I recently finished reading a book, Killing Christians: Living the Faith Where It’s Not Safe to Believe by Tom Doyle. We talk about persecution here and there is a little to talk about, but the people whose stories are in this book can tell you about real persecution. I found myself wondering how we would do under the conditions they endure. Across the Middle East today, being a Christian may cost you your life. We fear a bit of ridicule or even a bit of discrimination. They may face torture of themselves or family members, rape, or beheading. As I read I had a thought. Jesus asks no less from all of us than these are compelled to give. Our heads may be safe for now, but what about our hearts? Are we prepared to give Him everything we are and everything we have? That is what He asks.
We are correctly taught that salvation is a free gift. What does that mean? It means we didn’t do anything to earn it. We don’t deserve it. The problem arises when we don’t know it’s value and fail to treat it with due respect. We are like the stereotypical spoiled rich kid. We think we have a right to it. We treat it lightly because we fail to appreciate what we have. We may even acknowledge the truth, but our lives don’t reflect it.
It’s different when we feel we’ve earned something. By definition then it is not a gift. We understand its value because we worked for it. We treasure and guard it.
What is necessary for us to take the same attitude toward the gift? We must come to understand its true value. There is no price we can pay to obtain salvation for ourselves. We must come to know the cost to the giver. This concept isn’t foreign to us. A gift may be of little monetary value, but if we know that a loved one made a sacrifice to give it, we place a higher value on it. In the case of salvation, the gift is beyond value and it cost Jesus everything.
We must realize that we desperately need it and don’t deserve it. The very idea that we are all sinners is abhorrent to our society. We have put man in the place of God. We have decided that we, not He, determine what is good. Evil, if usually acknowledged, is never applied to ourselves. To appreciate what God has done for us, we have to come to a place where we are conscious of our unworthiness. When we get a glimpse of His holiness, we can’t help but know that we are doomed unless He chooses to show mercy.
He does so choose, and when we commit ourselves to Him, everything changes. He has bought us with the price of his own life (1 Co 6:20.) He did so freely, but in accepting that gift, we give our lives in return. Whether we live in Palestine of Israel or Palestine of Texas, the call is the same.
24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. 25 For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? 27 “For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and ‘will then repay every man according to his deeds.'” (Matt 16:24-27 NASB)
A lot is happening in the chapter where these verses are found. The context is important, so let’s look at it. In verses 13-20 Jesus reveals Himself to the disciples by means of Peter’s confession. Verse 18 famously gives Peter his new name and contains the proclamation can I think has layered meaning, but that’s another topic that requires more research on my part. But peter’s revelation was not complete, as we see from what happens next.
Jesus goes on to foretell what will happen to Him when they get to Jerusalem. (v. 21) This isn’t the conclusion to the story that the disciples were expecting. Peter speaks up (22-23) and earns the stinging rebuke, “get behind me, Satan.” Why? He had a revelation of who Jesus was, but not what that meant. He’s thinking like we all do. A king comes to conquer, not to die. But Jesus will conquer death itself by dying.
Peter essentially says something we’ve all heard in some form today. “God wouldn’t do that!’ But He did do that, and it’s a very good thing He did. When we oppose God because we think that we know better what He should be doing, we are on the side of Satan. We would do well to remember this.
Next comes the passage above. We don’t know how much of a time gap is between them or that they are necessarily in order. We do know that Mark’s version says he gathered a crowd before he spoke these words (Mark 8:34.) The significant detail is that both writers group the events together. They have the same message. It is in the context of sacrifice that Jesus outlines what it means to be His disciple. He outlines what it takes with three points. A disciple must, “deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” Let’s look at each one.
What does it mean to deny oneself? Some things are obvious. If the Bible clearly says something is sinful, we should resist the temptation to do it. We should resist any impulse or desire that would cause hurt to another. But Jesus’ statement goes further than that. Look at what just happened. Of course we deny the lusts of the flesh, but we also put aside our own plans. We reject our own ideas about how things should be or what we want them to be. We subject our interests to His. The day of His return will come. Then he will conquer and He will judge. But that is for Him to do. We will be with Him then, but we are here now, and He gave us the example to follow and the Holy Spirit to guide us.
Self-denial is not an end in itself. Neither is it a ritual to be practiced so that we appear more religious. That turns the whole concept upside down. That’s what the Pharisees did, and Jesus didn’t have anything good to say about it. God is not pleased by self-inflicted pain or privation. He is pleased when we endure it for something greater. We deny ourselves in order to put Him and His first.
The second point would have been very real to the people Jesus was speaking to. They saw crucifixions first hand. He’s just been telling then what is going to happen to Him. Mark’s account says he spoke plainly to them. Now He has taken it to another level. If there was any vagary in what He said before, it’s gone now. Not only that, He’s saying, “you too!” The disciples are going to be thinking right up to the time he ascends that He’s going to set up a kingdom and they’ll get prime positions. But He is showing them a very different path.
Then He says, “Follow Me.” To follow Him is to die. We die to our desires, our plans, and our ideals. We may be called upon to give up our physical lives. Nothing here is worth hanging onto. The truth is that’s the only way we can really live! That’s what He tells us in the next verse.
When we’re focused on ourselves, we will find that happiness is fleeting. Nothing in this world can sustain it. Read Ecclesiastes. In pursuit of our own desires above all else we will drive others away. Sometimes with intent and sometimes through negligence or apathy, we will do harm to them as well. In living this way we will completely miss God. If this is the pattern of our lives, we need to ask ourselves if we ever met Him. 1 John, Chapter 3 makes it clear.
Then there’s the other side, “…whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” The key words here are “for My sake.” Know that your life is precious to Him. He gave it to you. He gave up His for you. He will not tell you to throw it away. You may be assured that a life dedicated to Him, even if shorter than we think it should be, is lever lost. The way to truly lose your life is to spend it on things that have no eternal value.
Will we here in the West be required to offer our earthly lives for Him? Only He knows. The persecuted church around the world certainly has. Here we have had only isolated incidents, but if we keep on the way we are going, they will increase. What will we do?
We will do then what we do now. The call on our fellow believers in places like Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Iran, and across the world is no different than ours. We serve the same Jesus. We read the same Bible. The language may change, but the truth does not. Will we stand up for the truth now? Will we defend the helpless? Are we willing to sacrifice a little of our comfort to meet the needs around us? Will we choose righteousness when it costs us something? If we won’t do it when it’s relatively easy, what makes us thing we would do it when things get tough? I ask myself the same questions.
But if we truly give our lives, we will find real life. We will find it in the joy that comes from blessing others. We will find it in the reward that comes from doing things God’s way. Life just works better when you live according to God’s design. Trouble still comes, but in the midst of it we can have the peace that comes from communion with the Holy Spirit. We will find it as we enter into the joy of our master (Matt 25:14-30.) We will find it in eternal life with Him.
Next Jesus tells us how serious this is for us. This truly is a life or death decision. Choose to live for yourself, and you will face death forever. Choose to die to yourself, and He will give you real life. What is the price of your soul? All the treasure in the world can’t buy it. Only One could pay the price, and He loved you enough to do it. He is our master. He paid the price for us. We either submit to His lordship or we live in rebellion against it. The day will come when we must answer for our decision.
He has told us that He is coming back. He will judge the world. The problem is we’re all guilty. We’ve all missed the mark of perfection. It is only because of what He did for us that we have hope. He served our sentence. Yet we are not without responsibility. Mark’s Gospel records this final warning in Jesus’ sermon.
“For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:38)
The paradox here has been a topic of hot debate between theologians for centuries. Millennia is probably more like it, but more recent records are better known. I won’t go into that much here, but I find interesting the cross references to the part of Jesus’ statement that is considered to be a quote from Old Testament passages. They present an interesting contrast and define our mission.
And lovingkindness is Yours, O Lord, For You recompense a man according to his work. (Psalm 62:12)
The psalmist has just contrasted man’s insignificance with God’s power in the previous verses. Here, lovingkindness, (or faithful love, loyal love, mercy) is equated with this judgment. Love isn’t love without justice, but justice demands we all pay a price. Because of His love for us, He paid that price. Our salvation comes from His work, not ours. But when we become His, we get a mission. If we truly have given our lives to Him, things will begin to change. The next reference shows us something of what it looks like and serves as another warning. The reference is to verse 12 below, but that’s part of a related grouping.
10 If you are slack in the day of distress, your strength is limited. 11 Deliver those who are being taken away to death, and those who are staggering to slaughter, Oh hold them back. 12 If you say, “See, we did not know this,” Does He not consider it who weighs the hearts? And does He not know it who keeps your soul? And will He not render to man according to his work? (Proverbs 24:10-12)
We have a job to do. We have been given a gift. It is the most valuable gift ever given. The One who gave it to us expects that we will share it. The nature of the gift compels us. It is the gift of life. No one truly lives without it. He who gave it to us is watching. What will we do? Another proverb comes to mind.
27 Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it. 28 Do not say to your neighbor, “Go, and come back, and tomorrow I will give it,” when you have it with you. (Prov 3:27-28 NASB)
This has more to do with the physical realm, but how much more the message of the Gospel? There’s an implication of asking here, and surely none of us who believe would delay sharing if asked directly. But it should never be far from our thoughts. Knowing that so many around us will die without what we have, how can we keep silent?
I think Paul packages it neatly in these verses from his letter to the Ephesians.
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (Eph. 2:8-10)
Salvation is a free gift that we can’t earn no matter how many good works we do. But God gave it to us with the intent that we would in fact do good works. Jesus gave His life for us. When we become His, our faith demands action. We give our lives for Him. That is only possible because of Him.
We’ll be arguing about the details until His return. We don’t need to have all the answers. We just need to trust The Answer. Trust Him with everything.