What does Jesus mean by saying whoever loses his life for my sake will find it? Is he talking about dying for the sake of Jesus? And what about where he says whoever would save his life will lose it? How does this work?
In simple terms when Jesus says whoever loses his life for my sake will find he is talking about following him rather than following after your own desires. This is covered in verse 24 of this section saying, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” There are three distinct points to this verse. Firstly he says, “If any man would come after me,” meaning to follow Jesus. If they are to follow him they must be prepared to do what follows. The second point is to “deny himself.” By denying oneself a person puts the needs of the Lord before their own needs. There are times in following the Lord when we must put our own needs second to what the Lord may require of us. Which brings us to the third point, which is to “take up his cross.” This is a representation of the need to suffer and as Christians we will go through suffering from time to time for our walk with Christ. As Peter wrote, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4:12-13) We must be prepared to suffer for Christ if that were needed in our endeavour to follow him.
Incidentally, there is some query over the translation of the Greek word rendered here as “cross.” the Greek word is “stauros,” which literally translates out as a stake, post or pole. This word was incorrectly translated into the Latin Vulgate bible as “crux” and for reasons unknown subsequently incorrectly translated into the English bibles as “cross.” Thus for the sake of accuracy it would appear that Jesus was put to death on a stake rather than a cross.
So we are to be prepared to lose the things of this life and to suffer if we are required in our walk with Christ. We see that Jesus shows the importance of this in the next scriptures saying, “For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?” (Verse 26) If a person is not prepared to give up everything in this life for the sake of the Lord, if that should be required of them, then they may stand the risk of losing everything of real value. You could gain the whole world and become the richest person on earth, but what is that compared to your life? Is anything worth more than keeping your life to eternity? That is the promise of the Lord. If we are prepared to suffer with him, then we too shall live with him.
There is an additional twist in this section too. Verse 27 states, “For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done.” When he speaks of what a person “has done,” he is not talking about doing great deeds or wondrous works. He is talking about what this whole section is speaking of, which is to follow him. That is the key to this whole section. We are called to follow him as the first and utmost priority. Great works will not ensure you receive life; only following Jesus can assure this.
As an example consider the scripture that says, “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.'” (Matthew 7:21-23) These people will come to him proclaiming the works that they did in his name, but they did not follow him. They believed they would be saved for their works, but it is not through works that anyone is to be saved. Salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ alone. No other way is able to save a man from sin and death.
The principle of “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” is bound up in the need to follow Jesus. Everything else a person can do is secondary to this requirement. As Jesus said to the rich young man, “Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21) Perfection in Christ is attainable only by following him. We must be prepared to give up everything for his sake if we are to achieve life, for all other things are distractions.