Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. [Luke 14:27 ESV]
I am not afraid of death. I am afraid of the process of dying. My assurance of eternity with God is firm. He has guaranteed my place with Him through the death and resurrection of His Son and the gift of His Holy Spirit. God’s whole being is determined to gather His chosen into His kingdom.
What He does not guarantee is an easy life. He will do what is necessary to ensure I am, and all who are His are, prepared for eternity. He guarantees a level of suffering in this life, possibly physical, definitely emotional and mental. He wants us to mourn over the consequences of sin and to suffer for righteousness’ sake.
To be His disciple requires embracing righteousness and excising unrighteousness. Easier said than done. In fact, embracing righteousness is impossible for us. We are bent away from Him, twisted toward sin. His guarantee places all responsibility upon Himself for our salvation. We do nothing. But we do everything.
When Jesus said we must “pick up our cross” to follow Him He was the only one who knew how He was to die. It wasn’t until just before entering Jerusalem that He explicitly told His disciples what would happen.
And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.” [Matthew 20:17-19 ESV]
Everyone knew what a cross was, what it meant. The cross was an instrument of execution used by the Romans. Roman executioners created a word to describe the pain and suffering endured before death on a cross. No one crucified lived. They all died. They died in “excruciating” pain and humility.
Those crucified were considered dangerous to the authority of Rome. Murderers, thieves, revolutionaries, criminals, all crucified according to the decision of Rome. They were killed as an example to others, to encourage those who may want to be like those crucified to change and submit to Rome’s total authority.
Jesus was none of these. He murdered no one but raised those who had died from the dead. He stole nothing but gave all He had to those in need. He never rebelled against Rome but did lead a revolution of spiritual thought and action against the spiritual adultery of the religious leaders among His own people. He kept the Law, fulfilled the Law and lived beyond the Law. He was perfectly righteousness because He was God in the flesh. Being God He was dangerous in the eyes of the world for He tested the world against His own eternal, righteous standards. And the world failed.
He did not come as an example to be followed, but as a sacrifice to be offered. Still, He is an example.
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. [1 Peter 2:21 ESV]
Perhaps His words to us are also hyperbole. Cut off a hand. Hate your father and mother. Pick up your cross.
For Him, picking up a cross was not hyperbole but a deadly, excruciating reality. His death, the shedding of His blood, covered our sin and released us from the consequences of sin. Instead of wrath God’s grace is poured out upon us. He did not redeem the world, created to hold people, but the people created in His image. We all know the phrase “dying to the world” but “living for God.” The person trudging up the hill, after being flogged, with a cross on his back, is not worrying about his job or her home or his possessions or her reputation. Those who follow Him must be like Him, even in His death so they will be like Him even more in eternal life.
The cross was placed upon His righteous shoulders by an unrighteous world, used by God to fulfill the righteous requirements of His broken Law. Our cross, then, is not something of our own choosing, or a suffering because of sin in and around our lives. It is not a burden we think God has asked us to bear. He never asks. The cross we carrying is a result of suffering for righteousness’ sake. We are salt, His righteousness in us exhibited before an unrighteous world.