Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24, ESV)
What did you expect? When you submitted yourself to the Son of God, when you mourned your sinfulness in prayer, when you called on His name, when you put your life in His hands, what did you think would happen? I hope you weren’t like the disciples. They got it wrong.
You have to feel a bit sorry for them, these weary travelers who trudged mile after mile through dirt and experienced such a flux of emotions on their tour. Take Peter, for example: one moment he speaks for the disciples about who Jesus truly is, the next he’s trying to tell Jesus what can and cannot happen.
Peter wanted Jesus to fulfill an expectation. He wanted a Messiah who would storm into Jerusalem, throw off Roman rule, and pour riches upon His followers. Peter wanted to be right there with his Teacher, right there enjoying the accolades. After all, surely Jesus had big plans for the inner three (Peter, James, and John).
Jesus did, of course, but not the way they expected. Peter and James had no clue they’d be killed for what seemed so safe. John didn’t know that exile and loneliness awaited him on Patmos. After all, they knew they followed Messiah—the One who fed thousands of people and healed thousands more. No way anything bad could happen.
In response to their faulty hopes, Jesus tells them all to stop holding onto their own ideas about what should happen. Although He had not yet been to the cross, He uses the imagery that would later mean so much to them as a way to explain the pride-killing truth. He says, to put it in our language, “Get over yourself.”
They wanted riches and fame. They wanted an immediate kingdom. They wanted safe passage. Jesus tells them to work up some calloused hands and sore backs by carrying their crosses—their imprisonments, their aches for His sake.
Given how they all fled when Jesus was arrested, we can safely assume they didn’t immediately understand the message. Sometimes we don’t either.
We can’t hold onto our cross if we’re carrying our own junk. We can’t squeeze it in, tie it on, or make it fit. It’s too big and too heavy. We can’t shoulder the timber if our backs are weighed down already.