Thursday, February 5, 2015

What it means to "take up one's cross" in Matthew 10:38

Matthew 10:38 "And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me."

Matthew 10 starts out rather positively with both the mention of the listing of Jesus' disciples and His sending forth of them on their first official mission. To their ears the initial instructions of Jesus seemed exciting and full of adventure. They were to avoid those places where no Jew would think of trodding, namely Samaria and the places of the Gentiles. Moreover the disciples main objective was to bring the message and power of the Kingdom to the "lost sheep of Israel". Matthew 10:1-15 sets the stage for the mission of the disciples to go to their own countrymen and deliver what would seem to be exciting news concerning the coming of Messiah and the Kingdom.

I'm sure the disciples were ready to head out the door on their first official ministry assignment. However Jesus was not finished. Matthew 10:16-42 portrays Jesus giving his disciples warnings about what to do when encountered by both external enemies and their own fears. The disciples had their mission, ministry and message. Yet Jesus realized that once someone is actively engaged in the challenges and opposition that often assails ministry and the mission itself, reasons for doing the ministry and the message can be forgotten. To avoid this and to ensure continual power for keeping focused on the mission, doing the ministry and preaching the message, the command to "take up one's cross" must be practiced.

The background and meaning of "taking up one's cross"
I've heard people over the years use this phrase "take up one's cross" to refer to the general burdens and frustrations of life that everyone bears and endures. Whether the situation be a flat tire or an illness, "taking up one's cross" is popularly taken to mean the lot of life cast against us, and that by bearing the load we are in some fashion appeasing God and taking on His prescribed trial for our moral improvement. The problem with this popular understanding is that there is no cross, no gospel and no grace. 

In contrast, whenever we begin to peer closer at the meaning of the phrase: "taking up one's cross", the exact opposite meaning from the above suggested interpretation is found. 
The Reformation Study Bible notes: "This is to obey and identify with Jesus even unto death, not simply to bear some particular burden imposed by the Lord." 

Identification with Jesus Christ in His life, death and resurrection is at the heart of this idea.  John Calvin in his commentary on Matthew 10 notes the following about the meaning of "taking up the cross":

"From particular cases he proceeds to general views and informs us that we cannot be reckoned as his disciples unless we are prepared to endure many afflictions. If we are vexed and tormented by the thought that the Gospel should set us at variance with our father, our our wife, or our children, let us remember this condition, that Christ subjects all of his disciples to the cross. Yet let us also bear in mind this consolation, that, in bearing the cross, we are the companions of Christ, - which will speedily have the effect of relieving all its bitterness."

Astute readers may make the observation that when Jesus made statements like this to his disciples, He was speaking "pre-cross". There had to had been some event prior to these statements that Jesus used in driving home the cost of following Him and the powerbase for all ministry, proclaiming the message and performing the mission. Pastor and scholar Dr. John MacArthur gives the historical context of the phrase "take up your cross" in a sermon he preached in 1981 called "P3-The Hallmarks of Discipleship:

"When He said - Take up your cross.., they knew immediately what He was talking about. He was talking about dying, just plain old dying. How they'd know that? They were from Galilee with the exception of Judas Iscariot, all eleven others were from Galilee. And very recently there had been an insurrection in Galilee lead by Judas of Galilee, and Judas had gathered a band together and decided to throw the Romans out. And the Romans won.

And the Romans crushed Judas and his insurrection, and the Roman general Varus, V-a-r-u-s, wanted to teach the Jews a lesson so he crucified over two thousand Jews. And he put their crosses up and down all the roads of Galilee so everywhere the people went they saw them hanging on these crosses along the roadside. And every Jew that was crucified carried the crossbeam for his own execution on his back as he marched to the cross. And these Galileans had seen all of that. And Jesus is talking to them in historical context and He is saying - He that taketh not his cross, and followeth after Me is not worthy of Me. You need to be willing to die, He says...rather than deny Me." 

Note: the reader can view the entire manuscript of this sermon at: 

How the disciples "took up their cross" for the mission, ministry and message of Jesus Christ
In keeping the background rebellion of Judas the Galilean fresh in view, we fast forward over four years later to the scene in Acts 5 where one of the original Twelve, Peter the Apostle, is being charged by the Jewish Sanhedrin for preaching heresy. When asked to suppress their preaching, Peter and his companions reply in Acts 5:29 "But Peter and the apostles answered, 'We must obey God rather than men.'" 

As the Jews plot how they will respond to the Apostles refusal to heed their demands, one wise Jewish teacher, Gamaliel, makes reference back to the rebellion of Judas the Galilean that lain in the background of Jesus' statement "take up your cross". Acts 5:37-44 records the scene, the response of Jews and the reaction of the Apostles following their persecution:

"After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census and drew away some people after him; he too perished, and all those who followed him were scattered. 38 So in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God. 40 They took his advice; and after calling the apostles in, they flogged them and ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and then released them. 41 So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name. 42 And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching andpreaching Jesus as the Christ."

The disciples of Jesus who were the Apostles in Acts ended up rejoicing in the face of persecution. They had taken up their cross in that situation, identifying with Jesus and loving Him above their own lives, comfort and self-preservation. 

More tomorrow....