Bearing Your Cross Means to Die
Luke 9:23 is a well-known passage, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me.” Yet this passage is often misinterpreted. Many think this passage is a generalisation about life in this world—that to “bear your cross” is to go through some minor hardship.
For example, that you have to deal with a minor or major food allergy your entire life is to “bear your cross.” This is a shallow understanding of Jesus’ preponderating statement.
By saying, “let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me,” Jesus is not speaking on simple human difficulties. Rather, He is literally saying, “If anyone would follow Me, he must deny himself and die for Me.” To follow Jesus—to bear your cross—is to die for Jesus.
Directly before He says this, Jesus foretold His death to the disciples: “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” (Luke 9:22). Then, directly after this, He says the hard saying, thus translated directly from the original Greek, “If anyone wants to come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me.”
In other words, to faithfully follow Christ is to follow Him where He goes—all the way to Mt. Calvary on the cross where He died for you. To bear your cross is not to suffer for a little while; to bear your cross is to die, specifically for Jesus.
After His transfiguration and healing the boy with a demon, Jesus foretells His death a second time, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men” (Luke 9:44). Then His death is recorded in Luke’s Gospel account in Luke 23. To bear your cross, therefore, also means you just might be delivered into the hands of men for Christ’s sake just as He was delivered into the hands of men for your sake. Christianity is not for sissies.
Thus, it stands that just as Christ suffered for us, so the Christian—the follower of Christ—must suffer for Him. Paul echoes this fact, “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Corinthians 1:5). Likewise, Peter said, “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13).
For the Apostles, suffering is not only normal for Christians; it is especially the hallmark of the Christian experience. It is a mystery, then, as to why many Christians expect the Christian life to be filled with warm, fuzzy feelings and perpetual joy.
While we certainly do experience the ineffable joy of the Lord in our worship of Him and His deliverance of us from death to life (Romans 6:1-5), suffering as Christ suffered is the inevitable experience of the Christian. We are, after all, living behind enemy lines as Christians. To think that you will not experience any sort of hostility from the world that hates Christ and His followers is an immature faith.
The reality of our suffering as Christians is not something Peter and Paul made up; Jesus warned His disciples of their inevitable suffering as ones who follow Him. “In the world you will have tribulation,” He said. “But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33b)!
Jesus knew His disciples would suffer because of who He is, the Son of God—whether this is from the world, the Devil, or our own flesh. This does not mean every Christian will become a martyr. What it does mean is that as followers of Christ, our lives will not be just a little bit difficult here and there, but extremely difficult as sin, death, the world, and the Devil rage against us.
This also means that any one of these things just might kill us for following Christ, just as Christ died for us by following His Father (John 6:38-40).
Yet I also want to bring our attention to the shocking optimism Paul and Peter emphasise in the midst of bearing our crosses. In 2 Corinthians quoted above, Paul compares our sufferings to the comfort we receive.
Yes, we will all suffer as followers of Christ—some more than others—yet we will also be abundantly comforted. Paul didn’t make this up either. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).
Who are the ones who mourn? The people who follow Jesus, because “the cosmic powers over this present darkness” (Ephesians 6:12) cause us to mourn quite amply. Yet in spite of this mournful suffering, we are blessed because, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:4). Thus, we also comfort one another as we bear our crosses not alone, but together.
What form does our comfort from God take? Not only in our brethren, but also in the Word and Sacraments. Does this evil age exhaust you? God’s Word speaks plentifully on His coming wrath to destroy all evil and its evildoers.
As you bear your cross, do you question whether you’re truly forgiven and saved? You have been baptised, which serves as a sure sign that you have been washed, cleansed, renewed, and purged of your sins, made God’s own dear child with Christ’s righteous robe upon you (Galatians 3:26-27).
And when you receive the Eucharist, you swallow Christ’s actual body and blood which were given into death and shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins; thus, you literally consume and digest Christ’s forgiveness. Nothing can be more real than that.
Peter has a similar optimism. Quoted earlier, he says, “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13). This is a rather odd thing to say. We think, “Rejoice in suffering? What kind of crazy person would do that?” Christians are the kind of crazy people who do that.
It is not that we rejoice in our suffering but that we rejoice in spite of our suffering. Why? “So that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed.” Paul intimates similarly, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
Our Christian optimism, then, is this: Our current sufferings—bearing our cross—are deeply connected to the final eschaton when Christ returns in all His glory. I briefly mentioned Jesus’ Transfiguration earlier. He will return in that glory and then some.
When Christ returns, our sufferings will be so insignificant that we won’t even be able to compare it with Christ’s glory to be revealed. For some of us, this cross-bearing might mean being put to death for His sake. Yet Christ’s glory to be revealed on the Last Day is what we rejoice in in spite of our suffering. All suffering, both now and not yet, finds its end in the suffering of Christ.