Take Up Your Cross: What Does It Really Mean?

by Roger Barrier

Dear Roger, 

I’m puzzled. When Jesus said that we are to take up our cross and follow Him, what did He mean? What is the cross, and what does it look like? 
Sincerely, Alicia 

Dear Alicia,

In Matthew 16:24-26, Jesus said, “If any man come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” 

When He refers to “the cross,” He isn’t talking about the literal cross He carried to Calvary. He’s talking about the tools, experiences, and teaching God uses to shape us to look like Jesus.

Sorrow and Suffering

First, the cross involves sorrow and suffering. Those are what Jesus endured to be Jesus! Consider these verses:

Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. (Hebrews 5:7-9) 

In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through him everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. (Hebrews 2:10-11) 

The student is not above the master. If Jesus must suffer on the cross, so must we, as we seek to honor and imitate Him.

John chapter 6 records the story of Jesus feeding the 5000. The next morning the crowds followed Him around looking for breakfast. Christ preached the most demanding sermon he’d ever preached: “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you’ll have no part in me.”

That was a hard saying. No one wanted to hear that. 4,988 walked away. Only 12 remained.

Jesus declared, “You’re going to go away too, aren’t you?”

Peter replied: “To whom shall we go?  You have the words of life.”

The essence of discipleship is when we finally understand that there is no place else to go except to Jesus!

Now, where did Jesus take his cross? To Golgotha. What did he do there? He died on it.

Like master like student.

I love Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship. In it, he summed up the essence of Christian discipleship in these words: “When Jesus Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.”

Jesus is calling us to take up our cross and follow Him.

Let me be very clear: Where did He take His cross? To Golgotha. What did He do on it there? He died on it.

Note that there is not just one big cross that we carry.

We will carry many different crosses as we travel on our journey to spiritual maturity. The crosses that we carry are custom-designed by the Holy Spirit especially for each one of us.

3 Key Truths About Dying on a Cross

1. Dying on a Cross Hurts.

2. Dying on a Cross Takes Time.

3. There Is No Such Thing as Self-Crucifixion.

1. Dying on a Cross Hurts

A.W. Tozer, one of my favorite authors and teachers, said: “It is doubtful that God can use a man greatly until He has first hurt him deeply.”

In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1:6-7) 

Have you ever watched how they temper steel?

It’s fashioned and molded and heated in the fire until it’s glowing a fiery red. They then drop it into oil and brine, and it just screams like an animal would scream. Now, it’s tempered, so it will stand the tests for which it is designed.

That’s what God’s crucible does.

The Goldsmith puts gold ore into a hot crucible. The impurities float to the top while the heavier gold sinks to the bottom. He skims off the on top impurities again and again. When he looks in the crucible and sees his face perfectly reflected, he knows that he has pure gold.

Being determined to perfect His saints, God puts His precious children into His crucible. Then He sits by and watches. Love is His thermometer, and love marks the exact degree needed for the processing to occur.

As soon as Jesus sees Himself reflected in our lives, the trials cease, and He turns off the heat until He’s ready again to deal with us in the crucible.

Let me illustrate with the prophet Elijah.

1 Kings 17:1 begins with the statement, “Elijah the Tishbite.” Then, 1 Kings 17:24 ends the chapter with these words: “Elijah, the man of God.”

What occurred between these two verses is the story of how God changed Elijah from being just any old man into Elijah, The Man of God.

God told Elijah to go before King Ahab and deliver this message: “There will be neither rain nor dew for three years until I pray again.” Then, God told Elijah to go to the brook, Kerith, and pray for a drought.

The Hebrew word Kerith means “to cut or file.” There was a drought in the land; animals were dying; and Elijah was eating old, dead, animal carcasses. He was suffering.

Then, one day, the brook dried up.

A dried-up brook is often a sign of God’s pleasure, not his disappointment. If we miss this, then we miss the point of everything.

God spoke to Abraham at the height of his career and said, “Sacrifice Isaac,” and Abraham’s brook dried up.

On his first missionary journey Paul was stoned at Lystra, and his brook dried up.

God will use all sorts of upraised knives, trials, troubles, prisons, stones, and storms in order to renovate our inner spirit.

The Word of the Lord comes again to Elijah, “Go to the city of Zarephath, where there is a smelter. A widow will take care of you.”

“Zarephath” means “to melt.” God said, “First, I’ve cut you and now I’ll melt you.”

When God wants to drill a man and thrill a man and skill a man,

When God wants to mold a man to play the noblest part,

When He years with all his heart to create so great and bold a man

That all the world shall be amazed 

Watch God’s methods, watch His ways,

How He ruthlessly perfects whom He royally elects

How He hammers him and hurts and with his mighty blows converts him

Into trial shapes of clay which only God understands 

While his tortured heart is crying and he lifts beseeching hands.

How God bends but never breaks when His good He undertakes,

How He uses whom He chooses and with every purpose fuses him

By every act induces him to try His splendor out,

God knows what He’s about. 

–The Shaping of the Disciple by Dale Stone 

Only after God cut and fashioned Elijah at Kerith, and then melted him at Zarephath, is the processed man of God ready to call down fire on Mt. Carmel (see 1 Kings 18:16-46).

2. Dying on a Cross Takes Time

The Roman historian Tacitus tells us that most criminals lingered for hours and hours before they finally expired on a cross. He recorded that he watched one man suffer for three days.

God is in no hurry. He is working for eternity.

Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6) 

God doesn’t measure time like we measure time. Psalm 90:4 teaches, “For one thousand years in your sight are like a day that is just gone by.”

Time slows down as speed increases. In fact, there are places in our universe where time is totally stopped. Like the event horizon of a black hole.

God, who created the universe, transcends time. What may seem like forever to us may be just seconds for Him.

I got out my calculator and decided to have some fun. If one day with God is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day, I figured out that one year on earth equals 86.4 seconds in heaven.

Of course, Psalm 90 is poetry. It is not literal. David was simply teaching us that time is nothing to God!

But, to continue the illustration, one year on earth would equal about 2.5 minutes in heaven.

One of the most asked questions I get when a spouse dies is, “Will he/she miss me?”

I respond, “Let’s imagine that you outlive your spouse by ten years. By my calculations, this means that he dies and goes to heaven and 15 minutes later here you come! He’s probably still in line to see Jesus. He may even give you a ‘cut.’”

God’s not in a hurry. Many of us imagine that God’s design for our spiritual maturity seems so slow. God says, “No, from my perspective everything is right on schedule.”

It is often God’s way to set aside a person after the first start so that his or her self-confidence can die down.

Many new Christian converts begin at a fast pace. God will often modify the pace.

God waited a long time for Moses to learn that the victory belongs to God and not to himself.

God said, “Moses, I want you to set my people free from Egypt.”

“You bet,” he boasted. “No trouble, I can handle that.”

However, at the age of forty, on his first day on the job, the proud missionary became a murderer.

For the next forty years, Moses continued to stay in the wilderness, tending sheep while being processed by God. Finally, at the age of eighty, God said to Moses, “Now it’s time. Go set my people free.”

Moses said, “Are you kidding! I can’t do that.”

I’m sure that God smiled and said, “Perfect. I’ve got you just where I want you.”

At the age of eighty, Moses could do things that he could never do at forty. He led God’s people out of Egypt.

Paul became a Christian when he was 32. God waited until he was 49 before sending him on his first missionary journey.

This is not to discourage us, but to help us settle down with our sights on eternity: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Jesus Christ took hold of me (Philippians 3:12-14).”

It takes God a hundred years to make a mighty oak. He can turn out a squash in six weeks. Which would you like to be? An oak? Or a squash?

3. No One Can Crucify Themselves

We cannot self-engineer the journey that God has in store for us.

It is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. (Philippians 2:13) 

When is the last time you read that someone committed suicide by crucifixion?  You’ll never read that. It cannot be done.

Crucifixion is God’s work, not ours. Some of us He just bends.

Some of us have so much pride and self-dependence that He has to break us. God uses different means with each of us.

In other words, how He works with me is not necessarily how He’s going to work with you. He has many different tools to mature us to look like Jesus.

But with all this, His purpose is to chip away at our self-reliance, self-centeredness, and self-condemnation, so that we can mature to look like Jesus.

We can’t speed up God’s process of maturity, but we certainly can slow it down.

Are You Ready to Die on a Cross?

It’s time for a prayer, and I encourage you to join me: “Dear Jesus, would you please mature me to be a spiritual mother/father at any price. I don’t care what it costs.”

The truth is, we may very well care what it costs. Nevertheless, I will do it anyway.

I’ll close with an old Chinese proverb that illustrates what it means to die on the Cross of Christ.  

Once upon a time far off in the heart of the Western Kingdom, the master came to walk day by day. In the midst of his garden was the most beautiful bamboo tree that ever grew in all the earth. And the master would come by and look at his plants, but he had a special affinity for that old bamboo tree. He watched it as it grew. He nurtured it almost to complete maturity. 

One day, as the great master was walking through his garden, he came to that bamboo tree. On impulse that bamboo tree bowed down in adoration of the master, and the master said, “Little Bamboo, most beautiful of all the trees in my garden, I think that you’re just about ready to become useful to me.” 

And the bamboo said, “Oh, great master, if I can do anything for you, I will. Just take me. Use me.”  

The great master said, “Bamboo, Bamboo, most beautiful of all the trees in my garden, if I’m going to use you I have to cut you down.” 

The wind stopped blowing, the birds stopped singing, and all the butterflies were still.   

The bamboo said, ‘Well, master, I’m yours. You yourself said that I’m the most beautiful of all the trees in the garden; must you cut me down?”  

The great master said, “I must, if you’re going to be useful to me.” 

The sounds of the garden were hushed in silence as that great bamboo bent his neck, and the master cut him down. 

Then the master said, “Bamboo, if you’re going to be useful to me, I must cut off all your branches.”  

The bamboo said, “Oh, master, not that. You’ve already cut me down. Isn’t that enough? Please don’t cut off my branches.”   

The great master said, “No, I must cut off your branches.”  

Once more the garden was silenced, and all the plants looked on with rapt attention as the great master snipped off branch after branch and bared that great bamboo. 

Then the master said, “Bamboo, there’s one more thing. You’re not useful to me yet. If you’re going to be useful to me, then I must split you open and cut your heart out.”   

Bamboo said, “Oh, master, you’ve already taken away all of my beauty. There’s nothing left now, just me. Must you scrape my heart out?” And the great master said, “I must if you’re to be useful to me.”   

Once more, the garden was hushed and silenced as the great master took that bamboo, split him down the middle, and scraped his heart out. 

Then the great master took that bamboo shoot, now hollowed out and scraped clean, and he walked over to a spring which was bubbling with water. He laid one end of that hollowed-out bamboo shoot down in the stream of bubbling water. He placed the other end of that bamboo shoot in the channels that led to the irrigation ditch that watered his garden. 

The waters began to flow, and the fields began to grow. The winds began to blow again. The birds began to sing. The rice was planted, and the harvest came. And that bamboo who standing all alone in the garden was the most beautiful of all the master’s plants … that bamboo, which meant so much to himself … when he was stripped bare and hollowed out … was then and only then useful in the great master’s garden. 

Dear Alicia, I hope that my answer has helped you.

Love, Roger


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