If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me (Lk 9:23). We often think that “bearing one’s cross” means having to endure a difficult situation, or having to tolerate people with obnoxious personalities. But in Jesus’ day, a man carrying his cross was not a man merely in a challenging circumstance. He was a man about to die. He was not committing suicide. Rather, he had been judged by the court and had received the sentence of death. He was en route from the courthouse to the gallows. He was a dead man walking.
Jesus was popular at this point in His Galilean ministry. However He knew that there was an undercurrent of conflict which was liable to surface and surge at any moment. Even while the multitude welcomed Jesus and desired to make Him a king, conflict was ever near. The multitude was confused and unstable. Those in charge of the religious and political institutions were plotting His demise. Herod recently had John the Baptist beheaded. It was time to tell His disciples that the Christ must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day (Lk 9:22). Jesus would be rejected, legally condemned and sentenced to die. If we would follow Him, we must likewise submit to similar condemnation and execution by the men and institutions of this age. The sentence against us is not because we are criminals but simply because we follow the crucified Christ. Cross-bearing is not about having to endure the difficulties common to all men in this fallen world. Cross-bearing is something specific to our discipleship to Jesus. Disciples share in Jesus’ suffering, rejection and persecution. As Jesus’ disciples, we must learn to live in this world as dead men walking.
The limited space of a blog inhibits me from discussing perspectives and passages which qualify, balance and prevent us from developing a morbid martyr-complex. Yet our susceptibility to a martyr-complex is real because we are, in fact, called to embrace our own death sentence as we pursue Jesus and His Kingdom. If we would be balanced, we must give due weight to each specific biblical truth. These words must have weighed heavily upon the disciples. We too must feel the weight of each word: If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him… take up his cross daily, and follow Me.
We need to count the cost and come to terms with cross-bearing. We can’t sugar-coat the picture of a man carrying his cross. He is a dead man walking. He has been condemned to die. He entertains no notion of gaining the approval of the court. He anticipates no sympathy for himself or for the things for which he was condemned. He has been rejected. He has been judged. He has been legally sentenced to die. He has no legal recourse. He has no hope for tomorrow for today he must die. He is despised, discarded, castigated, callously and cruelly cast off. A thought comes to mind, a fleeting ephemeral wish to see his former days restored. But the thought evaporates in the light of the realization that once again seizes the condemned man: he is sentenced to die. He is separated from all he ever was and ever hoped to be in this world. Why? Because the world has rejected him, denounced him, and employed every means at its disposal to see him dead.
Jesus is headed to Jerusalem to be killed, and be raised up on the third day. On the other side of the cross lies the resurrection. All that is entailed in that joyous hope is sufficient to sustain faith and enable Jesus to endure the cross, despise the shame and anticipate the vindicating over-ruling judgment of God demonstrated in His resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of the throne of God (Heb 12:2). We hold on to that same hope by faith as we enter into the immediate reality of discipleship in a world that lies in the power of the evil one (1 Jn 5:19) and hates Jesus. We do not have a morbid martyr-complex because we know him who is the resurrection and the life (Jn 11:25). Only we possess genuine hope in this world, but our hope is not in this world. And to the extent that we are living as disciples of Jesus, this world will confirm Jesus’ words by rejecting and condemning us.
Judgment stands between us and this world. Paul says. The world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Gal 6:14). The world judges Paul as worthy of death, and Paul judges the world as unworthy of life. Consider Jesus’ choice and fruitful servants. They seem to be as a grain of wheat, buried into the earth to die, only to spring forth with much fruit (Jn 12:24). They believingly internalize Jesus’ summons to cross-bearing. They embrace their own death in this world and already live in resurrection power. They are truly dead men walking – walking in newness of life (Rom 6:4), walking by faith, obedient through death. They even run their race with their eyes fixed on Jesus (Heb 12:1). Dead men running. Now, there’s a sight to behold!Alan Dunn, Pastor Grace Covenant Baptist Church Flemington, NJ