And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:38)
When Jesus says that we must take up our cross and follow him, he is for the first time identifying how he will die. He here predicts He must be crucified, for as was often the way of the Romans He must bear His own instrument of torture to the place of crucifixion. If we must follow Him bearing our cross, to follow Him means He will have done it first—carrying His cross to be crucified.
For many years I thought the cross was the instrument of death exclusive to Jesus and to those crucified on either side of Him. It was for me uniquely the symbol of our salvation. Though it is no less such a symbol of our salvation, I later came to realize that the Romans had employed this means of capital punishment tens of thousands of times before Jesus, and they reserved crucifixion for their most hated enemies and for lowlife criminals. Thus when Jesus speaks of following Him to crucifixion, He conveys something both familiar and repulsive in the minds of His hearers.
After His crucifixion His followers came to understand the appropriateness of this repulsive death. Jesus would be marked for torturous death because the god of this world schemes murder and lies among all, and now gleefully he can perpetrate such against God, for God had become flesh. Thus God-hating mankind, the offspring of Satan, says of the One by whom all things were made, “Let’s make Him squirm even as He makes us squirm under the condemnation of His holy law!” Considering His human nature mankind also gladly wants this sinless man to squirm because His perfect godliness exposes their ungodliness. But additionally God Himself would make Jesus squirm like worm on a hook, for this man had become sin, and on that tree He carried the curse which God had justly decreed for all humanity. And then as we see and experience some of the ghastly pains, tortures, and horrific miseries of this fallen world, we realize that to walk beside those in such misery, Jesus had to undergo a most dreadful death. The more one realizes the hideousness of mankind’s fallen condition, the more one realizes the appropriateness of Jesus’ death on the hideous Roman instrument of torture.
How eerily cross-related is Isaiah’s profound prophecy of the Savior’s death! In his 53rd chapter Isaiah describes this suffering servant as the one despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (v. 3). It seems strangely fitting that this prediction of mankind’s rejection of the Christ would find its climax at the place of the torturous Roman cross. The prophet also sees that God makes this man suffer, for Isaiah predicts: Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted (v. 4). Indeed believers esteem Jesus to have been stricken, smitten and afflicted by God, and when God thus strikes it must be a hellish event, and so again we recognize the appropriateness of the Roman cross. Not only is crucifixion appropriate for Christ’s absorption of the curse of sin and death, but the very next line of Isaiah’s prophecy apparently predicts this very method of torture: But he was pierced for our transgressions. And he was literally pierced—hands, feet and side—in this vicarious, squirming death.
Now the cross of Jesus, transcending its reputation as the repugnant place of Roman torture, has become the Christian’s boast: But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Gal 6:10). At Christ’s cross full redemption, atonement, salvation and victory are won for the world. In our baptism we are then perfectly united with Christ in His death (Ro 6:3). But now we are called upon to take up our cross; not to earn our salvation, for that is complete in every way. Rather we take up our cross and bear similar miseries and rejection experienced by the Christ, only now our crosses are sanctified by His cross.