The first followers of Jesus knew all about crucifixion. They had seen the crosses of slaves and rebels lining the major highways of their homeland. They had heard the anguished moans and cries of the victims struggling in vain to escape the agony of their predicament and its inevitable death. And they had witnessed the skeletons of the dead still clinging to their crosses weeks later, their flesh consumed by vultures and dogs.
Crucifixion was a horrible reality for the people of Palestine in the first century. It was something too awful to think much about or to discuss in polite company. Crucifixion was simply a fact of life for a nation living under the oppressive heel of Rome.
So, when Jesus turned to his followers and told them they had to take up their crosses and follow him if they wanted to be his disciples, there was no doubt in their minds as to what he meant. He was asking for volunteers for crucifixion. He had just told them he was going to be rejected and killed by the Jewish leaders, and now he was telling them that, if they wanted to follow him, they should expect the same fate. Is it any surprise, then, that the disciples all fled in terror when Jesus was arrested?
In his book The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs, Martin Mosebach tells the story of 21 Coptic Christians beheaded by their Islamic State captors in Libya. On Feb. 15, 2015, the self-styled Islamic State, a terrorist group, released a video showing the decapitations. These deaths were far less agonizing than death by crucifixion, but their cruel and savage nature still shocked our contemporary world.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about these deaths, however, is the attitude of the Coptic Christian community toward them. The families of these victims honor them as heroes and even watch the video of their executions to remember them. The pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church has declared them to be martyr saints to be commemorated every year on Feb. 15. Many of the 21 young men had signed up for construction work in Libya knowing there was a chance they would be kidnapped and killed. In fact, some of them anticipated and welcomed this outcome. They knew they would become saints if they died for their devotion to Jesus. They were willing victims. It is no stretch to say they were volunteers for crucifixion.
All of this seems nearly incomprehensible for us 21st-century Christians in North America. Each of us clings to his or her individual life as if it were the most precious of our possessions. We cannot imagine literally following Jesus, carrying a heavy cross beam, and offering to give up our body to unimaginable torture and a shameful death. And it is difficult for us to identify with the young Coptic Christians who were willing to give their lives and become honored martyrs.
When we talk about cross-bearing today, we usually mean enduring some kind of pain or difficulty in life. It could be a physical handicap, chronic pain, mental illness, or a host of other common afflictions. But we never think about it in terms of actually submitting to torture and death.
I propose that we need to think about cross-bearing in a more radical way. Jesus told his followers they had to take up their crosses in imitation of him. He was about to demonstrate that salvation and healing come about only through intense suffering and death. We can bring healing and renewal to the world, too, if we follow his example. Taking up my cross means accepting all the pain and injustice and misery life imposes on me as I attempt to be a faithful follower of Jesus. It is not just one illness or one problem; it is my whole life with all of its challenges and difficulties. Taking up my cross is total self-denial and total commitment. It is always fatal; it always leads finally to death. But it also leads to renewal and healing and new life.
Growth through suffering is simply how sanctification works. We cannot achieve spiritual maturity without struggle and anguish and pain. This is a fundamentally countercultural message. Our society tells us that moral people are supposed to be winners. If we obey the rules, our lives will be healthy, successful, and happy. If we are being treated unfairly, we need to stick up for our own rights.
But this is not the way of the cross. Cross-bearers are more willing to suffer injustice than they are to seek revenge or payback. None of the early Christians tried to take revenge on Pilate or the Jewish leaders because of their unfair condemnation of Jesus. The families of the Coptic martyrs made no attempt to track down the killers of their sons, brothers, and husbands to bring them to justice. Instead, early Christians and modern Coptic believers celebrated the rewards and blessings that Jesus and their martyrs achieved through their righteous suffering.
I’m not sure why you are reading this article, but I doubt you are genuinely interested in volunteering for a literal crucifixion. We can certainly be thankful that none of us in North America is threatened by something so awful. But if you are a follower of Jesus, if you seriously want to walk the way of the cross, you are called to a self-denying, life-renouncing commitment to Jesus. This path will not be fun or easy, but the rewards are infinite and everlasting.
- Have you heard of the 2015 beheading of 21 Christians in Libya that the author referred to? What was your reaction? If you are reading this for the first time, what is your reaction now?
- How have you understood Jesus’ call to “take up your cross”? What sermons or explanations have you heard about it?
- “Cross-bearers are more willing to suffer injustice than they are to seek revenge or payback.” Have you seen recent, real-life examples of such cross-bearing? How might this apply in your life?
- What are some “self-denying, life-renouncing commitments to Jesus” you can make today?