What does it mean follow Jesus Christ? Yesterday, in an illustration, I placed His footprints in a mine field and described how we should be careful to step exactly where He stepped.
While missteps and straying from the path may happen. Christ warns that the entire journey will be hazardous.
The first thing that comes to mind when thinking of following Christ is that He tells us to deny ourselves, and take up our crosses and follow Him.
We cannot imagine the gut-wrenching terror of this statement. Even if we put it into a modern context, we cannot fully fathom it.
To even attempt to follow and appreciate this statement, we must stop thinking about the cross as a gold emblem to be worn around our necks or wrists. We cannot think of it as two 4×4 posts fit together to easily hoist on the shoulder. We must think of the cross as first-century readers thought of it.
So here is just a little context. Public executions were common in the Roman empire, nearly a daily event. Many crimes warranted execution by crucifixion, including theft, rape, and murder. Crosses were little higher than eye-level, so the one dying could easily hear and see those who mocked him, which often included close relatives and associates who betrayed the convicted for fear of being the next condemned.
A sign attached to the top of the cross announced the name of the condemned and his crime. The cross was low enough that the sign could be easily read.
The Roman’s were expert executioners who knew exactly how to beat the condemned to within an inch of his life (to beat the condemned to death when he had been sentenced to die by crucifixion was itself a crime). The executioner could tell you at exactly what time they expected the condemned to die and they knew how to prolong or hasten the death accordingly.
It was uncommon but not unheard of to find a road lined with crosses of the condemned. Jesus was, Himself, crucified near a road, “outside the gate.”
The Greeks used crucifixion before Rome was an empire. When Alexander seized Tyre, to the north of Israel, in 332 BC, he crucified 2000 people.
Crucifixion, to people conquered by Caesar, was the means by which Rome instilled fear and maintained control.
For Jesus to tell those who would follow Him to “take up their cross,” was to strike fear in their heart.
I can think of two modern parallels, and both fall short in striking fear. To compare the cross to the electric chair fails because the electric chair is not used to intimidate (it is carried out behind closed doors) so much as the cross was. To compare beheading to crucifixion fails because it too is uncommon, although that may be changing.
Why did Jesus tell us this? It makes for a lousy recruitment poster. What was He thinking? It speaks to easy-believism. Is it enough for us to simply say a prayer like reading a magic spell and then consider ourselves “saved?” Even if we exhibit no remorse for our sinful life? Even if we do not repent? Is it enough to simply say a prayer?
Taking up or cross is not a burden we must bear. It is not living with human frailty. It is following Jesus no matter where the path leads, even if it leads to job loss because we read our Bible on lunch break. Even if we are sued for refusing to bake a cake. Even if we are jailed for what we peach. Even if we lose friends because we don’t hang like they do. Even if we are targeted by terrorists for being Christian. We must follow in His footprints.
It means denying our human impulse for fun, thrill, and pleasure, and praying for God to replace it with His love. It is denying yourself – dying to self – daily.
We must follow Him.