Losing Your Life to Save It
What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? Michael Wilkins published a book called Following the Master. It’s a comprehensive study on the theme of discipleship in Scripture. He says, “a disciple of Jesus is one who has come to him for eternal life, has claimed him as Savior and God, and has embarked upon the life of following him.” I think that’s faithful to the Scriptures.
We could turn to Peter’s words in John 6:68: “To whom else shall we turn? You have the words of eternal life.” Disciples don’t come to Jesus for mere information or better morals. We come to Jesus for life. We could also turn to Peter’s confession that we studied last Sunday: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Disciples confess Jesus as Savior and God. We could also study the overarching patterns in the Gospels, where disciples follow Jesus daily. Or read Luke and Acts together. Jesus’ witness, his boldness, his sufferings, his love—these activities continue even after Jesus ascends to heaven. Only now you witness them happening in his people. Followers of Jesus embark on a life of following Jesus in speech, character, service, sacrifice.
We could go on. But today we come to a passage that gets to the heart of what it means to be Jesus’ disciple. At the center of Christian discipleship is the way of the cross, losing your life for Jesus’ sake. Read it with me, starting in Matthew 16:21.
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” 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? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Jesus Explains the Sufferings of His Mission
What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? Verse 24 summarizes it well; and it’s here that we find the imperatives of our passage: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” But to understand these words better, we must first grasp the context of Jesus teaching about his own cross.
So, let’s first see how Jesus explains the sufferings of his own mission and how Peter stumbles over it. Verse 21 starts with “from that time.” Meaning, the time that Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah. In verse 16, we reached a turning point in Matthew’s Gospel. Peter accepts what the Father has revealed about Jesus. He says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus builds his church on that confession.
At the same time, Jesus told his disciples in verse 20 to “tell no one that he was the Christ.” Why? If Peter got it right, why forbid them from telling others—at least at this point in God’s plan? Part of the answer comes in verses 21-23. Yes, Peter got Jesus’ identity right—he is the Messiah. But what Peter expected for the Messiah was, at best, incomplete. The disciples had ideas about the Messiah. Perhaps some of their ideas grew from what they read in the Scriptures: like Daniel 7’s triumphant Son of Man or the righteous Judge from Isaiah 11. But they lacked any place for a suffering Messiah. To their minds, no way would such a glorious King stoop so low.
Jesus doesn’t want such an incomplete message spreading. He wants people following him for the right reasons—not for temporary national interests but for eternal life.[i] That’s why you see him keeping things quiet, or withdrawing at moments when the people want to take him by force and make him king (like in John 6). His chosen path is one of self-humbling, servanthood, sacrifice. There was more for them to learn.
So, verse 21 says that “from that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
The main verb is that “he must.” That “must” is one of divine necessity. It expresses the plan of God and what Jesus submits to willingly for our salvation. God had revealed the Messiah’s sufferings in Scripture. The sacrifices anticipated blood shed for a true covering of our sins. Psalm 69 foresaw a king like David hated without cause. In Psalm 22, it was a king who cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Isaiah 53 foretold the Suffering Servant, wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities. Zechariah 12—God himself pierced to open a fountain of cleansing.
Many of these connections we know because the Spirit granted the apostles understanding after Jesus rose from the dead. They wrote down for us what Jesus had shown them. But at this point in history, the disciples hadn’t comprehended these things. When Jesus said he must suffer and die—that wasn’t something their worldview allowed. As Paul says elsewhere, the cross was a stumbling block to Jews.
That’s why Peter responds the way he does. Verse 22, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” He’s unwilling to accept the way of Jesus’ cross. This same lack of understanding we see much later, even after Jesus dies. In Luke 24, Jesus meets the disciples on the Emmaus Road. But they don’t know it’s Jesus. They recount all the events leading up to Jesus’ death and say, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” They were still not understanding that without the cross, there was no redeeming anybody. Our sin against God required a sacrifice, someone perfect to bear our penalty. Redemption could only come by the Messiah first enduring the cross. That’s where God would reveal his love by putting forth his Son as a sacrifice for our sin. He must be killed in humility before he is raised in glory.
But Peter stumbles over this part of Jesus’ mission; and by doing so, he becomes a stumbling block. Listen to Jesus in verse 23: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance [or stumbling block] to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Yes, the same disciple blessed in verse 17 for receiving the Father’s revelation—he’s now rebuked for rejecting the Father’s revelation. Jesus was showing him the Father’s revelation (the must of verse 21) and what that entailed for his mission. But it finds no reception with Peter.
The rebuke is interesting: “Get behind me, Satan.” Last time those words appear in Matthew’s Gospel was 4:10, “Be gone, Satan.” Words that came after Satan showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their glory: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Satan offered Jesus a different way to gain the nations than through the cross. Now someone in Jesus’ inner circle has embraced the same mindset. Peter’s words are anti-Christ because they are anti-cross.
How about us? Could we be just as vulnerable to a system of beliefs that lead us to reject a crucified Messiah? What about mindsets that say victory comes by retaliation, victory comes by vengeance? What about mindsets that say, in order to win, self-assertion is the way not self-humbling? What about a mindset that acts like, “Our own works will do. There’s no need for a cross. I got this, Jesus.” Truth is, we’re as vulnerable as Peter. God has revealed to us some amazing things about Jesus, and we have come to confess him as Lord. But his path to the cross will often challenge our system of beliefs. You can’t have the Christ without embracing his cross.
Jesus Calls His Disciples to Take Up Their Cross
That’s the backdrop to the imperatives of verse 24. Given the context of Jesus’ cross, let’s now see how Jesus’ disciples must take up their cross. It was Peter that Jesus rebuked in verse 23. In verse 24 Jesus addresses all the disciples: “If anyone wishes to come after me, [he must] deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
What does Jesus mean when he says you must deny yourself? Does he mean we should deny things like the desire for a steady job? Does he mean deny ourselves laughter with the kids? Does he mean a constant state of suspicion of everything you want? What if you want to spend more time in prayer or work harder with your hands?
It’s not ultimate self-denial. Context helps clarify what Jesus means. Jesus has just rebuked Peter: “You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Immediately, Jesus follows with these words about self-denial. Denying yourself means denying the self that rejects God’s ways for man’s ways. It’s to de-throne self from governing your life—from saying, “I’ll follow you, Jesus, but only on these conditions. I’ll follow you Jesus, but only if it’s safe. I’ll follow you Jesus, but only if I get to keep my stuff.” That’s the self we must deny.
But we also can’t stop the Christian life there. True self-denial will lead to a life that positively looks like Jesus taking up his cross. What does Jesus mean, “take up your cross”? Again, context helps; and when we look at the context of Matthew’s Gospel, at least three aspects stand out to Jesus’ call to take up our cross.
The first aspect is single-minded obedience to Jesus. In verse 21, Jesus says that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things. Then in verse 23 we see how that suffering is the will of God, which Peter didn’t want to accept. Jesus intends to take up his cross in obedience to the Father’s will; and from his temptation in the wilderness to Gethsemane, Jesus is unwavering in that devotion. His prayer in Gethsemane: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
When Jesus calls disciples to take up their cross and follow him, he’s calling us to the same single-minded obedience observed in his own cross-bearing. We too must learn to say, “Not as I will, but as you will, Lord.”
That obedience will lead us to a second aspect of taking up our cross, namely, suffering in the path of love. In verse 21, Jesus says that he will suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed. So, when Jesus says, “Take up your cross,” it’s clear what’s in view: suffering, even if it means death. But the suffering and death is part of giving up his life for the church that he mentions back in verse 18. It belongs to the mission that Matthew first highlighted in 1:21—Jesus came “to save his people from their sins.” Jesus doesn’t just suffer; he suffers to save others. He suffers in the path of love. It was love for his Father and love for you that drove him to give his life.
When Jesus calls us to take up our cross, he calls us to walk the same path of love, a love that’s willing to suffer and die on behalf of another. Isn’t this the pattern we find elsewhere in the New Testament? 1 John 3:16, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” Ephesians 5:25, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Taking up your cross means suffering in the path of love.
One final aspect is willingness to endure shameful rejection from the world. Our culture has candy-coated the cross. The cross wasn’t a piece of jewelry you wore, or a bumper-sticker, or wall-décor. The cross meant you were the wall décor. It was an instrument of torture and public shame. Your body hung naked. Your bowels would empty. Dogs waited for a scrap to fall. Parents turned their children’s heads from seeing the spectacle. To hang on a cross was for you to allow Rome to beat its chest and boast in its power over your weak and foolish religion. That’s the cross Jesus calls us to take up.
It’s not just suffering from what’s common to this mortal life. It’s not just suffering as the result of our natural existence in a fallen world. It’s not just ordinary calamity and hardship with circumstances that all people suffer whether Christian or not. Taking up the cross means suffering rejection and shame wherever obedience to Christ and love for others demands it. Your life will look foreign to the world because it will no longer fit its value system; and the world will hate you and shame you for it.
Those are the terms for following Jesus; and boy will it’ll shake things up in your life! If you’re still living like you would’ve lived anyway without Jesus, you need to consider whether you’re mistaking the cross for something other than what it is.
Take your relationships, for instance. The cross will lead us into hard choices with some of the dearest people we share life with. Jesus said, “A person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” Members of our church have had parents who think they’re stupid for following Jesus. Some of you have children who mock Christianity. In heartfelt sorrow, you’ve come face to face with what it means to take up your cross. Others of you see people at work who’ve likened the cross to divine child-abuse—they view you as a bigot spreading hatred by your commitment to Christ.
Or maybe it’s not a matter of separation from others but a matter of sacrifice for others. Maybe you’re a parent and you’ve had a hard week. You want rest, you want some time alone, but every morning is a call to lay down your life again and again to serve the kids. Maybe you wish things were different in your marriage. When things get hard the world moves on, the world gets a pass. But to follow Jesus means laying down your life again and again to serve your spouse.
Or consider how the cross impacts your possessions? Paul connects them in 2 Corinthians 8:9. He’s asking the Christians to give to meet the needs of the poor in Jerusalem. But he grounds it in the humiliation of Christ’s cross. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” From the smallest of trinkets and grocery lists to something big as your house. It’s all at Jesus’ disposal for his kingdom. Why? Because of the cross and the mercy lavished on us there.
Or consider how the cross impacts your vocations. Clearly, when Jesus called Peter and Andrew and James and John, they left their vocations. But not everyone had such a calling. John the Baptist told some tax collectors, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none.” He also told some soldiers, “Don’t extort money from anyone by threats…and be content with your wages.” So it could be that Jesus is calling you to drop what you’re doing now for something else—especially if your job requires you to do things contrary to the will of Christ. But most of us will be learning how the cross impacts the way you approach the job you already have.
I remember Rosaria Butterfield’s testimony in The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. She was a lesbian activist, a professor at Syracuse University who specialized in Queer Theory. Then God saved her. She took up her cross to follow Jesus, and it was anything but comfortable. Just listen to what she says about her vocation. She said, “I had to change everything—my life, my friends, my writing, my teaching, my advising, my clothes, my speech, my thoughts. I was tenured in a field that I could no longer work in…I was writing a book that I no longer believed in…I had formerly used my classroom to advocate for gay and lesbian rights and ideas. I now used my classroom to abandon the discipline in which I was hired to create instead courses in [Christian hermeneutics]…Each day brought a deluge of moral choices couched in the daily routine of a radical professor.”[ii]
In other words, taking up your cross can’t be reduced to private prayer, Bible reading, and church on Sundays. Those are important habits. But taking up your cross affects everything in life. It’s about single-minded obedience in the path of love, even where that path may lead to shameful rejection from the world. How has your life been rearranged by following Christ? Are there areas that need to change?
Jesus Gives Several Motivations for Taking up Our Cross
If you’re looking for justification to stay comfortable, Jesus will thoroughly disappoint. The cross is anything but comfortable. You will face situations where you know the path of love is going to be anything but easy. The path of love is going to mean a long and painful hard. On those days, you may even question whether it’s good to continue this way. Is it worth all the sacrifice? Is Jesus worth all the suffering?
Verses 25-28 exist to help you say, “Yes! He’s worth it.” Jesus follows his calling with several motivations. Each one begins with the word “For”—verse 25, verse 26, and verse 27. The first motivation comes in verse 25: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Remember, the context is taking up your cross, giving your life. “Whoever would save his life” refers to the person unwilling to die for Jesus’ sake. He considers it more valuable to protect his earthly life—what he can gain in the here and now—that he refuses to give it up. That person will lose his life in a far greater sense. The outcome will be utter ruin.
But for the person willing to die for Jesus’ sake—that’s the key. He’s talking about spending yourself for Jesus’ sake. He’s talking about valuing Jesus more than your life in this world. That person will find his life in a far greater sense. He will gain eternal life. Motive number one is that an uncompromising loyalty to Jesus leads to true life. Don’t you want true life, unending life in God’s presence?
A second motive appears in verse 26: “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?” In other words, weigh it out. Let’s say you could gain the whole world—the world’s wealth, the world’s power, the world’s approval, the world’s comforts—all by denying Jesus, or maybe denying those parts of Jesus that offend the world’s sensibilities. Is it worth forfeiting your soul? Is 80 years of the world’s approval worth forfeiting eternal life?
Take it from the one who was offered the whole world. That’s what Satan offered our Lord in 4:10—“all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.” But Jesus knew where true joy was to be found. He knew his Father was better. For the joy set before him he endured the cross; and it was through that cross that he won the nations. It was through that cross that he secured glory for you. It was through that cross that God highly exalted him. If you take up your cross to follow Jesus, Jesus will safeguard your soul. He will keep you, raise you, and exalt you together with him; and having Jesus is better than gaining the whole world. That’s the point.
Motive number three comes in verse 27: “For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
The point here is that Jesus will reign and eventually repay. Consider how Jesus’ promise to judge would keep you persevering before enemies ridiculing you, condemning you, threating you to forsake Jesus. How would you still follow Jesus in the face of such powerful people? By knowing that you belong to someone more powerful. Jesus is the true King. His judgment seat is greater than the earthly courts that might threaten us. His glory is greater, his reward is richer, his victory is certain. His kingdom lasts forever, not theirs. When you set that promise before you, it keeps you going. It helps you stick with Jesus instead of denying him.
Now, verse 28 does complicate the picture a little. It’s a hard verse to figure out—because if, at the end of verse 28, Jesus is still talking about his final return in glory, that forces you to say that Jesus got the timing wrong (or we got some really old disciples walking around). But I don’t think that’s what he’s saying. He does speak of his final return in verse 27. Verse 28 moves the timeline forward to an event within the lifespan of some of the disciples he’s speaking with. The most promising options, I think, are two.
He could be speaking about his resurrection and subsequent glory. That is, he will soon die and rise to victory. But his kingdom doesn’t come crashing in all at once. Nevertheless, some of the disciples standing there will get a taste of that final glory when Jesus rises from the dead. In that sense, they will become witnesses to the Son of Man coming in his kingdom, and with that assurance they will then give their lives.
Or he could be speaking about what some of them will experience in the next few verses, where Peter, James, and John witness Jesus’ transfiguration. “Some of you standing here will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John [read: some of you]”—and those three disciples witness the glory of Christ. In fact, when Peter describes this event later in 2 Peter 1:16, he says, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” Then he describes the Transfiguration. In other words, Peter sees the Transfiguration as a sign of the coming kingdom.
Either way you read it, though, the point seems to be the same when you take verses 27-28 together. Jesus reveals in history the power of his coming kingdom. Some of the disciples witness that power and it gives them all the assurance they need to give their lives for Jesus’ sake. Whether it’s the Transfiguration or his resurrection, they witness the Son of Man already coming in his kingdom; and it reassures their hearts of his final return. In other words, Jesus is worth giving everything for because he will reign and he will reward. All sacrifices for his sake will be totally worth it.
So, what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus. Lose your life for Jesus’ sake in the path of sacrificial love. You cannot do this in your own strength. But praise God that Jesus isn’t a mere example to follow. He went to the cross first and rose from the dead; and that’s where we find the empowerment to take up our cross.
1 Peter 2:21-24 puts it together for us like this: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” That’s the example. That’s the call to take up our cross and follow Jesus. Then Peter continues: “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” There’s your empowerment. He went to the cross first for us, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. He makes taking up your cross possible.
What a beautiful picture we have here. Peter once said, “Far be it from you, Lord.” But here we find him preaching the cross and trusting in its power for taking up his own cross. The Lord can do the same work in your own life. Pray the Lord helps us do just that this coming week.
[i] Cf. Luke 24:21.
[ii] Rosaria Butterfield, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant, 2015), 26, 37.
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