Then Jesus called the crowd, along with his disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. (Mark 8:34)
What does it mean for the Christian to “bear his cross”? I have heard people “modernize” the thought by saying “take up your electric chair” but never felt that compelled by it. Likewise, there are those who wear nooses as jewelry (because jewelry crosses are too commonplace I guess). Some people key on some “consider yourself dead” lesson as if taking up the cross is a parallel thought to “deny yourself”. Let me suggest that the expression “take up your cross” was a very specific word picture in Jesus’ day – one which perhaps will not find exact correspondence in our day – the understanding of which makes the teaching far more practical than evoking electric chairs. We will start by looking at the practice of crucifixion.
To start with an obvious observation: a crucifixion was not done to benefit the condemned man. He was being executed. Since the condemned was going to die, there was no “lesson” for him to learn. Since death was death, what difference does it make if he is executed one way or another? The answer is, the way he was executed was to teach others something. Not all capital criminal cases resulted in crucifixion. The crime gave the reason why this was chosen as an execution method. There were essentially three crimes resulting in crucifixion.
The first is revolt. Rome (Israel did not have crucifixion. It is interesting that Jesus used a “foreign” practice to teach his lesson) had a huge empire. A revolt – even a localized one – would be a threat to the whole empire, as unrest would spread to other parts. Should one area choose to rebel, the Romans crushed it mercilessly. After putting down the rebellion, they would further make their point by nailing participants of the rebellion on crosses. The people watched as these men died horrible deaths and they learned what rebellion costs. The lesson? Unless you wish to die like this, don’t rebel.
The second is runaway slaves. Slavery was widespread in ancient Rome. It is estimated that 67% of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves. Such a widespread institution was in the fabric of the society. Were it to “disappear” the society would have crumbled. Runaway slaves were considered threats to the foundation of the empire. When caught, they were punished in a way that would give other slaves pause to consider. Unless you wish to be hung on a cross, stay in your place.
The third was the habitual criminal, the scofflaw. This is one who even though caught and punished in the past continues to break the laws with impunity. He is essentially thumbing his nose at the Roman authority. The local authorities would deal with him as he comes up, but eventually get to the point that he is more than a nuisance and a lesson must be made of him to make a point to the rest of society who had witness his flouting of Roman Law. Unless you wish to receive this severe punishment, be a good citizen.
All three of these criminals have in common that there is a Rule they are rebelling against. There is a Kingdom whose foundations they are destroying. To make sure that the Empire remains, these criminals are executed publicly and brutally. Witnesses are invited to consider that being good citizens of Rome is not that bad an alternative to this kind of execution.
Now we come to Jesus’ expression. The execution is an “object lesson” for any who watch it. Many have seen these criminals in their rebellion and have witnessed their deeds. For their benefit the Romans add one more thing to the picture: The criminals carry their crosses to the execution spot. In other words, the last thing these people do – in front of those who witnessed their rebellion – is an open act of submission to the Authority to which they had rebelled. In obedience to that authority, they carry the mode of their execution.
I believe that is the point of Jesus’ word picture. “Take up your cross” means to walk in open submission and obedience to the Authority to which we had previously been in rebellion. In front of the world which had seen us in our rebellion against God, we now live out our submission to Him.