Embracing the Cross

To be the Messiah means suffering and death, and he summons his disciples to follow the same pathMark 8:31

As Jesus approached Jerusalem, he explained exactly what it meant to be the Messiah of Israel, namely, suffering and death, an expectation contrary to popular expectations and those of his disciples. And he also summoned anyone who would become his disciple to take up the cross and follow his self-sacrificial example. And failure to do so would render one an object of shame before the Lord of Glory.

Although the Roman government was the instrument of his execution, Jesus placed the responsibility on the “elders and chief priests and scribes.” His crucifixion was instigated by the Torah-observant religious leaders of Israel who conspired to deliver him into the hands of the Roman governor - (Mark 8:31).

As his entourage drew near the city, Jesus “began to teach them that it is necessary for the Son of Man to suffer many things and to be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the Scribes, and to be killed and after three days to rise.” In response, Peter took him aside and “reproved him.” For a disciple to rebuke his master in this way demonstrated how seriously Peter objected to his words.

The passage states that Jesus declared this “plainly.” This was no parable or enigmatic saying. And the fact that Peter reacted so quickly and sharply proves that he understood him but did not like what he heard. The very idea that Israel’s long-awaited Messiah would be killed, and through the machinations of the priestly authorities no less, was intolerable to a devout and patriotic Jew.

In response, Jesus “turned around and looked on his disciples,” then rebuked Satan. Although Peter said the words, his rebuke was for the benefit of all twelve disciples, for he had voiced what they all were thinking.

Moreover, Jesus recognized that Peter’s words originated from Satan. The Devil was determined to thwart him from his messianic mission, and that explains why he responded with such a sharp and immediate reprimand. Most certainly, his mission was to destroy Satan and his strongholds. But, as Scripture itself attested, the Messiah would accomplish this by suffering and self-sacrificial death:
  • Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, and the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes, we are healed. We all like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way, and Yahweh laid on him the iniquity of us all” - (Isaiah 53:4-6).
Jesus said this in private to his disciples, and his words were clear.  An incorrect understanding of what it meant to be the Messiah would produce an incorrect understanding of what it meant to be his disciple. Just as God called him to self-denial and suffering, so he called his disciples to walk the same path.

Thus, he exhorted his followers to deny themselves, “take up the cross,” and follow him. And in the passage, this summons was made to the entire crowd, and not just to the twelve disciples. All must be willing to tread where he walked even when doing so means shame, persecution, rejection, the loss of possessions, and even death. And doing so is not optional, for “whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever will lose his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.”

In his explanation, Jesus had not yet predicted his death by crucifixion. But in his summons to follow him, he compared doing so with “taking up the cross.” Not only did this hint at how he would die, but he also presented his audience with a very grim image.

Crucifixion was employed by Rome for executing rebellious slaves and political revolutionaries. The condemned man was forced to carry the crossbar on which he would be hung to the execution site to add to his humiliation. Romans were so horrified by crucifixion that Roman citizens were exempted by law from it. Instead, citizens found guilty of capital offenses were beheaded.

Jesus added that the “Son of Man” will be ashamed of anyone who is ashamed of him in “this adulterous and sinful generation.” And any disciple who fails to deny himself and “take up the cross” will find himself in this predicament when he “comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Jesus identified himself with Isaiah’s “suffering servant” and the “Son of Man” from Daniel. The former illustrates his suffering and death for his people, the latter his arrival in glory at the end of the age. Both are necessary to understand him and his mission. And while glory will come, it does NOT precede self-denial, suffering, and death.


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