Anyone finding his life will lose it, and anyone losing his life because of Me will find it. (Matthew 10:39)
Like Jesus’s prior statement that he is to be loved above anyone or anything else, including our own lives, this is not the statement of an ordinary human being or teacher. It’s an extraordinary claim. It has to be treated as extraordinary — and therefore as demanding extraordinary response.
Life After Death
Like many of Jesus’s statements, this one has an immediate and clear meaning within its context, but it also has layers — that is, you can take it on the surface, but you can also go deep with it. And that’s good for those of us who are far removed from the original context.
The original context, of course, is our attachment to life itself. Jesus was talking to his apostles, all but one of whom would be brutally killed for the crime of following him. He was warning them of opposition, persecution, and betrayal. He was demanding that they love and follow him no matter what it cost them.
But he didn’t ask for that kind of total abandon without also promising something in return: Whoever loses his life for Jesus’s sake will find it. That’s a very literal promise. It means death isn’t the end. It means that for the followers of Christ, you can go all the way to the loss of everything, all the way to actual death, and find something on the other side.
In itself, that’s profound. The question of an “afterlife” is one of the great questions of humanity. So there’s nothing trivial about what Jesus is saying here.
Yes, for followers of Jesus there is life after death; and yes, if you have to trade this life for that one, it’s a worthwhile trade.
If you lose your life — by literally dying — for Jesus’s sake, you will find it.
(As an aside, there is some good biblical discussion to be had about whether this “life after death” is to be found immediately, in a normally disembodied state in a spiritual dimension called “heaven,” or whether those who die for Jesus’s sake will experience it only in the future, after the bodily resurrection which is still to come.
Most of Christian tradition has landed on the former option, and I think there’s good reason to accept it as true. This does not negate the fact that there is still a bodily resurrection to come, that everyone who has ever lived will be raised in it, and that for the redeemed it will result in eternal life in a new, “glorified” body in a reconstituted heaven and earth.)
Moving beyond that immediate context of persecution and martyrdom, though, what does this passage say to us? Is it irrelevant to those of who have never faced a firing squad for our faith?
(Mind you, plenty of people still do — martyrdom is far from being a thing of the past. But living in North America, I have never faced persecution for my faith, and I would venture that most of my readers haven’t either. Doesn’t mean we never will, but there are really no guarantees in either direction.)
The answer, of course, is no. There’s plenty of relevance here for every believer in every time and every circumstance.
First, the truth that Jesus so casually dropped in this promise ¬— that yes, there is life after death! ¬— is certainly relevant to every believer.
Again, this is one of the great questions of humanity, and it’s very practical. This life is not all there is. Believing that helps us put every part of our lives into perspective. It gives meaning and context to all of our decisions, goals, dreams, and struggles.
Second, though, there’s more here because I don’t think Jesus is talking only about literal life and death.
In Greek, he is using the word “psyche,” which we translate as “life” but also as “soul.” The word and its Hebrew equivalent, “nephesh,” mean something like “breathing creature.” It means we are alive, but it also identifies the kind of being we are.
That’s why we’ve come to understand the “soul” as the invisible, potentially immortal component of a person, the “real self” on the inside.
(If the word looks familiar, it’s because we also use the word “psyche” in English to denote the personality or the “totality of elements forming the mind” [thanks, Merriam-Webster] and as the basis of words like “psychology” and “psychoanalysis.”)
Here’s the thing: every human being is on a journey of self-discovery. But Jesus indicates the real way to “find ourselves” — to discover who we are — is not by chasing our own tails, but by surrendering everything we have and are to him.
Somehow, this Man from Galilee is the door to our own souls. The pathway is counterintuitive, but by pressing into him, by “losing our souls” for his sake, we’ll find them.
Finding Ourselves on the Path to Jesus
What does that mean, practically? I’ll be honest — I really don’t know.
I think it means that we need to make finding Jesus more important to us than finding happiness, finding satisfaction, finding love, finding success.
I think it means that the more time we spend looking at him, the more we’ll see ourselves reflected back in him, without the distortions imposed by the mirrors offered by the world.
I want to be careful in how I word this, because I am not at all against spending time — alone or with good, biblical counselors or therapists — in self-reflection. I am not even the teensiest bit against developing self-awareness. Actually, I think self-awareness and self-reflection can be tremendously helpful in the pursuit of humility, truth, and greater awareness of God, who created us.
Augustine of Hippo wrote:
People travel to wonder
at the height of the mountains,
at the huge waves of the seas,
at the long course of the rivers,
at the vast compass of the ocean,
at the circular motion of the stars,
and yet they pass by themselves
And I think it’s worth noting that Jesus’s very promise implies that self-discovery is a worthy goal — maybe one of the most important goals of all.
We are not, after all, creatures of our own making. We are gifts to ourselves, and to the world, given by God. It is not pride to believe that. It is profound humility.
Jesus is not dismissing our desire to “find ourselves”; rather, he’s pointing out the pathway to get there. Spend your life self-preserving, self-promoting, self-aggrandizing, and self-seeking, and you will lose your life.
Your efforts will prove to be a form of hiding your talent in the ground — of allowing your life to be driven by fear and selfishness.
On the other hand, if you abandon yourself fully to a life of surrender to love — to a life of seeking God and of living for that which is eternal — you will find your life no matter what opposition comes your way.
You will discover yourself. You will learn what gifts God has given, to you and to the world, in making you.
This is Part 154 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.
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