The Way to Life Goes through Death
Matt 16:24-27 TNIV: Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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 you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul? Or what can you give in exchange for your soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward everyone according to what they have done.
In the kingdom of God the way to life goes through death.
Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”
The kingdom of God is bizarro world. Whoever is concerned to secure their own life, will lose it. But the one that actually loses his own life, is the one that finds it.
A seeker once gave a report of his quest. First, I tried to find myself, but I never succeeded. Then I sought for God, but I did not find him. Finally, I pursued the good of my neighbor, and then I found all three. Many people have experienced that when they did everything they could to be happy, they could never find happiness. But when they tried to make others happy, they found it.
This has perhaps been most beautifully expressed in the prayer of St. Francis of Assissi:
The way to life goes through death. That is the principle that applies in the kingdom of God. When Jesus talks about cross and death he is first and foremost talking about his own death. In another instance, Jesus says that unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds (John 12:24). Just as when the kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies to produce many seeds that are a hundred times more bountiful than the one kernel, so it is also in the kingdom of God. This applies first and foremost to Jesus himself. He did not have to die. He was the only human being who has ever lived and over whom death had no power. But he gave his life freely. For if Jesus had not died not very much would have come out of it. Then he could not have saved us. Then he would have been alone in heaven. Then there would have remained a single seed, as he says. But because Jesus died and rose again, he bore a lot of fruit. Then he could save a people for himself so that there is a great host, a great congregation that Jesus saved for heaven.
Jesus’ way to save human beings went through death. In the same way for us, our way to salvation goes through death. John 12:25: Those who love their life will lose it, while those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. This goes deeper than to die from our own self, that our egotism and selfishness must die. Something inside of us must die. It is our faith in ourselves that has to die. For the kingdom of God is bizarro world. Everywhere else we hear that the most important thing is to have faith in yourself. And that is true, as far as it goes. In Norway we have something that we call “Janteloven.” The first commandment is that you shall not believe that you are anything. There is actually no one who requires that we keep this, but is something like an invisible, unwritten law. It is just there. You shall not believe that you are anything. You shall not believe that anybody cares about you.
This is a terrible law. And it runs directly contrary to what Jesus says. He says that every individual human being is so precious that there is nothing in the whole world so valuable that it compares to the value of a human being. That is why it is so important that we take good care of the life that God has given to us.
And, strangely, Jesus says that we can only take really good care of this life if we lose it. If we deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him.
That means that we have to get to the point where we count ourselves as nothing. We must count ourselves as dead, spiritually speaking, as rubbish, as Paul says when he has listed all everything that he has of which to boast in himself. But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ (Phil 3:7-8).
Paul thought at one point that accomplish something that was good enough for God. He thought that his own accomplishments and his own religion could make him acceptable to God. He thought that in himself there was material that he could cultivate so that he could be accepted by God. He thought that he had it in him to be saved. But when he met Jesus he had to count everything that he had accomplished, all his good works, everything that was grounded in himself, as a loss. His faith in himself died. For he saw that there was nothing good in himself. He not only saw that he occasionally did not succeed in doing good. But the state of the matter is that nothing good lives in him (Rom 7:18).
There was nothing in himself that he could build on. There was nothing to be found in himself. There was nothing of his own that he could hold up to God and say: “This, this is good enough. This is my good intention or my good will.” Or: “this shows that I am really a good person.” No, he had nothing of which he could boast. Something with which to be pleased before God and hope that God would also be pleased with it. Because he realized that he was not really a good person. He was really a bad person. His own self had to be counted as rubbish, he had to count himself as trash, when it came to doing something that was good enough for God. That was when he died. He came to this conclusion: I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature as he says in Romans (7:18).
If you think this is a hard teaching, then I will ask you to try for one day to honor others more than yourself. Let the concern for others be your first priority in everything you do for a full day. Not your own wish to be liked by others. Not your own need to have others appreciate you. But really - others - no matter what they think about you. Not only the ones you like but also the ones you don’t like. The ones you can’t stand. Honor them more yourself. That was the standard that Jesus set. When he came to earth he was disliked and despised. In the end he was taken to die on a cross. But one of the very last things people heard him say before he died was: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). He honored his killers more than himself. Try to do that for one full day and I can guarantee you that will soon agree with the apostle Paul: I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.
To gain Christ’s righteousness means that we can stand in God’s judgment being as perfect as Jesus himself. That means that we can forget everything we are and everything we have done and instead we can point to Jesus and say: What Jesus is and what Jesus has done count for me.
If we were to come to God and say: “God, you can let me into heaven because I have been so good,” then we would have had a very uncertain hope of entering. Yes, the word of God tells us that if we want to approach God that way, then we can be certain that we are lost. But instead we can approach God and say: “God, you have to let me into heaven because Jesus has been so good,” then you can be absolutely certain: heaven is wide open for you. Jesus has opened heaven. That is why it is with ease and joy that we count all our own accomplishments and our own goodness as rubbish. Because we will rather gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of our own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ - the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith (Phil 3:9).
The last few weeks before my father died, about seven years ago, he was plagued by doubt. He was no longer able to have faith and he felt that he fell short. My mother has told me that she would recite to him a verse from a hymn, with a simple phrase: To have faith is to rest in his completed work. Then my father exclaimed: Oh, now I got my faith back. It is finished.
Later on he would repeat this very often. He was constantly reminded that he had not done enough good during his lifetime. He could have done so much more, there were so many people he knew that he could have been good to, there were so many good causes that he could have donated more money to. But he always came back to the same point. Jesus has finished everything. Everything is finished. It does not rest on me.
This is how it is when we lose our own life. We lose our faith in ourselves. We lose faith that we have been good Christians. We lose faith that there is anything good in ourselves. We end up in the position that Paul was: Everything that he had accomplished in life, everything that he used to be pride of, now he counted all of it as nothing, as rubbish. He lost his own life. But, as he adds, to gain Christ is much more worth. Because he has finished everything.
The way to life goes through death. When we realize that we have nothing in ourselves that we can rely on. We are simply not able to be good Christians. We are not able to die away from our own selfishness. We are not able to honor others more than ourselves. There is simply nothing in ourselves that we can build upon. Because we are dead. And where we are dead, God creates life. For God gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were (Rom 4:17-21). That we can believe, against all hope.
To a greater or lesser degree God will also let us experience that our life here on earth is a life under the cross. The one who wants to follow Jesus has to share his destiny. Many experienced Christians can testify about this. They have seen that through their sufferings in life they have met Jesus. They have experienced that when they have nothing else to hold on to, then they have Jesus and his love. And that is enough.
The Bible says that physical death is the last enemy. But Jesus has swallowed death up in victory. For those who believe in Jesus physical death is the entryway into the resurrection from the dead. To describe the glory that awaits God’s children, Paul uses the image of the seed that is sown. When it is sown it is only the one seed. But when the seed dies the plant grows with a splendor that no one could even dream of, if they only considered the little seed that was sown. That is how the future is that God’s children are expecting. When our life here on earth perishes that is the beginning of a glory that we cannot even begin to understand. It is as if someone that was born blind gets to see. As when a deaf begins to hear. It is as when the dead wake up. That is how it will be in the resurrection. That joy goes beyond what we can understand.
The Way to Life Goes Through Death.