Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:24-26)
We so often hear expressions like ‘we all have our cross to bear’ or ‘this is my cross to bear,’ and it’s usually in connection with some kind of burden or hardship – illness, persecution, financial difficulty, disability, children on the wrong path, caring for aged parents, or even unsaved spouses. There is all too often a misunderstanding of the phrase ‘take up your cross,’ a perception that it is something heavy that we must carry or struggle with. The implication is an external condition, circumstance or situation that we must bear, and which has no relation to self. In focusing on this external aspect, we in fact lose the entire meaning and significance of these verses. They are all about self and the laying down of it.
Take up your cross means lay down self.
It is an unavoidable truth that we will all face situations and circumstances, hardship and trials, persecution and suffering. That is the nature of the world we live in – and particularly so as a believer who has the devil to contend with along with self and the world. It’s an absolute certainty that we will be called upon to endure all kinds of burdens. But these have nothing to do with Christ’s message in His command to ‘take up your cross.’ These are simply part of life and of our Christian walk – a walk which is, in itself, a process of learning through Christ in us and the leading and teaching of the Word and the Spirit to cope with all the things that come our way in faith and righteousness.
These words are, in fact, a powerful and poignant call to all believers to be living sacrifices. To understand this fully, we need to see what the cross actually meant in the life of Christ. Jesus Himself was commanded to ‘take up your cross’ and carry it on that last long journey to Calvary. But the carrying of it was not the real point of relevance. If it was, Simon of Cyrene would never have carried it for Him. The significance lay in the fact that the cross symbolised His death – a death not only in the physical but also in the spiritual. It represented the total and complete death of self – physically, emotionally, and of the self-will.
The cross in the life of Jesus meant absolute surrender and obedience to the sovereign will of God. It meant full substitution and identification with us, the sinners of this world. It meant accepting laying down His own desires and drinking the bitter cup that lay before Him. This is the message that He gives us when He tells us to ‘take up your cross.’ Context is all important in understanding the message, and we cannot understand the real meaning of ‘take up your cross’ without taking into account the unequivocal statements that follow.
That Jesus is speaking about our ‘death’ is indisputable. Verse 25 makes this very clear. Life, for the believer, has nothing to do with self. Prior to salvation, life was defined in worldly terms and encapsulated our own desires, dreams, goals, and ambitions. It was focused on self-gratification, on me, on the things of self. Life centred around self and was focused on self – achieving those things we believed were important according to worldly and personal standards. In telling us to ‘take up your cross,’ Christ is effectively telling us to die, to lay down our lives as we knew them – which includes everything self-focused – so that we might enjoy the new, eternal and abundant life in Him.
It’s a sobering revelation. We are called to identify fully with Jesus, just as He identified fully with us. Paul’s writings are full of references to the death of the old man and the man who is a new creation. Every reader finds joy, encouragement, and assurance in these statements, and we should, quite rightly, take hold of them in faith. But in doing so, it’s important that we understand that the death of the old man is not simply a symbolic gesture. It is intended as an absolute spiritual fact. In telling us to ‘take up your cross,’ Christ is saying ‘put the old man to death.’ Put our desires to death. Put our sins to death. Put our dreams and goals to death. Put self to death. Nail them all to the cross and crucify each one.
There is nothing vague or ‘iffy’ about it. Our saviour heard the crowd cry ‘crucify Him.’ We are to echo that cry in every area of self – ‘crucify him.’ The message is clear: There can be no life without death. The death comes first and is not-negotiable. Yet Jesus says ‘take up your cross.’ The implication is that, for us – being weak and sinful by nature – it’s a walk. Unlike Jesus, who effected a single, once-and-for-all death, substitution, and identification, it’s not humanly possible for us to crucify self in a single choice or action. ‘Take up your cross’ is ongoing. This is where the walk comes in, the ‘follow me.’ We are to do this daily. We are to live our lives taking up our cross and putting self to death sin by sin, weakness by weakness, temptation by temptation.
Verse 26 issues the challenge that should encourage and inspire us in following His command to ‘take up your cross.’ He leaves no room for misunderstanding or equivocation, but makes it very clear that the flesh has no relevance against eternal life. We have to choose. We either have the flesh and its pleasures or we have eternity with Christ. We cannot have both. If we ignore the instruction to ‘take up your cross,’ or try to continue with one foot in the world, the reality is that we’ll be ineffective. It’s one or the other. We either follow self or the world or we follow Jesus. He has revealed the consequences very clearly, and it’s up to us to decide.
I’m reminded here of God’s words to the Israelites through Moses – ‘I set before you a choice, life or death, blessing or curse.’ The things and ways of God do not change. Way back in Exodus, He was effectively saying ‘take up your cross.’ He presented them with the same choice as we have today in Christ. God or self. We have a gift of grace, the wonderful empowerment of being in Christ. This enables us to go to the cross in His power – the one who has already been there and already overcome. We do not have to rely on our own strength or ability. But we do have to make the choice.
Dying to self is, in effect, absolute obedience. 1 Samuel 15:22 says, Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, As in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams. This is what it means to be a living sacrifice – we live in obedience to God, which means the death of all things self. It means that we daily echo Christ’s surrender in Gethsemane – ‘nevertheless, not my will but Your will be done.’ With these words, Jesus was obeying His Father’s instructions to ‘take up your cross.’
If we claim to follow Christ, it cannot be a journey of compromise. Desire to follow Him means nothing. It’s how we enact the desire that determines life or death. In today’s verses, Jesus is very clearly telling us that if we desire to follow Him, we have to enact that in our willingness to surrender all, to die to self, to ‘take up your cross.’ Taking up our cross comes first. Only once we have done this can we follow Him. We follow Jesus into eternal, abundant life, but the doorway is death. Unless we’re willing to give all, no matter what, our walk will be compromised and much of what God has promised will be unfulfilled.
Lord, help us today to be obedient to Your instruction to ‘take up your cross’ and to follow Jesus through death and to life. Help us to die to self a little more each day. Grant us the grace through the power of Your Holy Spirit working in us to surrender all, little by little, and to be living sacrifices as a testimony to Christ’s saving work on the cross.