What did Jesus mean by “carry your cross”?

In common conversation the phrase “my cross to bear” is used to describe a difficult situation in life. One may say something like: My husband is an angry man, but that’s just my cross to bear; My kids are a disappointment, but that’s just my cross to bear; I can’t seem to lose the weight, no matter what I try, but that’s just my cross to bear; I have cancer, that’s my cross; I struggle in social situations, that’s the cross I carry. Carrying the cross has become understood to mean dealing with a difficult, often prolonged, circumstance in life. However, Jesus had no such concept in mind when He said, “If any man will follow me, let him deny himself and take up his cross.”

The cross in Roman times was not a piece of jewelry. The cross was not a symbol of life’s difficulties. The cross was one thing, and only one thing. The cross was an instrument of execution. It was the electric chair, the gas chamber, the firing squad or the gallows of its day. The cross was a horrible instrument of torture and execution typically reserved for those whose crimes directly threatened the Roman empire.

When one was sentenced to death by crucifixion, he would be transported out to the place where the crucifixion would occur. Crucifixions usually took place outside towns or cities in highly visible and/or high traffic areas. In Jerusalem many crucifixions took place on a hill just outside the city walls and near one of the main roads into the city. As the prisoner was escorted to the crucifixion site, he would be forced to carry the horizontal bar of his cross. One seen carrying this crossbar, carrying his cross, was one known to be a convicted criminal on his way to execution. The criminal carrying his cross was only going to one place, his death. Carrying the cross was not symbolic of disfavor or part of a trip to a time of imprisonment. Carrying the cross always meant one thing. The one carrying the cross was a dead man. The matter was certain. In a matter of hours the criminal would be fastened to the cross and in a few days time, he would be dead. When Jesus says to deny yourself and take up your cross He is not counseling patient endurance a difficult time in life. He is telling you to count yourself a dead man. The cross is not a confession of enduring difficulties, the cross is a declaration of death.

The command to take up the cross is the command to die to self. Taking up the cross is being as moved by your own desires as a corpse in a funeral home is moved by the nice words said about it. Take up your cross is the command to set aside your own desires, wants, ambitions, plans and wishes. Taking up the cross is a readiness to abandon everything for Jesus. Though not all Christians will be called to leave home and hearth, forsake friends and family or suffer torment and death, yet all must be willing to do just that. To take up the cross is to live as dead to all the things of this world, including you own life. To take up the cross is to shoulder the realization that you may be called to give it all up for Jesus. To take up the cross is to make your self ready to pay the ultimate price for Jesus.