Maybe you’ve heard someone say that if Christianity were founded in modern times, Christians would be wearing an electric chair around their necks, instead of a cross. It’s meant as an insult, but it is true the cross was a tool of death, much like how convicts are sometimes put to death by the electric chair.
The cross symbolizes death. It symbolizes the premeditated killing of, generally speaking, bad people. The Romans—who were experts in execution by the way—would crucify, on a wooden cross, public criminals who disrupted the peace or defied the Roman government. Generally, death on a cross was reserved for radical Anti-Roman zealots, political enemies, and major troublemakers.
Ending up on a cross meant you are really a threat to society.
Then, you have Jesus. His Jewish enemies push for him to die by the cross, even when he didn’t do anything wrong. While Pilate didn’t find Jesus a problem, the Jews tried to convince him and the crowd that Jesus was a public enemy—he was a threat to the whole Empire.
And in many ways, they were right.
Jesus is a threat to empire, since he is truly the King of the World. He’s also a threat to sin. He’s a threat to the way things were. For these things, he suffered. Luckily, his suffering on the cross brought us closer to God than ever before. His death marked the divide between life solely under law and life now under grace.
When Jesus talks about the cross, even before his death, he uses it as a symbol of suffering, pain, and persecution. He explicitly tells his followers to “take up their cross” multiple times in the Gospels (Mat. 10:38, 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23, 14:17). Jesus is picking up on the common practice of humiliating those about to die on a cross by first making them lug the big tree through the streets to their demise.
Matthew 16:24 is one instance where Jesus use cross-carrying as a metaphor. The Scripture says, “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” When Jesus uses that kind of language, one main concept is linked with bearing a cross: denying yourself.
Taking up your cross means getting rid of yourself. Your own desires must not be important if you wish to be Jesus’ disciple. Jesus is clear that if you are really a follower of him, you need to deny yourself and get moving with a cross on your back.
Denying yourself and following Jesus is incredibly radical in a world that thinks it just makes sense to seek your own pleasure. Paul describes the situation by saying “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18).
As mentioned earlier, dying on a cross typically meant you were a public enemy—and certainly living as a Christian in our world today can make people angry, confused, or even scared. People or groups in the world may very well want to crucify us, sometimes literally and sometimes in other ways. But Jesus urges us to stand our ground.
Trials and tribulations are something to expect. There will be ridicule along the road as we drag our cross. The burden of being a Christ-like witness in a broken world will not be an easy task. The task is somewhat counterintuitive to the easy-going life our bodies crave. However, the payout is far more rewarding than any other path.
There is a promise for those bearing the shame and suffering of the cross. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his,” Paul writes, suggesting we are carrying our crosses, “we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.” That promise is a new life, just like Christ experienced after his death.
Yes, when we wear a cross, we are branding ourselves with a torture device. It’s a little strange that death is a central part of our religion. Though the story of the cross does not end with Jesus’ expiration—it calls out to us to make a response.
The cross is a symbol of death, but it is also a reminder of life.