“Taking Up Your Cross” Is Not What You Think

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by Bill Tell.   Read more great content at billtell.com.
Luke 9:23 is a fairly well known verse. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Well known, but not well liked — at least for me. It laid down conditions for being a follower of Jesus that were not very attractive. Deny myself. Take up my cross. Oh okay – not too many ski lift tickets, no table saw, no touch screen. And for sure, no relaxing fun – after all, crosses are really heavy, sweaty, exhausting things to carry. And since it is for Jesus, it doesn’t feel right taking a day off from denying myself and to put down the cross. Drudgery – here I come, but I am doing it for you Jesus.
But then I learned to read this through the lens of the gospel. It changed everything.  This is a good news verse. Let’s look.
First, Jesus tells me to “deny” myself. My initial interpretation of this always leans toward asceticism, austerity, starkness – interpreted meaning my life is going dog-and-cookie-1
to be filled with unmet desires, boredom and rather drab. And jealousy of those who don’t deny themselves. The good news is that it does not mean this. The Greek word arneomaimeans “refuse to follow.” Who do I refuse to follow? Myself. Stop being independent…because if I am my life will be filled with unmet desires. It will be drab. Boring. A disappointment. I will be like the prodigal son who thought independence offered the perfect life. God knows what is more fulfilling for me than I do. Okay – so denying myself is really a good thing.
But then Jesus says “take up your cross.”  Movies always show the cross-beam as unbelievably heavy. A huge burden. Why would he be telling me here to carry a heavy burden if in Matthew 11:30 Jesus tells me his burden is light? Which is it?
I need to understand “take up your cross” the way the original audience did. To the original hearers, seeing an individual carrying their cross meant that person was on a one-way journey. And the imagery also included a pathway lined with crowds jeering and criticizing the soon to be crucified criminal.
Lastly Jesus says “follow me.” Why would Jesus say this to me? I think it’s because he wants me to be with him. And maybe even more significantly, he wants to be with me! Jesus wants me to experience an incredibly precious relationship.
Putting all this together – what do I hear Jesus saying? For me it sounds like this; “Don’t be fooled into thinking you independently know what is most fulfilling for you. Instead, come on a one way journey with me and don’t let those who criticize you cause you to turn around. Follow me because I want you to be with me, and I want to be with you. And in this relationship of ours, you will find life just as the Father and I have planned it for you – and nothing could be better.”
To take up my cross is to be rescued from the emptiest and most unfilled life I could live and it is an invitation to unlock the best ever! Luke 9:23 is a good news verse.

Bill Tell is a National Staff Development Specialist with The Navigators. He has been on staff with The Navigators for forty-three years. He has served and led in student and collegiate ministry all across the country. He was a Vice President of The Navigators for 13 years before sensing God’s call back to direct field ministry and helping people live in the reality of gospel freedom. Follow Bill on his blog billtell.com.

17 thoughts on ““Taking Up Your Cross” Is Not What You Think”

  1. Great! Thank you so much, Bill, for speaking directly to this often quoted and misunderstood verse. Your short teaching on this verse was enlightening to my mind and good for my heart.

  2. Thanks for the labor you put into this article. What is the reason to think that take up your cross means a one way journey according to the original audience? Is that from a commentary?

  3. Thank you, Bill! I have been chewing on this verse for several weeks too. When I did all the word study and listened to others speak about it, it opened the verse to me in ways I had never thought before. disciplemakers.community has a post on the same subject!

  4. There are many great articles on this site – but, to my dismay, I can’t say this is one of them. I was horrified to read this odd interpretation of this verse, taken so out of context. It’s so bad, I don’t know where to begin critiquing it. I’m sure it was well intended, but it just feeds the narcissism of our day. I hope others are not led astray by this kind of thinking.

  5. We are not told to “invite Jesus into your heart” in the Bible. Rather, the Bible portrays a regal and commanding Lord, Who summons us into HIS heart, His life, His agenda. Which is so much bigger, brawnier, and bolder than anything we could imagine!
    A Jesus “in my heart” is smaller than I am. A place in the heart of Jesus, by contrast, puts things in perspective, glorious perspective. Those who struggle with autism-spectrum issues find this dimension of redemption especially liberating.

  6. right insight is so necessary when working spiritually with the Bible. I think A Course in Miracles is so helpful with this even though it does not proceed by chapter and verse

    • Linda, A Course In Miracles is a spiritual message of spiritual spells. My encouragement to you is to study the Bible with a seasoned Christian and you will not need A Course In Miracles .

  7. You need to let the context and the Greek clearify this passge. Most translations confuse the issue by not accurately translating the next verse (v 24)where it reads that the disciple must loose his life to gain a new one. The word “life” is not natural life (Greek bios) but the word for “soul”. The soul’s function is intellect, emotions,and volition. This is a call for character exchange.

  8. Actually, take up your cross is a Hebrew idiom. The word translated as cross does not mean cross. Rather it means a rod.
    Part of the idiom implies that one should not be greedy and self focused. It doesn’t imply forfeiting things you enjoy or having a wonderful life. It does mean that when you are full and filled with all sorts of physical, emotional, material, and relational blessings, point blank.. you are shalom you are rich in all areas of life, make sure not to be greedy and self centered. Help others enjoy the same life. This mimics the OT.
    Now the other component of the idiom is the rod. The rod was to be the only item the disciples took with them when they went into the towns. The rod was always used in scripture to be a symbol of protection of the flocks and a symbol of the miracle working power of Yahovah. Think Moses.
    So when Yahshuah tells his disciples to take up their cross (rod) and follow him, then tells them to go into the towns with only their rod, he’s illustrating that his followers should be like yahovah, freely feeding his flock with supernatural miraculous power.

    • Thank you so very much for this explanation. I was struggling with the idea that Jesus would be telling them to take up their cross prior to his crucifixion. Hearing this before I really got into the Word I always assumed it was said post resurrection, but when I realized it was from before I was really confused. Thanks again for clarifying!


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