The Death Beyond Jesus’ Death
To the first-century Jew living in Israel, the cross meant one thing—Roman crucifixion. Crosses evoked images of hundreds of Jews, even thousands, crying in agony as they hung from crosses on the hills surrounding Jerusalem. The Romans devised crucifixion to be the absolute worst and most public way to die. The cross was the ultimate symbol of death and oppression. It was also a constant visible reminder for Jews that God was not ruling in Israel—Rome was! As soon as Jesus said following him involved the word “cross,” the crowd following him would’ve stopped dead in their tracks. The cross meant death.
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What did Jesus mean by “take up our cross”? First, we need to know that taking up your cross is something all followers of Jesus are to do daily. While this isn’t clear in Mark 8:34, it is clear in the parallel account of Luke 9:23. Second, taking up your cross begins with denying yourself; denying the selfish and sinful desires of your flesh. But it doesn’t stop with just denial. Third, it also involves putting those selfish and sinful desires to death. We need to crucify our sinful desires, to use the cross-language of Jesus. Taking up our cross means putting to death the sinful desires of our flesh every day.
We mustn’t sell our interpretation short, though. Taking up your cross for Christ’s sake might actually lead to your physical death. Living this kind of “take up your cross” life led to Jesus’ death. It also led to all of his apostles’ deaths, according to tradition. Why would it be different now? As you think about that, consider this fact: more Christians have been martyred in the last one hundred years than in any century since Christ’s crucifixion.
In Galatians 2:20, Paul wrote: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (emphasis ours). Repeatedly in the New Testament, we’re called to “count ourselves dead to sin” and to “put to death the deeds of the flesh,” and so on. Galatians 5:24 says, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (emphasis ours). All of this language, and all of these commands find their origin in Jesus’ words about taking up our cross daily.
People who are truly following Jesus have a faith in Christ’s death that leads them to crucify their flesh with its passions and sins. Their belief in Christ’s death impacts their daily life because they’re learning to deny themselves and take up their cross daily. This is called following Jesus. For someone to say that they believe in Christ’s death and resurrection, but then reject their need to put to death the deeds of the flesh is, at the very least, to have a faith that is badly stunted, if not a faith that doesn’t save.
2. The word “excruciating” was created to describe the intense pain of crucifixion. If you look closely at the root of the word, it has crucifixion at its center.
3. See www.opendoorsusa.org for more information on modern-day martyrdom.
4. Romans 6:11; 8:11 (emphasis ours)