Yeshua said, “He who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me” (Mathew 10:38). Believers sometimes speak about difficult situation which must be patiently endured as one’s “cross to bear.” For example, a person might say, “I guess my poor health is just my cross to bear.” In the days of the disciples, however, the saying had a more specific implication.
Remember that, when Yeshua spoke these words, His own crucifixion was not in view. Of course, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Master’s words prophetically hinted toward the type of death He would die. But at that early time in His ministry, He had not yet revealed to His disciples that the Messiah must suffer and die, and they had no notion of His impending crucifixion.
Even without a foreknowledge of their teacher’s grim fate, His words were clear enough to the disciples. In the days of the apostles, the Romans crucified thousands of Jews. Political dissidents, terrorists, and people that Rome did not like all found themselves nailed to trees and execution stakes. Roadside Roman crosses outside population centers were a common sight, 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:
Rabbi 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, BaChodesh)
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 was warning His disciples that they needed to be prepared to sacrifice their lives for His sake.
The disciples later discovered that His words were prophetic. Not only did their teacher die on a cross, but some of the twelve also met martyrdom by crucifixion.
He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it. (Matthew 10:39)