The Agony of the Cross

Title: The Agony of the Cross

Bible Book: 2 Corinthians 11 : 23

Author: Johnny L. Sanders

Subject: Cross; Christian Living; Paul, The Apostle



In this series we have seen Saul of Tarsus as the bitter, relentless enemy of the Cross; we have seen Saul at the Cross; Saul taking up the Cross; and Saul under the cross. Now I would like for us to look at the Agony of the Cross. Jesus never hid the truth about the Cross from His disciples. “The Way of the Cross Leads Home,” but it leads through the valley of the shadow of death. It truly is “despised by the world.” To follow the Cross through the centuries is to follow a trail of blood and tears. It is also a trail of victory over trials and circumstances. A trail of joy that in indescribable.

Jesus had told His disciples that they would suffer many things for His sake. In fact, when the risen Christ addressed His disciples before the Ascension, He states foresaw the cost of bearing His cross:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be My witnesses

in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:4‑8, HCSB).

You know what it means to witness an event. You know what it means to be a witness in court. Christians know what it means to witness to another person. But here is something some of you may not know: the Greek word translated witness is also the word from which we get the English word Martyr. In a very real sense, when the first century believer took up the Cross to follow Jesus he was taking his life in his own hands, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he or she was putting his or her life in the Lord’s hands.

We have been given our marching orders: “Take up your cross and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). Jesus in what we call The Great Commission, said, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:19‑20). At first, one may think Jesus, in Acts 1:8, is restating the Great Commission. A number of years ago, Mavis Allen, Editor of the “Outreach” Magazine, a publication of the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources), asked me to write an article on witnessing. As I recall, I wrote that Jesus was restating His Great Commission in Acts 1:8. In time, I came to understand that at this point He was not restating the Great Commission, He was announcing that as soon as the Holy Spirit came to indwell the Church and empower the saints, they would obey the Great Commission. In the power of the Holy Spirit, they would be His witnesses, beginning in Jerusalem, and Judea, and Samaria, and then throughout the world.


A. He Had to Flee for His Life from Damascus, Acts 9: 23 ff.

Luke records only a brief overview of the ministry of Saul of Tarsus in Damascus. Damascus was about 150 miles northeast from Jerusalem and about 200 miles from Antioch to the northwest. Paul had received authorization from the high priest to go to Damascus to persecute the followers of Christ there. From that, I would infer that there must have been a significant number of believers in Damascus, and that they had gotten the attention of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. After his conversion on the road to Damascus, young Saul was taken on into Damascus where three days later Ananias, one of the saints there, came to lay his hand on him and pray with him. Scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. Ananias announced that Jesus had called him to make him an apostle to the Gentiles, as well as a witness to the Jews, and that he would stand before kings with the Gospel.

He went immediately in to the desert to be alone with the Lord, and even though he may well have been back and forth between the wilderness and Damascus during that time, he spent three years in prayer and Bible study before he began to be persecuted for his work. He would wait several more years before he would become an actual missionary in the sense of going on missionary journeys. That does not mean that he was inactive.

“After many days had passed, the Jews conspired to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. So they were watching the gates day and night intending to kill him, but his disciples took him by night and lowered him in a large basket through [an opening in] the wall” (Acts 9:23‑25, (HCSB).

B. There Was no Welcome for Him in Jerusalem, Acts, Acts 9:26ff.

Luke, who had carefully researched everything concerning the birth, life, ministry, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ before he wrote the Gospel of Luke, would no doubt have carefully researched the information concerning the ministry of Paul. After all, he traveled with him, and ministered to him as his beloved physician for many years. Luke tells us of the return of Saul to Jerusalem after a three year absence. The cocky, arrogant young religious fanatic who marched off toward Damascus breathing threats and murder, returns a totally different man. He was no longer persecuting the church, but he was even more courageous. I am sure he anticipated a little apprehension among the saints in Jerusalem when he returned, but probably not so much distrust and fear. Barnabas took him under his wing and introduced him to the saints. In his Letter to the Galatians, Paul tells us that he was only in Jerusalem for a few days before Barnabas and other saints took him over to Caesarea and put him on a boat for Tarsus, his home. Luke gives a brief account of this:

“When he arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to associate with the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, since they did not believe he was a disciple. Barnabas, however, took him and brought him to the apostles and explained to them how, on the road, Saul had seen the Lord, and that He had talked to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. Saul was coming and going with them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. He conversed and debated with the Hellenistic Jews, but they attempted to kill him. When the brothers found out, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus” (Acts 9:26‑30).

Paul was in or around Tarsus for several years before Barnabas found him and told him that he was ministering in the church at Antioch of Syria and needed his help. Saul went to work with Barnabas and after a year, the Holy Spirit set them aside for a missionary journey into Gentile lands.

Paul was very fortunate to have had a man like Barnabas to take him under his wing at a critical time in his life. There was a time when John Mark, who had accompanied them on the first missionary journey, turned back when the going got tough. Later, Paul refused to give John Mark another opportunity. Barnabas, true to his nature and character, stood by John Mark. Paul would later acknowledge the important role Mark played in his ministry. John Mark was very fortunate to have a Barnabas to help him. There have probably been times when you sensed the need for a Barnabas more than a Paul. Paul, however would continue to grow in the Lord and become the model for missions for all time.

We have the Four Gospels that set forth the life of Christ, and we have other books, like Revelation and the epistles of John, Peter, James and Jude. However, if you want to understand the basic doctrines of the Christian faith, you must read the Epistles of Paul. This one man suffered greatly for the Lord, but Oh, what a powerful cross-bearer he was. And what a price he paid for it!


A. He Faced Intense Persecution and Death on Every Hand for the Lord, 1 Cor. 11:23-27.

Paul, was not the egotistical braggart some have charged. He was inspired to write his testimony, and even then he is somewhat embarrassed to do so: “I’m talking like a madman,” he says. In responding to those who were trying to destroy his message by attacking the messenger, he offers a brief overview of the persecution and torture to which he had been subjected because of his preaching and his revolutionary message. He had taken up the Cross and it had led him through some severe trials. Some of his critics had obviously tried to impress the church at Corinth with their testimonies of suffering for the cause of Christ:

Are they servants of Christ? I’m talking like a madman—I’m a better one: with far more labors, many more imprisonments, far worse beatings, near death many times. Five times I received from the Jews 40 lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned (2 Cor 11:23‑25a, HCSB).

B. He Was Also Weighted Down By Problems of Churches and Individuals, 1 Cor, 11:28-30.

Not only had Paul been subjected to intense persecution at the hands of the enemies of the Cross, he had also faced trials beyond my ability to comprehend. He tells it in his own words:

Three times I was shipwrecked. I have spent a night and a day in the depths of the sea. On frequent journeys, I faced dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own people, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the open country, dangers on the sea, and dangers among false brothers; labor and hardship, many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, often without food, cold, and lacking clothing (2 Cor 11:25b‑27).


A. The Cross Meant Death to Many, Including Most if Not All the Apostles.

Jesus made no secret of the fact that taking up the Cross might well mean hanging from a cross. In one of His post-resurrection appearances, Jesus foretold the death of Simon Peter:

“I assure you: When you were young, you would tie your belt and walk wherever you wanted. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will tie you and carry you where you don’t want to go.” He said this to signify by what kind of death he would glorify God. After saying this, He told him, “Follow Me!”

Peter turned around and saw the disciple Jesus loved following them. That disciple was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and asked, “Lord, who is the one that’s going to betray You?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord—what about him?” (John 21:18-21).

This is especially interesting, for a number of reasons. Jesus told Simon Peter that he would be bound and led to the place of execution. This is the price he would pay for following Jesus. Peter then did what human beings are naturally inclined to do. He looked over and saw John and asked, “Lord, what about him?” Peter was all too human. His eyes were on the Lord, up to a point. He also had an eye on John. He was obviously thinking, “If I am going to pay such a price for taking up the Cross, what about John? If he is not going to pay as great a price as I, it is not fair!”

Jesus had an answer for Simon Peter: ““If I want him to remain until I come,” Jesus answered, “what is that to you? As for you, follow Me” (John 21:22). Word spread rapidly that John would be living when Jesus returned, but John corrects that report: So this report spread to the brothers that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not tell him that he would not die, but, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?” (John 21:23).

What is the lesson we learn from this? (1) Jesus is sovereign, I am not. (2) He has a plan for each and ever life, a plan that is specific and unique for that individual. (3) We are not to focus on the cross another person bears for the Lord. (4) We must look to Jesus. It is His call. He the Lord.

When the Lord tells us to take up our cross and follow Him, He does mean an individual cross. Simon Peter had his cross to bear and John had his own cross to bear. Each individual has his or her place in God’s plan. Billy Graham has been a model for evangelists in many ways throughout his life and ministry. There could hardly be a greater example. However, each evangelist must keep his eye on the Lord and not Billy Graham. Franklin Graham is not Billy Graham. His call is unique. It is far better for Franklin Graham to be Franklin Graham than a carbon copy of his father. And what a courageous witness he is!

When the Lord calls a pastor there is a lot he can learn from more experienced pastors. He is especially blessed if that pastor encourages the young preacher to continually focus his mind on the Lord. God is sovereign and he has a cross for each individual that is unique to him. When I was a student pastor while I was at Mississippi College, I drove back and forth from MC to Sledge every week. I often had other students who rode with me. If three of four students rode with me and each one gave me the traditional dollar each way, that went a long way toward paying for the gas at a time when you could buy three gallons or more for a dollar.

One young man who rode with me from his hometown back to Mississippi College a time or two was so quiet you had to ask a question to get a response. He said the Lord had called him to preach, but you couldn’t help but wonder what kind of preaching he might do. After I graduated, that young man, Arthur Blessitt, moved in with my old roommate, Ernest Sadler. Several years later, Ernie told me that Arthur was walking across the country carrying a huge cross on his shoulder. I made the observation that I would never have expected such a ministry for Arthur. Ernie said, “That is exactly the kind of thing I would expect of him.” He spent years walking across the country, and around the world, carrying that cross and sharing his testimony. His was a unique ministry, but then each ministry is unique.

B. Many Early Believers Paid a High Price for Bearing the Cross.

1) Stephen became the first martyr. Stephen was one of the seven Hellenistic Jews set apart to minister to the needs of the widows and orphans after charges were made that the Hellenistic widows were being overlooked in the distribution of food. His powerful testimony for Christ led to charges of blasphemy and he was dragged before the Sanhedrin where the high priest demanded answers about what he had been saying. Stephen delivered a courageous sermon, which concluded with a bold charge:

“You stiff‑necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit; as your forefathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They even killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become. You received the law under the direction of angels and yet have not kept it” (Acts 8:51-53).

How did the leaders of the Jews respond to such a charge? The Scripture says, “ When they heard these things, they were enraged in their hearts and gnashed their teeth at him” (Acts 8:54).

But Stephen, filled by the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven. He saw God’s glory, with Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 

“Then they screamed at the top of their voices, stopped their ears, and rushed together against him. They threw him out of the city and began to stone him. And the witnesses laid their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul” (8:57-58).

They were stoning Stephen as he called out: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin!” And saying this, he fell asleep (Acts 7:51‑60).

The martyrdom of Stephen motivated young Saul of Tarsus and others to launch an unprecedented persecution of the saints. The testimony and prayer of the martyred Stephen was something the Apostle Paul could never forget

2) James, the brother of John, was martyred in A. D. 44, Acts 12:2.

NOTE: I am depending on ancient traditions for the following examples of early church martyrs who took up their cross and followed Jesus, knowing what the cost might be.

3) Philip of Bethsaida was a martyr. According to tradition, Philip, who was the first to be called a disciple, served faithfully in Upper Asia and suffered martyrdom at Heliopolis in Phrygia. He was scourged, thrown into prison, and then crucified in A. D. 54.

4) Matthew wrote his Gospel account in Hebrew and it was later translated into Greek by James the Less. He worked in Parthia and Ethiopia until he was slain with a halberd in Nadabah in A. D. 60.

5) There was James the Less. At the age of 94 he was beaten and stoned by the Jews. Finally, he had his brains bashed out with a fuller’s club.

6) Matthais was stoned at Jerusalem and beheaded.

7) Andrew preached in Asiatic nations and was crucified at Edessa on and X-shaped cross.

8) Mark was dragged to pieces in Alexandria before a pagan idol.

9) Peter was crucified up-side down in Rome. According to tradition, he stated that he did not deserve to dies in the same manner as his Lord and asked to be crucified up-side down.

10) Jude was crucified in Odessa in A. D. 72.

11) Bartholomew translated the Gospel of Matthew into the language of India. He was beaten and crucified by idolaters.

12) Thomas preached in Parthia, where the pagan priests raged against him. He was thrusts through with a sword.

13) Luke is supposed to have been hanged on an olive tree by idolatrous priests in Greece.

14) Simon Zelotes preached in Mauritania, Africa, and even in Britain where he was crucified in A. D. 74.

15) John, the beloved disciple of the Lord, lived many years beyond the other apostles, working for a long time in and around Ephesus. According to some reports, he founded the churches of Smyrna, Pergamos, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea, and Thyatira. That tradition may have come from the fact that these were six of the seven churches that received letters from the Lord in the Revelation.

John was inspired to write the Fourth Gospel, the Three Epistles of John, and the Revelation. According to tradition, he was sent to Rome where he was sentenced to be thrown into a caldron of boiling oil, but somehow escaped that end and returned to Ephesus. Eventually, he was sent into exile on the Isle of Patmos to try to silence him. While on Patmos, Jesus gave him the Revelation, which was then sent to the churches listed in the Revelation. Copies would have been made, and then the original would be sent on to other churches to encourage them during their trials.

According to some traditions, John was the only Apostle to escape a violent death. Others believe he was thrown alive into the caldron of boiling oil. What we do know is that John, was probably the youngest apostle, outlived all the others and taught Christian leaders for many years. Well into the Second Century, disciples of John were giving testimonies about what he taught them.

C. Christians Throughout the Ages, Have Paid a Price to Follow Jesus.

1) Some of the saints were victims of persecution. A man named Justin (100-165 A. D.), born in the ancient city of Shechem in Samaria, was reared by pagan parents, and sought answers to his questions in the philosophies of the day. The philosopher became a Christian in Ephesus and moved to Rome where he opened a Christian school. When Justin was arrested in Rome the prefect demanded that he denounce his faith and offer sacrifices to pagan gods. Justin replied, “No one who is rightly minded turns from true belief to false.” Later when he and his disciples were arrested the prefect threatened them with death if they did not reject their Christian beliefs. Justin said, “If we are punished for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ, we hope to be saved.” They were taken out and beheaded. Since he gave his life for the Lord Jesus Christ, he was given the surname Martyr and he is still remembered as Justin Martyr.

He was one of countless martyrs slaughtered by gladiators or torn to pieces by half-starved animals in the Roman arena to entertain the blood-thirsty crowds. Some believers were impaled on sharpened poles and set afire to light the emperor’s garden at night. Others were crucified or beheaded because of their faith in Jesus Christ. Remember, in Acts 1:8, Jesus told His followers, “you shall receive power after the Holy Spirit is come upon you, and you shall be my (martyrs)...”

2) Many believers have exhausted themselves beneath the cross. Paul was persecuted, and in the end beheaded for his commitment to Christ. He also faced “dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own people, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the open country, dangers on the sea, and dangers among false brothers; labor and hardship, many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, often without food, cold, and lacking clothing” (2 Cor 11:26‑28).

There are countless examples we could note. Recently, a man in Afghanistan was sentenced to death when it was learned that he had converted to Christianity. Muslim clerics demanded his death, insisting that he deserved to die. President Bush stressed that we set that country free and helped them set up a democratic form of judgment, and this is not the way a democracy functions. In time, the political leaders released the man and let him fly to Italy. The Muslim religious leaders wanted the man dead. “The Voice of Martyrs” chronicles the persecution of Christians, both in history and in the world today.

Countless others serve, and have served, in spite of hardships. Helen Keller was blind and deaf. Fannie Crosby was blind. Others have broken their health beneath their cross. Such a person was David Brainerd. His zeal for his Savior and his desire to see the Indians saved drove him to push beyond his own endurance, exposing himself to the elements as few people ever have. In his diary dated, Sept. 1, 1746, He wrote:

Set out on a journey toward a place called The Great Island, about 50 miles from Shaumoking, on the north-west branch of the Susquehanna. Traveled some part of the way, and at night lodged in the woods. Was exceedingly feeble this day, and sweat much the night following.

On Sept. 2, 1746, he wrote:

Rode forward, but no faster than my people went on foot. Was very weak on this, as well as the preceding days. I was so feeble and faint, that I feared it would kill me to lie out in the open air; and some of our company being parted from us, so that we had no axe with us, I had no way but to climb into a young pine-tree, and with my knife to lop the branches, and so make a shelter from the dew. But the evening being cloudy, with respect to rain, I sweat much, so that my linen was wringing wet all night. I scarcely ever was more weak and weary than this evening, when I was able to sit up at all.

David Brainerd was no hypochondriac. He died of tuberculosis when he was thirty years old in the home of Jonathan Edwards, who counted himself blessed to have been privileged to listen to the prayers of David Brainerd. Brainerd, by the way was engaged to the daughter of Jonathan Edwards.

Think of a Billy Sunday and there is a Billy Graham; Think of a William Carey and there is a Lottie Moon; think of a John Wesley and there is a George Whiefield. Think of a great scholar or denominational worker, and we can point to another who has made a similar contribution. Point to David Brainerd, and, well..., there is David Brainerd. Jonathan Edwards wrote:

I would not conclude these reflections without a grateful acknowledgment of the mercy of God in the circumstances of Brainerd’s death, and especially the gracious dispensation of Providence to me and my family, in so ordering that he, though the ordinary place of his abode was more than two hundred miles distant, should be brought to my house in his last sickness, and should die here. Thus we had opportunity for much acquaintance and conversation with him, to show him kindness in such circumstances, to see his dying behavior, to hear his dying speeches, to receive his dying counsels, and to have the benefit of his dying prayers....

David Brainerd did not want his diary published, but after his death Jonathan Edwards felt that this testimony should be shared with others. When David Brainerd took up the cross he followed Jesus with incredible devotion. That opportunity is available to every saints today, not the circumstances, but the opportunity to serve Him, holding nothing back..

D. Modern Day Believers Continue to Pay a Price to Bear the Cross.

1) Taking up one’s cross is a serious matter. Before you can take up your cross and follow Jesus, you must know that you have been to the Cross, that you know the Christ of the Cross. There at Calvary, God was in Christ Jesus reconciling the world unto Himself. Every person who believes in Jesus Christ will come under the blood of Christ, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sins. William R. Newell expressed it like this:

Years I spent in vanity and pride,

Caring not that my Lord was crucified,

Knowing not that it was for me He died

On Calvary.

By God’s Word at last my sin I learned;

Then I trembled at the law I’s spurned,

Till my guilty soul imploring turned

To Calvary.

Now I’ve given to Jesus everything,

Now I gladly own Him as my King,

Now my raptured soul can only sing

Of Calvary.

Oh, the love that drew salvation’s plan!

Oh, the grace that brought it down to man!

Oh the mighty gulf that God did span

At Calvary

Mercy there was great and grace was free;

Pardon there was multiplied to me;

There my burdened soul found liberty

At Calvary.

Have you been to Calvary? Have you been washed in the blood of the Lamb of God? Then you have been called to take up your cross and follow Jesus, wherever He leads, whenever He leads, however He leads, to whomever He leads.

2) For some, it means persecution and death, as in Communist and Islamic nations today. It is not easy for a Christian in America to identify with the sufferings of a believer in Communist China or Islamic Iran, but if we do not have a revival in America our children or our grandchildren may be persecuted for the cause of Christ. In fact, many people are being persecuted today in America, they are just not being tortured.

3) For some it mans a life of sacrificial service. This is not a life reserved for pastors and missionaries. All believers are commanded to be His witnesses.

4) For others, it means encountering the enemy at the point of attack. I believe it was Martin Luther who said that if you don’t meet the enemy at the point of attack you have denied the Lord, regardless of how loudly you profess to follow Him. Don Wildmon founded the American Family Association for that very reason. James Dopson founded Focus on the Family to confront Satan at the point of attack.

5) You and I are under the same marching orders as soldiers of the Cross today. Take up your cross and follow Him. We are not told to hide behind the Cross, to redefine the Cross, or to treat it as some good luck charm; we are told to take up the our cross and follow Jesus.


I was overwhelmed, when on March 28, 2006. I received a package from Major Andy Shoffner. His father, retired General Dutch Shoffner, is a good friend who has told his son that we are praying for him and his men as they fight against terrorists in Iraq. I opened the package and found a letter expressing appreciation for our prayers, a picture of Old Glory flying beside the Iraqi colors, a flag, a certificate of authenticity, and a picture of Major Shoffner and his men. Let me read something from that certificate of authenticity:

Ready First Combat Team

Certificate of Authenticity

Presented to

Dr. Johnny L. Sanders

Your flag was officially flown in the face of the enemy at the

Ready First Combat Team Tactical Operations Center

Forward Operating Base Sykes, Tal Afar, Iraq on

16 MARCH 2006

There are other notations and then there are the signatures of the Commanding Officer, and the Command Sergeant Major. Okay, that is reason enough for any true patriot to be overwhelmed, but what does that have to do with bearing the cross? I thought you would never ask! Listen to the words again:

Your flag was officially flown in the face of the enemy!!!

We must bear the Cross in the face of the enemy. Everyone is not going to like us. Everyone is not going to welcome us. The world will hate us, and the more visible the Cross is in your life the more the world will hate you. Let me ask you now, are you playing it safe, or are you bearing your cross in the face of the enemy? You must first come to the Cross; place your faith in Jesus, asking Him for His salvation. Then you must take up your cross and follow Him.

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