Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matthew 16:26a (Holman) “What will it benefit a man if he gains the
whole world yet loses his life?”
Our text, one of Jesus’ best known and most sobering quotes, is a profound, stunning truth, a showstopper. A Christian courtier advised King John III of Portugal to meditate on this passage fifteen minutes every day. He felt this one daily discipline would keep the king’s thoughts spiritually right.
Charlemagne, father of Europe and founder of the Frankish Empire, was buried not in a reclining position, but seated on his throne in robes of state, with an open Bible on his knee, and a finger pointing to the words of our text.
Our Master spoke these staggering words in the context of a debate about the nature of His Kingdom. He had been emphasizing the importance of the spiritual, but the disciples were obsessed with a political, physical, kingdom.
Regarding this “spiritual vs. physical” debate, Jesus made an overarching statement that put the two in proper perspective. This present world—socially, politically, materially, physically, economically–is not the ultimate issue.
Our earthly existence is nothing compared to our spiritual nature. In one fell swoop, Jesus put all things physical or material in a lower, secondary place.
As we weigh the validity of Jesus’ remarkable claim, we must consider first, did Jesus hold a position of rightful authority to talk knowledgably on this particular subject. To speak intelligently about a sales transaction, the evaluator must know the value of the object bought, and the worth of the price paid for it.
For instance, would it be wise to trade a 1937 mint condition buffalo nickel for a 2005 mint condition Chief Justice John Marshall commemorative coin? I can’t answer that question. I know nothing about either. We would need to find a coin expert who could accurately appraise the worth of both.
We can rest assured Jesus knew the relative value of the two items He discussed here. Jesus could rightly assess the value of “the whole world” because He created it. He also knew what our eternal lives are worth, because He paid His own Divine precious blood to redeem them. Jesus could look at both commodities, assess them, and neither over-rate nor under-rate either.
What was His appraisal? The “everlasting me” in each of us is infinitely more valuable than the entire world. This is not to say the world is cheap. It charms us. Since the world was made for us to enjoy, it appeals to our desires.
We by nature want what the world can offer us. It obliges us by mass producing stuff for us. The Gross National Product of the USA is $10 trillion. The GNP of the whole world is $30 trillion. That’s $30,000,000,000,000. The world comes after us with an astounding array of attractions and fascinations.
Thus, being able to believe what Jesus said in our text is not a slam dunk. Our minds don’t automatically register His word’s huge logical implications.
We have to sit, meditate, weigh His claim, parse it, break it down. “What will it benefit a man. . . . .if he gains the whole world. . . . .yet loses his life?”
What on this whole planet could be worth over $30 trillion? One thing. The everlasting you. The part of you that lives forever has incalculable value.
You, your eternal self, have infinite value for at least three reasons. First, because of your life’s divine origin. Our bodies are made of dust, like other animals, but our never-ending lives were infused into us by God’s very breath.
We forget the dignity of this human creation-moment to our own peril. The lifting of human rights and the rise of individual dignity over the last four centuries has been based largely on the truth implied in our text, and depicted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo in his “Creation of Adam”.
God breathed life, His life, valuable life, into us. “The Lord God formed the man out of the dust from the ground and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). This everlasting you was more important than the body it inhabited. Our bodies were meant to be merely containers, vehicles allowing expression of the life that soon came.
Hear ye! Hear ye! Individuals matter because they are created by God in His very own image. They are more valuable than governments. People last forever; governments come and go. People are not to be the puny pawns of political systems. Governments are to be formed in order to serve their true masters, individuals. Our Declaration of Independence plainly states this fact.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.” Jefferson believed a revolt every generation or two would be good for a government. I’m glad that idea didn’t catch on.
Belief in the infinite, intrinsic value of the individual led to the liberty we enjoy in this country. Obviously rhetoric outran reality—non-landowning men, all women, and slaves were forced to move slowly toward liberty—but at least a root was laid from which a growing liberty tree could sprout in many directions.
Second, the eternal you has infinite value because of what you were created to do. You were made to perform operations of immeasurable worth.
The everlasting you is the part of you that thinks, reasons, reflects, dreams, and remembers. It is capable of love, pity, mercy, of doing Heaven’s work on Earth. And most important of all, only your eternal self can know God.
God is Spirit. Only our spirit-nature can relate to Him. The Westminster Shorter Catechism first asks, “What is the chief end of man?” and rightly answers, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.”
To lose our eternal self is to make an insane exchange, to miss the whole purpose for which we were created. It is possible to gain everything our bodies ever wanted, but then wake up one day to find we missed the most wonderful and important thing of all. The horror of that dawning reality will ravage us.
Third, the never-ending you has infinite value because of the price Jesus paid to redeem you. The eternal you was not redeemed with “perishable things, like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18b-19a).
You are worth more than being satisfied with flittering away your everlasting self on temporary worldly things. You were created for nothing less than to live forever with the dear Jesus who gave Himself for you.
To miss this is to miss everything worthwhile. Our Master expressed it well, “What will it benefit a man if he gains the whole world yet loses his life?”