What Does It Mean To Take Up The Cross?
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34, NIV)
A basic rule of Bible interpretation (exegesis): A verse cannot mean NOW what it could never have meant THEN. So what did this group of committed disciples and potential followers hear as Jesus called them to "take up the cross"? Some common contemporary takes on crossbearing include:
"My back sure is giving me the fits, well, I guess that's just my cross to bear."
"Marriage to that man is just my cross to bear."
"Taking up the cross means dying to self, putting all my sins on the cross."
But what did Jesus' audience hear when he called them to take up the cross? They knew only the meaning of crosses for capital punishment. And those few crimes for which crucifixion was warranted included murder and insurrection/rebellion (see Mark 15:7). Theft or robbery was NOT punishable by means of crucifixion. Jesus' companions in crucifixion were not theives or robbers. Lēstēs (the original Greek word used by the Gospel writers to describe Jesus' companions does have a literal meaning of a criminal who steals) gets an odd variety of treatments in English translations. In John 18:40, the ESV translates lēstēs with "robber" —as does the KJV and NASB. However, the NIV translates it as "taken part in a rebellion"; the NET and HCSB renders it "revolutionary" (and the Message runs all the way to "Jewish freedom fighter"). Why such disparity? Lēstēs was a label applied to revolutionaries (by Rome) to disparage their motives. They thus sought to cast them as immoral bandits rather than idealistic freedom fighters. So depending on which side you placed your loyalties, you interpreted the same label of Lēstēs as either criminal or a revolutionary. Our closest parallel in today's language: (hold on to your hats here) "terrorist." Again, one nation's freedom fighter is another nation's terrorist. And a true freedom fighter for the Kingdom will be disparaged as a terrorist by the world. "For everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ will be persecuted" (2Tim 3:12).
Jesus' crowd had seen crosses, endured the crucifixion of admired countrymen, and had heard the label Lēstēs applied to compatriots. Josephus, a first century Roman historian, recorded a Jewish effort to take down the Roman stronghold of Sepphoris early in the first century. Rome put down the insurrection, killed thousands of Israel's best and brightest young men, and intentionally reserved two thousand of them for crucifixion. They were crucified up and down the famous Roman roads that connected Sepphoris to Nazareth (a commuter town that supplied labor to the bigger city of Sepphoris) to Cana to Tiberias and to Capernaum. They were crucified two to three deep along these well traveled roads. Some victims of crucifixion took days to die, often ravaged by scavenger birds and animals. All the while, these Lēstēs served as billboard messages to the oppressed Jews: "This Will Happen To You! If You Rebel, This Will Happen To You!" Rome put up crosses to cause the hearts of potential insurrectionists to melt with fear. And the crowd to whom Jesus gave the charge to take up the cross would have been intimately informed by these public displays as they heard Him charge them with this requirement for Christianity.
Was Jesus then calling them to be political revolutionaries? partisans? guerilla warriors? or even social revolutionaries? NO. But even a spiritual revolutionary who calls a fallen world to repentance will experience persecution. And that did in fact happen to many men standing in this crowd. This was not a theoretical charge by Jesus. Mark, the author of this passage, traveled to Egypt to preach the gospel and was burned alive. Stephen was stoned in Acts 7. James suffered martyrdom in Acts 12. Luke was hanged from an olive tree in his classic land of Greece. Peter was crucified upsidedown in Rome. Paul was beheaded in Rome for the sake of the Gospel. James the less was thrown from the temple and then beaten with clubs when he would not renounce the Gospel. Andrew was bound to a cross shaped like an X and preached to his persecutors during a protracted crucifixion. Thomas preached in India where he was run through with a lance. Bartholomew was flayed alive. Matthias was stoned and beheaded. Matthew was slain with the sword in Ethiopia.
Is this charge to take up the cross for "advanced discipleship"? It is not. For Jesus further clarifies this charge in Luke 14:27 "And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." In other words, if we shrink back from the charge to be part of his spiritual revolution, then we cannot be a Christian.