The Scene Changes. “Then Jesus said to his disciples” With these words the scene moves from the personal debate with Peter to a general pronouncement about discipleship, the first part of it echoing what Jesus has already said to his disciples in 10:38–39: “whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” The disciples first reaction was not the softened “self-denial” or “take up one’s burden.” They understood the cross as the sign of Roman torture and death: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (16:24)
These words are about literal death, following the condemned man on his way to execution. Discipleship is a life that puts life and parts of life at risk, with potential martyrdom. It may be legitimate to extrapolate from this principle to a more general demand for disciples to put loyalty to Jesus before their own interests and comfort, but that can be only a secondary application of the passage. Here, Jesus’ words are not to be taken as merely metaphorical. The “cross” and the “losing life” which he speaks of are literal, and it seems clear from v. 28 that he did expect at least some of his disciples to be killed because of their loyalty to his cause (as indeed they were). Such a demand only makes sense in the context of a firm expectation of life beyond death.
Discipleship and Its Consequences.
24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. 25 For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? 27 For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay everyone according to his conduct.
What was so uplifting and positive at the point of Peter’s declaration at Caesarea Philippi have moved to the very stark “take up his cross.” The prediction of Jesus’ death hovers ever nearby, but in the context of his ultimate vindication and glory, as judge and king in the presence of his Father and the angels. To speak of the Son of Man’s coming is an echo of the language of Dan 7:13–14 (similarly in 10:23) with the added themes of glory, angels, judgment and seeing. The words are then a prediction of the vindication and enthronement of the Son of Man after his suffering and death, and it will occur while some of those present are still alive.
One’s Life. In the earlier Matthean reference to “taking up one’s cross” (10:38-39) there was a simple contrast between “finding” and “losing” one’s psyche (life, soul). The first part of v.25 speaks not of “finding” life but “wishing” to save one’s life, again emphasizing the volitional aspect already expressed in v. 24, “Whoever wishes to come after me….” A clear choice is thus offered between self-preservation at all costs and the risky business of following Jesus. But the self that is preserved by such a “safe” option is not worth preserving, since the true self is lost. By contrast, the loss of psychē (in the sense of physical life) is the way to find psychē (soul, the essence of the true life which transcends death. Loss of life as such is no gain; it is life lost out of loyalty to Jesus which ensures that true life is gained.
The word-play continues in v.26. The prospect of gaining “the whole world” echoes closely the third temptation in 4:8–10, and the means there proposed, the worship of Satan, would indeed result in the loss of the psychē. In our context, that is echoed into the situation where someone has succeeded not only in remaining alive but also in attaining everything this world has to offer (the word translated “gain” is normally associated with economic acquisition; cf. 25:16–17, 20, 22), and who yet is ultimately the loser. The loss of that person’s true psychē is described as a “forfeit,” a term which often implies a judicial punishment or fine; the term is perhaps intended to make the reader think of the judgment of God which determines the person’s ultimate destiny.
In the second rhetorical question the metaphor of “exchange” perhaps continues that of “forfeit:” once the psychē has been forfeited there is nothing which can buy it back or persuade the judge to rescind the penalty. But that is probably to look for too much precision in proverbial language. The saying (perhaps modeled on Ps 49:7–9) simply underlines the supreme importance of the psychē; nothing else compares with its value.
Matthew 16:25 life: the psychē refers to the animating principle of one’s existence. In Greek thought this “life force” is associated with every existing thing. A person has a psychē appropriate to it; as does a rock – but clearly there is a difference. The Christian appropriation of the word psychē limits the understanding to “soul” – not something we would attribute to rocks.
Matthew 16:26 gain: the word kerdēsē is associated with business and economic activity.
Matthew 16:26 forfeit: the word zēmioō is one associated with injury, the loss of life, and in some of St. Paul’s writing it is associated with punishment