What Does It Mean to Take Up Our Cross?

By Michael Brown Published on July 24, 2023

Crucifixion was one of the most hideous forms of execution ever devised by man. It was the basest of deaths, reserved for slaves and rebels. Cicero called it “the supreme capital penalty, the most painful, dreadful, and ugly.” There was nowhere lower to go. The condemned person would usually be scourged until his back was a mass of torn flesh. Then he would be exposed to public mockery, sometimes stripped naked. Then he would be crucified. “The physical and mental sufferings which this slow death involved are unimaginable” (J. Schneider).

Think of the utter horror the convicted criminal would feel when he would hear the sentence pronounced, “Crucify him!” The cross meant suffering, agony, and death. Yet Jesus calls us to “take up our cross.” What is He saying!

1) The man who took up his cross was going to the place of death. He was saying “Good-bye” to this world. He would never see his loved ones here again. His old plans and pursuits would be finished. He was reaching the end of his life. What a frightful thing it was to take up the cross! Yet in Jesus, this is the first step to freedom: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Me will find it” (Mat. 16:25). Have we lost our own lives for Him?

“We know the Lord Jesus became fruitful, not by bearing the Cross merely, but by dying on it” (Hudson Taylor).

It’s so easy to sound religious and holy. It’s so easy to use pious terms. But how many of us have really died? How many of us can truthfully say, “Lord, not my will but Your will be done” — whatever God’s will may be?

2) The crucified man was done with sin because dead men sin no more. Lusts and fleshly passions were now a thing of the past. The crucified thief could steal no more; the crucified murderer could no longer kill. Carnal cravings could never again be fulfilled. Sinful pleasures were over forever. The “flesh” had been nailed to a tree. And this is what happened to us!

“For we know that our old self was crucified with Him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin — because anyone who has died has been freed from sin” (Rom. 6:6-7).

Let’s stop and give thought to our ways. Do we realize that we no longer have the right to sin? Do we see that it’s all over for the flesh? Has it finally settled in that, as far as the old man is concerned, we can not do what we want (Gal. 5:17)?

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived” (Col. 3:5,7). But now you have died to it all! The man or woman who willfully walks in sin has not taken up the cross.

3) Taking up the cross is the ultimate form of self-denial. In the deepest possible sense, the crucified man was no longer his own. Do you recall the Lord’s words to Peter? “I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18). He was speaking of death on a cross!

Your hands are stretched out, you are nailed to the beam, you hang from the air — there is nothing you can do! You’d rather stop breathing ☺ but you can’t even die! Your life is no longer your own. “If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9:23).             

What does it mean to deny ourselves? It has nothing to do with self-torture — with whipping ourselves, wearing sackcloth and ashes, and moping about in despair. “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility, and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Col. 2:23). They bear no spiritual fruit.              

Denying the self means saying “No” to our desires, whatever the consequence or cost. “An easy, non-self denying life will never be one of power. Fruit-bearing involves cross-bearing. Are you willing to abide in Him and thus bear much fruit?” (Hudson Taylor)

4) The cross is the only way to the resurrection. Nobody wants to die. Nobody likes to suffer. But “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24). There is no other way.

How we love the resurrection glory! We love the Spirit’s power and His gifts. But first we have to die. First we have to be buried. It is only dead men God can raise up.

Look at the apostle Paul. He was literally a holy terror. He prayed without ceasing, preached without cowering, raised the dead, and rattled the devil. But what was the key to his life? He died and no longer lived! Now Messiah was living in him.

He wrote, “I worked harder than all of [the apostles] — yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me . . . [As for me] I die every day” (1 Cor. 15:10, 31). “I labor, struggling with all His energy which so powerfully works in me” (Col. 1:29). “In our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9).   

Become Like Jesus in His Death … and Resurrection          

God has called us to an impossible task — to make disciples of the nations, to heal the sick, to destroy the works of darkness, to prepare the way for Jesus’ return. In our strength it can never be done. But that is the glorious answer: Quit striving! Give up and die. Come to the end of all self-dependence. Become like Jesus in His death (Phil. 3:10). And then share in His resurrection life.

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John Wesley sent Francis Asbury to America in 1771. But the odds were plainly against him. He was a school-dropout, he was not a great speaker (the general populace thought that his illiterate black servant was more eloquent), and he was plagued by ill health (at times “he forced himself to stay in the saddle, even when covered by blisters”). Yet he found a strength greater than his own.

He “rose every morning at four o’clock, taught himself Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and made it his rule to read 100 pages of good literature daily . . . ; he preached well over 16,000 sermons, ordained more than 4,000 preachers, traveled on horseback or (when he was too old for that) in carriage 270,000 miles [remember, there were no “highways” in his day], and wore out six faithful horses!” (Christian History)

When he arrived here in 1771 “there were only 600 American Methodists. But when he died 45 years later, there were 214,235 American Methodists. The number soared from 1 in 5,000 to 1 in 40 of the total population” (Charles Ludwig). And all this from a man expected to fail!

Can you fathom the power of God? The worker is only a vessel. There is no mighty Asbury or Paul. Only One is worthy of praise. And He simply wants us to die. For the way to God’s life is by death, and the end of our strength means the beginning of His.

Let’s face the cross boldly and die. Let’s consider ourselves dead to fleshly lusts and desires. Let’s crush all self-will and obey. Let’s be crucified, buried, and raised — by the power of the Spirit of God.

“Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen” (Eph. 3:20-21).


(Excerpted from Michael L. Brown, How Saved Are We?)


Dr. Michael Brown (www.askdrbrown.org) is the host of the nationally syndicated Line of Fire radio program. His latest book is Why So Many Christians Have Left the Faith. Connect with him on FacebookTwitter or YouTube.

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