Matthew 16:24 SBLGNT

Εἴ τις θέλει ὀπίσω μου ἐλθεῖν, ἀπαρνησάσθω ἑαυτὸν καὶ ἀράτω τὸν σταυρὸν αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀκολουθείτω μοι.


If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

Luke 9:23 is similar. See also Luke 14:27.

I'm wondering if this was a normal turn of phrase in the language Jesus was speaking. Although I understand that Roman crucifixion (and the carrying of the cross that preceded it) was a well-known form of punishment, this use of the reference doesn't seem to follow easily unless it was a common expression.1,2 Also, in both Luke 9 and Matthew 16, this reference comes shortly after Jesus predicts his own death, although not with specificity of method.

  1. Was "take up your cross" an idiom attested in pre-Christian literature that would have been recognized by the disciples?

  2. Did Jesus and/or his disciples and/or the redactors understand/intend a connection between this reference and Jesus's own death?

1. Try to imagine a comment about volunteering for methods of capital punishment familiar to us today as a way to express willingness for self sacrifice...weird.

2. Although Luke's addition of καθ’ ἡμέραν ("daily") has textual issues, to me it at least indicates that whoever wrote it understood the phrase as symbolic. Daily crucifixion doesn't make much sense.

  • 3
    I wonder if it was one of those things "the disciples didn't understand until after His resurrection" – Jas 3.1 Jul 12 '14 at 5:34
  • You could have also used Matthew 10:38 in your question - there He use this same expression even before first revealing to His disciples about His death. – brilliant Mar 20 '18 at 0:37
  1. The surrounding context makes clear that the reference to taking up a cross is to be understood as a reference to death.

    24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.[1]

    This is true regardless of whether the phrase was a pre-existing idiom, because there is another idiom in play here - the use of synonymous parallelism (basically saying the same thing twice for emphasis and clarity) often found in Hebrew poetry but also in poetic 'sayings'. The use is even clearer in the following verse:

    26For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?

    In other words 'take up his cross' would be understood as having the same or similar meaning as 'loses his life' because of the form of speech used, irrespective of whether the phrase would be understood that way in isolation.

    The Luke parallel has almost identical form, with the addition of the word 'daily', emphasizing the ongoing, or spiritual rather than physical, nature of the death involved in following Jesus:

    21And he strictly charged and commanded them to tell this to no one, 22saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

    23And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. Luke 9, ESV

  2. Crucifixion was an extremely well-known method of execution of particular (and painful) relevance to Jesus' Jewish hearers.

    Josephus described the religious persecutions of the Jews under the Seleucid king Antiochus IV, “they [the Jews] were whipped, their bodies were mutilated, and while still alive and breathing, they were crucified” (Ant. 12:256).[2]

  3. The disciples understood Jesus was speaking of his martyrdom, they just refused to believe it

    22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

    By the same token it seems reasonable to infer that the disciples understood that Jesus was referring to the calling of his disciples to follow him to martyrdom. Whether this martyrdom was to be physical or spiritual is not the presenting difficulty - the disciples were not expecting either kind of martyrdom for themselves or for their messiah:

  4. Conclusion: the phrase was probably not a pre-existing idiom

    There is no need to infer a pre-existing idiom as the meaning is crystal clear from the context, both textual and historical.

    However the words would have carried considerable (and deliberate) shock[3]: A non-idiomatic but easily understood reference to the most gruesome gentile punishment used against Jews was being combined in the most jarring way with an explanation of the mission of the Christ.

1 unless otherwise indicated, all Bible quotations are from Matthew 16, ESV

2 this and several more examples from the literature are quoted on a useful blog post

3 in keeping with the shocking rebuke of Peter in the previous verse


Perhaps commenter Jas3.1, above, is on the right track. The gospel writers do not say it, but Jesus' "cross talk" was but one instance of perhaps many "difficult sayings" which they and the other disciples did not truly understand until Jesus had died, rose again, and been glorified (e.g., John 6:60 ff., where Jesus explained this difficult saying to His disciples, and some of them took offense and stopped following him, whereas to the others who kept following Jesus, this difficult saying did not truly make sense to them until months later).

Jesus' "triumphal entry" into Jerusalem was an incident which did not initially "click" with the disciples as being a fulfillment of an OT prophecy concerning Jesus:

"On the next day the large crowd who had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took the branches of the palm trees and went out to meet Him, and began to shout, "Hosanna! BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD, even the King of Israel." Jesus, finding a young donkey, sat on it; as it is written, 'FEAR NOT, DAUGHTER OF ZION; BEHOLD, YOUR KING IS COMING, SEATED ON A DONKEY'S COLT.' These things His disciples did not understand at the first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written of Him, and that they had done these things to Him" (John 12:12-16, my emphasis).

And finally in this line of reasoning, Jesus had to "scold" Cleopas and his son(?) for not recognizing the importance and necessity of His cross death:

"'O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken? Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?" (Luke 24:25,26 NASB Updated).

I would even go so far as to suggest that Jesus' comment about entering His glory went right over the heads of the two disciples on the Emmaus Road! Later, however, after seeing Jesus ascend to heaven (assuming they were there on the Mount of Olives, near Bethany, which was a good 15-20 miles from Emmaus), they likely understood--then.

What I am leading up to with my reasoning (or "argument") is: the disciples were well aware of what the word cross meant and what it implied and involved. They certainly knew that the Roman government of the day had the authority and power to dispatch people (i.e., administer capital punishment) and had done so with John the Baptizer--although his death by decapitation was likely much, much quicker than Jesus' torturous death on a Roman cross!)

Did the disciples, then, fully realize the gravity of Jesus' use of the word cross? No, I do not think so. Intellectually, yes. Emotionally and psychologically, no. Much the same with us today. As professor Walter Kaiser observed in his book An Introduction to Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994, p.18):

"Earlier in . . . [Shakespeare's Othello] the duke of Venice and some senators are discussing recent news regarding a Turkish fleet, but there is considerable discrepancy regarding the number of galleys involved. The duke then says:

I do not so secure me in the error,
But the main article I do approve
In fearful sense (1.3.10-12)  

What may baffle us about a passage such as this one is that all the words are familiar to us--indeed, even the meanings of those words [of] approximate modern usage--yet the total meaning seems to escape us. Unless we are quite familiar with Shakespearean literature, it may take us a while to interpret this statement correctly. In modern prose [we would say], '[That] . . . there is a discrepancy in the accounts gives me no . . . security; it is with alarm that I must give credence to the main point of the story.'"

As with 21st century readers of Shakespeare, the disciples understood intellectually the denotation of the word cross (Gk. σταυρός, stav̱rós), but not until after Jesus' death did they begin to comprehend fully Jesus' words about taking up their cross daily and following Jesus even to the point of being literally crucified themselves.

In conclusion, for believers today, the word cross has lost both its denotation and negative connotation, and consequently its power to shock us and galvanize us to action. I'm not suggesting we remove the word from Scripture and replace it with a different word. I am suggesting, however, that we remind ourselves frequently that what Jesus was saying in effect was,

"Unless you are willing to die to your naturally self-centered, self-absorbed life and become others-oriented, seeking to serve others both within and without the church, even as I did when I entered the world, then listen up! I came not to be served, but to serve and to give my very life as a ransom for many. If you are not willing to do the same, then you are not worthy of me. Stop pretending, then, to follow me if you're not willing to die to yourself, as I did. The student is not above his teacher. Nevertheless, paradoxically, I have also come to give you an abundant life. That abundance will quite naturally be yours only if and when you die to yourself" (content taken from a number of Jesus' sayings and adapted here).

  • 2
    This is very insightful. I guess what I'm still wondering, though, is whether the expression "take up your cross" was attested elsewhere in pre-Christian literature, or is it something Jesus invented for this purpose? – Susan Jul 16 '14 at 3:09
  • @Susan: Thank you. My "gut" says no, it would not be well attested. Do I have any research to back up my gut? No. Whereas some of Jesus' teachings and "sayings" were familiar to His disciples and were even in vogue within the Judaism of His day, some were not familiar. E.g., we know that Jesus' "Golden Rule" is simply a positive spin on the negative "golden rule" from earlier sources; namely, "Don't do to others what you wouldn't want them to do to you." I have a feeling, h.e., the essence of the Law (viz., love God supremely, love neighbor as self) is unique to Judaism. Don – rhetorician Jul 16 '14 at 16:37
  • @Susan I can't find any usage but it is of course impossible to rule out even if an exhaustive search was done. – Jack Douglas Aug 6 '14 at 4:11

In Matthew 10, Jesus has just chosen His 12 disciples and proceeds to give them His instructions for anyone who wants to be a disciple. In verse 38, the phrase "take his cross and follows me" refers to each person's unique call in life. A disciple must embrace and live out his/her personal call to follow Jesus. Again, in Matthew 16:24, Jesus says, "takes up his cross and follows Me," and further explains it to mean "loses his life for My sake." In both passages Jesus is making it clear to aspiring disciples that discipleship is very costly - so severe, that it is best illustrated as crucifixion. Paul took up his cross and declared, "I am crucified with Christ" (Galatians 2:20).

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The word "cross" is problematic in that it is σταυρός which refers to a "stake" rather than a traditional "cross". Over time it had also come to refer to a "cross", perhaps in the shape of a "T".


Another issue is the physical challenge of carrying a stake, let alone a cross which would require great strength.

So while the idea of carrying the means of one's execution would be harrowing emotionally the idea of carrying a Roman cross would be beyond the ability of most, including a beaten-up savior.

Perhaps the solution to these issues is revealed in the following:

...The crosses used were of different shapes. Some were in the form of a , others in that of a St. Andrew's cross, , while others again were in four parts, . The more common kind consisted of a stake ("palus") firmly embedded in the ground ("crucem figere") before the condemned arrived at the place of execution (Cicero, "Verr." v. 12; Josephus, "B. J." vii. 6, § 4) and a cross-beam ("patibulum"), bearing the "titulus"—the inscription naming the crime (Matt. xxvii. 37; Luke xxiii. 38; Suetonius, "Cal." 38). It was this cross-beam, not the heavy stake, which the condemned was compelled to carry to the scene of execution (Plutarch, "De Sera Num. Vind." 9; Matt. ib.; John xix. 17; See Cross). The cross was not very high, and the sentenced man could without difficulty be drawn up with ropes ("in crucem tollere, agere, dare, ferre"). His hands and feet were fastened with nails to the cross-beam and stake (Tertullian, "Adv. Judæos," 10; Seneca, "Vita Beata," 19); though it has been held that, as in Egypt, the hands and feet were merely bound with ropes (see Winer, "B. R." i. 678)... http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/4782-crucifixion

So if this is correct, "take up his cross" refers to carrying one's own patibulum to the awaiting palus to die a horrific death.

Note that a follower of Jesus if crucified would be subjected to a fate much worse than Jesus had endured because Jesus' death was cut short after a brief time. Rather than the first few hours (which were the easiest) the believer would be likely to spend a few increasingly horrible days.


Jesus wouldn't have said this to his followers, precisely because there is no way that they would have understood him. It's very, very common in the gospels to see the evangelists quoting speech that couldn't have occurred because it wouldn't have made sense or been understood by its intended audience. Other examples:

  • John the Baptist says, "He who has the bride is the bridegroom."

  • "church" (Matthew 16:18)

  • "the Jews" used as if Jesus and his followers were not Jews

  • symbolism of three days between the crucifixion and the resurrection (Mark 14:58, Luke 2:46, John 2:19-22)

  • "the temple" used as a symbol for Jesus's body (John 2:21)

It doesn't make sense to take the evangalists as if they were journalists. They were writing for Christian audiences who were distant in time and space from the events portrayed. For example, the purpose of the description of the last supper is not to give a journalistic account but to provide a model for how the eucharist was to be celebrated by Christians many years later (after the rite had gone through a long evolution, see Didache 9-10).

  • Thanks for this, I appreciate this perspective and actually agree with it to some extent, though I don't think it's self-evident that this is an example that wouldn't have made sense to Jesus's followers (as several other answers have argued that it may have). It seems like you haven't really argued that point here, just brought up that another possibility exists. Surely many of the things quoted by the Gospel writers did indeed originate with Jesus (even if not word-for-word, admittedly), and showing that this isn't one of them requires something more, IMO, though I lean toward agreeing. – Susan Feb 23 at 2:47

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