Entering pastoral ministry, Lyte served several small parishes. One day, shortly after his ordination, he was asked to visit a fellow clergyman who had fallen deathly ill. As they talked about the things of God and the experiences of life, both men realised that they had never had a personal encounter with Christ. While both served in pastoral ministry, neither had been truly converted. As they searched the Scriptures together over subsequent visits, God revealed himself to them in the gospel and both came to faith in Christ.
Lyte was later transferred to Devonshire in England, where he ministered faithfully in a humble fishing village for the next 23 years. He led a Sunday school, which grew to include more than eight hundred children, to great effect in the community. In addition to severe bodily afflictions, Lyte was burdened by opposition from several church members throughout his time in Devonshire. Reflecting on these trials, he penned the beautiful words of the beloved hymn: “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken.”
The song expresses the author’s commitment to leave all to follow Christ. It expresses his commitment to doing so even if it means he must remain “destitute, despised, forsaken.” Prepared to give up “every fond ambition” he rejoiced that “God and heav’n are still my own.” He would remain committed to Christ even as “human hearts and looks deceive me.” “Man may trouble and distress me,” he sang, and “life with trials hard may press me” but he rejoiced that “heav’n will bring me sweeter rest.” He knew that, even in death, “hope shall change to glad fruition, faith to sight, and prayer to praise!”
In South Africa today, the cross has become so sentimentalised that the command to take up your cross and follow Christ has lost its meaning. It may be helpful to think about what the cross signified in the first century as we consider what it means to take up our cross and follow Christ. We can zone in on at least three things that the cross meant and bring these things into our understanding of what it means to follow Christ.
First, the cross was an instrument of profound shame. Crucifixion was reserved for the absolute worst of criminals. It was considered too shameful an instrument of death for a Roman citizen. Victims were crucified naked and put on public display for hours, or even days. The crimes for which they were executed were publicly displayed over their heads as an added means of shame. Crucifixion was designed to maximise the shame of the victim.
The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus endured the cross, “despising the shame” (12:2). At the cross, he was stripped of every earthly support he had. His reputation was subject to the shaming mockery of the crowd. Modesty gave way to nakedness and comfort to torture. His dignity was stripped and he was accused of being just like any other sinner.
Second, the cross was an instrument of severe suffering. The Romans had perfected the art of execution so as to maximise the agony of the victim. The pain was excruciating. The New Testament passes rather quickly over the ordeal of the cross, stating simply that the Roman authorities crucified Jesus. Historical records must be brought to bear to help us understand just how severely victims of crucifixion suffered. As you consider those historical records, it is almost unbearable to imagine the degree of pain that crucifixion invited.
Jesus, says Peter, “suffered for [us]” (1 Peter 2:21). The Servant Song in Isaiah 53 talks about how he suffered on the cross for our sins.
Third, cross was an instrument of inescapable death. There was no release for those condemned to crucifixion. Once you were on the cross, your fate was sealed.
“Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3). Death is the penalty for sin. He never sinned and should therefore never have died, but he died in our place so that we could receive eternal life in him.
What did Henry Francis Lyte mean when he wrote those memorable words: “Jesus, I my cross have taken, all to leave and follow thee”? What does it mean to take your cross to follow Christ? It means, at the very least, a willingness, without murmuring, to be shamed, to suffer, and to die for your allegiance to Christ. He calls you to this. Are you willing to follow him?