Bearing One's Cross

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What would Jesus’ call to take up the cross (8:34) have meant to someone reading Mark’s Gospel for the first time? It would surely be a puzzling statement for someone who does not know how the story will end. Jesus has just predicted his own death at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and scribes; no reader would suspect that this would be by crucifixion. The Jews did not crucify, and there has been no hint to this point that the Romans will be involved in Jesus’ coming passion.

As the reader continues through the Gospel, the meaning of Jesus’ reference to cross-carrying gradually emerges. At 10:33-34, the reader learns that the religious leaders will hand Jesus over to Gentiles, who will carry out the death penalty. Suspicion might grow that it will be by crucifixion. Far later in the story, at 15:14, a crowd urges Pilate to crucify Jesus. Suddenly, in the space of ten verses, the whole drama unfolds. Jesus is condemned to crucifixion. He presumably begins to carry his cross (though Mark is not clear about this); the cross is then transferred to a certain Simon’s back (who presumably now carries the cross behind Jesus). A few verses later, Jesus suffers the agony of crucifixion. Jesus has thus modeled cross-carrying, and in a symbolic way, so has Simon. But these events hardly explain how cross-carrying came to be part of the definition of discipleship. One needs to read the Gospel at a deeper level to understand that.

Along the way from Caesarea Philippi to Golgotha, Jesus is teaching his disciples (and Mark is teaching his readers) about discipleship, and therefore about cross-carrying. Voluntary cross-carrying (cf. 8:34) involves giving up everything and trusting God to make it worthwhile (10:28-31). It involves a willingness to lay down one’s life for others (10:45). It involves total submission of personal will to God’s will at all costs (14:36). It involves identification with Jesus as he is tried, mocked, tortured, and crucified (15:21). Thus, even from Mark’s text, cross-bearing is associated with a range of different attitudes and actions.

If one examines the rest of the NT, that range is even broader (see TBC for 8:27–9:1 for a summary of NT associations with the idea of the cross and cross-bearing). No wonder Christians are often unclear what it means to take up the cross. If you ask the average Christian what Jesus meant when he said to carry the cross, expect a wide range of answers: martyrdom (or willingness to face it), suffering for Christ (or willingness to do so), acceptance of the Gospel and/or the proclamation of it, denial of self and/or sinful desires, rejection of legalism, commitment to reconciliation, pacifism, and so on. Perhaps more common (and less likely correct) than all of the above is the idea that “the cross I have to bear” is any inconvenience, however insignificant, that I happen to find irritating.

One of my former colleagues used to say, “When a question generates seven possible answers, change the question.” That is what M. P. Green does in a provocative article “The Meaning of Cross-Bearing.” The following thoughts partly reproduce and partly expand on suggestions he makes.

Instead of asking, “What does cross-bearing mean in the context of the NT?” what if we ask, “What could cross-bearing have meant to the disciples at the time Jesus first used the expression to define discipleship?” The answer would be something they could have understood at the time, before learning that Jesus would die on a cross and before reading any NT theology!

Green points out that only the Romans crucified. Thus the disciples would not have understood Jesus’ predicted rejection and death at the hands of Jewish leaders as a prediction of crucifixion. Further, the Romans crucified primarily for insurrection, for rebellion against the imperial power. By making victims carry their crosses, Rome was making a public statement that it does not pay to rebel against the imperial power. Victims carried their crosses behind the centurion, symbolizing submission to the power against which they had previously rebelled. The death march was to function as a deterrent to other would-be insurrectionists.

As a metaphor for discipleship, cross-bearing might carry with it elements of shame, disgrace, suffering, and so on. But more directly, it would relate to prior rebellion, now come to an end. Disciples have ceased to rebel against God’s imperial power (God’s reign). The cross-bearer is in a position of submission and is making a public statement that rebellion against God is now over.

In the application of the metaphor, Jesus potentially plays two roles. He is the first and premiere cross-bearer; he models true submission, and others follow after. He is also the one who plays the role of the centurion, the one whom would-be disciples follow to symbolize their submission to the reign of God, which Jesus represents. Thus cross-carrying fits appropriately between self-denial and following Jesus as an essential component of discipleship (8:34).

If pushed too far, the metaphor breaks down (as all metaphors do). The disciple is asked to take up the cross as a voluntary act; no insurrectionist would volunteer to do the same! Moreover, the end of the road for disciples is not a cruel death (as it would be for insurrectionists); for the disciples, a self-sacrificing life (come what may) results in glory. The cross is a way of life, not merely a way of death.

If we read Mark 8:34 in the light of the entire NT, its meaning is significantly expanded and includes many of the elements suggested above (e.g., suffering, martyrdom, servanthood, Gospel witness, and pacifism). These should not, however, be treated as the meaning of cross-carrying. They specify what it might entail to submit to the reign of God.

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Bibliography

  • Michael P. Green. “The Meaning of Cross-Bearing.” Bibliotheca Sacra 140 (1983): 117–133.
  • Guy Franklin Hershberger. The Way of the Cross in Human Relations. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1958.
  • Theodore J. Weeden. “The Cross as Power in Weakness.” In The Passion in Mark, ed. W. Kelber. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976.
Timothy J. Geddert
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