“My husband was laid off work over a year ago and has not been able to find a job. I guess unemployment and its financial impact is our current cross to bear.”
“Our marriage has been rocky for many years, and I don’t see signs of improvement at the moment. I guess this is our cross to bear.”
“My coworker in the next cubicle is a total gossip, complains constantly and is driving me crazy talking about her pets all day long. Putting up with her day after day is my current cross to bear.”
Each of these folks above are suffering some hardship, and each of them have chosen to describe their particular suffering as a cross to bear. Is this what Jesus meant when he told his disciples that following him required “taking up a cross”?
I don’t want to minimize the real hardship and suffering these folks may be enduring, but I want to argue that the kind of crosses that Jesus warned his disciples about was of a more specific nature. So, let’s continue our 3 part series on Jesus’ call to 1) deny self, 2) take up a cross, and 3) follow Him.
2. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must…TAKE UP THEIR CROSS” (Mark 8:34).
The bottomline is this: only suffering that comes directly from following Jesus and pledging allegiance to His Kingdom over others should be considered “taking up a cross.” Put another way, if your suffering and hardship has nothing to do with your faith in Jesus, it’s not a cross your bearing. One more time: If an unbeliever is facing the exact same hardship (i.e., cancer, marital stress, irritating coworker), its probably not a disciple’s cross you’re carrying, but just more general suffering.
I’ll come back to these examples in a bit, but let’s ask what certainly qualifies as a cross to take up.
First, Jesus gives us a clue that he’s not talking about general hardships as crosses to bear when he says in v. 38: “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38). These words seem to indicate that just as Jesus was rejected by societal powers and mocked and shamed on the cross, so his followers must be prepared to suffer similar scorn from “this adulterous and sinful generation.” Those who are ashamed of Jesus and his Kingdom, who refuse to take up their cross in order to save face and avoid such public and political baggage, will be rejected by Christ himself.
Second, let’s remember that for the original disciples who heard these words, it would be a literal cross or some kind of a martyrs death they experienced. Here’s how the apostles each took up their cross to follow Jesus and bear witness to the gospel in their life and death (see chart). Only John died an old man, though even he suffered the hardship of exile on the island of Patmos.
Many early Christians also shared a martyr’s fate under the persecution of Roman Emperor, Nero, and later under Domitian. Nero deflected the rumors that he set Rome on fire intentionally in order to launch a new rebuilding program, and used the Christians as the scapegoat. Ancient Roman historian Tacitus describes Nero’s barbarism in detail:
Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue.
First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: [the Christians] were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus, mixing with the crowd in the habit of a charioteer, or mounted on his car. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that [the Christians] were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man.
-Tacitus, Annals, Book 15, Chapter 44
As American Disciples, we need to remember that there truly was a high cost of following a crucified Messiah, condemned by the powers that be, and mocked as a failed wanna-be king of the Jews. A greater appreciation for those who have suffered real crosses throughout the centuries should deter us from too flippantly talking about our hardships as “taking up our cross.”
Third, I want to come back to the scenarios above and show how these folks may be carrying a cross after all. If someone has been unjustly fired from their job because their faith in Jesus led them to expose the corruption in the company, then that is a cross to bear. If Christ has called you to patiently love and spend time with your irritating coworker because she is lonely and has no other friends, then that is a cross you are bearing. If you have chosen to stay in your marriage, even though everyone around you has told you to leave, because Christ has asked you to remain (and assuming there’s no abuse!), then that is a cross you are bearing for Christ’s sake and His glory.
Finally, American Christians can rejoice that they will likely never have to carry a literal cross and die for their faith. But religious freedom is more and more under attack in this country, and Christian moral stances (e.g., homosexuality) are becoming less and less acceptable. There will definitely be a higher price to pay for those who choose to follow Jesus and His way in the public sphere.
But the greatest test to people of faith in an increasingly intolerant society will be the manner in which we carry our cross and bear the persecution that is coming.
Next time we’ll finish this series by exploring the 3rd and most neglected aspect of Jesus’ radical call of discipleship: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must…FOLLOW ME.”