When Jesus was On his way up to Jerusalem, Jesus forewarned about his suffering, death and resurrection for the third time. (Ref. verse: Matthew 16:21-28; 17:22-23; 20:17-19) Jesus was teaching them that the path of the cross was the path of suffering, humility, and sacrifice. But the disciples did not understand the importance, the need, or the seriousness of the cross at that point and they did not believe that Jesus would be crucified.
Right after Jesus foretold about his suffering, in Mark 10: 35, the disciples, James and John were more worried about their position in heaven. So Jesus asked if they are able to drink the cup of suffering like Jesus and they volunteered to drink the cup of suffering for the sake of their glory without knowing what it meant (Mark 10:38). The second time Jesus foretold about his suffering in Mark 9:30–34 they also argued about who was the greatest among them. Jesus said we needed to deny ourselves and take up our cross to follow Him to enter heaven(Matthew 16:24-26).
Jesus explained what taking up our cross means through two events that took place before and after today’s opening scriptures. These earlier events were the meeting with the rich young ruler and the event afterwards was the meeting with Zaccheus.
In Luke 18:18-23, we can see that the rich young ruler had good faith and had a respected position in society and work meaning he was educated, had credentials and experience, and he kept the commandments of God from a young age (good upbringing). He is someone that everyone envies and looks up to in society. And on top of that, he comes to Jesus to ask about eternal life!
He called Jesus “good teacher”. Jesus told him that no one but God was good, hinting His identity, indirectly revealing Himself so that this ruler would awaken to who Jesus really was and be saved. But the ruler did not catch on. So Jesus asked him if he kept the commandments and he proudly said that he kept them from youth. But Jesus says that he lacked one thing and told him to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor and follow Him. But because he was extremely rich, he became very sad and left Jesus. This means that he couldn’t let go of his worldly possessions to carry his cross.
Immediately after this incident, Jesus teaches his disciples, “How hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24-25).
“Eye of a needle” is actually what the Israelites called the small side gate used when the main city gate is closed at night time. It was a very narrow small gate. So for a camel to go through it, all the luggage needs to be taken off and the camel needs to kneel and crawl through it. Imagine trying to force a camel to do that. Camels are also known to be stubborn animals.
Thus, entering heaven, carrying our Cross, requires putting down our possessions and humbling ourselves onto our knees just to pass by. This rich ruler could not do that. That’s why Jesus said in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Jesus has never once said that it is easy to go to heaven and receive eternal life. After saying this, Jesus prophesied about his death and resurrection and then went down to Jericho. There, he healed a blind man and called Zaccheus (Luke 19:1–10).
Zaccheus was a chief tax collector, the type of person that most Jews hated and despised. They considered tax collectors to be the first ones to be judged and cursed by God. Zaccheus knew that, and thus could not find the courage to even come to Jesus but just watched him from afar. Seeing that he even climbed a tree to see Jesus, he must have been either desperate or had a reason to really meet Jesus. He wasn’t a little child, but he was acting with such humility.
And when Jesus noticed him, knew his name, and asked to stay at his house, he rejoiced greatly and received Jesus. Jesus did not say anything, but Zaccheus repented before Him, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much” (Luke 19:8). This means that Zaccheus would not only be broke after this but maybe even in debt.
Zaccheus did not ask for anything from Jesus. He gave up his possessions voluntarily without Jesus telling him to do so. Why? Because this is the natural reaction of sinners when they really meet with Jesus. He laid before Jesus all his sins. Jesus saw his repentance and said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:9-10). Jesus is saying that this is what he came to this world for!
So what was the difference between these two events? Outwardly, it was definitely the young rich ruler who has much greater faith and would be the one to go to heaven. But he saw Jesus only as a good ‘teacher’. He also considered Jesus’ teaching as just another teaching. To him, Jesus was nothing more than another Pastor with a different viewpoint. That’s why he was sad at what Jesus said, but did not change his life. On the contrary, Zaccheus was dire to meet Jesus. He even climbed the sycamore tree, so he would not miss Jesus. The rich ruler had something he wanted and came to see if Jesus can just give it to him. But to Zaccheus, Jesus was the answer. He didn’t need anything else. The rich ruler was satisfied and even proud of his deeds and believed that he had salvation because of them. Zaccheus was certain that he cannot receive salvation with his own deeds and knew that he needed to repent for forgiveness. The rich ruler could not empty himself of his possessions and deeds. He only wanted to know about eternal life in his head. Zaccheus repented with his heart and gave up everything, emptied himself because he was really desperate for life. Zaccheus’ name is remembered by Jesus, while the rich ruler remains nameless. Jesus told the rich ruler to sell his possessions, give them to the poor, and then follow him. That was his cross but he rejected it and thus he could not follow Jesus. Whereas, Zaccheus took up his cross and received the blessing of becoming a son of Abraham.
For Jesus, taking up the cross is leaving the throne of heaven behind to be scourged, beaten, persecuted, and die without any sin. We cannot give up everything no matter how benevolent we may be. But we can do it when we are desperate to urgently save our life. So we need to ask ourselves whether meeting and following Jesus is that important to us or is it just casual and optional, do we feel we need that cross, what would we do in order that we can follow Jesus, and what is it that stops us from following Jesus?
The cross is the only way for those who have really met and accepted Jesus. It is not by our own will power. But when we realize how precious salvation is, and His blessings are, we will want to take that cross.
The disciples of Jesus left their homes to follow Jesus (Luke 18:28). Although Peter denied Jesus, yet he was sincere when he made the confession of faith and he actually stayed closest to Jesus until he denied Him. After the resurrection, Jesus forgave and encouraged him, and he really lived a life of bearing the cross until he was actually crucified upside-down.
If we have truly met Jesus then our lives would change. But are we still walking that path? Like Peter, we are sometimes weak and often fall short, but those who have really met God will live that life and eventually receive the heavenly blessings. May Jesus also tell us, “Today salvation has come to your house” and that “you are Abraham’s child!”