Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “…Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:27 (NIV)
Because Jesus’ death on the cross was the most famous crucifixion of all time, many people today do not realize that crucifixion was actually a very common form of execution in that day. The area was an occupied territory of the Roman Empire. Even in those days it was a political hotbed and the Roman Legion was intent on using force and intimidation to control the masses.
Crucifixion catered to the Roman’s desire to create fear and humiliation among their unruly subjects. Those sentenced to be crucified were forced to publicly struggle carry their own cross outside of the town as a form of spectacle. Once there, the victim would die a slow, painful death in view of everyone. Romans Legions would often line the roads leading in and out of an occupied town with multiple crucifixion victims. It was a visible calling card telling everyone that the Romans were in charge. It was a way of reminding visitors what they could look forward to if they created trouble for the occupying Roman force.
When Jesus turned to the large crowd following Him and said “Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” the message was layered with meaning. The crowd was used to seeing the victims of Rome carrying their crosses through the streets. They had all heard the screams of crucifixion victims dying in excruciating pain. They had seen the dead, twisted bodies hanging limp on the crosses that lined the highway out of town.
Jesus was riding a wave of huge popularity. His name and his message were trending like nobody’s business. He healed the sick and crippled. He fed entire throngs of hungry people. He publicly humiliated the rich and powerful religious hypocrites and took up the cause of the poor and downtrodden.
And then, He tells people they’ll have to be crucified if they wanted to follow. They’ll have to become victims of the evil Romans.
I can imagine what the crowd thought:
Be crucified? Did I hear that right? Crucified?! No more free fish sandwiches? No more free healthcare? No more entertaining stories and flash mob rallies? What are you talking about, Jesus? Are you on the side of the hated Romans now? Do you like what they are doing to our own people? Dude, I’m all for socialism and a little political anarchy, especially when there’s something in it for me. But being crucified?! Count me out!!
I can imagine what his disciples thought:
Master, what are you saying? Are you crazy? You’ve got these people literally eating out of your hand. You’re the biggest thing since Elijah. You can make history. You can rally the people against Rome! You can be king (and we’ve already drawn lots for the choicest spots on your new administration)! Why are you telling people to choose to be crucified? Are you nuts? You’re making a huge mistake!! You’ll drop in the polls. The Pharisees are going to crush you on the talk shows. This is political suicide!
What Jesus followers did not understand about His mission is that it was never about popularity, opinion polls, earthly power, or politics. His mission was all about personal, spiritual, and eternal salvation. He knew His mission led away from the crowds and popularity to a lonely death on a cross. Even in the order of creation it is understood that the new life and hope of spring must be preceded by the long, slow death of winter.