And he strictly charged and commanded them to tell this to no one, saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:21-23)

Jesus predicted his death three times in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), and with each prediction Jesus also taught about the nature of discipleship – what it means to follow him. To follow Christ is to imitate Christ, to do what he did, to go where he went. And in this passage, Christ laid out the grim destination of this call to imitation – the cross.

Jesus came to do the Father’s will, regardless of the cost to himself. And he invites us to follow him in the same self-denying journey of commitment to the Father’s will. So that none of us would misunderstand the painful nature of this commitment, Jesus expressed it in the most graphically violent way imaginable in the first century. We are summoned to follow Jesus in the shameful procession to Golgotha, bearing our own cross on the march to the grisly execution called crucifixion.

This language is not to be pressed into crude literalism (although many Christians through the years have been put to death for their faith – even by crucifixion). But this language should not be diluted, either.  Following Christ in absolute commitment to the will of the Father is very, very difficult.

It means surrendering your desires to God’s. It means ignoring the jeers of the crowd to stay on the unpopular path of conviction. It means loving and forgiving those who are undeserving (though never as undeserving as you were of the Father’s love). It means sacrifice, and some day it could even mean death.

But the final destination of the way of Christ is not the cross – it is an empty tomb and a glorious new life. Jesus promised. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24). Following Christ means losing your life to save it, becoming first by becoming last, seeking greatness by serving others.

So take heart! Yes, those of us who have joined the procession of cross-bearers have chosen the most difficult path of all. But our Lord’s resurrection guarantees that the journey will be worth it.

Must Jesus bear the cross alone,
and all the world go free?
No, there’s a cross for everyone,
and there’s a cross for me.

How happy are the saints above,
who once went sorrowing here!
But now they taste unmingled love
and joy without a tear.

The consecrated cross I’ll bear
till death shall set me free;
and then go home my crown to wear,
for there’s a crown for me.

Upon the crystal pavement down,
at Jesus’ pierced feet,
joyful I’ll cast my golden crown
and His dear name repeat.

O precious cross! O glorious crown!
O resurrection day!
When Christ the Lord from heaven comes down
and bears my soul away.

Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone by Thomas Shepherd (1693)