By Riley Wall
“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let them deny themself and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever would save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their 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 shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26).
This is quite a challenging verse. Jesus isn’t simply saying we need to give up eating too much sugar and make small minor changes to our way of life, but what Jesus really is asking here is that we lay down our lives or livelihoods and follow Him. What does that mean? What does it look like?
I’ve been following a series on salvation by Mike Erre and Tim Stafford on the Voxology Podcast for several weeks now. In this series, Mike asks the question, “What is it we’re being saved from and saved to?” Are we being saved from Hell and given a one-way ticket to Heaven? If this is the the whole of the gospel, I think Jesus may have missed the memo in His ministry time.
I’m by no means saying this answer is wrong, because it’s not, but I don’t think the dichotomy between Heaven and Hell is the core of the gospel and what Jesus emphasized when preaching on the streets during His life in the first century. We actually only have a few accounts of Jesus talking about Heaven and Hell.
So what sorts of things did Jesus proclaim most in His ministry in the gospel accounts?
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).
So what are we being saved to? We’re being saved to the kingdom of God, and the kingdom of heaven.
In the Voxology Podcast, Mike Erie makes the point that in ancient Jewish culture, it would not be customary to say that the kingdom of God is at hand; rather they would have said the kingdom of Heaven is at hand. At the same time, however, when this was said in the first century and when it is said today, what follows is that God is at hand. It’s part of the commonly shared understanding. When we say in Canada that “Ottawa (the capital city of Canada) is in conversation with the White House (in America), we don’t mean the city is talking to a building in the States; we use “Ottawa” as a substitutionary word for “the Canadian government” and “the White House” as a symbol for the American government. Similarly, when Jesus tells His listeners to repent because the kingdom of Heaven is at hand, the audience would have understood that Jesus was calling them to repent because God’s presence is at hand (Voxology Podcast, Image – Part One: Return of the King, hosted by Mike Erre and Timothy Stafford, 14 March 2022).
What a statement! Jesus doesn’t say that the kingdom of God (God’s presence) will be at hand when his listeners die, or some time in the future, but it is at hand NOW. God is there, and God’s people are to repent.
But what is repentance? What are they to repent from? What are they to change?
Repentance means to turn away from something and to go in another direction. To illustrate this, think about walking in one direction, and then turning around 180 degrees and walking in the exact opposite direction.
If we follow this definition of repentance, we can see that Jesus is telling His listeners to turn away from something. What is that something? To answer this, we need to go back to the beginning, to Genesis.
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them…God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:26-27, 31a).
In Genesis 3, we see the serpent come into the garden and tempt Adam and Eve to eat the fruit which God had commanded them not to eat of, and what did they do? They ate the fruit! Adam and Eve listened to the serpent and acted like the serpent rather than listening to God and acting as He had commanded them to (Genesis 3:6-7). In disobeying God, the first humans were no longer living for God as images of God, rather they were living a life in submission to creation and as though they had been made in the image of the serpent. They chose to become their own god.
This is the perpetual sin that continues throughout the ages: people act in contradiction to God and choose to be their own gods, deciding for themselves what is right and wrong, good and evil. I believe the original sin here was pride: by eating the fruit, Adam and Eve chose to act in their own way and think about themselves rather than God.
So, back to Jesus. He was calling for repentance, but for repentance from what? From pride. From choosing to be their own god and to define righteousness by their own standards. Jesus was calling the people to submit to God.
Now let’s go back to the original question: What are we being saved from and saved to?
We are being saved from following the ways and path of brokenness to destruction. We are being saved to being restored as the image-bearers of God and living with Him in His creation.
The kingdom of God is advancing and will someday envelope all creation. Daniel prophesied that one day creation will be renewed, and we will dwell with God in His creation as He meant for it to be, back in Genesis, in the Garden.
Jesus tells us to lay down our lives and deny ourselves and take up our cross to follow Him. Communion is a time where Jesus invites us into relationship with Him and to be His image bearers. Communion is an invitation into the new creation of Christ, into the presence of God, and into fellowship with Him in His presence.
Take some time and ask the following questions as you think about this. Be honest, as these questions will only be helpful if you are brutally truthful with yourself and with God:
- How have I acted in pride and not submitted to God?
- How have I sought out my own will above God’s?
- How have I enthroned myself in my own life, and in so doing, have not submitted to God?