Beware Bad Bargains
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
This earthshaking text (v. 26) was not simply an exercise in academics to Jesus. He knew firsthand how hard this temptation to barter our lives would be for us. He was offered this very deal by Satan in the wilderness (MT 4:8-11).
Matt. 16:26b (Holman) “Or what will a man give in exchange for his life?”
Jesus offered His challenge as a question, but He was rendering a verdict. Through the centuries, writers have not missed the high drama pictured in our text. In a German legend written in 1587, Faust sold his soul to the devil for knowledge. “He laid the Holy Scriptures behind the door and under the bench.”
In Charlie Daniels’ 1979 hit, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” Satan challenged fiddle-playing Jonny to a contest. Johnny risked his soul, but won.
In Stephen Vincent Benet’s 1937 story “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” a New Hampshire farmer, Jabez Stone, sold his soul to the devil but was acquitted after being successfully defended by the great orator Daniel Webster.
My favorite of these tales is Washington Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker” (1824). I feel it accurately portrays what Jesus was saying in our text.
Tom and his wife were misers, loving money more than they loved each other. Satan offered Tom riches in exchange for his soul. Tom said he’d think on it, and talked to his wife about it. She ran to cut her own deal with the devil, but he killed her. Tom, glad to be rid of his shrew of a wife, accepted the deal.
For years Tom made money hand over fist, but eventually began to worry about the after-life. He kept a Bible at hand as a good luck charm to ward off the Devil. One day he heard a knock at the door, and opened it, forgetting he had left the Bible on his desk. The devil took Tom, who was never seen again.
In our text, Jesus was emphasizing the dignity of every individual human life. Each of us has infinite value because of, one, our self’s origin, we were created in God’s image; two, what we were created to do, we were made to know and enjoy God; three, the price Jesus paid to redeem us. To prove the infinite worth of a human life, all we have to do is look at the cross.
Each of us has infinite value because of, four, the longevity of the “everlasting me” in each of us. An eternal part of us exists totally distinct from our physical make up. God created a body first, and then separately breathed into it an everlasting existence, a life separate from our organic structure.
Jesus told the dying thief, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Obviously his body did not go that day. It died and was buried. Jesus was saying the malefactor possessed an everlasting self separate from his body.
Jesus’ warning in our text was blunt. It is foolish to pamper a temporary physical self while ignoring our everlasting spiritual side. None of us wants to stand before God and have to say, “Lord, in this lifetime what did I do for my body? I took good care of it. What did I do for my everlasting self? Nothing.”
Beware bad bargains. Don’t barter the “you that lasts forever” for things that can be enjoyed only during this brief life. We cannot take material things with us at death. They relate only to the body, which we have but for a while.
Our everlasting self is worth more than all the world. The devil wants us to think our life has a market value, and can be traded for things of this world, but whatever a person trades their life for, their loss is real, any gain an illusion.
Even if done only within the confines of this lifetime, bartering the spiritual for the physical is a mad exchange. Material things cannot bring us happiness, help us in the hard times, give us peace, or mend a broken heart.
To lose our everlasting self is an unwise irreversible exchange. “Lose” is a sad word, especially in this context, for it is a loss reaching beyond death, continuing forever. In this bargain, “All sales are final. No returns allowed.”
If we lose our house, we can buy another. If we forfeit our car, it can be replaced. If we lose our portfolio, we can start all over again. But if we lose our everlasting self—oh no!—we traded something which cannot be retrieved.
The grim truth is, we do not get a second chance at life. No purgatory, no reincarnation, no plea bargains, no counter-price. Once our infinitely valuable life is lost at death, it is lost forever. The verdict rendered at our death is our verdict forever. It is frozen in time (or non-time). We have nothing left with which to redeem it, to purchase it back. All our bargaining chips are gone.
After death, there is nothing left to us that we can give as an exchange to buy back our forfeited lives. Jesus shed His blood to rescue our everlasting selves. It is our only hope of redemption, and must be applied in this lifetime.
Our only acceptable response to God is to give, in this life, our lives back to Him in gratitude for what He gave us. No other exchange is permissible.
If we lose this one infinitely worthy life, the one life we are allowed to give back to God, we have traded away the only possession we will ever have that is valuable enough to give as an offering to God. Thus the urgency.
Matthew 16:27a “For the Son of Man is going to come with His angels in the glory of His Father, . . .”
Why is trading our life for the whole world a bad bargain? Because someday Jesus will come in His glory, and everyone will see He is Lord, but for those who worshiped stuff it will be too late, and the damage will be irreparable.
Jesus, at this point in His conversation with the Twelve, could tell they needed an encouraging word. The path of suffering was becoming crystal clear to them. They were having, instead of an “aha” moment, an “uh oh” moment.
Jesus encouraged them in the words of our text. He is surrounded now by enemies and angry religious leaders, but will someday be surrounded by angels (“His” angels by the way). He is their Lord and commander, God of true God.
To this point, the disciples had heard Jesus talk much about pain, but now heard there will someday be gain. They are currently seeing His suffering, and will share in it, but they will eventually see his glory, and partake of it as well.
History is racing toward a climax. Our lives are headed somewhere, to a target, to judgment, to a day of reckoning, when Jesus and His saints will win.
Fellow believers, let’s learn a valuable lesson here. To better deal with the now, ponder the end. “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us” (RM 8:18b).
Jesus urged us to weigh our difficult now in light of our blissful eternity. We might think He was appealing to our baser instincts, encouraging us to be selfish. Not so. He meant for us to be reasonable about personal advantage.
Self-interest becomes selfishness only when we cater to our worst self. To want to encourage and bless our best self is not selfishness. It is sensible.