The cross is the most common symbol of the Christian faith. Though it was known as a device for execution in the ancient world, it represents love, sacrifice, and forgiveness to Christians today. This meaning is why crosses decorate churches, adorn necklaces, and emblazon t-shirts, Bibles, and even tattoos. Yet, what’s less alluring to many people is Jesus’ teaching about taking up your cross.
Jesus’ command that his followers take up their cross calls them to sacrifice for him, even if it costs them their lives. A less extreme application suggests being willing to experience what Jesus did, like receiving mockery, being subject to public disgrace, and physical suffering for God.
How does “taking up your cross” rearrange a Christian’s priorities? What did Jesus say about being loyal to him? How does he determine if a follower is worthy or not? How does Peter’s life illustrate obedience and disobedience to Jesus’ teaching on taking up your cross? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and many others.
How does taking up your cross rearrange a Christian’s priorities?
Jesus calls his followers to take up their cross twice in the book of Matthew (also see parallel passages in Mark 8:34 and Luke 9:23, 14:27). The teaching appears in two different contexts, which means that Jesus may have repeated the lesson often, making it a theme of teaching. Referring to a cross multiple times may have been to prepare the disciples for his forthcoming death and perhaps their own.
True disciples put Jesus first
The first time Jesus tells his followers to take up their cross, it follows his teaching about prioritizing Jesus over everything else. For many people, family is their first obligation. However, before telling his followers to take up their cross, Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37, ESV).
Loyalty to Jesus over all else is the meaning of what Jesus says next. “And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:38). To “take up” your cross means to carry it or bear the burden of it. Soon, the disciples would see Jesus carry his own cross as he walked to his crucifixion. Yet the Roman soldiers beat him so severely that he needed help to carry it (Luke 23:25-26).
Jesus values complete devotion
If a person isn’t willing to take up their cross, Jesus says they aren’t worthy of him. The Greek word translated as “worthy” is axios (ἄξιος). It’s where English gets words like “axiology,” which is the study of values. The Greek word contains the idea of weighing something, as in assigning it a value or appraising it. So if a follower of Jesus won’t take up their cross, their devotion is worthless and insignificant.
New Testament scholar R.T. France writes, “Popular usage has sanitized the language of having ‘a cross to bear’ so that its challenge has evaporated. It is not of course true that every loyal disciple will be a martyr, but all must recognize and accept the possibility of dying for Jesus, and many who have not faced literal execution have nonetheless known well the social stigma implied in carrying the cross behind Jesus.” 
How did Peter fail and then succeed in taking up his cross?
The second time Jesus tells his followers to take up their cross and follow him occurs later in his ministry. While in Caesarea Philippi, Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah (Matt. 16:13-20). Then, Jesus foretold his own death (Matt. 16:21-23). After that, Jesus told his followers to take up their cross (Matt. 16:24-28). Thus, professing faith in Jesus means following him, even if such devotion results in loss.
In Matthew 16:24, Jesus tells the disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (ESV). Matthew 10:38 and 16:24 are similar but not identical. The biggest differences are that 10:38 adds the statement about worthiness, and 16:24 includes the description of self-denial.
|Matthew 10:38||Matthew 16:24|
|And whoever||If anyone|
|x||would come after me|
|x||let him deny himself|
|take his cross||and take up his cross|
|and follow me||and follow me|
|is not worthy||x|
The Greek word translated as “deny” comes from the word aparneomai (ἀπαρνέομαι), which means to disown or disregard. In this case, a follower of Jesus must deny their will, plans, values, priorities, desires, beliefs, ambitions, and more and replace them with God’s.
Peter denies Jesus
Not coincidentally, it’s the same word Matthew uses to describe Peter’s refusal to admit that he was a follower of Jesus at the time of the crucifixion (e.g., Matt. 26:34). Peter was supposed to deny himself when people asked if he was a follower of Jesus. But instead, he was trying to avoid mockery, public disgrace, and perhaps death.
Next, Jesus elaborates on the ultimate expression of taking up your cross. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matt. 16:25-26).
Peter denies himself
Jesus said that some of his followers would die for their devotion to him. For example, he told the Pharisees, “Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town” (Matt. 23:24).
The New Testament includes stories of Jesus’ followers dying for their faith (Acts 7:59), but not by crucifixion. However, Christian tradition teaches that Peter, Andrew, and Phillip were crucified for their faith, and others may have been as well.
Though Peter denied Jesus when his Master hung on the cross, he would eventually deny himself when it was his turn to follow in his Master’s footsteps.
Denying yourself for Jesus
Following Jesus authentically means that a person’s devotion to him can’t be compartmentalized to Sunday mornings or only when they are around other Christians. Being a disciple is all-consuming because God doesn’t want just a part of a person but all of them. Like being the child of a mother or father is an identity that can’t be turned off and on, being God’s child (cf. John 1:12) can’t be either.
Devoted followers of Jesus are willing to follow him wherever he goes. They would rather follow him and have life be hard than not follow him and have life be easy. Paul writes, “I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead!” (Phil. 3:10-11, NLT).
A.W. Tozer writes, “When we hear the call to take up the cross and follow toward the hills we begin to bargain with God like a huckster. What will it cost me in work? What will it cost me in money? What will it cost me in relationships? Is it safe? Is it convenient? Is it fun? Is it popular?”
He continues, “You’ll never be more than the common Christian until you give up your own interests and cease to defend yourself and put yourself in the hands of God and let Him alone. We want to help God out. No, no give yourself to God. Turn yourself over to God.” 
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