Most people would rather pursue their greatest worldly desires before pursuing Christ. But what advantage would there be in gaining everything our heart wants if it costs our whole life? In this message from the Gospel of Matthew, Alistair Begg helps us see how worldly devotion leads to disappointment. When we seek satisfaction in ourselves, we will never be satisfied. In Jesus, though, we are offered an ultimate fulfillment that will never fade.
Our question this evening comes from Matthew 16, and if you would like to find it there in a Bible around you, if you want to use one of the Bibles that you’ll find in the seats, this particular section is on page 694—page 6-9-4. And if you want to follow along, I’ll just read these four verses or so—five verses—from verse 24:
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’”
Now just a brief prayer before we study the Bible:
Our gracious God and Father, we thank you that in this evening hour you have assembled us in this place. We thank you for the words we’ve been able to sing already, written so long ago and yet with such abiding relevance to our lives as we think about who we are and what we are tonight. We thank you that you have not left us alone but that you have come to visit us in the person of your Son, Jesus. We thank you that you’ve given to us the Bible and that it’s set out in an orderly fashion and that we can read it and apply our minds to it. And we pray that, as we think about this particular question now, that you will help us. Help me as I speak that I might be clear and concise, and help each of us as we listen that we might understand and by your mercy that we might believe and obey the Bible and live in the very power and life that it offers to us. We ask this humbly and expectantly in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Well, our question is there, right on your sheet or your card: “What will it profit a man”—that could easily be “What will it profit a woman”—“What will it profit a man or a woman, what will it profit anybody, to gain the whole world and yet lose their soul?”
Now, our questions have had a variety of appeals depending on the background out of which a person comes. I think tonight this particular question should reverberate quickly in the minds of business personnel. This is a question for accountants, if you like. It’s a question for everyone and anyone who’s involved with balance sheets or who understands the difference between a profit and loss ledger. And it is a very straightforward question. It would be possible by dint of its clarity that we might even sidestep its impact, and so we need to be careful that we apply our minds to what is actually being said: What good will it be—what advantage will there be—for the person gaining the whole world yet forfeiting or losing their life or their soul? What possible advantage would there be in gaining the maximum imaginable but at the cost of one’s life?
This is not actually an unfamiliar question. Posed in a variety of ways, it is the subject matter of movies and poems and books, in fact. And one might often be tempted to think that all of them are derivatives of this great and fundamental question. Jesus was routinely asking questions. Jesus was expert at speaking to people where they were—the very use that he made of parables or of stories, the way he pointed out circumstances, saying to people, “There was a sower and he went to sow,” or “There was a man and he was building his house,” and there’s immediate points of identification. Much of the community in which he moved was a fishing community, and so he would say to people, “The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into [a] lake.” And people would nudge one another and say, “Oh, I understand that picture. I wonder what he’s going to do with it.” He was able to appeal to the common sense, if you like, of fisherfolk.
And at the same time he was equally able to appeal to the shrewd commercial instincts of the Galilean tradesmen of whom there were many. And in a similar vein he says to them, “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls,” or “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that a man finds in a field and immediately goes and purchases the field in order that he might benefit from the treasure”—the kind of points of contact that people would readily identify with.
And in both of those little parables he was actually saying, “The kingdom of heaven is a good buy no matter what price you pay for it. It’s a good buy at any price. This is a stock that you ought to own. You ought to own stock in the kingdom of heaven. It would be worth selling all the rest of your portfolio,” he says, “in order to hold this one stock.”
It would be like when I came here in 1983 reading the Wall Street Journal, and just scanning it from Britain to America, and looking in and finding that there was a stock there that cost $4,000 for one share! And I looked at it and I couldn’t believe my eyes. How could there possibly be a stock worth $4,000? Who would ever buy a stock worth $4,000? Who has enough money to buy such a thing? And I remember Sue and I were advised to take out a little IRA, and we mustered up all we could get, and we took it to Bank One up at Tanglewood there. And it was the biggest mistake I ever made. I should’ve bought the one stock. For today, Berkshire Hathaway trades at, what, $85,000 a share! Twenty-two years later: “You should’ve sold everything and bought that one stock.”
Now, that’s what Jesus was saying there. And what he’s doing here in this question, which is this evening’s question, is he is addressing things not from a judicial perspective but from a commercial perspective. “What,” he says, “would be the point, for example, of gaining all the money in the world if you’re not around to spend it? What possible advantage would there be in becoming very famous, and yet for the end of life to reverse that completely?” It’s the kind of question that we can easily identify with.
But we need to be clear about the terminology. And some of you have been following along, perhaps, in a translation that actually translates the word “soul” as “life.” And there is a reason for this. The word in Greek is the word psyche, from which we get our English word psyche. And the distinction is between bio—the Greek word from which we get our English word bio, giving us biology, etc.—and psyche, which is this dimension of life, which is a far more significant dimension of life. It is, if you like, the inner life. If we could say it in these terms, it is the you—you know, it is the real you. If you ever imagine yourself dead, it’s the part of you imagining yourself dead. Because you can’t imagine yourself dead, because you’re alive all the time, so you don’t really know what it is. It’s the part of you which, when the Bible says, “[God] has … set eternity in the hearts of men,” it’s that part of you. Tonight, we are an entity of physiological and spiritual and psychological elements, all of that making up our true self. The part of us, if you like, that will transcend this earthly sphere, that will transcend time and space as we know it. The part of us that will survive even death. That is what Jesus is referencing here. Whether we translate it as “the life that is really life” or whether we translate it “soul,” however we deal with it, he’s asking the question, “What possible good would it be for an individual to gain the whole world in the here and now and actually to lose their soul?”
Now, I’m not gonna suggest to you that this is an easy question just because it is a simple question. Because it actually forces us to think about things that we may not really want to think about. It forces us to think about issues of eternity, of death, of the end of life, of its brevity, of what I’m doing with my existence, about whether my life actually counts, whether it counts for anyone or anything beyond myself, whether my life is oriented exactly towards my own selfish preoccupations, or whether my life is oriented in a different direction entirely. All of that and more is wrapped up in the challenge of this question. And it forces many of us to go beyond the nine dots of our own explication of life.
There’ll be some here tonight who are scientific by background—I know that I’m not, and those who know me know that was one of the truer things I’ve ever said—and others of you who come from an engineering background, and you have created models to explain your existence. And some of you may even come from the kind of background that has found, for example, [The] Brief History of Time to have become something of a bible for you, because you like the way in which he is able to underscore and underpin life without God and his great affirmation of atheism. But even Hawking is prepared to acknowledge that when he’s done his best to create, as it were, a mathematical model to explain the universe and to explain existence within the universe, he then writes, “A mathematical model cannot answer the question of why there should be a universe for the model to describe.” And then he exclaims, “Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?”
Now, we have to leave that there, because we’re in danger of intruding upon next Sunday evening’s question, and I know you’re so excited about that that you would hate for me to do two for one and allow you to skip next Sunday night. But next Sunday night is “What is your life?” We have to leave that for later. Tonight’s question is “What possible advantage will there be for the individual gaining the whole world and losing their soul?”
Now, the reason that I read the surrounding section is because it’s always important to do that when you’re reading anything, isn’t it? I mean, anybody can lift a sentence out of anywhere and make it say just about all that you want it to say. And if you’re skeptical at all, that’s one of the reasons that you may have concerns about individuals like me. You may have actually written most of us off: “Well, they just lift pieces out of the Bible, and they make them say whatever they want them to say.” Well, I don’t want to do that, and that’s why I read around. And if your Bible is open or if you care to look at it, you will see that Jesus is addressing his disciples, and in the course of that he espouses, essentially, a general principle—a general principle with universal application. We know that because of the way he introduces it; in verse 25, he says, “Whoever…” Whoever! “[Whosoever] wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” This great paradox that’s worthy of our consideration.
The loss of life to which he refers is not just an ultimate loss of life in the then, if you like, which he comes to down in verse 28. This is not just simply the idea of “You’ll lose it all then, later on when you’re gone.” But he’s actually pointing out that there is an immediate loss of life when an individual chooses to try and hoard life or explain life or live life oriented completely around the self.
You see, if we regard life as no more than this ordinary physical frame, and if we determine to give ourselves entirely to getting out of it whatever we can, then, says Jesus, we actually lose life in the fullest sense. We end up existing, according to Jesus, but not actually living.
Now, I’m not sure I understood this passage before this week. I think up until this week I thought that what Jesus was saying was that the selfish person will be punished by having their life taken from them. In other words, there was a threat in this—that Jesus was issuing this as a form of threat: “If you’re selfish, you know what’ll happen to you.” Like the grandmother speaking to her grandchildren on a rainy Thursday afternoon: “Now, if you’re not gonna share with your sister, you know what’ll happen.”
But actually, when I read it again and studied it, I realized that this is not a threat; this is an observation. Jesus is not making a statement here about a punishment factor. Rather, he is pointing out what happens when a person chooses to live their life in a certain way. If you try and make sense of it all, if you try and orient it all around yourself and who you are and what you are and what you have and what you’ve achieved and what you’ve done, then, says Jesus, you will actually lose your life.
Now, we can illustrate this lots of places. One of the wisest men that ever lived was Solomon, and back in Ecclesiastes—I don’t suggest you turn to it, but in Ecclesiastes… If you would like to read a book for homework, then you could read Ecclesiastes; it’s pretty good. And it essentially is the journey of one man trying to solve the riddle of life without punching out beyond time and space, without really considering eternity.
And he goes down a whole series of dead-end streets—familiar dead-end streets. He said, “I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven.” In other words, “I walked the pathway of intellectualism. I thought that perhaps by making sure that I was as clever as I could be and as credentialed as I might be, I would be able to solve the riddle of life.” And then he says, “[But] what is twisted [can’t] be straightened; [and] what is lacking [can’t] be counted.” He said, “Ultimately, I’m still left with more questions than I have answers.” And so he said, “I tried to go down the pleasure street. But I also found that pleasure was actually like drinking salt water. The more you tried it, the more you had to have, and the more you had, the more thirsty you became.” And so he said, “I just decided to amass stuff. I denied myself nothing that I could see. I refused my heart nothing. I engaged in the acquisition of everything that was around, and I realized that when I put it all together and sat and looked at it, it didn’t satisfy either. And eventually I decided that Monty Python’s Flying Circus was the only series of videos to buy. And so I sat around, and in the evening I looked at these clowns, some of the brightest clowns that had ever graced the stages, from Oxbridge—from Oxford and Cambridge University—pointing out the absolute futility that is represented in dark, cynical humor.”
Now, that’s just to go one place. But it comes at us all the time and from everywhere. Somebody sent me a copy of a note that had come from a lady to another lady who was suggesting that it was time for ladies to step up and to make sure that they didn’t let life pass them by. And in the course of the email, the lady suggested to the recipients of her email, “Remember this motto to live by: ‘Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, wine in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming, “Wooo-hooo! What a ride!”’” I like that kind of honesty. What the lady’s saying is, “Let the good times roll! Gravity’s taking over; let’s just ride it out.”
But there’s no thought of eternity. What would it profit such a lady to have the ride of her life and lose her own soul? And what would she give in exchange for her soul?
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flow’r, its bloom is shed;
[And] like [a snowflake] in the river,
[One] moment [here]—[and] then [gone] forever.
Robert Burns, Scottish poet.
Or what about Walter Lippmann, in a far more difficult quote in his book A Preface to Morals? He talks about how man as man at this point in the twenty-first century finds himself a discontented being. And listen as he writes:
At the heart of it there are likely [for him] to be moments of blank misgiving in which he finds that the civilization of which he is a part leaves a dusty taste in his mouth. He may be very busy with many things, but he discovers one day that [he’s] no longer sure they are worth doing. He has been much preoccupied; but he is no longer sure he knows why. He has become involved in an elaborate routine of pleasures; and they do not seem to amuse him very much. He finds it hard to believe that doing any one thing is better than doing any other thing, or, in fact, that it is better than doing nothing at all. It occurs to him that it is a great deal of trouble to live, and that even in the best of lives the thrills are few and far between. He begins more or less consciously to seek satisfactions, because he is no longer satisfied, and all the while he realizes that the pursuit of happiness was always a most unhappy quest.
Is there somebody here tonight, and you have that dusty taste in your mouth? Listen again to Jesus’ question: “What possible advantage would there be in gaining the whole world and losing your own soul?”
One final illustration of that and we’ll draw it to a close here in a moment. But Jordan Redland was a very successful property developer in the UK; he was a bit of a cynic as well. He made a terrific amount of money, and when he died, he was cremated and left instructions in his last will and testament that his ashes should be made into egg timers. And he insisted that an egg timer be given, one to his accountant and the other to the equivalent of an IRS agent with whom he had spent a terrific amount of time. Why? Well, reflecting on the goals that had directed the best years of his life, he said, “One day I suddenly thought, ‘I’d worked hard all my life only to hand over most of my cash to the bank and the tax man. So when I kick the bucket, I may as well go on working for them.’”
But you see, workaholism, which is not an unfamiliar feature of the Chagrin Valley, is often a thin disguise, a cover-up, a run for the border—men, women running from themselves, running from their family, ultimately running from God. No time for these disturbing doubts; no time for these difficult questions: “What would it profit a man if he gained the whole world and lost his own soul?”
Do you remember that song… I can’t find it on Lyrics.com for the life of me. Ray Stevens, verse two, I think:
You’ve got air-conditioned sinuses
And dark disturbing doubts about religion
And you keep those cards and letters going out
And while your secretary’s tempting you
Your morals are exempting you from guilt and shame
Heaven knows you’re not to blame
Eighty-six proof anesthetic crutches
Prop you to the top
Where the smiles are all synthetic
And the ulcers never stop
And when they take the final inventory
Yours’ll be the same sad story everywhere
No one will really care, no one more lonely than
This wretched more than man
Let’s have your autograph, endorse your epitaph.
And did you see your children growing up today?
And did you hear the music of their laughter
As they set around to play?
And did you smell the fragrance of those roses in your garden?
Did the morning sunlight light your eyes and
Brighten up your day?
And do you qualify to be alive
Or is the limit of your senses so as only to survive?
Hey, you better take care of business, Mr. Businessman.
What would it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?
Now, let me end in this way. Pascal, the French philosopher and mathematician, gave us his explanation for this chase down the street, the existence of what he referred to as a God-shaped gap at the deepest level of our being. Pascal identified the fact that the reason for our existence was a living relationship with a living God who had made us through Jesus. And he identified the fact that since that was such an intrinsic part of the human psyche, there was nothing that could fill it.
Sinead O’Connor, on another occasion—do you remember the lady with hardly any hair from Ireland? There was about a one-hit or maybe a two-hit wonder; she said some dreadful things about the Roman Catholic Church and faded from view. But on one occasion she said, “As a race we feel empty. That’s because our spirituality has been wiped out. As a result we fill that gap with alcohol, drugs, sex, or money.” And the result is that we lose our own souls.
Well, what do we need? Well, we need what Jesus challenges us to consider, and that is an eternal perspective. An eternal perspective. I know most of us don’t want to have an eternal perspective, because if you think in terms of eternity you’ve gotta think about the fact that time is passing through our fingers. It’s going through our fingers as if we were picking up little lumps of sand on the beach, and the more we squeeze it, the more it squeezes out and goes away. Such is life.
If you’re here tonight and you don’t believe these things, if you’re dead honest, your problem with Christianity is probably not that the church is old-fashioned. Breathing is not exactly, you know, novel; we’ve been doing that for a long time too. It’s not usually that the sermons are boring, although I haven’t a great deal to say about that. Neither is it that science has disproved the Bible, because it hasn’t. It just hasn’t. No, the real problem is that deep down inside, your heart and mine is cold towards God, and we prefer to save our own souls by pursuing the world than to forsake what we desire most and pursue Christ.
The remarkable thing about the story of the Bible is that there is an answer to this question about the value of your soul. And the value of your soul is seen—actually, in the surrounding context again—the value of your soul is seen in a cruel scene outside of Jerusalem where a man hangs between two other men, all of them crucified by the Roman authorities. And the man in the middle cross cries out some very interesting things. At one point he cries out in one word in Greek, tetelestai, “It is finished!” making people wonder, “What’s finished?” At one point he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And the reason that he cried out as he did was because on the cross he gave himself for the souls of men and women. He hanged upon the cross, despised, rejected, pierced, scarred, scorned, so that, what we deserve he having received, what we do not deserve he might freely give. And that’s how much you matter to God—that if there was a way to have a million worlds and to spend them all, they would never be enough to provide for your soul. And Jesus has come and he’s done that.
Now, at the very beginning of the text, Jesus has explained to his disciples what it would be like if they were going to become his followers. And people ask me all the time, “Well, I think I’m getting the picture. I think I understand a little of what you’re saying. But, you know, what’s involved with this Christian thing?” Well, you know, the super thing about it is—and the one that that allows me to speak with such confidence—is that there’s no silliness in this. There’s no soft option in this. There’s no televangelism in this. This is very rigorous. It’s very demanding.
Listen to how Jesus put it. He says, “Do you want to be my disciple? Number one, come after me. Come after me. Walk where I walk. Come after me as your rescuer and as your ruler. Number two, deny yourself. In other words, get off the throne of your life. Get off the throne of your life. I came to sit on that throne. If you continue to sit on the throne and covet your throne and covet yourself, you lose life now and you lose it then. But if you get off the throne and enthrone me, then you will discover life that is truly life. And thirdly, take up your cross every day and follow me.”
In other words, it’s not a momentary decision; it’s a lifetime commitment. Dying to myself every day, identified with Jesus, risking my life for him, if you like. For many of these disciples it meant death. For people around the world today, it still means death because of their commitment to Jesus. For you and I, it may not mean death. It could, I suppose. But it may mean that you have to face all those jokes from all your academic friends. It may mean that you will have to walk a path of loneliness amongst the immorality of your peer group. I don’t know what it will mean. But I guarantee you, on the authority of what Jesus said, that if you and I are prepared to come to his cross, and bow before him, and acknowledge who he is and what he’s done, and give up our lives as best we know how, then he will give to us life that is life in all of its fullness, now and for all of eternity.
 Matthew 13:3 (paraphrased).
 Luke 6:48 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 13:47 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 13:45 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 13:44 (paraphrased).
 Ecclesiastes 3:11 (NIV 1984).
 Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam, 1988), 184.
 Ecclesiastes 1:13 (NIV 1984).
 Ecclesiastes 1:15 (NIV 1984).
 Ecclesiastes 2:10–11 (paraphrased).
 Robert Burns, “Tam O’Shanter.”
 Walter Lippmann, A Preface to Morals (1929; repr., New Brunswick: Transaction, 1982), 4.
 Ray Stevens, “Mr. Businessman” (1968). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 7.425.
 Sinead O’Connor, interview with Bob Guccione, Jr., “Special Child,” Spin Magazine, November 1991, republished at https://www.spin.com/featured/sinead-oconnor-interview-spin-30-cover-story/. Paraphrased.
 John 19:30 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 27:46 (NIV 1984).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.