Cross-bearing seems to be one of those concepts that has many misconceptions. What is the Christian’s cross? Is our cross a personal cross that will differ from the crosses other Christians are called to bear? What is the association of self-denial and cross-bearing?
Paul referred to his preaching as the preaching of the cross “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God” (1Co 1:18). Paul also refers to those who reject the Gospel and work against it as the enemies of the cross “For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ” (Php 3:18). The cross is only referred to in the New Testament and is the symbol of Christianity.
When Constantine saw in his dream a cross, he associated it with Christianity. Down through the history of the Christian church, the cross remains its central figure. The Catholic crucifix has Christ on the cross. The Protestant cross is without the presence of Christ. Both figures are worn and displayed by Christians. But does the symbol have anything to do with cross-bearing?
The concept of cross-bearing comes from the words of Christ. Matthew, Mark and Luke have similar expressions of Jesus’ call to cross bearing. “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” (Matt 16:24). “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 8:34).”And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). These verses and other Scriptures make it clear that there is no true Christianity without practical expressions of denying self for the sake of following the directives of Christ.
There was a literal cross Christ carried on His way to Calvary. Carrying the cross was part of the concluding act of Christ submitting to the Father’s will. It was on the cross that He gave His life and blood for the provisional atonement of the world. He subjected Himself to not only carrying the cross but also the shameful death of the cross. “And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Php 2:8). But how does this relate to the Christian life and the need for us to take up our cross and follow Jesus?
The only other reference in the Gospels to cross-bearing was in Jesus’ conversation with the rich young ruler. Mark’s account in 10:21 includes the command to “take up the cross, and follow Me.” The question still remains, what cross is in focus? Certainly a physical wooden cross is not under consideration.
As we observe the cross Jesus bore, it may give us an understanding of the cross we are to take up and carry.
1. Cross-bearing follows the denial of self. Jesus’ literal cross was carried after He expressed His willingness to honor the will of God above His own will. This wooden cross was made by placing a vertical beam over a horizontal beam. This typifies the need for the human will to become subject to the Divine will. When and where these two intersect, a cross is formed. Jesus submitted His will of not wanting to face the death of the cross to the Father’s will of His Son dying on the cross. Three times in Matthew 26, Christ expressed His willingness to accept the Father’s will (verse 39 “nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt”, verse 42 “O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done”, verse 44 He “prayed the third time, saying the same words”).
If the rich young ruler in Luke 18 would have made a similar expression as Christ did, his story would be different. It is apparent he had a personal agenda he desired to accomplish with his material means. His will was in direct opposition to the will of God. He was faced with a practical choice of denying his selfish desires by saying “No” to his plans, and saying “yes” to the will of God. We have no record that he denied his selfish agenda and took up his cross to follow Jesus.
The first submission issue we face in the Christian life is the denying of our self interests for God’s will. We cannot maintain our self interests and be a disciple of Christ. The prerequisite of cross-bearing is still “let him deny himself”. Only after we have learned to deny our carnal will can we carry our cross.
2. Cross-bearing is the Christian’s way of life. There was a cross Jesus bore before He faced the literal cross of Calvary. Isaiah said that Christ “hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows”. His life was filled with bearing the grief and sorrows of humanity. He carried a cross of grief and sorrows that was not His own. This way of life concluded in a death that was illustrative of His life. He carried a cross toward Calvary which was not His own. It was God’s will for Jesus to die on Calvary. Jesus’ willingness to bear His cross in life is directly associated with His death on the cross.
In Luke 9:23, Jesus said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me”. When something is a daily experience, it becomes a way of life. It is more than an event of the past. As we submit ourselves to the will of God, we take up a life of accomplishing His plan. The details of what God expects us to do for His kingdom interests will vary, but there is work for all. In order to do the Father’s will, we must lay down our personal interests. This is where the rich young ruler failed. This is where we also are tempted to turn our backs on God. Why should we do what others are not required to do?
Peter seemed to question the cross he was to bear in John 21:18-22. (Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not. This spake he, signifying by what death he should glorify God. And when he had spoken this, he saith unto him, Follow me. Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following; which also leaned on his breast at supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth thee? Peter seeing him saith to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do?) There was a cross associated with Peter’s Christian life. It would not be the same as the other disciples. Each man has his own walk and his own cross to bear.
3. The cross includes suffering and hardship for the Cause of Christ. Jesus suffered physically in carrying the cross and dying on it. Such suffering is repulsive to the natural man. The natural man desires life, comforts, and opportunities similar to those others enjoy. The cross Jesus bore denied him these earthly experiences. Peter was also denied a comfortable life as He bore the cross God outlined for him. Every Christian’s walk of life will require a forfeiture of earthly pleasures and comforts as he seeks to do the Father’s will. The suffering and hardships of our cross help us identify with the cross of Jesus. Paul’s desire was to “know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death” (Phil 3:10).
Paul was able to identify with the sufferings of Christ as he lived his life. His testimony seems to mirror the life of Christ. “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2Cor 12:9b-10). He also said in verse 15, “And I will very gladly spend and be spent for you; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved.” This life committed to the service of Christ was Paul’s cross experience.
We too need to carry a cross if we will identify with the sufferings of Christ. Since our salvation required suffering on the part of Christ, why would we think it strange that our life in Christ could not include some suffering for His purposes? The most we can suffer will fall short of the intensity of the sufferings of Christ. While we suffer less than He did, we are able to in a measure have a fellowship in what He suffered for humanity.
4. Bearing the cross precedes wearing the crown. The Hebrew writer encourages us to look “unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2). Jesus needed to endure a life of cross bearing and a literal cross before He could return to the glories of Heaven. Too many people desire a place in Heaven without bearing any cross below. Such hope seems to be very faulty. The crowns spoken of in the Scriptures are for those who bore a cross of some form.
There is a crown of rejoicing for those who work in behalf of the souls of men. “Therefore, my brethren dearly beloved and longed for, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, my dearly beloved” (Php 4:1). “For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming?” (1Th 2:19). Those who carry the cross of laboring for the spiritual well-being of others will be crowned.
There will be a crown for those who endured the cross of doing right. Doing right is the Christian’s way of being ready for the appearing of Christ. “Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing “(2Ti 4:8). Whatever the weight of the cross to do right, it will be rewarded by the righteous Judge.
There will be a crown for those who faithfully bore the cross of temptation. “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him” (Jas 1:12). Today the cross of temptation may be heavy, but there is a crown for the faithful.
Revelation 2:10 identifies the cross and the crown of those who physically suffered for the cause of Christ. “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” It will be worth it all, when the cross is laid down and the crown of life is received. Every martyr for Christ will feel richly rewarded for the few moments of suffering in this life.
Today is the day to bear the cross. The weight of the cross and the length of the journey is at the discretion of our lord. In light of the cross Jesus carried for us, it is only our reasonable service to faithfully carry our small crosses for Him. May we all be found faithful in bearing our cross until we are made conformable unto his death.