Every time I've heard this passage discussed, Jesus' words are taken to mean giving one's life to Christ, dying to self, accepting the burdens of discipleship and self-denial, etc. Because of this, I was jarred to read the thoughts of the eminent Oxford scholar R.T. France on these words:
Christian use of the language of "self-denial" (and even of "cross-bearing") has blunted the force of Jesus' words. They are about literal death, following the condemned man on his way to execution. Discipleship is a life of at least potential martyrdom. It may be legitimate to extrapolate from this principle to a more general demand for disciples to put loyalty to Jesus before their own interests and comfort, but that can be only a secondary application of the passage. Jesus' words are not to be taken as merely metaphorical. The "cross" and "losing life" which he speaks of are literal, and it seems clear from v. 28 that he did expect at least some of his disciples to be killed because of their loyalty to his cause (as indeed they were)." [NICNT: Matthew, 2007, Eerdmans, page 636]Read this way, Jesus' statement is even harder to accept. Taking up one's cross sounds tough enough as metaphor. Taken literally, it becomes a completely different challenge.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." Every American Christian who comes across this quote prefers to read it metaphorically - we "die to Christ," leaving our old life behind in favor of following Jesus. And that is true, but it ignores the fact that Bonhoeffer, in stark contrast to American Christians, was dragged out into the early morning April air, stripped nude, and hanged to death in the Flossenburg concentration camp at age 39.
"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."
We can indeed extrapolate many lessons from these words, but I think Dr. France was right. The cross was very real in this sentence. To first century Jews such as were following Jesus, the cross was not a piece of jewelry, or a symbol on the top of buildings, or a design for art - it was and had always only been an oppressor's device for brutally murdering the oppressed. Jesus is talking about death. Real death. He knows he will die by means of a cross, as will some of his followers, and many more will die by some means or another at the hands of his enemies. Jesus the Christ does not sugarcoat.
He does, however, go on to explain why following him, even to the death, is important. "Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." It is worth noting that the Greek word translated "life" here is not unfamiliar to us. It is psychē (ψυχὴ), a word which English has since appropriated to mean the self or the soul. It is, indeed, our all, and if we try to save our life, our psychē, for our own self, we will in fact lose it. Only if we give up our life for the sake of Christ, whatever that might mean in our own circumstances, will be truly find life eternal. The martyrs of the church are richer, in real terms, than any human who has ever lived. Even every person who has ever died as a follower of Jesus enjoys a reward that makes all we could have on earth seem very small indeed.
A few days ago the world was rocked to hear news of terrorist attacks in Paris, France. Soon after, some people began to point out, rightly, that recent attacks in Lebanon had received virtually no coverage, let alone popular attention. No doubt one reason for this is the fact that an attack on Paris (like an attack on New York) is a signal to Western Christians that "Christendom" is no longer exempt from religious violence. The lock that Christianity has had over the Western Hemisphere is slowly slipping away. The dozens killed in Paris were not killed because they were Christian (indeed, their killings were random and anonymous), but they represented the Christian West to the Islamic terrorists responsible.
We in the West are only now beginning to recognize what our brothers and sisters outside of classical Christendom have known for centuries. In Asia, in the Middle East, in Africa, in the former Soviet Union...Christians there have long understood the reality of persecution, and they have long understood the reality behind this passage in Matthew.
We don't know what is to come, but our world is changing. As it changes, it is more important than ever for us to remember that following Christ means putting him first, above all, even if that decision means the loss of life itself. Because a better life awaits. Take up your cross, and follow me.