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The Paradox of Discipleship

In chapter 16 of the book of Matthew, after Peter's confession of Jesus as the Christ, Jesus began to plainly teach the disciples that He must go to Jerusalem where He would suffer, die, and be raised from the grave on the third day (verse 21).  Upon hearing this, Peter began to rebuke Jesus, saying that it should never happen (verse 22).  Jesus replied to Peter by saying, "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" (verse 23).


Jesus then set forth the doctrine of self-denial and the cost of discipleship.  He said, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.  For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it.  For what will a man be profited, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul?  Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?" (verses 24-26).  So Jesus told His disciples that not only must He suffer and die, but also anyone who would be His disciple must be willing to do the same.


The paradox of this statement is this: "whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it."  To understand this statement, we have to do what Peter failed to do, and that is to set our minds on the interests of God.  We must understand what the values of our lives really are.  Our lives are not to be defined or measured by the things of this world.  We must store up for ourselves "treasures in heaven" and not just treasures on earth (Matt. 6:19-21).  Our souls are to be valued above all things in our possession, and this is why Jesus asked, "What will a man give in exchange for his soul?"  Therefore, in order to obtain eternal life for the soul, a person must be willing to give up anything, including his own temporal life in this world.


In the early church, the disciples of Jesus saw periods of persecution in which this statement very literally applied to them.  Many suffered and were killed for the cause of Christ.  They had the choice of saving their own temporal lives by denying their faith and forsaking Christ, or losing their lives for their devotion to Christ.  Those who chose to die for their faith will be granted eternal life for their souls, but those who were afraid and denied their faith saved their lives but lost their souls.


Discipleship in the United States is not a matter of life or death as it was for those Christians in the first century, although it could be someday.  Are we ready to face such a persecution and make the right choice?  Would we wish to save our own lives and lose our souls in the process?  How do we apply this passage to ourselves today when our lives are not threatened?


Consider that Jesus had His own paradox in the cross of Calvary, where He suffered much shame, and yet He glorified God the Father in doing so.  In this passage, Jesus instructs each person to deny himself and follow the example of Jesus in taking up his own cross.  Every person has his own cross to bear.  We do this by denying ourselves those desires that are contrary to God's will, by putting the needs of others before our own, and in general by seeking first the kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33).  We must be willing to suffer shame for Christ as He was willing to suffer for us on the cross.  When we do these things, we are in a sense losing our own lives in order to find them.


Stacey E. Durham



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