Many Christians have a cross somewhere in their home—a religious plaque, perhaps, or maybe a painting. Some wear crosses around their neck or as other jewelry. Others have a cross tattooed into their skin. These crosses mean different things to different people, I suppose, but all crosses have one thing in common: they distill the essence of our faith. Whether an empty cross or a crucifix, bearing the image of the crucified Redeemer, every cross captures the core of the Christian hope. Because Jesus Christ was crucified and has risen from the dead, there is forgiveness as well as the promise of resurrection into life everlasting for every believing sinner.
The cross is the sign of our salvation.
To preach Christ is always to preach his cross. As the apostle Paul reminded the Corinthians: “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1–2). The Christian gospel isn’t sophisticated; no wonder highbrows so often scorn it. The cross is offensive. It grates on us that God would achieve his highest purpose through lowly degradation and in such disgusting squalor, by using human flesh and bone; nails, spear, and wood; blood, sweat, and spit.
In the gospel that Jesus proclaims, everything is turned inside out and upside down. In our world, winners take all. In his kingdom, the best take the lowest seat: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11). Likewise, whoever signs on with Jesus needs a radical attitude adjustment:
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. (Mark 8:34–35)
Just what does it mean to deny yourself and take up your cross? Some have turned their back on riches and fame and taken up serving the poor and destitute in Jesus’ name. Others have given up promising careers in impressive fields and gone to seminary to learn to preach the gospel and pastor churches. Still others contend with physical disability or chronic illness every day of their lives. Some are mocked regularly and ridiculed as bigots or haters because they uphold biblical truth instead of cultural fads. Each of these instances fit into a larger pattern: the Christian life is upside down. It follows the pattern of Jesus’ cross. As he won by losing, so we live by dying. In his cross and by his death he won life for us all. So upon his invitation we follow Jesus even though it may bring us suffering, misery, and loss.
For all, the cross is the sign of challenge.
In response to Jesus’ call, people in every generation have confessed him boldly in word and deed, no matter the consequences. I remember young Christian martyrs kneeling on an obscure North African beach in their blaze-orange prison uniforms—one vivid picture of the cost of discipleship. That price can be high. But to be a Christian witness doesn’t always call for martyrdom. Nor do you need to be a pastor or missionary or social service worker to serve Jesus. Every Christian in his or her daily calling is challenged to put Jesus and his kingdom above every selfish motivation— to deny themselves, in other words—then follow Jesus where he takes them.
No matter your circumstances or daily occupations, Jesus is calling you to follow his lead—even if he takes you to places you would rather not go. Whether you’re young or old, married or single, no matter your job or role in society—Jesus’ invitation is challenging. “Deny yourself,” he says. “Take up your cross and follow me.”
Jesus would be easier to follow if he would leave out that part about the cross. But that’s the thing about Jesus: he’s inseparable from his cross. Self-denial and hardship come together in his discipleship package. You can’t sidestep the cross.
Frankly, Jesus wouldn’t be much of a Savior without his cross, would he? By his cross and in his death, he rescued us all from the clutches of sin, death, and hell. The cross was the price he paid to free us from that bondage. Because of our sins, we deserve nothing but God’s judgment and condemnation, yet by his redeeming death Jesus has canceled out the judgment we deserved. “This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). Likewise, he has trounced Satan and his demonic horde publicly with his cross. “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in the cross” (Colossians 2:15).
Since Christ Jesus laid down his life for us, forgiveness and a whole eternity of joy and bliss await every believing sinner in the resurrection. The cross isn’t so bad if it’s the cross of Jesus—for by his cross he has won our salvation.
Finally, the cross is a sign of ownership. Paradoxically, you and I find new hope through the crosses that come our way. If we were to continue merrily along, indulging our selfish inclinations, we would find ourselves not only alienated from those we love but estranged from God himself. So when you encounter hardship as a Christian, I’m sure you will discover—as I have found—that the cross can be God’s instrument of healing love in your life.
Sometimes he needs to put you in a tight spot to draw you closer to him. Over and over again, I’ve seen that happen in my own life and in the lives of others I’ve cared for. I know that sounds counterintuitive. But when you remember that what seems backward and upside down to us is actually right-side up with Jesus, it makes perfect sense. What looked like tragedy at Calvary was triumph in disguise. Though the enemies of Jesus mocked him in his death, he won eternal victory by what looked like defeat, routing all of Satan’s hordes with his cross.
It’s similar with your cross. In winning, you lose—but in losing for Jesus’ sake, you win. You’ll be humbled—but Jesus lifts up the lowly. In giving you receive; in pardoning you are pardoned. And in dying you are born to eternal life.
So don’t be surprised to discover that when you’re down and out, you can see what really matters more clearly. If you’re looking for an anchor in the storms of life, look to Christ Jesus, who bought you with his blood and cross. You’ll get to know him better when you experience what it means to deny yourself, then take up your cross to follow the path he sets before you. You will discover, as I have, that the way of the cross—though frequently frightening—leads home.
To know Jesus and experience the power of his resurrection here and now, we must share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death. In the end we will each take our place in glory in the resurrection of all the faithful (Philippians 3:10–11).
First the cross, to be sure. But then the crown. Thanks be to God!
Excerpted from Christ and Calamity: Grace and Gratitude in the Darkest Valley (Lexham Press, 2020), which is free as an ebook for the month of June. For more information, visit lexhampress.com/christ-and-calamity.
Here, I am using the esv’s alternate translation. ↑