In Matthew 16:26, Jesus asks, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?”
According to Matthew’s record in chapter 16, Jesus’ apostles didn’t want to hear him talk about his approaching death. Peter, who was rarely reluctant to say what he thought, insisted, “This shall never happen to you” (16:22). But the Master not only tried to prepare them to witness his death on the cross, he insisted that discipleship unavoidably involved a cross for them as well.
When confronted by some who recognized him during Jesus’ trial at the home of Caiaphas, Peter failed the test (26:69-75). Though certainly not a coward, he discovered that following Jesus faithfully requires diligence and self-discipline in the face of temptation.
Modern believers find it no easier to consistently deny self than did those early Christians. Our devotion to Jesus is constantly challenged by the temptation to give in to our own selfish desires, putting our own self interests ahead of dying to self on our personal crosses. As Satan cynically questioned the faithfulness of Job, so he disputes ours: “A man will give all he has for his own life” (Job 2:4). Today, the attitude of many is expressed in the familiar contention that “every man has his price.”
Jesus’ question about the worth of the eternal soul, though unlike the snarling insult of the devil about Job, is no less serious. The word translated “soul” by the King James Version in Matthew 16:26 is rendered “life” by the Revised Standard and American Standard. It refers to the “person” or “self.”
So, the New English Bible translates it, “What will a man gain by winning the whole world, at the cost of his true self? Or what can he give that will buy that self back?” Jesus had refused the kingdoms of the world in the wilderness temptation (Matthew 4:8); now he called upon the disciples to weigh the value of the whole world against the value of self.
Some thoughtful person may ask, “What am I worth? Not my body, but me, my ‘true self.’ Is there anything for which I would willingly forfeit my true self? Is any earthly gain worth my self-prostitution? If I lose my soul, is there anything I have, or want, that could buy it back? Wealth? Power? Education? Possessions or influence? My heritage, or recreation, or the freedom to take life easy?”
Having considered these questions, the person might rightly conclude, “The concern is not the value or importance of these things, but whether I will seek them at the cost of my soul.”
Let’s seek to live so we can rejoice with Paul that “Christ has shown me that what I once thought was valuable is worthless. Nothing is as wonderful as knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have given up everything else and count it all as garbage. All I want is Christ and to know that I belong to him” (Philippians 3:7–9, Contemporary English Version).