For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”
We are going to consider some questions which demand an answer.
These are not questions related to Bible information where you might turn to a certain chapter and verse and find the answer. They are questions which are found in the Word of God, but questions which are more related to life and responsibility than they are to biblical information.
The question we are going to consider with you today is found in Matthew, chapter 16. As you turn to that portion of the Word of God, let me say to you that I have given serious thought and prayer as to whether or not we should even consider this question. It is a favourite text for evangelists, and I don't say that critically. It is a favourite text for nearly every preacher. Consequently, nearly everybody has heard some discussion of the passage.
If you have, it will be good groundwork for what we are about to discuss and you will be even more alert to what the Spirit of God would have to say to you in a new fashion. If you have not heard any discussion along this line, then certainly you need to hear it, because the question which we are considering today which demands an answer is certainly of great importance.
The question is a two-pronged one. Its first thrust measures profit against loss in regard to the soul: ‘What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?’
The question’s second thrust deals with the pricelessness of the soul itself.
On the surface, this question seems hypothetical because actually no-one could gain the whole world. Yet, it becomes more than a hypothetical question if we keep in mind that the whole world, in our text, is not a reference to geographical territory; it is not a reference to someone's gaining control over all the world's vast expanse. The world here is a translation of the Greek word ‘kosmos’, which describes the world system.
That brings it down home to us a bit more closely. It makes it even something practical to consider. For example, I know that I would never be able to gain the world, not even a small part of the world, but I know from experiences past and present that I can become involved in the world system, and I know from experience past and present that I can become involved in this kosmos which makes its inroads upon every life.
You hear today of peer pressure and you are told that one of the reasons our young people are unable to stand true to the things they have been taught is the peer pressure with which they are faced. Even though you and I, for whatever reason and by whatever means, seem to find a very good place in the world system, we must consider what the profit will be if we gain that place and lose our own soul in the process.
There is another area in which the question must be considered and it is a matter of a relative consideration. Just as certainly as men lose their lives in trying to gain the recognition of the world, they lose their lives in trying to gain the riches of the world. I say this is relative because how rich is rich?
There are individuals who have in their possession untold wealth. They are not wedded to it. They are not tied down to it. In the grace and providence of God, it has been made available to them. There are other people who couldn't begin to talk about wealth, but are so wrapped up in what they have, that they have fallen prey to the riches of the world.
There is another area in which men could well lose their lives, their souls, all that they have stood for, because they seek refuge from suffering and from death.
How often when you know that your stand for Jesus Christ is going to involve suffering have you had at least a momentary thought, ‘I don't believe I can do it. I don't believe I can manage that,’ and you think you will just keep quiet about your faith in Christ?
No-one, at least in my acquaintance, has ever been faced with death because of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, but if you gain refuge from death by denying the Lord, by refusing to accept all that is involved in the Cross, what have you gained?
Let me say that I believe that the time will come when judgment most certainly will begin at the house of God as Peter has suggested in his first epistle. I don't know when that will be, but I am not at all going to be surprised when it comes. This I know: Individuals who have refused to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour will remain on this earth for a period of time that is called the Tribulation.
In Revelation, chapter 13, verses 16-17, we are told that during that period of time, individuals will try to save their lives by seeking refuge from death. When that passage of Scripture is compared with Revelation, chapter 20, verse 4, we find that during this period of time that is coming upon this earth, men who do stand up for Christ, men who do let folk know where their faith lies, will be beheaded. The guillotine will be the official means of execution. Men may live during the Tribulation for a time by denying their Lord, but what will they have gained? What shall profit a man?
This verse explains the paradox concerning loss and gain in the previous verse. It is probably intended to be reminiscent of Psalm 49:6-7: ‘They that trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches; None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him’.
We must notice also the importance of verse 8 which says, “For the redemption of their soul is precious, and it ceaseth for ever’.
It is but a trifle of the whole world, with its riches, honours, pleasures, which the most successful man can obtain. But if it all lay at his feet, how would it repay him for the loss of everlasting life?
Great confusion has been introduced into these verses in the Authorized Version by the rendering of the same Greek word as ‘life’ in verse 25, and ‘soul’ in verse 26. The revisers have helped to a better understanding of the passage by translating the word ‘life’ throughout. Christ was not speaking of the soul as we understand it, of the higher nature of man, but of life as opposed to the idea of being killed and so losing one’s life. He also emphasised his theology upon these propositions:
Firstly, self-seeking is self-losing. Jesus is warning his disciples of the dangers and hardships of his service. Many will be tempted to shrink from the cross in order to save their lives. They are told that a cowardly unfaithfulness under persecution is not the way to save their lives. It is true a violent death may be thus avoided.
But what is the use of a life preserved at the cost of honour and fidelity? It is not really saved, for it is so degraded that it has become a worthless thing. Thus it is a wasted life, a lost life. The same is true today under other circumstances. The man who denies Christ for his own convenience lowers himself to the level of worthlessness.
He who greedily grasps at his own pleasure to the neglect of higher interests so impoverishes his nature by his mean and narrow way of living that his life is really ruined. This is the case on earth. It will be more apparent in the next world, when Christ comes to ‘render unto every man according to his deeds’ (verse 27).
Even in spiritual things, if a man’s religion is purely selfish, it will be of no use to him. If he thinks only of his own salvation, and nothing of the service of Christ and the benefit of his fellow men, he will be lost.
It is not the teaching of Christ that our great business is to save ourselves. Religious teachers are greatly to blame for inculcating this most unchristian notion. Christ comes to save us from
Ourselves, but this will not be effected by the cultivating of a habit of supreme self-seeking in religion. Such a habit is ruinous to all that is worthy in a man. Therefore verse 26, which is often quoted in favour of a self-seeking religion, should be read in the light of verse 25.
Secondly, self-losing is self-finding. This is the opposite to the principle just considered. It has a positive importance of its own that demands careful consideration. ‘How is the paradox verified in experience?’ We must first of all call to mind the immediate circumstances our Lord had in view. His disciples were being warned of coming persecutions. Some of them would lose their lives in martyrdom. Yet then they would most truly find themselves, for they would be the heirs of life eternal, and would live on in the bright future.
That is the first lesson of the words. But they go much further. What is true under persecution is true at all times. The martyr temper is the Christian spirit. We gain the only life worth living on earth when we deny ourselves and embark on a career of unselfish service. The abandonment of selfish aims is the acquisition of heavenly treasures. There is a blessedness in the life of obedience and self-surrender that the selfish can never know. Happiness is not attained by directly aiming at it; it comes in as a surprise to him who is not seeking it when he is busy in unselfish service.
Now, these lessons are driven home and clenched by the obvious truth of the following verse (verse 26). What is the use of a world of wealth to a man who loses his life in acquiring it? The pearl-seeker who is drowned in the moment of clutching his gem is a supreme loser even while he is a gainer. Nothing will compensate a man for making shipwreck of his life by self-seeking.
Examine the pursuits of every class. Read the story of the long ages. This is clearly men’s opinion everywhere. They live to get, to win, to grasp, to hold what they call wealth, earthly valuables houses, laud, jewels, money, fame. Is that really great gain? Test it by one thing. How does it stand related to man’s real soul life? Then it is seen to belong only to the body, which man has for a while; and in no way to the being that he is, and will be forever. All a man acquires of a merely earthly character belongs to his body, and goes with his body when his body goes; then it is his no more. Treasure on earth is but falsely and unworthily called “great
For character is a man’s true wealth; it belongs to the being he is, and is forever. And one application of our Lord’s teaching here comes out in a very striking way.
Gaining earthly things is only too likely to involve the destruction of spiritual character, because it is so sure to hinder that ‘self-denial’ which is the absolutely essential foundation of noble and enduring spiritual character.
A man gains the heavenly treasure by what he gives up, and not by what he holds fast to. The sublime illustration is presented in the case of our Lord himself, who acquired nothing earthly, who gave up everything he had that men are wont to esteem as gain, but who gained the eternal treasure of tested spiritual character, perfected ‘son-ship’.
In conclusion, meet the difficulty of the apparently unpractical character of such teaching. Show that it is really a question of relativity. Which is to be first, possessions or character? What shall profit a man?
Rev Vakaroto Ngaro (Ekalesia CICC Avarua)