"We ask you not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled..." ~ II Thes. 2:2 *** "But stir up the gift of God that is within you by the laying on of hands..." ~ II Tim. 1:6

“Take Up Your Cross Daily”: How Should Christians Look at the Cross? (Passover Study)

As the Passover approached this year, I found myself meditating on the question of the cross and what it should mean to God’s people today.

I grew up in a church tradition where “cross” was practically a dirty word.  We seriously avoided saying it, preferring to substitute “stake” when reading the bible aloud or in songs.  The word made people very uncomfortable, I think mostly because they saw mainstream Christianity putting crosses on everything in a way that felt like worshipping an image.

I’ve also heard many people say, “Why would you put a focus on something that was the torture and death device for our Savior?”  And I can certainly understand that perspective.

But the thing is…both Jesus Christ and the apostle Paul directed our focus there to some extent.  And they both referenced the cross plenty.  So while the idea of the cross may make us uncomfortable, we need to examine which of our concerns are actually biblical.

If you come from a similar tradition as I did, our study today falls into the category of a bit of a paradigm buster.  All I’ll say is, stick with me for a while…my goal isn’t to be deliberately provocative, but rather to wrestle with God’s word in order to winnow what’s biblical truth versus human feelings or manmade tradition.

It’s also important to remember that Christ’s death alone was not what accomplished our salvation.  He also had to be resurrected and ascend to the Father to be accepted as a perfect sacrifice on our behalf (this is what the wave sheaf ritual symbolizes, Lev. 23:9-14 and Heb. 10).  So myopically focusing on the cross at the expense of the complete sacrifice and resurrection process is also not biblical.

One thing I do feel confident in saying is that we should not hold the cross as some kind of icon or symbol of our faith.  We should not worship it.  I don’t believe it should be a visual representation in our walk with God.  That is another ditch, the opposite of the one I was brought up in, but veers away from biblical teaching just the same.

So whether you were brought up to avoid the topic of the cross, or grew up always wearing a cross, or don’t have any relationship to it all, let’s dive into what the BIBLE tells us.

Let’s get this out of the way…was it a cross?

The word translated consistently as “cross” is stauros (G4716), which basically means a stake, upright post, or cross as an instrument of capital punishment.  The Strongs dictionary notes that it also figuratively indicates exposure to death, self-denial, and the atonement Christ made for us.

What it looked like—whether it was a cross or a stake or a T-shaped pole—isn’t the point.  Historical records indicate all sorts of forms were used.  It’s kind of like us saying “fence” or “fencepost” today…that could look like a lot of different things.  It isn’t the focus of the bible’s narrative, nor should it be a semantical obsession for us today.

More importantly, what did the cross MEAN in Christ’s day?  The cross was a death sentence.  It was a shameful, excruciating, and often protracted death, one typically reserved for slaves, disgraced soldiers, and foreigners.  The Romans would force convicts to carry their crosses (or, more likely just the cross beam) to their own execution, with crowds harassing them as they did so, as further humiliation.

While we don’t have the same level of cultural understanding, the bible speaks to the cross plenty.  And in this Passover season, it’s worth spending some time figuring out how it applies to your life and my life today.

“Take up your cross daily and follow Me”

Let’s start with what Jesus tells us about our relationship to the cross:

“Then He said to the crowd, ‘If any of you wants to be My follower, you must give up your own way [CJB: “Say ‘No’ to yourself”], take up your cross daily, and follow Me. If you try to hang onto your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for My sake, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but are yourself lost or destroyed?’” (Luke 9:23-25, NLT)

Matthew 10:38 is very similar, as are Matthew 16:24 and Mark 8:34.  The gospel accounts indicate that Jesus talked to the crowd and His closest disciples on this topic multiple times, usually in the context of trials they would suffer in this life, but particularly as He was trying to get them to understand what HE would suffer (it’s important to read the verses surrounding each account for context).

We don’t know if they “got it” at the time, if they truly understood what would happen.  Almost certainly not, or they wouldn’t have been so shocked, scared, and lost when it did.  They had a paradigm as well, that the Messiah would come as a powerful conquering ruler, to get rid of Rome and establish His kingdom on earth.

But regardless, the cross and the idea of having to carry your cross (or execution-stake, if you prefer) is a word picture they would have understood culturally.  As we saw a minute ago, the cross was a death sentence.  There was no going back from it—that was it.

Once we’ve committed ourselves to God’s way and risen from the waters of baptism, we have made a full, lifetime, unending commitment to follow Him.  It can’t be half-hearted, but must be a full surrender to His will and His ways.  Our previous life ended permanently, there’s no going back.

What does it mean to deny ourselves or “give up our own way”?  To pick up our cross DAILY and follow Him?  In Luke 14, Jesus cautions His disciples that they must “count the cost” of following Him and be willing to forsake everything in this physical life:

“If anyone comes to Me and does not hate [love less] his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26-27)

To take up my cross is to deny myself, crucify my self-will and self-sufficiency.  To put to death MY plans and desires for my life.  To be willing to face shame, rejection, betrayal, and persecution, and even to lose everything in order to obey God, if it comes to that. 

This is what Jesus meant when he said, “If you try to hang onto your life, you will lose it”.  Discipleship requires surrender and sacrifice.

We can’t cling to our old ways of living and thinking, have one foot still in the world, and believe that we’re also fully dedicated to following Jesus Christ.  We must “declare that we are strangers and pilgrims” in this world, desperately looking ahead to the eternal city that God promises us (Heb. 11:13-16; read this study on burning platform theory).

When Jesus tells us to take up our cross, He’s not talking about the simple trials, frustrations, and inconveniences of our everyday life, the “cross to bear” that people will sometimes casually speak of.  The cross was a death march, ugly and violent.  We are called to suffer for His sake if necessary, to fight spiritual battles for ourselves and for others.

This doesn’t mean that we’re over-serious “sad sacks,” living a joyless and painful life.  It just means that we are to live our lives following Jesus’s example even if we’re crucified for it. (Figuratively speaking…probably.)  He was “despised and rejected by men” (Is. 53:3).  We might be, too.

It means we are to truly believe that God’s plan for us is better than anything we dream up, and bow our head in surrender to His will.  We should be focused first and foremost on the joy that is to COME (Heb. 12:2).

Ask yourself:  What does “the cost” look like in my life?  What do I have to give up to be able to devote myself to God? 

It might be losing personal time (“me time”), family or friend relationships, pride, sense of self or identity (maybe tied into a career or a role you serve in), a life goal.  Or many other things.  But as you examine yourself in this Passover season, it’s worth asking God where you haven’t surrendered to Him completely.

“As for me, may I never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Because of that cross, my interest in this world has been crucified, and the world’s interest in me has also died” (Gal. 6:14, NLT)

The charges against us He “nailed to the cross”

We’ve covered what Jesus had to say about the cross, so let’s pick up now with Paul, who had quite a bit to say on the topic.  Jumping into the middle of a longer thought:

“…buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God…and you, being dead in your trespasses…He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us…and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Col. 2:11-14)

The NLT is a bit easier to understand here as well…it says, “He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:14, NLT).  Those “charges” are all of our sins, each and every one of which has earned a death sentence (Rom. 6:23).

But instead, when our perfect, sinless Lord was nailed to the execution-stake, our charges—our death sentence—was nailed up there with Him.  He paid the price, served our sentence.  Because “the GIFT of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

He writes to the Corinthians that he was sent to preach the gospel, not with clever speech, “lest the cross of Christ should lose its power”.  He then continues:

“For the message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction, but we who are being saved know it is the very power of God” (I. Cor. 1:17-18, NLT)

What is the “message of the cross”?  He tells us a few verses later that he preaches nothing but Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (I Cor. 2:2).

The message of the cross is that we were dead in our sins and our Messiah—the Son of God—divested His divinity to come and live a sin-free life as a human being, and then sacrificed Himself on the cross to pay the price for OUR sins, then was resurrected and exalted before the throne of God.  We can use “stake” instead of “cross”, but it doesn’t change the message.  And we shouldn’t shy away from it.

The cross is central to the purpose for which Jesus came to the earth. Our sin disqualified us from experiencing a true, full relationship with our Maker. Every single one of us had earned a death sentence over and over again.  What we *deserved* was eternal separation from God.  But Christ—in His love and mercy—instead chose to die that death for us.

I read an analogy somewhere that said it is like a judge who sentences a destitute man to pay a fine that is worlds beyond what he could ever repay in a lifetime.  But then the judge chooses to pay the fine himself.  This is what the Father and the Son did for us—Jesus died the death that we deserve.  His death on the cross accomplished this for us.  It allowed for the forgiveness of our sins and eventually for humanity to be placed in right relationship with God, defeating sin and death forever.

“I have been crucified with Christ; it is not longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal 2:20)

In Ephesians 2, Paul—in a somewhat hard to follow but super important passage that I’ll paraphrase—tells us that because of our many sins, we were once dead and “far off but have been brought near by the blood of Christ”.  (I’d suggest reading it in the NLT version, which is not perfect but is definitely easier to get the gist.)

He goes on to explain that we were walled off from God, without hope, and hostile toward Him, but that through God’s rich mercy and love, the Son’s sacrifice was a critical first step in breaking down that wall and making the way clear for our future citizenship in heaven.

“Knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin.  For he who has died has been freed from sin.  Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him…He died to sin once for all…” (Rom. 6:6)

Read next:  The Pursuit of Happiness? Joy in the Bible

“Who for the joy set before Him, endured the cross…”

I think it can be hard for our human nature to not focus on the horror and suffering of what Jesus endured, and the reason for that suffering.  My human brain can’t even comprehend not only the physical trauma He went through, but the emotional suffering and the spiritual void when the Father had to turn His back at the moment that all of the world’s sins were laid on Jesus.

Many people struggle leading up to the Passover as they examine themselves and either beat themselves up for how they’ve done over the past year, or still have trouble letting go of the pain and shame of past transgressions from before they were called…not truly believing, deep-down, that they’re worthy of being forgiven and saved.

But all of that is missing the point.  He went through that shame and pain and loss so that WE wouldn’t have to, so that we could have a chance at eternal life.  The abandonment He suffered in being disconnected from God was so that WE would not have to feel God’s abandonment permanently. 

The Passover service (the foot washing, bread, wine) in many sabbath-keeping churches is seen as a not just a solemn occasion, but a somber one.  It’s subdued, no one speaks to each other, and everyone sits in silence and contemplates their relationship with God.  But again, it’s somewhat missing the point.

Yes, the Passover should be taken seriously.  It memorializes a covenant each of us made with God, and also acknowledges Jesus’s Christ’s suffering and sacrifice on our behalf.  But that sacrifice should give us JOY.  Our sins are wiped clean, we have permission to come boldly before God’s throne and be in relationship with Him directly.  What an amazing blessing!

“Therefore since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God

For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners…lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin” (Heb. 12:2-4)

The joy that Jesus was able to look forward to while He was enduring the cross was the same one that we look toward—the moment when we are resurrected as eternal sons and daughters of God in His kingdom.  When we receive our inheritance and all of the pain and loss and struggles of this life are no longer worth even recalling.

We “glory in tribulations”, knowing that they produce perseverance, godly character, and hope.  Why?  “For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly…God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:3-10).  Paul tells us that this should be a cause of rejoicing!

There’s a line in a song I love, “Battle Belongs”, that says, “When all I see is a cross, God you see the empty tomb”.  It’s an important reminder that Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross doesn’t stand alone…His resurrection and then ascension to the Father to be accepted as the sacrifice “once for all” are both also critical pieces of the salvation equation (Heb. 10).  We shouldn’t be focused only on His suffering and sacrifice for our sins, but also on the victory that His resurrection ultimately provides us.

“Have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though He was God, He did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead He gave up His divine privileges, He took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When He appeared in human form, He humbled Himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross…

Therefore God elevated Him to the place of highest honor…that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…[therefore] work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases Him” (Phil. 2:5-13, NLT)

Worship:  “Battle Belongs” by Phil Wickham

Sermon:  “Jesus’s Words on the Cross”

Other Passover studies to explore:

A bible study on what should the cross mean to Christians today? What does it mean to take up your cross daily and follow Christ? A biblical examination of the topic of "the cross" in this Passover season. Heb 12:2, Luke 9:23

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1 Comment

  1. Lily D.

    Wonderful words! So much positive food for thought. This is my 8th Passover, Night to be Much Observed and Unleavened Bread and I am so very thankful for every moment I have with my Father and Elder Brother. Thank you for the simplicity in your writing as I am able to understand.

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