“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." (Matt. 16:24)
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." (Mark 8:34)
"Cross" is a mistranslation
In each of these verses, the Greek word σταυρός (stauros) is being translated to "cross." While sectarian teachers and translators want to us to believe that Jesus is speaking of the cross, as in the cross that Jesus' body was murdered upon, this would be akin to a teacher telling his students that they will need to commit suicide in order to follow him.
Such a notion would be unbelievable. And it would be fanatical. Jesus was not a fanatic. He is not insinuating that unless someone was prepared to be hung from a cross - and thus carry it - they couldn't be his follower. That would be absurd.
And if this was true then why didn't Jesus' disciples carry crosses around?
Such a notion is simply ridiculous - even if Jesus was saying this metaphorically, people would be aghast to hear such a requirement of becoming Jesus' follower.
And if so, why didn't Jesus carry his own cross? The reality is that the "cross" Jesus' body was murdered with was carried by Simon of Cyrene.
Besides, Jesus is not speaking specifically of becoming his disciple. The Greek word μαθητής (mathētēs) means, according to Thayer's lexicon, "one who follows one's teaching." This means the word refers to a follower or student. Certainly, a disciple is also a follower, but a follower does not necessitate being a disciple.
A better translation
So what is Jesus talking about if he isn't talking about his followers having to carry crosses around?
Actually, the Greek word σταυρός (stauros) means, according to the lexicon, "an upright stake."
What is a stake? It is a pole, often crossed for stability, that will prop up a plant so it won't fall over.
One must remember the context and the audience Jesus is speaking to: Those who lived in rural villages where many were farmers. Many of them farmed grapes, olives, fruits, beans and so on - most of which required stakes in order to prop up the plants. While an olive tree or fruit tree only requires staking when it is young, grape vines and other vine plants such as beans, squash and so forth, require staking during the lifetime of the plant.
But why did Jesus speak about "carrying" one's stake? Actually, the word translated to "carry" is βαστάζω (bastazō), and this word means to "take up with the hands" and "to bear away, carry off" according to the lexicon. This is a similar concept as communicated by the word λαμβάνω (lambanō) used in Matthew and Mark above. This word means, "to take up a thing to be carried" according to the lexicon. So the two words are practically synonyms. They refer to picking up or pulling up something in order to carry it away.
What does this have to do with farmer's stakes? Farmers utilize stakes as a central part of their farming practice. But if a farmer needed to move to another place, they would typically have to "pull up stakes" in order to move to another place.
"Pull up stakes"
Even today we use this term, "pull up stakes" when we describe how we will need to uproot our lives and move on.
Jesus is utilizing this concept metaphorically as he was speaking with mostly rural villagers who understood farming terms. Jesus used similar farming metaphors such as the farmer and the seed, the sheep and the shepherd, the grapevine and the farmer and many others. Thus we find a more appropriate translation of this verse would be:
"And whoever does not pull up stakes and follow me cannot be my follower."But what does pulling up stakes have to do with following Jesus? Because he is saying that in order to follow him, a person will need to be prepared to give up their notions of being happy within this physical world.
They will need to give up their goals and objectives related to thinking that this physical world is meant for their enjoyment.
This is the basis for most of us living within the physical world. We believe that we are these temporary physical bodies, and we can be happy by making the body satisfied and by achieving material things, including fame, wealth, power and so on.
Yet we can just look around us and find that while many people have these things, none of them are happy. Those who are wealthy just want to become more wealthy. Those who are famous just want to be more famous. It is never enough.
The reason its never enough is because we aren't these physical bodies. We are spiritual in composition, and material things of the world cannot feed our spiritual selves.
One might compare this to trying to appease a fish who flopped up onto a wharf. One might try to feed the fish, or even put a TV in front of it. But the fish will still flop around anxiously. Food or TV won't work because the fish needs one thing: It needs to be placed back into the water where it can resume its natural position within the water.
We also need to resume our natural position. What our spiritual selves need is to resume our loving service relationship with the Supreme Being. This is what Jesus is teaching. He is teaching that we need to give up the idea that we will be happy here without Him. Jesus is teaching that we need to place our love and our heart onto the Supreme Being. This is why his most important teaching was:
“ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Luke 10:27)