“Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will find it.” Matthew 16:24-25.
Anyone living in Judea at the time of Christ would have understood what Jesus was referring to when He said a person must “take up his cross.” Criminals who were sentenced to be executed by means of crucifixion were forced to carry their crosses throughout the city in which they lived in a macabre parade to the spot of their execution. As the criminal struggled under the weight of the cross, he would be reminded with every footstep that he was nearing the place of his death. The Romans were famous for crucifying dozens, even hundreds, of criminals at a time. Roman historians left us written accounts of times when so many people were to be executed at once that the executioners lined the road leading out of Jerusalem for miles with crucified people hanging from their crosses. It was a slow and extremely painful way to die, sometimes taking days for the crucified person to finally expire. Crucifixion was much more than just a means of execution; it was a message being sent from the authorities to the masses: This is what we do to those who cause trouble.
There is also another important aspect of crucifixion that set it apart from other methods of execution used by the Romans– Roman citizens could not be crucified. Crucifixion was reserved for the non-citizens, for those who were considered to be less-than-human, or barbarians. For instance, the apostle Paul, born in Tarsus (modern-day Turkey), was a citizen of the Roman Empire. When he was executed, his status as a citizen earned him a much more humane death–beheading. Jesus, however, was born in the town of Nazareth, in the Galilee region of Judea. Though Judea was occupied by the Romans, its inhabitants were not citizens of the Empire, and were therefore eligible to be crucified. In addition to scaring the people of occupied lands into staying out of trouble, crucifixion also clearly reminded them that they weren’t Romans; they were barbarians, subhuman, insignificant, and expendable. It was the Romans’ way of forcing their superiority on the natives, and forcing the natives to accept their inferiority.
Why, then, did Jesus say a person must “take up his cross” in order to follow Him? What does it mean to “take up our cross” for Christ?
It means this: Christ wants only those who are willing to give up everything, even their lives, for Him. He doesn’t want people who will show up on Sunday, but are nowhere to be found Monday through Saturday. To truly follow Christ, we must reaffirm our commitment to Him by daily picking up our cross. What is our cross? It is not sickness or suffering, trial or hardship–those are all part of the human experience that everyone endures. It is not simply “liking” Jesus on your favorite social media website. Our cross is something that sets us apart from everyone else in the world–it is the commitment we make to follow Christ wherever He leads us, no matter what the end may be. You are picking up your cross when you take a stand for Christ. You are picking up your cross when you follow Christ when no one else around you is, despite what your friends, family, or peers may think or say. You are picking up your cross when you make a commitment to follow the solid doctrinal teachings of Christ–no matter how hard they may be–instead of the sappy, feel-good, wealth-seeking philosophies that pass for religion today.
Picking up your cross is a commitment to going against the culture. When we pick up our crosses, we are choosing to be in opposition to society at large. We choose to be on the other side of the tracks. The world will mock us and jeer us, just as those who witnessed the parade of criminals to their executions mocked and jeered the soon-to-be crucified criminals. The world thinks that it is putting us in our place–the very same way the Romans thought they were putting the “barbarians” in their place–by allowing us to pick up our crosses; but in reality, the world is simply aiding us in heeding our Master’s call. We gladly carry our crosses for Christ, and by doing so we assert His superiority over this world. We willingly turn our lives over to Him and receive life everlasting in return. This world has nothing for us; take up your cross and follow Christ.