Jesus told his disciples, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mat. 16:24). This verse has been used by men to teach a number of different things, and many of those things are good and correct principles of Christianity. But we must ask ourselves, “What did Jesus mean?” We can apply the statement to a number of things; but if we don’t know how Jesus was using it, the true meaning is lost.
First, one must understand the time in which the statement was made. Jesus made this statement before his crucifixion. At that time, there was no salvation available by means of the cross of Christ. There was no hope associated with it. Instead, it was a symbol of death and capital punishment. Crucifixion was not uncommon in the first century, and the intent of this most painful form of death was undeniable. Therefore, when Jesus is talking about an individual taking up his cross, it is not said in the modern context of a cross of life and hope. Instead, it was said in the context of a cross of death.
Second, in order to understand what Jesus was saying, close attention must be made to the entirety of the statement. There are three things Jesus said an individual must do to come after him. He must deny himself. This denial is a denial of his personal wants, wishes, and directions. He cannot be the director and directed at the same time. He must take up his cross. The word “take up” comes from the Greek word airo meaning “to raise up, elevate, lift up.” Therefore, Jesus is saying if one is to follow him he must raise up his own cross, or more literally in our terminology, put himself to death. Jesus is not advocating suicide, but as an individual following my own path, I must die to that determination if I am to follow Christ. He must follow me. It is impossible for man to follow Christ without using him as a guide. The term “follow” is used in the Greek tense that means “to keep on following.” It cannot be sporadic of abbreviated, it must be continuous.
Jesus went on to say in verse 25 that whoever saves his life (i.e. refuses to put himself to death to follow Christ) will lose it eternally; but whoever is willing to lose his life for Christ’s sake will find it. Understanding Jesus’ requirement in Matthew 16:24 truly puts in perspective Paul’s statement when he wrote, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).