So said Jesus to a crowd of people, including his disciples, in Mark 8:34. It must have sounded odd, though, because what did “taking up a cross” mean? Jesus obviously knew what it meant because a couple of verses earlier he’d told his disciples he’d be killed, so he knew that taking up a cross was in his near future, but did it mean his disciples would need to be killed on crosses too?
History indicates that some of the disciples may have been killed on crosses, but not all of them, so going literally to one’s death on a cross wasn’t what Jesus was getting at, and even if it was how could his disciples “follow” him if they were dead? Taking up a cross had to mean some action while they were still alive, therefore, which is what it means to us today too. To take up one’s cross is associated with an unpleasant task or person we have to put up with: “It’s a cross I have to bear,” we say, when we’re lumped with a physical handicap, or a neighbour’s dog that never stops barking.
So in our culture we associate taking up a cross with something negative, but that couldn’t be what Jesus meant either, because why would anyone want to “follow” him if it means having even more crosses to bear?
Jesus also made it clear in his ministry that he’d come to heal people, so all three of those statements he made – denying oneself, taking up a cross, and following him – would have to tie in with that, as essential to our healing. But how can a cross tie in with healing when it pictures severe pain and public humiliation?
But in Jesus’ case it worked wonderfully, because the pain and public humiliation he suffered on the cross was totally tied in with our healing. In his death he “condemned sin in sinful man” (Romans 8:3). In HIS cross, therefore, he put to death the junk that kills us as humans, the kind of junk he talked about in Mark 7, like weird ideas about sex, jealousy, lying, destructive gossip, hating people enough to want to kill them, obsession with our self-image, and stupid, inconsiderate words and actions that destroy relationships. To be free of all that rubbish is the best thing that can happen to us. Well, in taking up his cross Jesus got that process started, so that one day we could all be free of that destructive nonsense forever. No wonder Jesus went to the cross with joy (Hebrews 12:2).
So now we have a very positive reason for taking up a cross, when it’s tied in with killing off what’s killing us. Does that positive reason then spill over into why Jesus wanted us to take up a cross as well?
It’s going to mean we’re in for pain and humiliation like he went through, because that’s what being hung up on a cross includes. It’s not pleasant, for instance, having to admit we’ve got many of the same problems Jesus listed in Mark 7, and even more unpleasant having some of them exposed for all to see as well.
But the purpose of exposing what’s inside us (and the humiliation that may go along with it), is to experience becoming the lovely human Jesus died to make us into. This is what Jesus gave us the Holy Spirit for too, to help us become visible witnesses to Jesus making awful people into good ones. He went to the cross for that reason, to kickstart that healing for all humanity, and to make his disciples the best living proof of it.
So, yes, taking up our cross may be painful and humiliating, just as Jesus taking up his cross was for him, but when we know the purpose of it, to heal us by cleaning out our hearts and cleaning up our minds from all that’s killing us and our planet, then that surely explains why Jesus has disciples who not only take up their crosses willingly, they also willingly follow him.