November 29, 2008

Losing your life for Christ - John 12:23-26

And Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. John 12:23-26

Two things are in view in this passage:

1.       We have Jesus, the Son of God, taking up his cross in obedience to his Father, forsaking his own life and dying in order to glorify both the Father and the Son.

2.       We have Jesus telling those who would be his disciples that they must hate their lives in this world and follow him – with the promise of suffering even as Jesus suffered, but also being honored with eternal life.

There is really only one theme here: that of the master leading the way and the servants following suit, forsaking everything just as their master has done. It’s jarring to note that this statement of Jesus – “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” – occurs in all four of the gospel accounts, sometimes two or three times, making one of (if not the) most repeated sayings of Jesus in the Bible.

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. Matthew 16:24-25

Our call as disciples of Christ is to relinquish our claim to everything we have and everything we are, realizing that we are not our own but have been bought with a price, and that we do not have anything that we have not received as a gift. Knowing this, we are to sacrifice everything for the sake of obeying the will of God.

                This is the design of the kingdom of God and in this sacrifice of everything the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies. Jesus Christ is the primary and ultimate fulfillment of this, forsaking everything he had or might have had in this world, resisting any desire that would conflict with his Father’s will, and becoming obedient even to the point of death on the cross. And in this death, he purchased the salvation of all who would believe in him, bearing much fruit.

                Following after Christ, Christians throughout history have been God’s instruments for bearing fruit. Remaining steadfast in their confession, in the face of persecution and even to the point of death, these Christians have fueled the growth of the Church from its early days up to the present day. These dying grains of wheat have produced more fruit than any man can number. In the second century, Tertullian bore witness to this phenomenon:

“We are not a new philosophy but a divine revelation. That’s why you can’t just exterminate us - the more you kill the more there are. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church…Because those who see us die wonder why we do, for we die like the men you revere, not like slaves and criminals. And when they find out, they join us.”

                The faith whose hope transcends all earthly passions and even life itself, which even makes men willing to be lead as sheep to the slaughter for the sake of the joy that awaits them beyond that – this faith is a living witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The fact is, we are all called to be martyrs and we must all lose our lives for Christ’s sake. This may not manifest itself in physical torture or death at the hands of persecutors, though that undoubtedly may be true for some of us. Nevertheless, loss and persecution are the norm for Christians.

Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. 2 Timothy 3:12

                This persecution can take many forms beyond beatings and imprisonment. It may be verbal abuse or humiliation by friends, family, or co-workers when you remain firm in obedience to Christ in opposition to conventional wisdom. It may mean losing a job or being passed up for a promotion when you refuse to comply with ethically dubious business practices. The list goes on… We need not seek physical martyrdom – if we seek out and live the will of God in our lives, we will lose our lives in this world sure enough.

                In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

“To endure the cross is not a tragedy: it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ. The cross means sharing in the suffering of Christ to the last and to the fullest… As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death – we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise God-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time – death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call.”

                In the great hall of faith of Hebrews 11, we find several examples of people who lost their lives in obedience to God’s will, and in the process gained life:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. Hebrews 11:8-9

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, "Through Isaac shall your offspring be named." Hebrews 11:17-18

By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. Hebrews 11:24-26

In Philippians 3, we see Paul, who by most standards had much to be proud of:

Circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Philippians 3:5-6

 Of this he says:

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith-- that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Philippians 3:7-11

Finally, we see Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb. 12:2)

                Let us despise the shame that comes with being obedient to Christ, not counting it worthy of our concern. Let us seek out his will, which has been revealed to us in the Bible, and then let us take up our crosses and follow him, sharing in his sufferings and knowing that we will also share in his glory.

I leave you with this exhortation from Hebrews 13:

So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Hebrews 13:12-14

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