WHAT DID JESUS MEAN, “TAKE UP YOUR CROSS?”
by Shawn Brasseaux
We find the expression four times in the text of the King James Bible. What is being communicated?
- Matthew 16:24: “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”
- Mark 8:34: “And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”
- Mark 10:21: “Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.”
- Luke 9:23: “And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.”
You may recall that we have a similar expression in the English language. “That is his cross to bear” is used to describe someone enduring a trial, difficulty, burden, or misfortune. However, this is not what the Bible means when speaking of taking up a cross. A cross does not symbolize a burden or trouble per se; rather it is an emblem of rejection and its accompanying shame.
The stage was already set for Matthew 16:24 in verse 21: “ From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day….  Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” Did you notice the connection? While subtle here, the parallel verses make it clearer.
Before we get to Mark 8:34, we read in verse 31: “ And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again….  And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” Did you catch how Mark’s account emphasized the rejection of Christ? Jesus going to Calvary is the result of Israel refusing Him, saying they have no king but Caesar (cf. John 19:15).
Read Luke 9:23 with verse 22: “ [Jesus Christ was] Saying, The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be slain, and be raised the third day.  And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” Like Mark’s version, the context is Jesus Christ being disallowed, spurned, rejected.
Not only did Jesus Christ’s own people reject Him and then demand His death by crucifixion, He actually carried His cross for a time. The Book of John, chapter 19, verse 17: “And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha.” For all the crowds to see, the Son of God—beaten, bruised, and bloody—literally carries the symbol of His rejection. That wooden structure on His shoulders, and His subsequent nailing to it, is the monument to the fact that God’s special people, the nation Israel, want absolutely nothing to do with their long-promised Messiah, His only begotten Son. It is in light of all that that Jesus Christ spoke of His disciples as bearing their cross behind Him.
With all of this said, we can read the verses that follow the taking up of the cross:
- Matthew 16:25-27: “ For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.  For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?  For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.”
- Mark 8:35-38: “ For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.  For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?  Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?  Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
- Luke 9:24-26: “ For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.  For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself, or be cast away?  For whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words, of him shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he shall come in his own glory, and in his Father’s, and of the holy angels.”
The idea of taking up the cross means a follower of Jesus Christ is prepared to be rejected of men for His sake. Since Christ is in them, and this present world is under Satan’s control, the two are incompatible. This world system does not want to glorify Jesus Christ, and Christ’s followers do. There is an inherent controversy, contention, conflict, or battle. The Lord Jesus was telling His Jewish followers quite a mouthful when He instructed them to take up their cross and follow Him. If they truly followed Him, suffering was sure to come their way. They would be refused and hated too.
First John chapter 3 was written along those very lines: “ For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.  Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother. And wherefore slew he him? Because his own works were evil, and his brother’s righteous.  Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you.” James 4:4 is an interesting little bit of commentary here: “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.”
When Jesus spoke to the Little Flock about taking up their cross and following Him, He was speaking of the rejection and shame they would experience for aligning themselves with Him. As their Jewish brethren (unbelievers) refused to have anything to do with Him, their rightful King, the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant, so they would have nothing to do with His followers. Families would be divided and believers in Jesus would be ridiculed and mistreated. The Jewish believers, the kingdom saints, the Little Flock, Israel’s believing remnant, would be unpopular with the rest of the nation. Notice the Lord Jesus Christ’s words:
- John 15:18,24-25: “ If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you….  If I had not done among them the works which none other man did, they had not had sin: but now have they both seen and hated both me and my Father.  But this cometh to pass, that the word might be fulfilled that is written in their law [Psalm 69:4], They hated me without a cause.”
- Matthew 10:22: “And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved.”
- Mark 13:13: “And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.”
- Luke 21:17: “And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake.”
The Little Flock would have to not be attached to this evil world system: Jesus warned that whoever would gain the whole world, that person would lose his soul (Matthew 16:26; Mark 8:36; cf. Luke 9:25). He also promised that whoever would lose their life for His sake, they would find their life. They would be hated for His sake, but it would be worth it. He would reward them at His return (Matthew 16:27). Luke adds the little qualifier of taking up the cross “every day” (Luke 9:23). There is a daily rejection to be experienced, and shame to go with it.
To deny himself means to put his own desires aside. We naturally want to be accepted, but Jesus told His disciples to “deny [themselves] and take up [their] cross.” In other words, “I am being rejected, and if you want to come after Me—to be My follower—you will have to be rejected of men too. Take up your cross every day, and share in My shame!” For those Jews who do not want to suffer shame for Him, He warned His Jewish audience, “For whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words, of him shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he shall come in his own glory, and in his Father’s, and of the holy angels” (Luke 9:26). “Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38).
Luke 9:57-62 is a good summary of the issue of taking up the cross: “ And it came to pass, that, as they went in the way, a certain man said unto him, Lord, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest.  And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.” This man wanted to “follow” Jesus wherever He went. Ultimately, Jesus said (paraphrased), “Israel does not want Me, and if you truly follow Me, they will not want you either!”
While the Apostle Paul never said anything along these lines of taking up a cross, we Christians in the Dispensation of Grace still face similar rejection and shame. Whether the Jewish kingdom saints or us in the Body of Christ, there is a common enemy. Satan’s goal is to silence us, discredit us, intimidate us however he can. There is a common sin nature working in all people as well: that wicked nature rebels against the works of God. These facts converge to cause the world to hate all those who follow the God of the Bible, regardless of the dispensation or time in human history.
SUPPLEMENTAL: DID JESUS CHRIST’S REJECTION SHOCK FATHER GOD?
Father God was not caught by surprise when Israel rejected His Son. Many centuries earlier, it was prophesied in the Psalms: “The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner” (118:22). The Lord Jesus quoted this very passage when predicting His rejection.
Matthew 21:42: “Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes?” Mark 12:10: “And have ye not read this scripture; The stone which the builders rejected is become the head of the corner:….” Luke 20:17: “And he beheld them, and said, What is this then that is written, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner?” First Peter 2:4-7, also quoting the Psalms, says of Jesus Christ: “To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed [rejected] indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious,… Unto you therefore which believe he is precious: but unto them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed [rejected], the same is made the head of the corner,….”
You may also see Luke 17:25, which speaks of Christ’s suffering before His glorious Second Coming: “But first must he suffer many things, and be rejected of this generation.” John 1:11-12 is a fitting summary, highlighting both Jewish believers and Jewish unbelievers: “ He came unto his own, and his own received him not.  But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:….”
“For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake; having the same conflict which ye saw in me, and now hear to be in me”