WHEN I USED to teach classes on communications, I’d outline a glass on the whiteboard, then draw a line across it midway. “Is the glass half-full or half-empty?” I’d ask. The answer separated the optimists from the pessimists, of course, and illustrated the fluidity (forgive the pun) of some “hard facts.”
Then I’d draw four more glasses, which I’d leave empty. I would ask: “What about the first one now?” And then I’d draw lines that made each of those four glasses full before again asking, “What about the first one now?”
The exercise was an exploration of how content needs context to be understood, whether you’re reading the news or reading the Bible. And it’s not just about understanding the time and place in which things were written, but the time and place in which you are reading it.
Take Jesus’s admonition that any follower needed to “take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8: 34). This verse has been the basis of many a sermon, most of which make a call for a new or deeper commitment to noble self-sacrifice.
But that’s based on understanding Jesus’s words from the AD side of history. From our vantage point, we know that when Jesus took up His cross it was to use it to break evil’s hold on the world and provide a way to a restored relationship with God.
In that light, taking up one’s cross has a purpose and a power that is inspiring—even as it is challenging. But those following Jesus in BC days probably did not get the same message.
Before Jesus redeemed it along with us, the cross was not a symbol of love, hope, and renewal. As a display of the Romans’ brutal power over anyone who threatened their empire, it was a symbol of shame, subjugation, and suffering.
That’s likely what came to the disciples’ minds when Jesus told them to take up their cross and follow Him. They probably heard Him saying that His way was going to bring them into conflict with the powers that be.
Perhaps that is why we read a little later in the same Gospel that as Jesus neared Jerusalem, “they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid” (Mark 10:32).
When we reconsider Christ’s words, and the disciples’ reaction, in the context of the ancient era, we should gain a new level of appreciation for what this meant then—and now.
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