Take up the cross is one of those key phrases that helps us to understand the mission of Jesus in the Gospels. The most memorable instance was so well known in the early Christian community, that Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, and Luke 9:23 record the phrase with nearly exact word-for-word similarity:
If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
What is less well known is the context in which this phrase is used. It is, strangely enough, a message that Jesus never addresses to the crowd directly. The phrase is communicated to his closest disciples – the twelve apostles. This is not to say that Jesus does not expect each believer to take up the cross. What Jesus wanted – and wants – are that the apostles, ministers, pastors and disciples take up the cross so that they can set an example for others.
In chapter 9 of Luke’s Gospel, we are told that while the 5,000 are being fed, Jesus prays alone. When the disciples approach him, Jesus asks them who do people say I am? This question leads to Peter’s confession, and then Jesus’ mini-discourse on discipleship.
In Matthew chapter 16, Peter’s confession and the discourse on discipleship occurs days or weeks after the feeding of the multitude, “when they came into the district of Caesarea Philippi.” Nonetheless, Jesus still speaks to his circle of the 12. In Mark chapter 8, the circumstances are the same: the feeding of the multitude has already occurred, and Jesus and the Apostles have wandered into Caesarea Philippi when Jesus poses the question to them.
Is this history?
It is not unusual for the three synoptic evangelists to confuse chronological order. It is for that reason that biblical scholars often tell us, confusingly, that the Gospels “are not history.” Well, they are history, but a special type of history. The Gospels attribute great weight to the accuracy as to what Jesus said (and did), substantive weight as to who was present, some weight to the specific whereabouts, and less weight on the precise chronology of the events in the ministry of Jesus.
Simon of Cyrene
Another instance where the Gospels employ the imagery of “taking up the cross” is on the way to Calvary. In Mt 27:30-32, we are told:
And they spat upon Jesus, and took the reed and struck him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe, and put his own clothes on him, and led him away to crucify him. As they went out, they came upon a man of Cyre’ne, Simon by name; this man they compelled to carry his cross.
Mark 15:20-21 tells us nearly the same thing, except that Mark informs us that Simon of Cyrene is the “father of Rufus and Alexander.” It is made clear in all three of the synoptic Gospels that Simon of Cyrene is a visitor to Jerusalem. Though an outsider, he is asked to carry the cross of Jesus, as Jesus had been beaten and flogged.
To “take up the cross” means to live a Christian life, and to share in the duties of Jesus himself: to preach the Good news, and to attend to the poor and the sick, and to show charity to others. This is categorically not a “by faith alone” theology, because the followers of Christ are called to do more than to believe: they are called to imitate Christ by taking up the cross.