, dealing with a challenging relationship, or some other difficult situation. But to Jesus’ first century audience the meaning of “bearing one’s cross” cut much deeper and was explicitly vivid. Being 2000 years removed from the cross as an instrument of execution has so softened the intensity of this phrase for us that we almost miss its potency.
It was not uncommon in Jesus’ day for a convicted criminal to literally “bear his own cross,” carrying the crossbeam of his cross through the streets to the place of execution. Jesus Himself suffered this fate. When Jesus spoke these words, this literal “cross-carrying” was what his hearers visualized. The equation of “cross equals death, not difficulty” was common in their experience.
I believe we can take at least three applications from Jesus’ command to take up our cross. The most direct is this: as a disciple of Jesus we must be prepared for physical death that may result. This was not only the outcome for some of His listeners that day (nearly all of the apostles), but continues to be the experience of Christ followers in many places. That Jesus had this in mind is clear from the verse that follows. “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it” (Lk 9:24).
Application two is hinted at in the preceeding phrase of verse 23, “He must deny himself.” Similar to the cross representing physical death is the idea that the cross represents death to self, death to selfish ambition, death to your own hopes, dreams, and plans, even death to relationships that hinder one’s discipleship loyalty (Lk 14:26). The word “daily” following the command also fits this application as it suggests this death is a continuous and ongoing aspect of discipleship. Taking up our cross in this sense does indeed defeat our last enemy: ourselves. Our desires and agenda are now subservient to the call of Christ.
Application three moves beyond this specific verse to look at the over-arching message of the New Testament. When we take up the cross, we are not only embracing its death-to-self message, we are also embracing its power. We generally ascribe the “power of the cross” to the one time event of our justification. We rightfully acknowledge that Christ’s death on the cross was powerful and sufficient to deliver us from the penalty of sin. But could the power of the cross also be our ongoing experience? The answer is a resounding “Yes!” I refer you to the first several posts in this blog that examine the practical ramifications how Christ’s death ushered in everything new about who we are and empowers us to “put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Eph 4:24).
As our Good Friday remembrance approaches, may I encourage you to take a minute to thank our Savior not only for His one time gift of redemption but also for your new identity in Christ, your new nature, your new heart, and the ongoing presense of His Holy Spirit. In these gifts we experience the power of the cross every day.