The kingdom of God turns many of our human assumptions upside down. The way to power is through service. The weak are really the strong. Those who seem foolish are really the wise ones. The poor are really rich. What seems like the end is really the beginning. The only way to find life is through dying to yourself.
As humans we often push back against those New Testament truths. They grate against our natural tendencies. And when we do take them as truth we immediately distort them and turn them into a formula whereby we can still be in control.
- If I give money to support the work of the church, God will give me the job or house I want.
- If I serve enough people, then they will like me and promote me to leadership.
- If I mess things up and call out to God, He’s obligated to fix me and my circumstances.
Oh how we love to be in control, even if it means pretending that we’re not. In some ways those ideas contain enough truth to give them plausibility. But they miss the point. And when things don’t seem to turn out that way we wonder, Why doesn’t God love me?
Or we take these New Testament truths out of context, interpreting them to mean that having big aspirations or enjoying good things is ungodly, and that humility is the same as being insignificant.
The pattern of death before resurrection holds throughout the New Testament. Jesus, Paul, Peter, John – they all talked about this. So what does dying to yourself mean?
The Example of Jesus
Paul enunciates what had probably become a hymn among the early followers of Jesus:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)
The whole picture is of Jesus submitting to His heavenly Father in all things. He wasn’t grasping at anything. As a human being, He was truly present in experiencing real suffering. (Hebrews 2:10)
Yet when you read the stories of Jesus in the gospels it’s clear He was anything but weak. He was completely unmoved by either censure or applause. He had unending compassion for people, but their opinion of Him didn’t change Him in the slightest. (See Mark 12:14)
How could He do that? He did that first through staying moment-by-moment connected with His Father. And second, He kept His eyes on “the joy that was set before him.” (Hebrews 12:2) His Father had sent on a mission, and nothing – not suffering, or popularity, or human opinion, or the devil himself – could move Him from finishing His work.
Dying to Yourself
Paul likens our experience as believers to the death (and resurrection) of Jesus. (See Romans 6:1-11) We love to talk about the resurrection. But what about the death? We pass over that quickly. It’s messy. Unpleasant. Downright terrifying.
There is something in the story each one of us lives that reveals something about the death of Jesus. Some way you have been wounded, some bondage to sin, some oppression, some limitation, some betrayal. There’s an aspect of the Christian life in which one must truly enter that death – in your body. Refuse to white-wash over it. Go there. That has to happen before you can experience resurrection in that aspect of your story.
And the pattern doesn’t end there; it continues throughout your life as a follower of Jesus. You offer your life as a gift in whatever mission God sends you on – as a parent of a disabled child, a business owner serving others ethically, a Bible teacher wrestling with hard truths, a spouse giving yourself to loving well, a leader carrying the weight of uncertainty or risk, an office worker following Jesus in a truly hostile environment.
And yet you live!
Paul again: “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” (2 Corinthians 4:10)
We don’t like to talk about experiencing the death of Jesus in our bodies. But it’s part of the reality for the followers of Jesus. He first bids us, “Come and die!”
And then He bids us, “Come and dine!”
Suffering as the Prelude to Glory
This suffering, this death, is not gratuitous. It’s not suffering, death, for its own sake. It’s pointing somewhere. And just as Jesus had to keep His eyes on “the joy set before Him”, we will need to keep our eyes on the end God has made certain for us.
Jesus said this of Himself just before He went to the cross. And in the same breath He applied this to His followers. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:24-25)
And Paul once again: “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
So, is the death of your dreams Light? The suffering you are experiencing Momentary?
In light of the glory that is to come, every suffering here is light and momentary.
That’s how the followers of Jesus in centuries past could endure suffering, persecution, and death without shrinking back.
And it’s how you and I can walk into our own death experience, whatever that is, knowing that in the end it will be worth it.
And next time we’ll talk more about the resurrection part of the story.
Your Turn: Where have you experienced, or are you experiencing, “the death of Jesus” in your life? Are you in some way dying to yourself? Leave a comment below.
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- Dying to yourself as the way to find life is one of the paradoxes of the kingdom of God. Experiencing something of the death of Jesus in your own experience is truly the way to healing, life, joy, meaning. Tweet that.
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