What did it mean to the disciples to be told “pick up your cross”? They did not know Jesus would be crucified.
On five occasions Jesus says that his follower would have to “take up his cross”.
How can this convey anything to the disciples when every occasion was well before his own crucifixion? What on earth would they think when Jesus illustrates his teaching using an event that they didn’t even know was going to happen?
Here’s the Matthew references, (the theme crops up again in the passages starting at Mark 8 33, and Luke 9 22, and 14 26):
Matt. 10:37 “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Matt. 16:23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” 24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.
So, what can we deduce?
The disciples expected a political and military Messiah, one who would throw out the Romans. Even after the resurrection they were still asking Jesus, “Is it at this time you will restore the Kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1 6)
Instead Jesus tells them to expect a peculiarly Roman victory OVER them. Jewish Law specified only executions by stoning, burning, beheading, or strangling. But NOT hanging on a tree – cursed is anyone who hangs from a tree (Gal 3 13)
They would all be familiar with the Roman method of execution – they would all have seen it happen, possibly many times. Every time they saw one of their countrymen crucified, they would be reminded that the Messiah had not yet liberated them from Roman rule.
And now, Jesus is saying that anybody who wants to follow him has got to – in effect – accept for himself the symbol of Roman oppression. What’s that all about?
Jesus’s is telling his disciples that his Kingdom will not be a political one. One day he will come as a King, but right now there is a different job for him and his followers, the “Suffering Servant”. He came to open the way – not to the Kingdom of Israel – but to the Kingdom of Heaven.
We can see him illustrating in his parables the type of Kingdom he has come to bring, for example:
Matt 13 31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.”
In this parable, the Kingdom of the Suffering Servant starts unexpectedly tiny – it doesn’t look very much like a Kingdom – but one day, it will grow and be bigger than all the other political Kingdoms.
So what lessons can we learn from this subject?
Well the usual lessons are:
1. for us to realise that the suffering which Jesus went through for us is something which we may be called upon to share in.
2. for us to be ready to “die to ourselves” (1 Pet 2 24).
But exploring what the disciples might have thought at the time brings further understanding (maybe you can think of more and write a reply to share your thoughts):
3. Though it may look like the forces of the World are winning, they are not really doing so. We are to accept – even embrace, the attacks of the ungodly, knowing that even their attacks are causing our victory.
4. And what sort of person would find it easiest to enter this spiritual Kingdom, and not get hung up on the political one?
Mark 10 13 People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.