It’s Sunday afternoon, March 10, 2013. Pastor Marty preached an excellent sermon this morning in his series addressing what evangelism is and is not, and what evangelism should mean to the church. This morning, he had occasion to refer to the following passage of scripture:
And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. Luke 9:23-24 (NASB)
I’m a writer—from time to time I’ll even go so far as to call myself a wordsmith—so it’s very easy for me to get focused on a word and mull it over and chase it down odd paths of thought. That happened to me this morning with the word ‘cross’. While Pastor Marty had me engaged with the sermon, the back of my mind kept teasing this word ‘cross’ and its context in this verse. And in a few minutes I arrived at the following thoughts.
One of the things we have to be very careful about in reading scripture today is to not read context into a verse that isn’t there. This verse is a place where it’s very easy to do that, and it all deals with that word ‘cross.’
You see, for almost 2000 years ‘cross’ has been associated with the central truth of the Christian faith and gospel. It was a cross upon which Jesus Christ, Messiah of God, was executed in the beginning of the only act of redemption by which people can receive salvation and eternal life. There have been almost 2000 years of respect and awe and at times veneration visited upon the cross because of this.
As a consequence, it’s very difficult for us as believers and members of our culture to read the word ‘cross’ in scripture and not burden it with 2000 years of awe and glory and reverence. Sometimes that’s okay; there are some verses where it is appropriate for that to be part of our reading and interpretation of the word ‘cross.’
In other verses, not so much. And this is one of the times where we shouldn’t do it.
Jesus is speaking here to people who had gathered around him. Remember that at this point in time the Crucifixion of Jesus has not occurred. That event is in the future when this account happens. Therefore, the whole weight of glory and reverence that we today associate to and with the cross of Jesus did not exist in the minds of His hearers. It’s important to know that. That was not part of their social or religious culture. It was not part of the context of this conversation, and if we really want to understand what Jesus was saying, it should not be part of our interpretation of this verse.
Crucifixion at that time was (and for that matter still is) a particularly barbaric form of execution comprised of equal parts of death by torture and death by exposure. It was part of Roman law that a Roman citizen could not be crucified. It was reserved for the worst sorts of criminals and enemies. It is a matter of history that when the slave rebellion led by Spartacus was eventually crushed, the Romans crucified thousands of the captured rebels along the highways of Italy.
There was nothing elegant or glorious or awesome about crucifixion in the minds of those who heard this statement when Jesus said it. It was strictly associated with cruelty and sordid deaths. Jesus was not giving His hearers something to aspire to; He was giving them a very graphic warning about what life could hold for those who followed Him.
If Jesus were speaking today to a crowd in America, He might have worded the statement this way:
- Take up his electric chair daily and follow me
Or maybe this way:
- Take up his gas chamber daily and follow me
Or this way:
- Take up his gallows daily and follow me
Maybe this way:
- Take up his executioner’s drug syringe daily and follow me
Or even this way:
- Take up his lynch mob’s noose daily and follow me
Do you get the point? There is no promise of an easy comfortable life if we follow Jesus. In fact, in another place Jesus said this:
“If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you…” John 15:18-20a (NASB)
So if we are truly being the church—if we are truly being disciples of Christ and not just professing that we are—it should not surprise us if we face (sometimes violent) personal opposition.
Soli Deo Gloria.