“If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny[i] himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26)
There is no statement anywhere in the whole of the Bible any more fundamental or important than these words Jesus spoke immediately after He spoke of His own future suffering. All of the Law and Prophets speak of Jesus. (John 5:31) Jesus was approaching the nadir of the purpose for which He, God stripped of His glory, became man. As the disciples rebuked Jesus about talking about future suffering, Jesus spoke these words.
As Jesus looked forward to His own suffering, He looked back to His disciples and said, “If you would follow Me, you must be all in.” Jesus was ready to set the example, and he pointedly instructed His disciples what it would mean to follow Him. They must have taken His words figuratively, as they had no idea Jesus would hang in a literal cross not long thereafter.
I cannot imagine anything that would stick in the disciples’ minds more than these words as they soon became front row participants in the Passion Play.
We cannot be reminded too often of what it means to follow Jesus. God is always challenging us to be all in. “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” Paul would later echo Jesus’s words when he said: “Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal 5:24) (Putting the old self to death by submitting all decisions (desires) to the Lord and utterly, decisively rejecting living independently from Him.)
But, Jesus did not leave it there. He went on to paint a picture of what lies ahead for the followers who take up their crosses. When He asked the follow up question – “what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” – He gave them two alternatives: 1) the World; or 2) the Kingdom of the Son of God.
We can give up our souls in exchange for the World, or we can give up our souls in exchange for the Kingdom of God. When we give up our souls for the Kingdom of God, giving up the World and everything in it, we gain eternal life!
With the proper perspective, it is a “no-brainer”: pursue life in the World ending in death or pursue the Kingdom of God now with eternal life awaiting us.
We need to be clear on what Jesus means here. Jesus is not talking about “self-made religion[ii] and self-abasement[iii] and severe[iv] treatment of the body”. (These things are “of no value against fleshly indulgence.” Col. 2:23) Jesus us talking about submission of the heart to Him, following God rather than the dictates of self. The “life” Jesus instructs us to give up is the life of self-control and self-determination.
What does it profit a man to control his own destiny? What does it profit a man to do what he pleases and follow his own dictates?
We give self-control and self-determination up in exchange for a life controlled and directed by God. We deny (turn away) from self and follow after (turn toward) God.
The profit of a man who denies self is God’s reward, the Kingdom of God, the life that He extends to us if we let go of the life we have (or think we have or think we want to have).
The video following the expanded word definitions from The Discovery Bible below provides a short, but powerful, demonstration of the life we give up and the life we gain on either side of God’s equation. [v]
[i] 533/Aparnéomai (from 575/apó, “from” which intensifies 720/arnéomai, “deny”) – literally, deny, focusing back on what was originally refused (rejected, forsaken). Note the force of the prefix, 575/apó (“away from”).
Since arnéomai already means “deny,” aparnéomai suggests “strongly reject” (especially the source) – utterly refusing to recognize the original source involved. Hence aparnéomai can imply “ignore, disown, or repudiate”. Denying self-renounces our “right” to go our own way. “To deny oneself is . . . to turn away from the idolatry of self-centeredness”. (C. E. B. Cranfield, Mark, 281) Those who belong to Christ “have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:24).
[ii] 1479/Ethelothrēskeía (from 2309/thélō, “desire” and 2356/thrēskeía, “religion”) – literally, self-willed religion, defined by the desires of the human will (“self-produced religion, piety”). Asceticism achieves “self-made sanctification” but is no substitute for living faith. Severely treating the physical body – to better know God spiritually – is misguided and unfruitful.
[iii] 5012/Tapeinophrosýnē (a noun, derived from 5011/tapeinós, “low, humble” and 5424/phrēn, “moderation as regulated by inner perspective”) – literally, low; humility, “lowliness” of human pride (self-government); a mind-set of humble opinion of oneself (a deep sense of one’s moral littleness, J. Thayer). For believers, tapeinophrosýnē (“humility”) means living in complete dependence on the Lord, i.e. with no reliance on self (the flesh). True humility is not low self-esteem, nor does it avoid bold obedience to God. Lowliness (true humility) recognizes one’s “littleness of self-significance” – in and of oneself (apart from the Lord’s grace). Therefore the believer looks to the Lord to find their exalted sense of worth.
[iv] 857/Apheidía – (from 1/A “not” and 5339/pheídomai, “to spare”) – literally, unsparing severity referring to a “severe form of self-control” based on an ascetic, unsparing attitude”. Apheidia (“severe treatment”) is used only in Col 2:23 and refers to the vain effort of artificial religious (ascetic) standards to find God’s approval – like mistreating the physical body (which supposedly enhances spiritual growth). This effort of the flesh fails to please God. Instead, the Lord desires the submission of the heart (cf. Mk 12;30,31) – not inflicting self-imposed hardships
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