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What did Jesus mean when He said, “Take up your cross and follow Me”?

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In Matthew 16:24, Jesus told His disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Let’s begin with what Jesus didn’t mean in this verse. Many people interpret the “cross” to be taken up as some burden they must carry in their lives: a strained relationship, a thankless job, a physical illness, etc. With self-pitying pride, they look at their difficulty and say, “That’s my cross I have to carry.” Such an idea is not what Jesus meant when He said, “Take up your cross and follow Me.”

When a person carried a cross in Jesus’ day, no one thought of it as a persistent annoyance or symbolic burden. To a person in the first century, the cross meant one thing and one thing only: death by crucifixion. To carry a cross was to face the most painful and humiliating means of death human beings could develop.

Two thousand years later, Christians view the cross as a cherished symbol of atonement, forgiveness, grace, and love. But in Jesus’ day the cross represented a torturous death. The Romans forced convicted criminals to carry their own crosses to the place of crucifixion (see John 19:17). Bearing a cross meant one was about to die, and that one would face ridicule and disgrace along the way.

Therefore, Jesus’ command to “take up your cross and follow Me” is a call to self-abasement and self-sacrifice. One must be willing to die in order to follow Jesus. Dying to self is an absolute surrender to God.

After Jesus commanded cross-bearing, He said, “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Matthew 16:25–26). Although the call to take up our cross is tough, the reward is matchless. Nothing in this world is worth passing up eternal life.

Wherever Jesus went, He drew crowds. Their view of who the Messiah really was—and what He would do—was often distorted. They thought the Christ would immediately usher in the restored kingdom (Luke 19:11). They believed He would free them from the oppressive rule of their Roman occupiers. Some hoped He would continue to provide free lunches for everyone (John 6:26). Jesus’ statement that following Him requires taking up a cross made people think twice about their motivations and level of commitment.

In Luke 9:57–62, three people seemed willing to follow Jesus. When Jesus pressed them, however, their commitment was shown to be half-hearted at best. They failed to count the cost of following Him. None were willing to take up their cross and crucify upon it their own interests.

Jesus’ apparent attempts to dissuade people from following Him surely limited the number of false converts and insincere disciples (see John 6:66). But God seeks “true worshipers [who] will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:23). Jesus’ call to “take up your cross and follow Me” serves to screen out the disingenuous, double-minded, and dissembling.

Are you ready to take up your cross and follow Jesus? Consider these questions:

– Are you willing to follow Jesus if it means losing your closest friends?
– Are you willing to follow Jesus if it means alienation from your family?
– Are you willing to follow Jesus if it means losing your reputation?
– Are you willing to follow Jesus if it means losing your job?
– Are you willing to follow Jesus if it means losing your life?

In some places of the world, these consequences are a reality. But notice the phrasing of the questions: “Are you willing?” Following Jesus doesn’t necessarily mean all these things will happen to you, but the disciple of Christ must be willing to suffer loss. Are you willing to take up your cross? If faced with a choice—Jesus or the comforts of this life—which will you choose?

Commitment to Christ means taking up your cross daily, giving up your hopes, dreams, possessions, and even your very life if need be for the cause of Christ. Only if you willingly take up your cross may you be called His disciple (Luke 14:27). The reward is worth the price. Remember that, as Jesus called His disciples to “take up your cross and follow Me,” He, too, bore a cross. Our Lord led the way.

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What did Jesus mean when He said, “Take up your cross and follow Me”?
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This page last updated: February 10, 2023