The Messiah of Israel submitted to the way of the Cross and summoned his disciples to follow him on the very same path.
One day, Jesus told his disciples that if anyone wished to come after him, “let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” This was more than metaphorical or hyperbolic language. It was said at the very time Jesus was on his final journey to Jerusalem where he would demonstrate to the world just what it means to “deny oneself and take up the cross.”
The historical context shows just how challenging his words were. At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus began to tell his disciples that he must “go to Jerusalem and suffer many things of the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed and raised up the third day.” In the statement, “must” represents the Greek verb dei, meaning “it is necessary, ought, needful, obligatory, it must happen.” This points to his messianic mission, for he was under divine compulsion to walk into what he knew already meant certain death – (Matthew 16:21-23).
To this, Peter took great exception. The very idea of a suffering Messiah was contrary to popular expectations, and no devout Jew could tolerate even the suggestion that the king of Israel would suffer death at the hands of his enemies. Adding to the offense was the idea that the machinations of the religious leaders of the Jewish people would cause the execution of Yahweh’s anointed.
Recognizing Satan’s hand in Peter’s words, Jesus rebuked him. “Get behind me, Satan!” The name “Satan” is derived from the Hebrew word that means “adversary,” and he was using Simon Peter to thwart Christ from following the path set for him by his Father. As he would show at Gethsemane, death by crucifixion was not what Jesus desired. But in the end, he submitted to it and “denied himself,” knowing it was the will of God for him to die for the sake of others (“Not my will, but yours be done!”).
It was at this very point when the Devil attempted to steer him away from his mission that Jesus declared to the disciples:
- “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever would save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it” – (Matthew 16:24-25).
An incorrect understanding of what it meant to be the Messiah would result in an incorrect understanding of what it meant to be his disciple. Just as God called His Son to a path of self-denial and suffering, so the Messiah summoned his disciples to follow his same path, for the call to take up the cross and follow Jesus was applicable to every disciple.
This does not mean every disciple must be persecuted and endure crucifixion. But his use of the Roman cross to illustrate how one follows Jesus would certainly have shocked his original audience. In the first century, the cross was a repugnant image of suffering and shame, and nothing symbolized the irresistible power of Rome more than crucifixion.
Execution by crucifixion was a form of capital punishment inflicted on the lower classes, especially on rebellious slaves and political revolutionaries considered threats to the political order. Romans were so horrified by it that by law citizens were exempt from crucifixion (Roman citizens guilty of capital crimes were beheaded). Thus, to follow Jesus in that way meant submitting to the very things that were offensive to Jewish sensibilities and despised by the Gentile world.
In the Greek text of Matthew, Jesus used the present tense form of the verb rendered “follow,” which stresses an ongoing action. This was not just a call to pick up the cross once but to do so continuously. The version of his words in Luke stress this point by adding the word “daily” – “Let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and be following me” – (Luke 9:23).
Thus, the image of the disciple taking up the cross, and doing so “daily,” would have struck a grim chord with the disciples, even more so since the customary Roman practice was to force the condemned man to carry the same cross on which he would be hung to the place of his execution.
Despite his explanation and strong rebuke of Peter, the disciples did not yet comprehend what it meant to follow Jesus. Later, after the “sons of Zebedee” asked to sit on either side of Jesus “when you come in your kingdom,” he asked in response, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” And, of course, they replied, “Yes! No problem. We are well able. Bring it on!” However, they had no idea what his words meant. As he explained:
“You know that the rulers of nations dominate them, and their great ones tyrannize them. But it will not be so among you. Whoever would become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever would be first among you shall be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Once again, Jesus used his own sacrificial death to illustrate the point. The Greek term rendered “servant” originally referred to the household servant that waited on tables, a lowly position most often assigned to a slave. And the Greek noun rendered “slave” means exactly that. The Messiah of Israel was summoning his disciples to serve others even in ways viewed by the world as menial and humiliating. Only in that way could they become “great” in his kingdom.
And his description of the “Son of Man” giving his life as a “ransom for man” echoes words from Isaiah, and deliberately so, about how Yahweh’s “servant” would suffer for the sins of his people – “because he poured out his soul unto death and was numbered with the transgressors, yet he bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors” – (Isaiah 53:12).
Thus, to follow Jesus means humility, self-denial, and self-sacrificial service to others. And for anyone aspiring to become his disciple, this is not optional. On an earlier occasion, he warned the twelve disciples that the one who “does not take his cross and follow after me, is not worthy of me. And he that finds his life shall lose it, but he that loses his life for my sake shall find it.”