As Jesus prepared for His death, He taught His disciples one of the greatest kingdom paradoxes. Using His own life as an example, Jesus told them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces much fruit. The one who loves his life will lose it, and the one who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:23–25, CSB).
Jesus compared His death to a grain of wheat falling into the soil and perishing. Only after a kernel dies in the ground can new life sprout from it. Jesus knew that obedience to His Father’s call would cost Him everything. He would soon die on a cross. Yet He also understood that His death would “produce much fruit” by making it possible for multitudes of believers to be born again and receive eternal life (John 11:25–26; 1 John 5:11–12; Romans 5:21; Hebrews 5:9; 9:12).
Then the Lord passed this principle to His disciples: “He who loves his life will lose it.” We cannot “love” our lives and still expect to follow Christ. We cannot serve both God and mammon (Matthew 6:24). If we spend our lives grasping for the things of this world, we will ultimately lose it all. After pursuing all this world has to offer, in the end we will discover that “everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11).
A related principle is this: “The one who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” If we follow Jesus Christ as our role model, we will not love our earthly lives or place greater value on the temporal world than we give to our pursuit of heaven. We will “seek the Kingdom of God above all else” (Matthew 6:33, NLT). Like the apostle Paul, we will say of this mortal existence, “Whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:7–8).
The believer willing to lose his life has set his course on a heavenly treasure hunt. Long before the hour of His death, Jesus urged His disciples not to spend their lives pursuing money or acquiring possessions: “Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be” (Matthew 6:19–21, NLT).
Matthew shared an expanded version of Christ’s teaching, explaining that “loving our lives” means hanging on to our own selfish, stubborn ways: “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?” (Matthew 16:24–26, NLT; see also Luke 9:24–25).
We can’t be true followers of Christ if we attempt to serve Him on our own terms. “Hating our lives” means giving up our own way, setting aside our self-centered existence, and abandoning ourselves to serve the Lord and others. Jesus said, “For I have come down from heaven to do the will of God who sent me, not to do my own will” (John 6:38, NLT, see also John 5:30). To deny ourselves and take up our cross is what the Christian life is about.
Paul gave us a vivid picture of the attitude we are to have: “Though [Christ Jesus] was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:6–11, NLT). Jesus humbled and emptied Himself to the point of total devotion and a horrible death but, in doing so, was raised to the highest place of honor.
He who loves his life applies to anyone who shrinks back from sacrifice for the cause of Christ. Such a person is concerned with self-preservation. He is careful to maintain security, seeks his own well-being, and would rather deny Christ than face trouble. This one is warned that he will lose the very thing he loves and is most desirous to keep: his own life will be forfeit.
The one who hates his life in this world applies to anyone who is willing to give up absolutely everything in this world, including life itself, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Such a person dedicates himself exclusively to God and His kingdom because he knows that the reward is priceless, beyond all earthly value. He understands that “we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). This one has the promise of eternal life.