Then Jesus called the crowd to Him along with His disciples, and He told them, “If anyone wants to come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and for the gospel will save it.
What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? If anyone is ashamed of Me, and ashamed of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in His Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34-38)
Jesus then says, “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s shall save it.”
When Jesus said these things to his disciples, he was actually preparing them for the fact that he was soon to be crucified. He told them, “The Son of Man must suffer many things. He must be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and He must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
But Jesus was doing more than preparing his followers for that particular event. He was also teaching them the way of a true disciple in this present life. He is talking about things to which you and I should also listen. He is speaking of a life of self-denial. After all, he also asks the rhetorical question, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”
Then Jesus says something that may be particularly disturbing: “For whoever is ashamed of Me, and ashamed of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”
Jesus is talking about commitment. He is talking about true discipleship.
The Big Picture of Commitment to Christ
It was because of the teachings that Jesus brought that he was crucified. Jesus was preparing his disciples for this inevitable and immanent conclusion to his earthly life, but he also knew that his disciples would themselves soon face severe persecution as well. For this, he knew that they would need to be prepared in their faith.
We still live in a world where many Christians face severe and life-threatening persecution. You and I may not see it in our safe, secure and insulated lives here, but in the wider world, it is a disturbing fact. Actually, as events are developing, it is difficult to say whether we may also see this type of persecution in the not-too-distant future.
But it is the situation right now in several countries of the world. The Christians living in those places are facing increasing danger. The lives of the Christians are in constant peril, and their faith is continually tested. The pressure put upon them to deny their faith in Christ is intense. Perhaps when Jesus is preparing us for persecution, it is this kind of persecution that he had in mind. Perhaps this is what Jesus was talking about when he warned us about denying him.
If we have thought about this issue at all, the consideration of ourselves facing this type of choice must have at least entered our minds. What would we do if we were to be in a similar situation?
Maybe we have determined in our minds that if we would personally be confronted with a Taliban threat (for instance), we would never deny Christ, even at the cost of our own heads. Being as it is unlikely that any of us here today will face that possibility, this seems like a pretty safe thing to say. But even if you or I think that we may not face that threat, the way that events are moving in the world in these days, it would not be inconceivable that some sort of threat might happen to either our livelihoods or even our lives much sooner than we may suspect, and even very near to our beloved northwoods.
Perhaps we have brave words in mind. Perhaps we would say as did the Apostle Peter just before the time of the trial of Jesus, “Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away! Even if I have to die with You, I will never deny You!” (Matthew 26:33, 35)
But it is one thing to say brave words, and quite the other to carry them out. Afraid to admit even to a servant girl that he had any association with Jesus, Peter denied that he knew Jesus. In fact, three times he denied Jesus.
We may also speak brave words in the enthusiasm of the moment, but if we have not internalized our commitment, we may also find ourselves denying Christ at a critical point. We may find ourselves ashamed to admit any association with Jesus.
As did Peter, we may hear our own rooster crow in the morning.
The Little Picture of Commitment to Christ
When thinking of being ashamed, I do not know your own level of boldness about speaking up for the Lord, but quite frankly, there have been times when I did not speak up when I thought that I should. There have been times when I did not want to face ridicule or rejection because of what I believed about Jesus and the gospel—or simply about truth in general.
Instead of imagining what brave words we would say if we were forced to renounce our faith to an executioner, perhaps it would be better to imagine what we would say to a servant girl. Instead of imagining ourselves in an intense scene of some epic movie where we picture ourselves making a bold statement for Christ—accompanied by a soundtrack of dramatic cinema graphic music, perhaps it would be better to bring ourselves down to our own workplaces or social gatherings.
For that perspective, we move to something that the Apostle James has written. James talks about commitment in the small things in life—even in the things that we often think relatively unimportant or inconsequential.
“For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well” (James 3:2).
Bridling Our Bodies
The first thing that I need to do is to clarify the phrases in this sentence.
Of course you all know what a bridle is. A bridle is a type of harness that we put around the head of the horse to help us control its movements. In this case, James is using this word in a verb sense when he talks about our ability to control our own bodies—we are to bridle our bodies so that we can control our actions.
I think we can all understand this. It is basic and fundamental. But quite honestly, not many people really do have this ability. That is, not many people actually have the ability to have control even over their own bodies. We engage in habits or activities that we do not want to be part of our lives, yet seemingly cannot help it. When this is the case, it means that we have not learned to bridle our bodies. Perhaps every one of us here can relate to this at some level in our lives.
The second phrase is when James speaks of a “perfect man.” In saying the man is perfect, he does not mean that this man has no faults. This level of perfection, of course, is unattainable to us in this lifetime. When James speaks of a perfect man, he is simply saying that this man is mature in his walk with the Lord; he is complete.
This also does not mean that this complete man or woman lacks absolutely nothing, because in this life we are still bound by limitations. But the person who has learned to bridle his or her life no longer is plagued by those inconsistencies of a new believer in Christ. He or she has learned to bridle their bodies.
How does one learn to do this? Does he learn to bridle himself by resolving that even if he were ever to be faced with decapitation, he would never deny Christ? Does he gallantly say, as did Peter, “Even though everyone else should fall away, I will not fall away!”
Actually, this is not the way to reach maturity. It was not the way for Peter and it is not the way for us. To say that “even though everyone else should fall away, I will not fall away,” this may be a statement or a sentiment of someone who has reached maturity, but it is not how we get there. A small boy does not become a man by grabbing a chainsaw and going out to the woods to cut down trees like his dad, or by taking a briefcase and going to the office. There are many things he must learn first. And he of course must also grow physically, mentally, emotionally, and in other ways as well.
To be spiritually perfect, or spiritually mature, there are many things that we must first learn, and also many ways in which we must first grow. This is what James means to teach us.
He continues: “If we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they may obey us, we will direct their entire bodies as well. And look at the great and massive ships. Although they are very huge and are driven by strong winds, still they are directed by a very small rudder, which in turn is the hands of the pilot, maneuvering the ship wherever he is inclined.”
In talking about horses and ships, James is talking about large things, even massive things that are controlled by something that we might think very small and insignificant. In using these examples, James is showing us that it is sometimes to the small things where we need to place our attention. If we can control these small things, we can do the large things that Jesus talked about, like “denying ourselves,” and “taking up our crosses.” We can even “lose our life for the sake of Christ” and thereby find our true life.
What are some of these small things? James focuses on one of the most important of these, but also mentions others along the way. Actually, the entire book of James is almost a treatise on these small things that we need first learn to control and to do.
Controlled by our Small Tongue
In speaking about the small things that control large things, like the bit in the mouth of the horse or the rudder of a great ship, James continues, “So the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.”
I don’t think that I need to elaborate on how our own tongues can get us into trouble. Probably we all can think back at our own personal lives and see the time when something that we said got us into trouble. Some of us may not even have to look back very many days.
And in recent summers with the massive and unprecedented forest fires in the western states and provinces of Canada (this year being among the worst), the illustration of James is especially appropriate. “Behold, how great a forest fire is set aflame by such a small flame!”
Then James makes this startling statement: “The tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity.”
Perhaps none of us would place such a great importance on the role of the tongue in controlling us, but these verses tell us that it is our tongue that can set the course for our entire lives!
“How is this possible?” we might ask.
An Indicator of Health
I am not sure if doctors still do this, but back in the old days, when you went in for a physical examination, they would ask you to stick out your tongue so that they could take a look at it. I suppose with all the advanced medical equipment that they have now they may not still do this, but the fact is; a trained doctor can tell quite a lot about your physical health by the appearance of your tongue.
In much the same way, the words that we speak are an indicator of our spiritual health. Jesus tells us that “The good man, out of the good treasures of his heart, brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil brings forth what is evil, for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart” (Luke 6:45).
But it even goes beyond that. Once a word is spoken, not only it is an indicator to others what is inside of you, but the thought that you allow to find voice becomes more established within you. It is no longer a fleeting thought. Your voice has given the thought life. With your spoken word, the thought takes up residence within you.
Words that Tear Down
That is why the Apostle Paul says to us, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).
“Funny, isn’t it,” James says, “that we have learned to tame every sort of beast, but we cannot seem to master our own tongues?”
James continues, “With our tongues we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men who have been made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come both blessing and cursing.”
We often think nothing of sitting in church and using our tongues to sing songs of praise to God, read the confession and the responsive readings, and then go home and speak evil of someone. Does this seem acceptable to you?
“Brothers,” James says, “it should not be this way.”
He brings up the example of water coming from a fountain. When you bend down to take a drink from a drinking fountain, you expect the water to be good. It does not bubble up fresh water, then half way through your drink, change quickly to bitter water. This would not be acceptable to us.
Neither should we find it acceptable within ourselves to live such a dichotomy. Paul says that our words should be used for edification. What does that mean? Edification means that our words should be used to build someone up, not tear someone down.
You probably have heard it said, “That man brings out the worst in me!” You may have even said it yourself. There are some people that just seem to rub our fur the wrong way. These are the people who we think have wronged us in some way or have been unkind to us, or who have a personality that just seems to irritate us.
After we have had an encounter with that individual, or even if we just hear his or her name or merely think about them, we replay in our minds all that we see as being wrong with that person. Then, after all of this negativity that we have expended in thinking about this person, when we next see him or have contact with him, those thoughts come flowing out of us. The bitterness spills forth. We say something that we should not and probably regret it immediately, or at least soon will.
This is the untamed tongue. This is the tongue that controls us instead of we controlling it.
Words that Give Grace
Paul says that our words should instead be used to give grace (Ephesians 4:29). We need to define this. Exactly what does it mean to give grace?
Grace is something good that we do for another person that they do not deserve. The other person may not deserve to have something good said about them, but if we are looking to build that person up, we find a way to give grace.
I am not speaking of flattery, or of ignoring something about that person that really does need to change. Speaking or acting in this way would not actually be acting with grace, because it is not for the ultimate good of that other person.
I am talking about finding words and actions that help that person deal with his or her problems. The fact of the matter is, we are all works in process. There is something about all of us that needs work. One of the reasons that we gather together as brothers and sisters in Christ is so that we can help each other along the way. When someone stumbles, we do not trample over them in our rush, but we stop to help them up.
Small Beginning, Impressive Finish
When we think of the things we should do if we want to be a follower of Jesus, it is good to think in terms of “denying ourselves,” or “picking up our crosses.” It is good to think of giving our lives for the gospel’s sake. But perhaps we should think first of the small things. If we get the small things right, the major things will follow along.
We would do well to pray the prayer of David: “Let the words of my mouth. and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).
Do you want your life to improve in big ways? Concentrate on the small things, and the great ship of your life will be turned on course toward the kingdom of heaven.