Our Great Salvation, 6

discipleship-copy

Saved by Losing, Matthew 16:25

For anyone who keeps his life for himself shall lose it; and anyone who loses his life for me shall find it again. (TLB)

Paradoxical words, indeed! But this wasn’t the first time Jesus said them:

If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give it up for me, you will save it. (Matthew 10:39 TLB)

This verse forms part of one of the most significant sayings of Jesus that begins with verse 24:

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24 TLB)

Jesus had been discussing His impending death with His disciples:

From then on Jesus began to speak plainly to his disciples about going to Jerusalem, and what would happen to him there—that he would suffer at the hands of the Jewish leaders, that he would be killed, and that three days later he would be raised to life again. (Matthew 16:21 TLB)

The thrust of Jesus’ words must have caught His followers off-guard. Not only must Christ face the Cross, but so must His disciples. If ever a teaching deals a death-blow to the “casual Christian” notion, it’s this section in Matthew. According to Jesus, there is no such thing as a “casual Christian.” If a person wants to follow Jesus—to take on His Name—they must do some pretty radical things. The servant is not above his master, and if Jesus, the Master, gave His all for us, then we must give our all TO Him and FOR Him. And the thing is, it’s not an option! Living your life means you must first lose it, because if you lose it for the sake of Christ, you’ll find it. That’s the essence of discipleship.

Let’s take a closer look at our Lord’s teaching on discipleship and see if we are ready to be His disciples.

Self-denial is the key

Even though Jesus is talking to His disciples here, the teaching is really for anybody the least bit interested in following Jesus:

If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24 TLB)

Someone wrote: “Self denial are the words written over the gateway to the kingdom of God.” It’s a highly unpopular topic in our narcissistic society that tells us “we” are the most important person in our lives and that our needs are more important than anybody else’s. Apparently this was problem 2,000 years ago, too.

Verse 24 is actually spoken in rabbinical language, which makes sense since Jesus was a rabbi. A “disciple” is a “learner,” somebody who follows after another, learning from them. Traditionally, the disciple of a rabbi would leave home, his family and friends, and literally follow his rabbi.

Following Jesus, though, requires the ultimate in self-denial: one must literally disown one’s self. The Jews disowned the Messiah, but His followers must disown themselves. This act of self-denial is the highest form of humility. It involves seeing yourself as God sees you: a sinner in need of saving; a redeemed sinner in need of His constant care, provision, and direction. For the self-sufficient type, seeing yourself dependent on anybody is huge pill to swallow. It means admitting that you don’t have all the answers; that you don’t have all the resources; that you need Someone bigger than yourself to look after you.

Not only must believers assume that attitude, they must also “take up His cross.” That’s a difficult phrase to get a handle on, but essentially it means roughly what Paul wrote elsewhere:

Your old evil desires were nailed to the cross with him; that part of you that loves to sin was crushed and fatally wounded, so that your sin-loving body is no longer under sin’s control, no longer needs to be a slave to sin… (Romans 6:6 TLB)

I have been crucified with Christ: and I myself no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the real life I now have within this body is a result of my trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 TLB)

Taking up your cross” was supposed to have occurred the moment you claimed Christ as Savior, but it is also refers to a continuing characteristic of a disciple of Christ. It means being “dead to sin” in the sense that sin has no claim on you because, well, you’re dead to it. But it also means being “dead to yourself,” meaning you no longer live for yourself—you no longer live the way you may want to live; doing the things you may want to do. Now, you live for Christ; you do the things that He wants you to do.

The great disciple, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, once made this important observation:

Discipleship means adherence to the person of Jesus, and therefore submission to the law of Christ which is the law of the cross.

Deny,” “take up,” and finally, “follow” Christ. That last word, “follow” is written in the present tense, meaning a continuous action. Yes, following Jesus is something Christians are supposed to be doing all the time, everyday of the week, not just on Sunday in church. Following Jesus is to be the lifelong ambition of all who call themselves “Christians.”

Letting go means hanging on

For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? (Matthew 16:25, 26 NIV)

Jesus’ logic is sure and unrelenting. If you want to follow Him, He insists on total commitment. This is something a lot of us have trouble with. But Jesus will not yield and concede ground to the “casusal Christian” on this point. If you can’t give Him your all, don’t waste your time with giving Him some.

Our Lord demands that the person following Him have the same commitment to Him that He has to them. Jesus has shown us how much He loves us and how much He is committed to us by suffering and dying for our sins. He gave His life for us! And this is what He expects from us. He is looking for people who would risk everything to be counted as one of His disciples.

Jesus really nails it with verse 26, driving His point straight through our hearts. Being good followers of Jesus is up to us. It is not something God will make happen in us. But Jesus makes it clear that “eternal life” is the reward for the good disciple. This reward is like the carrot dangling in front of the horse. It’s a motivation for the Christian: would you rather be in possession of all the so-called good things of this temporary life or would you rather be in possession of eternal life, which never goes away. The awful thing, though, is that the “things of this world,” temporary though they may be, have the capacity to rob you of the gift of eternal life. To this, Jesus says, “What good are all the things of this world if they can do that?” Well, the answer is they are not good at all; they are highly dangerous to the Christian. Many a believer has become a sloppy disciple because he became more interested in living for himself than living for Christ. And before you ask, you CANNOT do both at the same time.

That great troubadour for the Lord, Keith Green, wrote these powerful lyrics:

The world is sleeping in the dark
That the church just can’t fight
Cause it’s asleep in the light
How can you be so dead
When you’ve been so well fed
Jesus rose from the grave
And you, you can’t even get out of bed!

The church of Jesus Christ in the 21st century finds itself, not asleep in the light, but comatose in the light! The words of Jesus have never been more urgently needed because we have a generation of Christians who do not understand the value of their own soul. Spurgeon knew well the worth of his soul:

Nothing can be compared with eternal life. The soul’s value cannot be estimated by ordinary reckonings. Worlds on worlds were a poor price. “What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” Barter is out of the question. His soul is so a man’s soul inheritance that if he has lost it, he has lost all.

Today’s Christians have no concept of this. We barely have a concept of what the soul is, let alone its worth.

If we want to care for our souls; if we are concerned about our eternal destination, we must let go of our lives here. That doesn’t mean we live recklessly or fail to plan for the future. But it does mean that keep an eye on eternal values and not get all caught up on the temporal.

Another motivation

Eternal life is seen by Jesus as a good motivator for being a sold-out disciple. That’s what we may call a “positive motivator.” But there is a “negative motivator” for those not moved by that positive one:

For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. (Matthew 16:27 NIV)

This verse means exactly what it says, so don’t read more into it. Entrance into or exclusion from Heaven depends wholly on the grace of God. Salvation is wholly by grace, through faith. You cannot earn salvation in any way, and that is not what this verse is saying.

Verse 27 teaches that there will be degrees of punishment and degrees glory or reward, and each will be based upon two considerations:

(1) How much knowledge an individual posses.

All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. (Romans 12:2 NIV)

(2) How faithful an individual has been. A person’s faithfulness is manifested by how he has lived his life—what he has “done” with the knowledge of God he possesses. You can measure a person’s faithfulness to God; it will be apparent if you look at how he lives his life and the things he has done.

That’s definitely “negative motivation!” And yet, in a sense, it is also positive at the same time. If you let go of your life, you will get it back and then some. There are rewards waiting for the one who practices good discipleship.

The cross is the emblem—the symbol—of our faith. Some people like to wear a cross around their neck, others as cuff links or lapel pins. The jewelry of the cross doesn’t do anybody any good. The cross must be emblazoned on our hearts if it is to mean anything. The world is worth nothing to the person whose soul is lost and no price can redeem the lost soul.

The Lord is calling us to a deeper, more committed walk with Him. It’s not easy, and most of us won’t be very consistent. But if we want to please the One who holds our souls in the balance, we must put forth the effort. Every day.

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (Philippians 2:12 NIV)

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