In Matthew 16, Jesus asks what good it is for a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul (Matthew 16:26). To gain the whole world is to receive all the world has to offer—money, fame, pleasure, power, prestige, etc. To lose one’s soul is to die without a right relationship with Christ and spend an eternity in the lake of fire.
In the context of His rhetorical question, the Lord was predicting His suffering and death and resurrection (Matthew 16:21). When Peter resisted His teaching, Jesus rebuked him and said, “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (verse 23). Jesus then spoke to the crowd and reminded them that there was nothing worth more than one’s own eternal soul. Rejecting Christ might mean temporary, earthly gains, but it comes at the worst possible price.
The Jewish people had been waiting for a Promised One for many centuries. Most expected that this Messiah would be a military leader or a king like David or Solomon. Jesus’ disciples recognized that He was the One whom the prophets had predicted. However, Jesus did not speak about conquering with an army or by taking over the government. Instead, Jesus taught that the Messiah would suffer and die at the hands of men.
Just before He asks, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Jesus says that, in order to truly follow Christ, people must be willing to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). To take up one’s cross is a reference to being condemned to die. Jesus’ statement is symbolic of a total, final commitment.
In other words, one needs to be willing to give up everything in order to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Worldly suffering shouldn’t be a deterrent. This is the context of Jesus’ question, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” If a person rejects Jesus and becomes the richest, most powerful person on earth, he has still made a poor decision. Sooner or later, earthly things will fade away. And that person will have lost the only part of himself that lasts forever. The day of reckoning is coming: “For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done” (Matthew 16:27).
There is nothing more valuable than a person’s soul. To trade that away is the epitome of foolishness. When a person chooses to embrace this world instead of heaven, he is forfeiting his soul. If a person rejects Christ for the sake of anything in this life, he will lose his soul. Esau despised his birthright, choosing stew instead; Judas sold the Savior for a few pieces of silver; Demas loved this present world and forsook the ministry. All three men thought they were gaining something but actually lost everything.