In this final part of our series, Hard Sayings, we are faced with the ultimate reality: Following Jesus is worth everything. After blowing the disciples’ minds, Jesus makes this point rather graphically for them. Keep reading to see how and stay tuned for our next teaching series, Grace in Hard Times, as we walk through the book of Job.
It’s Worth It
Have you ever experienced the disorienting phenomenon known as sticker shock? Let’s say you’re walking through a department store and there you see it: the dress. What you might possibly need the dress for is entirely beside the point. What your husband might say about you buying the dress doesn’t even factor into the decision-making process. You must have this dress. Somehow you know that it will fit perfectly so you don’t even bother trying it on. You take it up to the counter, gently lay it on the counter, and smile at the cashier. Then it comes. The cashier scans the barcode, punches a couple of buttons on the register, and says, “That’ll be…” Well, I’m not sure what your price-point is, but whatever it is, this dress is beyond that…well beyond that. And it hits you: Sticker shock. It may be the dress, but…that price. Ouch.
Or maybe you’re driving down the road and you see it: the truck. You don’t even bother looking at the bright orange numbers screaming from the front windshield…or calling your wife about your find. You swerve off the road, burst through the doors of the dealership, and say, “I need that truck out there!” The immediately helpful and attentive salesman quickly draws up the paperwork, whips out a pen, and says, “After waving the down payment since you’re obviously excited about this one, the monthly payments are going to be…” I’m not going to guess at that number right now, but let’s just say you weren’t really in the market for a second mortgage. There it is again: sticker shock.
We get stick shock when we see the price for something we want or even need and it goes way beyond what we thought we were getting into at the outset. I remember getting sticker shock when I had my appendix out three years ago. By the time all the bills finished coming in the before-insurance total was something like $150,000. It made me stop and wonder for at least a minute, “Well, could we have just left it in and saw how things went?” Now, after insurance, of course, it wasn’t anywhere near that expensive, but it definitely gave us a brief case of sticker shock…and a deep appreciation for our insurance. And speaking of sticker shock, this morning we are going check out a time when Jesus gave the disciples a rather serious case of it.
This morning we are in the sixth and final part of our series, Hard Sayings. For six of the past seven weeks, we have been working our way through some of the hard things Jesus said during His ministry. You see, while Jesus certainly said a lot of things that are easy to hear—things like, “For God so loved the world…”—He also said something that don’t roll off the tongue in quite such a friendly manner. Let’s call it what it is: Jesus said some things that are downright difficult. Now, it would be nice to think we could just ignore these and move on to the good stuff, but if we really believe Jesus is who the Scriptures proclaim Him to be, we need to take everything He said seriously and work to understand it…even the hard parts. Some of the things He said are a little…or a lot…more like vegetables than dessert, but you know as well as I do that it’s the vegetables that lead to the most and healthiest growth in our bodies. Similarly, some of these hard things can lead to the most growth in our lives when we do the work to understand and apply them.
As we’ve examined these various hard sayings, the theme that has emerged from among them is that most of them are focused on preparing us for the reality of just how hard following Jesus can be. There are undoubtedly times of refreshment and relief, but there are also an at least equal number of times of challenge and tension. We saw at the very beginning of our journey that following Jesus takes everything. We can’t put anything ahead of Him in terms of our devotion if we’re going to get it right. But, even though faithfulness is hard, the rewards are rich. That’s a good thing too, because given His current bodily absence, the world doesn’t get to take its hatred of Jesus out on Him. The world hates Jesus, but sees us, and treats us accordingly.
After a brief break to catch our breath, we turned a bit inwardly and saw that if we are going to push forward in following Jesus in spite of the external challenges, it can’t be something to which we give half a heart’s worth of effort. Serving Him and living as we please isn’t enough. We have to know Him; knowledge that comes when we immerse ourselves in His words. But, as we saw last week, when we do, when we really get who Jesus is, life is our reward.
All of that brings us to this morning. This morning I want to take you to a time with the disciples when, just as it seemed they were starting to wrap their minds around His identity, He opened the door a bit further and blew them away. It all started on a field trip. After some confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus took the disciples across the Sea of Galilee to the northern coast. When they got there, the disciples realized that they had forgotten to bring bread. When I was little my family made a trip to Boston for a few days. I left my luggage sitting at home. This would have been a little like that. It wasn’t the end of the world because they could buy bread or find someone to give it to them (and it’s not as if Jesus wasn’t able to make sure they got fed), but it was frustrating and embarrassing.
With their recent confrontation with the Pharisees still on all of their minds, Jesus told them to beware of the leaven, or the yeast, of the Pharisees. He was making a spiritual point about their false teachings and the way those idea viruses could slip into someone’s heart and mind and make a mess of things. They thought He was scolding them about forgetting the bread. He explained Himself…again…and figured that in order to go any further with them He was going to have to take them out of town, away from recent distractions.
Jesus led them to the region of Caesarea Philippi, about a two-day’s journey north of their home base in Capernaum. There, in the shadow of the Roman Empire, Jesus asked them a question. You can find this in Matthew 16:13. He said to them, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They went on to list the various options: “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” This established a nice baseline for what came next. He turned the focus around on them. “You guys have been with me for a while now. You know what the rumors are about me. The rumors will be what they will be, but who do you say that I am?” Now things were personal. They had been so dense as to not pick up what He was talking about a couple of days before with the Pharisees and the leaven, had they at least been paying close enough attention to recognize who He really was?
Peter answered almost immediately in v. 16: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus had to smile at that. They had finally gotten something right! He praised Peter richly: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Those are some pretty remarkable verses to which we are going to give almost no attention this morning. They have been intensely debated and represent what is perhaps the sharpest line of division between Catholics and Protestants. The only point I want to make about them now is that the disciples—or at least Peter—had demonstrated they had a depth of understanding that showed they had been paying attention over the past several months. They demonstrated they got it and Jesus praised them for it. They were ready for Him to reveal a bit more about exactly what it meant that He was the Messiah…or so it seemed until Jesus actually started talking.
Have you ever experienced something like this? You learn enough about something that you are ready to get to the next level of whatever it is only to get there and feel like you weren’t really prepared at all. I remember my first college chemistry course—Quantitative Analysis. In theory it took everything I had spent the previous two years learning and applied it forward, but all through that first semester I struggled with what felt like sticker shock. I must have driven my professor, Dr. Lamp, crazy with all the time I spent in his office having him explain some concept to me for the twelfth time. The disciples had finally gotten their minds around the fact that this guy they’d been following around for several months may actually be God’s promised Messiah. They’d arrived! And then the door opened to a whole new world that was well beyond their ability to process it.
You see, all their lives they’d been taught to think about the Messiah in certain terms. He was going to come in power and glory. Jesus hadn’t really done that, but the miracles He was doing certainly were helping to pick up the slack. He was going to be a military leader. He was going to lead a political and military overthrow of whoever happened to be currently oppressing the people of Israel. That had been Rome since before any of the disciples’ grandparents were born. Most of all, though, the Messiah wasn’t going to die. I mean, how could He? If He was the guy who was supposed to lead Israel to the glory they had known under David and Solomon, then dying along the way had to be totally out of the question. A dead guy can’t lead you very well.
With all of that in mind, put yourself in their shoes and listen to what Jesus said next: “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.” What’s going through your mind as you hear this? It would be a little like someone coming along, getting you to trust them, and then explaining that up is really down and down is really up. It wouldn’t compute. It wouldn’t compute, and you would probably get angry. Remember the scene from The Santa Clause 2 when Tim Allen’s Santa is trying to woo Elizabeth Mitchell’s, Carol, and after gaining her trust, begins to explain his real identity to her. She brought their evening to a sudden and screeching halt and kicked him out.
Peter was Carol. Look at v. 22: “And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” Do you hear what he’s really saying here? “Jesus, I just confessed that you are the Messiah and you confirmed my confession. The Messiah is not supposed to die. If you really are the Messiah, you aren’t going to die. That’s not how it’s supposed to work!” Rather than gently helping to correct Peter’s fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of God’s Messiah, Jesus called him out right there in front of all the guys. Verse 23 now: “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.” Now, perhaps that seems a little harsh, but if you think about it, Jesus is right. Peter was trying to call Jesus to receive the same cross-less kingdom that Satan had in the wilderness.
But the way of the kingdom was going to be a path that ran straight through a cross. Jesus would bear the first one, but if His followers were going to stay on track with Him, they were going to need to be prepared to bear theirs as well. Now, this didn’t necessarily mean that they—we—were all going to have to die on crosses like He would (although many of them would eventually do just that), but neither did it exclude that. Instead, it meant that they were going to need to be prepared to assess the kingdom’s value and, once they properly understood it, pay the high price it demanded so they could receive the even greater prize. Listen to how Jesus puts this in the truly hard part of this passage: “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?”
Take up your cross. Today we speak of the cross with ease. It is a warm and comforting symbol to millions of people around the world. People wear it around their neck as a piece of jewelry whether they believe in what it stands for or not. It is common to the point that it has lost much of its meaning. For the disciples standing there as Jesus said this, this was not the case. For them, a cross represented terror and death. It represented defeat and humiliation. To be put to death on a cross was the worst possible thing someone could experience. Dying on a cross meant you had done something of sufficient notoriety as to attract the direct attention of Rome. It was a punishment so bad that it could not be administered to Roman citizens. It was a political punishment intended to send a graphic message: If you mess with us, we won’t just kill you, we will humiliate you and strip away your humanity until you are little more than a bag of flesh hanging on a tree, and everyone who looks at you will ask what you could possibly have done to warrant such an end so they can avoid experiencing the same fate. I honestly don’t think that today we have something comparable to what the cross represented for them. Perhaps the electric chair of old was close, but the goal of that was to put criminals to death somewhat humanely. Preserving a victim’s humanity was precisely the opposite of what the cross was designed to do.
When Jesus told them that anyone desiring to follow Him must be prepared for this kind of an end, He might as well have told them that they were going to have to build a staircase to the moon. They were still reeling from the revelation that the Messiah was going to go to Jerusalem and die. Now to be told they needed to be prepared to face a similarly horrible fate no doubt left them sick to their stomachs. What was He trying to say with this? As we have seen over the series of these conversations, He was calling them to be ready to subject everything to their intention to follow Him wherever He might lead. Following Jesus is something that helps us become fully our God-selves, but in the beginning at least (and many other times along the way in truth) it is something that is actively done against self. We put ourselves to the side and pursue His path regardless of what may stand before us even if it comes at the expense of our very lives.
But why? Why would we do something like this? Because of what is at stake. Life is at stake. As Jesus points out, our very souls are at stake. Now, the soul isn’t something we think about often, but perhaps we should give it more attention than we do. Trying to define the soul isn’t a simple venture because of its very intangible nature, but here’s something to at least give us a frame for understanding. Your soul is the part of you that is most truly you. Although our bodies are an essential part of what makes us human, these bodies will eventually wear out and expire. Our souls don’t. In this life, then, something that poses a threat to our physical body should certainly be taken seriously, but something that poses a threat to our soul should be taken entirely more so. Something that threatens to corrupt our soul and make it fit for something other than eternity in the kingdom of God is something that should be avoided at any cost even if that cost should be our physical lives.
Jesus gets down to just how serious all of this is there in v. 26 when He poses the famous query about the good of gaining the world if the cost is our soul. Think about that one for a minute. What good is gaining the world? Our culture tells us it is very good. And, if this life is all there is, it is absolutely right. In fact, if this world is all there is, then to speak of the soul is to speak of something made up by religious people to try and keep human behavior in line. If this is the case, there is no reason not to pursue gaining the world with gusto. Sure, social convention will sometimes get in the way, but if the ultimate outcome is our pleasure and happiness, there is no sacrifice not worthy making if it will help us obtain that end. But, if there’s even a chance all this soul-talk is true, we are wise to move with a great deal more caution in these matters. If there is a life after this one, and if its length will truly force us to reexamine the scale we use to measure long life, and if the choices we make here and now have even a slight impact on the outcome of what we experience there—in other words, if Jesus is right—then there is no part of the world whose impact on us will be sufficiently positive to warrant losing ourselves to it.
In Genesis, Moses tells the story of a foolish young man named Esau who gave away his inheritance rights as the oldest child of the family so he could satisfy a growling belly after a long hunt. He gave away something that was ultimately precious so that he could have something only temporarily precious. In the end, the meal he had was gone, but he could not restore what he had lost to gain it. The same thing applies here, but on a much more significant scale. Following Jesus and preserving our soul—that part of us created for eternity—is not something worth sacrificing no matter how pressing our temporal need may be. And what is the temporal need we might be trying to meet? We could focus in on the big and obvious ones—fame and fortune, for instance—but if we’re honest, most of us aren’t ever going to get a meaningful chance at those. Yet the list of things we might be offered in exchange for our souls is much longer—and more personal—than merely those.
Just what is the need facing you? A relief from pain? You perhaps know how it goes: You take this and the pain will go away…for a time. But when it returns it will take more to make it go away. And you’ll lose a bit of yourself each time you do. Yet if the pain is great enough—and there are many more kinds of pain than mere physical discomfort—the temptation is powerful. Or how about the avoidance of embarrassment over some foolish choices we’ve made? You’ve perhaps been here as well. You’ve blown it…big time. You know that when the mess hits the fan, it’s going to be sprayed all over everywhere. All you have to do is tell this one little lie or bend this one little rule and the whole thing will just…go away. But dust swept under the rug doesn’t dissipate. It collects. And though the next time you need to clean up sweeping things away will be easier than the last, the pile won’t be any smaller. Eventually someone is going to step on the spot and the cloud will be impossible to avoid then. You’ll have no soul, and you’ll still have the problem. What has been gained?
In the second half of v. 26 there, He turns the question around and comes at it from the other direction. Let’s say you’ve made the compromise. You’ve tried to numb the pain. You’ve achieved the stardom or the promotion or whatever else you exchanged for your soul. You’re sitting in the hollowed-out shell of your life wondering what you could possibly do now to make things even a modicum better than they are. What would you be willing to give if someone came and offered you your soul again, restored to the fullness it once had? Now you would give anything and everything without even a moment’s pause for reflection. No price would be too great. No sacrifice too extreme. Whatever it was going to take to have that back—to become yourself again instead of the monster who had been masquerading around wearing your face—was worth it.
Friends, when it comes to following Jesus, this is exactly what we have offered to us. You see, unlike the other five parts of this conversation, with this last hard saying of Jesus, we are not offered any kind of a way out from under its difficulty. There is no escape hatch here. Last week we could take solace in the life we were offered in our brokenness in spite of the perceived unfairness of it being offered to someone we deemed undeserving. Before that our wayward attempt to serve Jesus without knowing Him can be easily rectified by seeking to know Him more. When we talked about the world’s hatred, the big idea of that particular conversation gave us the way out: The world’s hatred, even though felt by us, is ultimately aimed at Jesus. But here, there is no such out. When Jesus says we must be prepared to take up our crosses—to be persecuted, humiliated, cast out, victims of attempts to strip us of our humanity, and even killed—He means it. We’ve got to be ready for that. When Jesus says that no mess we may make in this life is worth losing our soul to clean—think about that for a minute in light of the size and scope of some of the messes we create—He means it. As we said in the very first week of this journey: Following Jesus takes everything. It takes everything. We can’t hold anything back and expect to get it right. Any effort we make to do so is merely a sacrifice of soul for the sake of the world which is passing away, sometimes right before our eyes. This saying is as hard as they come. Our only relief is in this one affirmation: It’s worth it. That’s what Jesus is getting at here with the disciples—and through them us. Following Him may take everything, but it’s also worth everything. Following Jesus is worth everything.
Now, come on: There are days when it doesn’t feel like it, right? There are days when we just want to throw in the towel and indulge our desires to their fullest extent. There are days when denying ourselves is the absolute last thing we want to do. There are days when we would have stood right alongside Esau and given our birthright away for a bowl of stew. You’ve had those days. I’ve had those days. But when we’re feeling that pressure, that longing, that guttural urge from our sinful nature—because that’s what it’s from—we have these words from Jesus Himself to help us put things back in order. No matter what it takes us to get it right, following Jesus is worth everything. It’s worth it. Everything. It’s worth every slight, every embarrassment, every sacrifice, every inconvenience, every heart-wrenching no, every excruciating yes, it’s all worth it. Following Jesus is worth everything.
So then, let’s make it personal. We’re going to do that in two ways. The first is simply this: Are you following Jesus? Can you say with all the honesty in your heart that you are following Jesus, that your life is oriented in the direction He is leading? Don’t deceive yourself here. The cost for getting this wrong is too high. Are you following Jesus? If you aren’t, now is a perfect time to start. The cost will be high. Jesus didn’t sugarcoat that fact, and neither will I. But it’s worth it. Following Jesus is worth everything. Life itself will be your reward. Life that begins now and doesn’t end. Ever. Here’s the second way: If you are following Jesus and you feel like the journey is getting difficult—especially lately—know well that this is almost surely a sign you are on the right track. Stick with it. Stick with it because the rewards are going to make it all worthwhile. The pain and challenges you facing now are going to be worth it. Following Jesus is worth everything. Following Jesus is worth everything. Following Jesus is worth everything.