After revealing His frightening plan to die in Jerusalem, Yeshua further unnerved His disciples by telling them that they too must anticipate laying their lives on the line. He said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me” (Mark 8:34). They too must plan to lose their lives if they wanted to save their souls.
In this context, the words “take up your cross” simply meant something equivalent to “stick your head in the noose” or “stand in front of the firing squad” or “stretch out your neck over the chopping block” or “sit down in the electric chair.” Rabbi Yeshua warned His disciples that they needed to be prepared to sacrifice their lives for His sake.
Those were hard words for His young, messianic, hothead, revolution-bent disciples, and the prospect of martyrdom was not exactly what they had signed up for. They had anticipated conquering the whole world under the power of King Messiah. He asked them, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36).
The Master prophetically hinted toward the type of death He would die when He told His disciples to take up crosses and follow Him. Crucifixion is not a Jewish mode of execution, and the cross had not yet been revealed, nor had He revealed it to His disciples. The Master Himself understood that the Messiah must suffer, but the details of His departure had not yet been disclosed (see Luke 9:31).
Even without knowledge of their teacher’s grim fate, Yeshua’s words spoke clearly enough to His disciples. In the days of the apostles, thousands of Jews died on crosses along with anyone else that Rome did not like. All over the Empire, political dissidents, terrorists, and people that resisted Rome’s authority found themselves nailed to execution stakes. Roadside Roman crosses were a common sight outside population centers, a gruesome reminder of Rome’s authority and terror. Those condemned to crucifixion had to carry the crossbeam over their shoulders out to the stake on which they were to hang, a scene the disciples had seen enough times to catch the drift of the Master’s warning.
Rabbinic literature remembers the days of Roman persecution when Jews suffered crucifixion for simply observing the particulars of Judaism:
R. Nathan says: “Of them that love Me and keep My commandments” [Exodus 20:6], refers to those who dwell in the land of Israel and risk their lives for the sake of the commandments.” “Why are you being led out to be decapitated?” “Because I circumcised my son to be an Israelite.” “Why are you being led out to be burned?” “Because I read the Torah.” “Why are you being led out to be crucified?” “Because I ate the unleavened bread.” (Mechilta)