Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would 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? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?
(Matthew 16:24-26 ESV)
Over the past few days we’ve studied Jesus’ prediction that He would go to Jerusalem only to be mistreated and killed. These words shocked and confused the disciples. But Jesus’ comments today would have shocked them even more. In this passage Jesus tells His disciples, which includes Christians today, that we must go through the same things as He if we want to come after (follow) Him.
First, one must deny himself. The Greek word for “deny” here is an imperative verb meaning “to completely disown”. This is the same word used to describe Peter’s denial of Jesus after He was arrested [Matthew 26:70, 72, 74].
Jesus calls on His followers to categorically renounce our sinful, rebellious nature. We are to want no part of it. We are to believe, as Paul did, that there is nothing good indwelling us [Romans 7:18] and that we have nothing to commend ourselves before God. Only the person who recognizes how sinful he is who can experience God’s forgiveness [Luke 18:14].
Second, one must take up his cross. Today we wear crosses around our necks as decorations. But the cross originated as a cruel implementor of a slow, tortuous death. Jesus’ listeners would have seen it as such.
A person sentenced to be crucified was forced to carry the very cross they would be nailed to through the streets to the place of execution. Someone who was carrying his cross was, therefore, on a death march. The outcome would be gruesome. It would be shameful. It would be excruciatingly painful. It would not be changed.
Jesus’ followers must be willing to endure the same for His sake. While this may not involve being killed (although it might), following Jesus is a one-way trip. We can’t be holding onto the things of the past, including our past self. We must be willing to lose all that we could be in this world. .
This is what it takes to follow Jesus. Anyone who is unwilling to give up his worldly, earthly life will lose out when it comes to eternity, as we learned previously [Matthew 10:37-39]. Note that Jesus is not talking about temporary hardship here, such as losing a job. He is talking about intentionally adopting a lifestyle that will most assuredly bring persecution (especially in our day) yet never wavering and instead continuing to move forward behind Jesus’ lead.
This passage (and others) clearly debunk the prosperity gospel. God never promises anyone a life of ease and luxury. Don’t believe anyone who tells you He does. He promises just the opposite. There are blessings awaiting those who believe, for sure. But those come later. There is a suffering before glory. There is losing before winning.
There is nothing in the whole world worth forfeiting one’s soul over. One’s soul is eternal. It is therefore the most precious thing one has. As famous missionary Jim Elliot said: “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
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