If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds (Matthew 16:24-27).
Gaining the whole world, or at least a comfortable chunk of it, seems to be most people’s chief motivation. We go to school for sixteen years or more to land a lucrative position, we spend years working overtime to get promotions and raises so that we might buy more shiny things (and often spend years more paying them off), we raise our children to share the same definition of success, we retire to hurriedly squeeze in all the fun we missed during our working years. Not until the last, least productive days of decrepitude, when we have exhausted all except the meagerest leftovers of time and energy, do we give much thought to God’s kingdom. Selfishness comes in many subtle, respectable forms!
That is why Jesus asks the question, “what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” Jesus already knows the answer; He doesn’t need us to find out and report back to Him. Jesus wants us to reevaluate what is important, and discover the truth.
What is a soul, and what is it’s worth? Well, compare it to the body, which is made of dust. Bodies are mostly oxygen (60% by weight), carbon (18%), hydrogen (10%), nitrogen (3%), calcium (1.5%), and potassium (1%). When we die, our bodies decompose and those elements separate and get reused. One website calculated the worth of the elements of our body, if they could be harvested and sold, at around the cost of an average Starbucks order.
The soul, on the other hand, is that reasoning, living, thinking, feeling, part of our nature. It—that is, we—will persist forever and ever with a resurrection body (John 5:28-29, Acts 24:15). Without exception, the Bible describes the souls of the departed as having identity, personality, and activity (Matthew 17:3, Luke 16:22-26, 1 Thessalonians 4:17, Revelation 6:9-11).
Jesus demands that we reorganize our priorities around this very important truth, that earthly life is temporary, while eternity is forever and ever. Jesus’ life demonstrated it, and Jesus’ resurrection proved it. Sure, we will always need to earn money; it is a Christian duty to support ourselves (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12, 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12) and share with others (Acts 4:35, Ephesians 4:28). But this is subservient to the higher goal. Our focus belongs on eternity.
Think of the account of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16. No one wants to be Lazarus as the account begins, poor and hungry with the dogs. But everyone wants to be Lazarus as the account ends, comforted and happy with the saints! Death and judgment brings about a reversal for many. The rich man spent his whole life in feasting, pleasure, and ease, but spends eternity in misery. Lazarus spent his life in poverty, hardship, and pain, but quickly forgets as he spends eternity in the greatest joy he can imagine. This has little to do with “fairness.” These two men find their situations reversed because one hoped in God, and the other lived only for the present.
Which of these two outcomes is preferable? Should a man rejoice on earth and suffer in the afterlife, or suffer on earth and rejoice in the afterlife? Do the math; the permanence of the afterlife makes this an easy decision! A person can be on the top of the heap in this life—can have the riches of Bill Gates, the brawn of Jason Momoa, the fame of Taylor Swift, and the power of Donald Trump, all rolled into one perfect ball of supreme success—and find himself wishing to switch places with a lowly, downtrodden Christian when this short life is over.
This re-prioritization isn’t just about securing ourselves a good mansion after we die, thereby exchanging one form of selfishness for another (albeit, much nobler). It is “taking up our cross and following Jesus,” abandoning our will to His will, that we may live a life centered around glorifying God and sharing the truth of Jesus with other people. As we empty ourselves and “lose our lives for Jesus’ sake,” we learn what real life is all about, and begin to “find our lives” even before we depart the body. A life of self-sacrifice leads to greater glories than this world could ever provide.
What will you give in exchange for your soul? I hope you say, “Nothing!” —John Guzzetta