The “seeker-centered church” has been one of the most popular methods of structuring the local church in the last few decades here in the USA. The idea is to gear your church service toward “seekers”—people showing interest in God and other spiritual matters. Teach them appealing spiritual truths; then, when you’ve hooked them, tell them about the gospel of Jesus Christ.
There’s a lot of good there, since these methods reflect a desire to advance the gospel and avoid becoming ingrown. When we look at the life of Jesus, however, there are times when his methods are the antithesis of “seeker centering.” The guy just didn’t put a lot of stock in marketing. Today, we see one of these odd incidents that reveal the upside-down mindset of Jesus.
This young man is the ideal “seeker.” He comes running up to Jesus and delivers him a golden opportunity when he asks the question, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Any evangelist worth his salt would be salivating right about now.
But instead of leading him through the Romans Road, Jesus latches onto the man’s first two throwaway words: “Why do you call me good?” This young man, who doesn’t recognize Jesus’ divinity, is yet quick to call him good. But Jesus is not so flippant. “No one is good except God alone—you know the commandments.” He rattles off a list of rules, drawn from the famous Ten Commandments of Moses. But rather than being humbled by his failure to keep the law, the young man naïvely replies, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.”
Now, Jesus isn’t mad at the young man for making such a bold statement. Mark records at this point that he looks right at man and loves him. And because he loves him, he chooses to deliver a necessary but brutal answer to the man’s first question. The man knows deep down in his soul that he lacks something to inherit eternal life. Jesus confirms, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” It sounds like a lot of things, but really it’s one thing. Jesus is telling the man, “When it comes to the law, you’ve dotted all your i’s and crossed all your t’s. You’re a fine young man—on the outside. But your heart is not with me; it’s still latched onto this world. You need to transfer all your investments into my heavenly kingdom. In your case, that means selling everything you have and giving it to the poor. To be my follower, you can no longer be self-reliant, clinging to wealth to maintain your power, your prestige, and your security.”
The young man is crushed. Jesus is a master surgeon, and he has cut to the man’s heart. The man finds that his zeal is ebbing. He leaves, dejected and disappointed. There is a price for eternal life that he is not willing to pay.
Then Jesus pulls out this stunner: “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” Jesus’ disciples are shocked at this statement. Like us, they think of the powerful and affluent as the ones whom God favors. There are many “prosperity” preachers who teach this exactly. And we unconsciously hold the mindset that Christians in wealthy countries such as the USA are superior saints to Christians in third-world countries. But Jesus contradicts us and then takes it a step further. Not only is it difficult for anyone to enter God’s kingdom, but “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples are horrified. “Then who can be saved?” they ask.
Jesus does offer a glimmer of hope: “All things are possible with God.” But the fact remains that if you’re a Westerner (and therefore rich), you’re in a very dangerous position. There are many countries in which it’s difficult to be a Christian, and Western countries are some of the most difficult. Why? Because it’s so easy to be independent and self-reliant. It’s so easy for an American to depend on his checking account or take pride in his house or show off his fancy new iPhone. Our wealth and comfort and ease numb us to our neediness. Like the church in Laodicea, we say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing,” not realizing that we are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17). We are helpless like little children, and we need the divine power of Jesus. Wealth is not bad, but it obscures our neediness; it is the soil in which a wicked self-reliance takes root.
Now, Peter senses an opportunity for advancement. “We have left everything and followed you,” he reminds Jesus. In his reply, Jesus affirms that such sacrifice will not go unrewarded. His disciples will receive “a hundredfold now in this time” as they join the precious community of faith that Jesus will found. But he warns that in this age they will also receive persecutions, and that the greatest prize—eternal life—belongs to “the age to come.” Then he adds, “Many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Peter, because of his desire to be the greatest, is in danger of demoting himself to the lowest rank in God’s kingdom.
That’s the way God’s kingdom works. Jesus came to be rejected and killed, to be a suffering servant, to be dependent on his Father and do his will. He wants followers who will be dependent and Christ-reliant. If you life in a Western nation, consider it a handicap, and consider that you are surrounded by temptations that will bleed the desire for eternal life right out of your heart.
Today’s passage overlaps a bit with the passage we studied last week, because really it’s all one long story that we’re examining a piece at a time. After eight chapters in which Jesus’ divine authority is on display, his disciples begin to understand what’s going on. Peter realizes, “You are the Christ!” So finally we’re getting somewhere. Jesus is the king, anointed by God, whom the prophets had said would come to rescue Israel.
Unfortunately for Peter’s dreams of a glorious political kingdom, Jesus announces that his mission is to suffer, be rejected, be killed, and rise again. That doesn’t exactly fit into his disciples’ mindset of what glory looks like, so Peter takes him aside to rebuke him. But Jesus turns the tables on Peter and chews him out, calling him Satan and telling him, “You are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
Now, I think most of us would agree that what Peter said was wrong. But why does Jesus come down so hard on him? Well, we’re about to find out, because Jesus won’t let this teaching moment slip by. There’s a crowd following him and his disciples, so he calls them all together and tells them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Apparently, Jesus isn’t trying to be Mr. Popular.
Remember from a while back that to be a disciple of Jesus means that you need to be with Jesus and you need to imitate him. To be with Jesus, you need to know who he is—that he’s the Messiah. To imitate him, you need to know his mission, and his mission is to fulfill all that God the Father has in store for him—his suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection. He has come to submit to God’s will. Now, Jesus is also calling his followers to submit. He tells them that they need to deny themselves; they don’t get to choose for themselves how they will live. Every disciple must “take up his cross.” This is a vivid and repulsive image in the mind of the crowd. They’ve seen crucifixions take place at the hand of their Roman overlords. The main point of crucifixion isn’t to torture a person to death; it’s to present that person as a public spectacle of what happens when you defy the might of Rome. A man going to his crucifixion would be led through crowded streets, bearing the crossbar of his own cross. On his public death march, he is no longer acting as a rebel; Rome has won, and he has submitted to its authority. In the same way, Jesus is telling his disciples, “If you want to follow me, you must join me, abandoning your old mindsets and old ways of life. You must come alongside me in absolute submission to God.”
Now, that’s a tough pill to swallow, so Jesus tells us why it’s necessary. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Counterintuitively, a disciple must give up his entire life to God in order to save it. Like the oil in the jar of the prophet’s widow (2 Kings 4:1–7), it can’t be renewed unless it’s entirely poured out. A disciple can’t hold back a few corners of his life for himself. He can’t play it safe. He must devote himself exclusively to his Lord, take risks for him, wear himself out with the Lord’s work. If he tries to hold back, he’ll give up the very life he’s been trying to keep for himself, because God will take it away from him.
You’ll lose your life if you try to keep it for yourself; you’ll save it if you let it go. Jesus explains this paradox: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” If you keep yourself back from God, it won’t be gain at all, even if you got all the approval and money and comfort and pleasure and self-esteem you could dream of. You’ll lose your soul, and you won’t be able to get it back. “For what can a man give in return for his soul?” Jesus asks, and the answer is, “Nothing.” All that honor and luxury you’ve gained won’t be enough to buy it back.
Why can’t you buy back your soul? Jesus warns, “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” You can’t buy your soul back because Jesus will be too embarrassed to be seen with you. He’ll be too ashamed to be around someone who prefers “this adulterous and sinful generation” to “the glory of his Father” and the presence of “the holy angels.” No amount of contaminated money or worthless prestige that you can offer will ever wallpaper over that shame. Jesus can’t be bribed.
But then, Jesus delivers a guarantee to the crowd. “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.” Jesus won’t allow you to buy your way into his kingdom; he offers it freely. And there are some in that crowd who will consider the cost and still choose to be his disciples. And three of them are about to catch a glimpse of the King with his veil removed and his glory revealed. This kingdom is of supreme worth, more valuable than any earthly kingdom.
So Jesus has come to submit himself to his Father’s will, and his disciples are called to do the same. If you tend to be a self-ambitious person, Jesus is warning you not to seek earthly glory but to submit to God, devote yourself to him, and in this way receive the glory of his kingdom. If you tend to be a lazy person, Jesus is warning you to stop holding back and to start pouring yourself out for God. Go all in. And then…then you’ll begin to see a radiant sliver of the glory that awaits you.
When Christ returns, “the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Peter 3:10). Here are eleven things that won’t make it into the new heavens and the new earth. In fact, they won’t even make it very long in the present world.
Like all idols, these don’t last very long. And when they’re gone, they won’t do you any good. Do you live for an ephemeral world or for a kingdom that will not pass away? “The world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:17).