Note—This article is part of a series entitled “In Search of Church.” To go to the beginning of the series, click here.
It is the First Century, AD—at least that is what this time will come to be known as—and God’s people have been in a perpetual state of expectation for most of their existence.
For thousands of years, Abraham’s descendants have been waiting and watching—looking for the Promised One—the One Who will bring blessing into this world dominated by the curse. This anticipation has continued from generation to generation down through the ages, until it arrives at you. By your time, He’s known as the Anointed One—the Messiah—the Christ. Your expectation is rooted in the promises that He will make right all that is wrong with the world. Where there is injustice, He will bring righteousness. Where there is hubris, He will humble. Where there is oppression, He will bring deliverance. Where there is brokenness, He will bring healing. And He will accomplish all of this as the King of Israel.
In the meantime, your people have endured oppression by kingdom after kingdom—all the way back to the Babylonians, and then the Medes and Persians, followed by the Greeks, and now the Romans. They act with impunity, in defiance of the God you worship. But the promises fill you with hope—
Why are the nations in an uproar
And the peoples devising a vain thing?
The kings of the earth take their stand
And the rulers take counsel together
Against the LORD and against His Anointed, saying,
“Let us tear their fetters apart
And cast away their cords from us!”
He who sits in the heavens laughs,
The Lord scoffs at them.
Then He will speak to them in His anger
And terrify them in His fury, saying,
“But as for Me, I have installed My King
Upon Zion, My holy mountain.”
“I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD:
He said to Me, ‘You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You.
Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance,
And the very ends of the earth as Your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron,
You shall shatter them like earthenware.’”
Now therefore, O kings, show discernment;
Take warning, O judges of the earth.
Worship the LORD with reverence
And rejoice with trembling.
Do homage to the Son, that He not become angry, and you perish in the way,
For His wrath may soon be kindled.
How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!” —Psalms 2:1–12 (NAS95)
When He arrives, everything will change.
And now, you realize, He is here—that Jesus is the He. Jesus is The Anointed One—The Messiah, The Christ. He is the One to Whom God will give all the nations, Who will shatter them with a rod of iron as if they were pottery. He is the One that mankind is warned to worship with fear and trembling; the One Whose wrath they are to avoid. This One is Jesus.
So, how do you react to this realization?
The reasonable response would seem to be complete and total submission.
But that’s not what Peter did.
Jesus knew that the disciples’ idea of the Christ was incomplete. Although they were keenly aware of His Kingly aspects, they didn’t understand that the Christ would also suffer for the reconciliation and restoration of men. So, immediately after Peter’s confession, Jesus begins to fill in the gaps in their understanding—
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 be raised up on the third day.
Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.”
But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.”
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. 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? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? 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.” Matthew 16:21–27 (NAS95)
Clearly, the suffering that Jesus was about to endure did not fit Peter’s notion of the Christ. And so, in spite of his recognition that Jesus is this One Who will rule the nations, Peter doesn’t bow before Him in submission, but takes Him aside to straighten Him out.
See—like all of us—his confession notwithstanding, Peter has a propensity to continue to live out of the decision of the Garden—the decision to decide for himself what is good and evil. And when Peter hears the plan for Jesus, he decides it is not good, and rebukes this One he has just identified as the Christ. No wonder Jesus chastises him so sharply—Peter adopted the same role as the Serpent in the Garden—tempting Jesus with an agenda contrary to God’s. But unlike the first Adam, Jesus recognizes the satanic nature of this agenda that panders to man’s desire.
Having rebuffed Peter’s attempt to control the destiny of The Christ, Jesus addresses the issue directly with all the disciples—“If you want to follow me, you can’t do what Peter just did. You cannot live your life according to man’s agenda—according to what seems right to you. You must first deny yourself, take up your cross, and then follow me.”
The denial Jesus requires is not simply denial for the sake of denial, as if asceticism itself were the goal. What He insists on is a renunciation of the decision made all the way back in the Garden—the decision to live life as we see fit, according to our own agenda—according to our own sense of good and evil. We can’t continue to live out of the decision that usurped God’s role and brought His wrath while at the same time thinking that we are following Christ.
And, this denial will not be without cost—it will require the taking up of our cross. To carry your cross was the ultimate expression of submission. As a criminal—as one who had committed acts in defiance of the governing authorities—you were now brought to the place to where your submission was so complete that your obedience would bring about your own death.
So when Jesus tells the disciples that they must deny themselves and take up their cross, this is what He is talking about—a renunciation of the decision to live life on their own terms—a renunciation that is so complete that they will obey Him regardless of the costs, up to and including their own death.
Such submission is essential to following Him. Anything less is simply adding Jesus to our own agenda, following Him only when we choose to, which is not really following at all, since we hold the final decision about when we do His will and when we pursue our own. We don’t do it Jesus’ way because of submission, we do it His way because it somehow seems good to us. Without complete submission, we aren’t really following.
Now, note what is at risk in this decision. “For whoever wishes to save his life (psuche) will lose it; but whoever loses his life (psuche) for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul (psuche)? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul (psuche)?” The issue is the preservation/loss of one’s life or soul.
Ok, so what does Jesus mean here?
In the early years of my faith, when I read a passage like this, I was under the impression that the issue was where your soul went—going to heaven vs. going to hell. Part of the problem was that I had been taught that this was the only concern in our relationship with God. You either “believed in Jesus” and went to heaven (i.e. you “had life”), or you didn’t believe in Jesus, and went to hell (experienced death). Passages like this were scary because they supported the notion that your destination was dependent on your works.
Turns out, there is much more to the Story than that. I have explored this issue of Life and Death at length in another article (here) , but having Life involves not only the expectation of eternal existence (i.e., going to heaven instead of hell), but also the recovery of all that gives meaning to that existence.
It is against this backdrop that we should understand Jesus’ words here.
In this passage, the NASB uses two different words (life, soul) to translate a single Greek word—psuche, from which we get the English word, psyche. At its core, it denotes the essence of life in terms of thinking, willing, and feeling—in other words, it denotes all that makes up our existence, all that gives meaning to it.
See, back in the Garden, right after God created us, we had Life. We had all that we needed for a full and meaningful existence. We had an identity—we were God’s representatives. In this role, we had significance—we were to rule on His behalf. And, we had all that we needed to experience fulfillment—food in abundance for our enjoyment, beauty beyond compare, flawless relationships where we could experience unhindered intimacy. In the Garden, nakedness was normal, and sex a primary responsibility.
But that wasn’t enough. Discontent with the identity and significance God had bestowed on us, we abandoned it to pursue a identity and significance independent of God. It was not enough to represent God, we had to be like God—as if we could stand on equal footing with Him.
Of course, this was, in reality, rebellion against Him, and it plunged us into death. Instead of finding greater significance, we found only emptiness. Yet this has not impeded our pursuit of life independently of Him. We pursue identity and significance through wealth and fame and power, through adventure and thrills, through pleasure and indulgence, through achievement and accolades in a multitude of arenas, including work, community, even church. But none of these things provide the identity and significance we seek.
And now, we are enemies of God.
It is the crisis of this rebellion, chaos, and death that the promise of the Christ answers.
In the simple belief that Jesus is the Christ, we follow in the footsteps of Abraham, and are justified. From this point forward, God sees us clothed in Christ’s righteousness, and we are reconciled to Him. Where we were formerly criminals in rebellion, we have become His adult children (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:1-25; Galatians 3:23-29).
Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ, which we saw earlier in Matthew 16, is his expression of this simple faith. As a result, he is now justified and, so, is reconciled to God.
This resolves the issue of rebellion, but the restoration of Life—of all that makes our existence meaningful does not automatically follow. See, we can’t continue to live out of the decision of the Garden—the decision to live our life according to what we think is good—the decision to pursue Life independently of God—and think that we can recover the identity, significance, and fulfillment that gave meaning to our existence.
Even as children of God, if we insist on pursuing Life according to our own terms, we will lose it. But if we let go of what we think will bring us Life—if we renounce the decision of the Garden—if we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Christ—if we loose our life—then, we will find it. It is in following the Christ as His disciples that we recover the identity, significance, and fulfillment that gives meaning to our existence. This is what it means to save our soul.
And, this is the choice that Jesus presents to these disciples who have recognized Him as the Christ. If they’re going to follow Him, they must renounce their agenda, and submit to Him unconditionally. If they do this, He promises that they will recover all that fills their soul with meaning.
And this is the Rock on which the church is built—the belief that Jesus is the Christ, bringing reconciliation, and, attendant to that belief, the commitment to follow Him as the Christ—to renounce our agenda and live in submission to Him, regardless of the costs.
We’ll look at this in practice next.