You are here

02. Death: Goodbye to Self and the World

Chapter 2

Death: ‘Goodbye’ to Self and the World

1. Are You Alive or Dead?

Do we feel that this is a strange question to ask? Then let us consider the Lord’s words to the Christians at Sardis, “You have a name that you are alive, but you are dead” (Rev.3.1). They evidently supposed themselves to be alive, and they even had the reputation of being alive, but they had to be told that they were spiritually non-functional, dead.

To be alive to the world and to pursue the things of the world is to be spiritually dead. Conversely, being alive to God is to be dead to the things of the world. We either die to the world or we die to God. This is the most important choice we will ever make. Any attempt at a compromise will result in disaster.

Many Christians are weak, and some are so weak that they don’t even know whether they are dead or alive. The important question is, “Have I truly died to sin? At baptism I was supposed to have died with Christ, yet my subsequent conduct indicates that I haven’t really died. Maybe it was just a partial death.” But anyone who hasn’t died completely is not yet dead. And if you aren’t dead, how can you have the new life in Christ?

If we haven’t died to the old way of life, how can we live a life committed to God? There are Christians who claim to be totally committed to God but who remain unsure of their commitment. Every time they sin, they begin to wonder all over again, “Am I really saved?”

Some Christians carry on for decades until it finally dawns on them that they are not true Christians after all. The old self has never died, and there has never been a full commitment to God. So they live from day to day without that assurance which only the Holy Spirit can give, namely, the assurance that we belong to God and are God’s children (Ro.8.16). As a result, their lives are insecure and lack spiritual vitality.

2. A Partial ‘Goodbye’ Even in Full-Time Service

The part can be the enemy of the whole, that is, you may be committed in one area and assume that your commitment in that area represents the whole. This assumption is a serious error, parti­cularly in the case of those who are thinking of serving God full time, or have already entered the full-time ministry. What do I mean by this?

A person may give up his job and his profession to serve the Lord. In giving up his profession, he thinks that he has concretely expressed his total commitment. What he has done is undeniably a form of commitment, but is it total? Giving up one’s job or one’s career is truly to take a big step. But what if in giving up our careers, we don’t give up our old stubbornness, our bad temper or our self-centered­ness? What is the point of giving up our jobs if we retain our selfishness or nastiness?

In giving up a career to serve God, we have indeed given up something very important. But important as it is, it represents only a part of our lives. What is the most centrally important thing to us? Undoubtedly, it is our self, our ego, the big “I”, the “number one”. So the question is: Have we given up what really matters in our relationship with God? That is what I mean by the part being the enemy of the whole.

Giving up our careers doesn’t mean that we have given up everything if the most important part has not been given up—the self. This would mean that we haven’t said goodbye to our old attitudes or abandoned the pursuits of our self-interests. The tragic result of all this is that we enter into the Lord’s work with basically the same inward attitudes that we had before; inwardly we are the same self-centered people. The consequences of this for the church are lamentable.

Many people become Christians or go into full-time service in search of something. Let’s be honest about it. Many are seeking a deeper inner satisfaction that their secular professions cannot give them. And they are not wrong in that understanding. Serving God does give you a satisfaction that no other profession on earth can give. When you serve God wholeheartedly, when you see people coming to the Lord, when you see transformed lives, when you see the effect of God’s word in people’s hearts, you gain a deep satis­faction of a kind that no secular profession can give you even with its financial rewards.

Therein also lies the danger. You may go into the Lord’s work in search of inner satisfaction. This is not necessarily wrong because it is not the case that we are to serve God without any joy or satisfaction. But if you have gone into the Lord’s work without having abandoned your old mentality in which self-satisfaction was the primary motivating force, it indicates that the self remains at the center of your life. You are still driven by the desire to please yourself rather than the Lord in all that you do.

As a result, some preachers and Christian workers exhibit beha­vior that is far below the Biblical standard. When others see their conduct, they get a nasty shock. You may very well have witnessed this kind of thing yourself.

Recently I talked with a pastor of a Chinese church in New Jersey in the United States. This Chinese pastor was formerly a research biochemist with a doctorate in biochemistry. He gave up his profession to serve the Lord. He told me of a pastors’ meeting that he had attended. Having been in the ministry for only one year at the time, he had his eyes opened in a rather painful way. He was shocked at the way many of the pastors and Christian workers behaved at that meeting which was closed to outsiders and lay people. He was staggered by the rather unloving and rude way they spoke to one another, the way they insisted on their own opinions, and the arrogant way in which some of them expressed themselves. When he finally could not endure it anymore, he stood up and spoke out, “I am ashamed to be in your midst today. Your conduct is a disgrace to the Gospel.”

3. Making a Commitment without Forsaking the Old Self

Why do some full-time Christian workers behave like that? The reason is simple: Yes, they did leave their professions behind, and they did make a commitment; but no, they didn’t say goodbye to their old mentality and attitudes. Their old ego or “self” is the one possession they hadn’t let go of. So they brought all this along with them into the ministry. This will inevitably bring disgrace and possibly disaster to the church.

We too may have made a commitment to God at baptism. We may have said, “Lord, I put my life into Your hands. I belong to You now.” Very good, but then we also bring along our old habits, our old behavior, our critical attitude, into the Christian life and into the church. We bring along all these old things into a “new life”—producing a contradiction within ourselves.

In doing this, some Christians become an embodiment of contra­dictions! Before long they begin to wonder if they are dead or alive.

Do you know whether you are dead or alive? Can you say, without being self-deceived, “I am alive at this very moment; I am confident that by God’s grace I am alive and not dead”?

Or do you feel obliged to admit that you don’t know whether you are dead or alive? Is it really possible to make a commit­ment and not know it? Is it possible for someone to go into baptism, to be united with Christ in death, and then to come out and say, “I don’t know if I’m dead or alive”? If a dead man doesn’t know he is dead, that is not surprising, for a dead person knows nothing. But if someone who is alive doesn’t know whether he is alive, that really is a problem!

4. Is Death Instantaneous or Progressive?

This leads to other vital questions: Is sanc­tification (being holy or becoming holy) instantaneous or progressive? Is the Christian life a gradual process of dying, or is it a process of growing and living? Or is it a combina­tion of the two: half the time we are dying, half the time we are living? Or could it be the case that, paradoxically, we live as we die, and die as we live? The whole thing seems so profound that it threatens to become incomprehensible!

Or is it perhaps a matter of making a slow, gradual commitment to … die? In this case, the Christian life turns out to be progressive dying. Have we got the picture right? After all, we are not perfectly sinless, so it seems to follow logically that we die to our sins in a slow process, and that this goes on through the whole Christian life. But unfortunately, in our daily struggles, we get the nagging feeling that we could be wrong to think in this way, because the Lord did say in John 10.10, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” In reality we are more familiar with abundant death than abundant life!

5. Whoever Does Not Renounce All Cannot Be My Disciple

To address these issues, let us turn to the ultimate authority, that of Jesus himself, and listen to his own words. But you may ask, “Where did the Lord teach these things?” Well, in several places, but let us first concen­trate on Luke 14.33: “Therefore, no one of you can be my disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.” To get the context, let us read from verse 25:

Now great multitudes were going along with him; and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.

“For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost, to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a found­ation, and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’

“Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and take counsel whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks terms of peace. So there­fore, no one of you can be my dis­ciple who does not give up all his own possessions.”

Costly Grace versus Cheap Grace

We are disturbed by the absoluteness of the Lord’s words. His demands are not only high, they are absolute, total, unlimited. We must say goodbye to all that we have; we cannot evade this all-ness. In God’s word we repeatedly find this uncom­fortable “all”. God’s salvation is certainly a gift of grace, but few are aware that if you accept this gift, it will cost you everything you have. We must forsake everything if we want to gain the pearl of great price (cf. Mt.13.46). Costly grace, expensive grace—that is the grace of the Bible.

But many churches preach a cheap grace—a grace that costs nothing, a grace so cheap that no year-end clearance sale can compete with it. But cheap grace bears no resemblance to what Jesus teaches. Here he uses the words “no one of you” to indicate that no one is exempted. The Lord is speaking not only to the apostles or “elite” Christians, but to everyone in the “great multitudes” of people who “were going along with him” (v.25). It is to them that he addresses the words: “No one of you can be my disciple who does not give up all his own possessions” (v.33).

We either take Jesus’ words seriously or just forget the whole matter. But if you aim for a compromise and say, “I’m going to be a moderate Christian who goes for half-measures, not a fanatical Christian who does things by all’s,” then you will never know what it is to be a true Christian or experience the abundant life the Lord talks about.

Moreover, in the long term you will in fact pay a higher price. That higher price is something you will discover for yourself: Instead of experiencing the abundant life that Jesus came to give you, you will discover that life is a continuity of death. It is forever death, abundant death.

To reject the words of the Lord Jesus is death. Ignoring his words results in a spiritual life in which one encounters defeat after defeat, failure after failure, all of which will lead to death. But if we obey him, we will experience the reality of what he says in John 10.10: “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.”

If you go for half-measures, or if you reject the Lord’s statement as being too extreme, or if you think it is being too fanatical to follow Jesus’ call and accept the high cost of discipleship and salvation (in contrast to the teaching that says salvation is unconditionally free), you will end up with a Christian life that is spiritually power­less, joyless, and meaningless—so meaningless in fact that you might as well forget the whole thing and go back to the world. Enjoy the world while you still have the opportunity, because the alter­native is worse: being unhappy now and also miserable at the future judgment. At least enjoy yourself now even if it leads to misery at the judgment. But to be miserable both now and also at the judg­ment is surely to be, of all men, most foolish.

In this case, is not the worldly man smarter who says, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (Isa.22.13; 1Cor.15.32)? Since all that awaits him is death and the judgment, he might as well enjoy himself now, even if it’s only for a few decades. At least he has enjoyed himself for a while, and then comes an eternity of condemn­ation. But that is still better than having the worst of both worlds: misery at the present time, followed by an eternity of wretchedness.

We fall so easily into foolish­ness. The children of this age are wiser, in this respect, than those who claim to be children of light (Lk.16.8). It is the sons of the kingdom who are cast out because of their unbelief and disobedience (e.g. Mt.8.12). How pitiful. And people still ask, “How come we don’t experience the abundant life that Jesus spoke about?” That is because we are not fulfilling his teach­ing; it’s as simple as that. It is foolish to imagine that we could have the abundant life through a cheap or devalued gospel which Jesus never taught.

6. “Renouncing All” Goes Far Beyond Material Possessions

Let’s look at the Lord’s statement: you can­not be my disciple unless you “give up all” your possessions (Lk.14.33). Let me stress at the outset that this is not limited to material possessions. In fact the context has little to do with material possessions. When we see the statement “give up all your possessions,” we often think of our prop­erty, our bank account, our money stored up for rainy days, our earthly treasures. The term “everything he has” (NIV) or “all his own possessions” (NASB) certainly includes material possessions, but not exclusively. As the apostle Paul says, you can give up all these things and even offer your body to be burned, yet not have true love (1Cor.13.3) because of being self-centered rather than God-centered.

It is, therefore, of great importance that we clearly understand this truth: The giving up of material possessions can become a substitute for the giving up of a possession far more valuable to us, namely, our old, deeply rooted, dearly loved, self-centered way of life. The one possession dearer to us than anything else is our self, the ‘I’.

It must, therefore, be emphasized that a careful look at Jesus’ teaching makes it clear that he is not talking exclusively, nor even primarily, about material possessions. According to the passage in Luke 14, our closest and dearest family relationships, which we would regard as more precious than house or land, will have to be “hated” if they try to hinder us on the path of follow­ing Jesus. And what does carrying our “own cross” mean but being on the way to giving up even our own lives?

Take careful note of this, especially if you have little to lose in terms of material possessions. It is easy to give up your poss­essions if your possessions are few. If you have only $100, it would be relatively easy to obey the Lord’s command, “Give up all your possessions.” Similarly, giving up a job is easy if you find the job unfulfilling. Perhaps you are fed up with your boss, or with your rival who is breathing down your neck, or with the colleague who smokes his obnoxious cigarettes, threatening to give you lung cancer. Surrender my job? Hallelujah, take it! Take my $100 as well! Nothing can be simpler.

But then we bring our egotism into the church, along with our conceit and hypercritical attitude. But we cannot fool God. We are dealing with the One whom Scripture calls the “only wise God” (Ro.16.27), the One who alone has perfect wisdom. He looks for something far deeper than our jobs or possessions. Even if we think our job is valuable, does God value it so highly? It may be valuable to us, but hardly to Him. What is truly valuable to Him is our heart, our “inner man”, and indeed our person as a whole.

You can give up your job and your possessions without surrendering your heart, your self, or your whole being, to God. In fact, that is something that happens in a great many cases. In Philippians 2.19-21 Paul was grieved to discover that among his co-workers, no one except Timothy was genuinely concerned for the interests of the brethren. What kind of co-workers were the others? Some had undoubtedly surrendered their material possessions to follow the Lord, yet without forsaking their selfishness. They had transported their old life, together with their self-centered interests, into the new life. Consequently, all that was “new” was external; nothing really new had taken place within them.

Let’s get to the root of the matter. Do we claim to be totally committed? That is the question. My wife Helen told me that giving up her nursing profession was easy. Giving up her material poss­essions was also easy; she didn’t have much anyway. But when it came to giving up the old self-centered life, that was a real problem.

One’s life, not just one’s Possessions

Let us take precise note of what Jesus is saying: It is the one who loses his “life”—not just his “possessions”—who will find it (Mt.16.25). He who keeps his life to himself will lose it, even if he gives up all his possessions. How profoundly the Lord deals with us! We cannot escape the depth and the power of his wisdom.

If you want to experience the abun­dant life in Christ, say not to yourself that you are willing to give up your job. It is not your posses­sions and the like, but your very self, that matters. From now on, we live totally for God and for others. God’s perfect will and other peoples’ needs, not our own needs, become paramount.

If we don’t fulfill this, we won’t experience the victorious Christian life. We will be left with an airy-fairy ideal which we will never experience as a reality. We would be like the astronomer who gazes at the stars through a telescope, admiring their beauty but unable to touch them. To many people, the Lord’s teaching is like a beautiful object that we admire from a distance. It’s for dreamers, not for practical people like us. We congratulate ourselves for being prac­tical Christians. As a result the abundance of the Spirit-filled life becomes mere talk.

Losing everything to gain Christ?

Paul says, “I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil.3.8). Then he goes on to say that we, too, should “have this attitude” (v.15) and calls us to join in following his example (v.17). Do we have this attitude? Paul was inspired by this goal: to “gain Christ”. Does this goal in­spire us too?

Why gain Christ? Because the apostle has seen that everything of eternal value is found in Christ, therefore to have Christ is to have everything that is worth having. For, “in him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Col.2.9); “in him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col.2.3). “Christ is our life” (Col.3.4), and that covers just about everything including salvation, a salvation that includes regeneration, sanctification, and glorification.

That to “gain Christ” also means to be saved can be seen, for example, in Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 2.10, “obtain the salva­tion which is in Christ”. Notice that “obtain … Christ” is comparable to “gain Christ”. In 1Co.1.30, Paul says, “Christ Jesus who became to us….redemption”. Salvation and redemption are found only in Christ. How then can we obtain these unless we “gain Christ”?

Now if Paul could “gain Christ” without having to suffer the loss of all things, or if he could enjoy the abundant life without giving up everything, why would he give up everything? Wouldn’t Paul be the greatest fool on earth for doing what was totally unnecessary? But who, in the end, will prove to be the fool, we or the apostle?

Paul’s life and teaching fulfills the Lord’s own teaching

Can we not see that what the apostle Paul did, and what he teaches here in Philippians 3, fulfills the Lord’s own teaching in Luke 14? Why do we quote Paul’s teaching on salvation selectively, choos­ing the parts that suit our taste while rejecting the parts we find distasteful, and still imagine that we can be saved? Aren’t we de­ceiving ourselves in so doing? We, unlike Paul, think we can gain Christ without having to “suffer the loss of all things,” or perhaps gain Christ with only the loss of a few things.

The fact that Paul gave up everything he had while at the same time teaching salvation by faith clearly demonstrates that he saw no contradiction whatever between these two positions. Any perceived contradiction exists only in the minds of those Christians who have been taught a cheap grace which calls for a cheap faith. “Faith” in Paul’s vocabulary is not mere intellectual assent, but a total com­mitment to God with the most practical and concrete implications.

This fact can be highlighted by asking: Would anyone be willing to give up everything, including one’s very self, to gain Christ, unless that person had absolute faith in Christ? The answer is clearly “no”. Without such faith no one would take such a step. It is possible only by faith. Taking the step of forsaking all to gain Christ is the solid evidence of the genuineness of faith. It is this kind of faith that Paul proclaims both by word and by example. It is this kind of faith that Jesus looks for in those whom he calls.

7. To “Forsake” is to Say Goodbye

Let us look at the word “forsake” as in, “Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Lk.14.33). This word translates a common Greek word, apotassō (ἀποτάσσω), which means “say farewell (to), take leave (of)” and also “renounce, give up”[7]. This Greek word occurs for example in Acts 18.21 where Paul says good­bye to the Ephesians before setting sail for Caesarea on his way to Jerusalem. In all the other occurrences of this word in the New Test­ament, it consistently means to take leave of or to say goodbye to (Mk.6.46; Lk.9.61; Ac.18.18; 2Co.2.13). Jesus’ statement, there­fore, is more literally rendered as: “No one of you can be my disciple who does not say goodbye to all that he has”.

“Goodbye” is used in the context of departure. You don’t say goodbye unless you are going away. When you put on your coat and open the door, you say goodbye. What is more, the context indicates that this action is not made carelessly or impulsively but only after careful deliberation as in calculating the cost of building a tower, Lk.14.28-30, or in the careful evaluation needed for deciding whether to engage a numerically superior force in battle, knowing that once the battle is joined there is no turning back, vv.31-32. It is a final, decisive goodbye. It is goodbye forever.

The best way to understand this is to look at the Exodus out of Egypt. Many people don’t know why we need the Old Testa­ment. Paul says it was written for our instruction (1Cor.10.11). It tells us what will happen to those who don’t live according to the Lord’s teaching, or who think they can water it down.

“Exodus” means “departure”. The day finally came for Yahweh God to say to Israel, “You’re going to follow Me out of Egypt. You’re going to say goodbye to Egypt forever, and leave everything behind.” You obviously can’t take along your house in the exodus. Neither can you trek through the wilderness with the beautiful dining table you in­herited from your grandmother. When the Israelites left Egypt, they had to say goodbye to their little vegetable patch. They had to say goodbye to whatever was valuable to them, and abandon even their sacks of onions and garlic. In the wilderness, they were always dreaming of the garlic that they used to savor (Num.11.5). They had to leave all these things behind, and bid them farewell.

The Lord Jesus speaks in similar terms: Say goodbye to all that you have, and leave. Saying goodbye is something active. If you don’t move on, you won’t have to say goodbye. But when you move on, you say goodbye. Recently a brother said goodbye to the people at his company. If he were staying on with the company, he wouldn’t have to say goodbye. It is motion—a movement away from some­thing.

Jesus is saying that unless you bid farewell to all that you have, as did the Israelites in Egypt, you cannot be his disciple. Of course the Israelites did take some things along with them. Presumably they wore some clothes when they left Egypt, and took along some necessities such as tents, water containers and utensils, for use in the wilderness.

When Jesus tells us to leave our possessions behind, he doesn’t mean that we are to sleep on the streets and make a public nuisance of ourselves. We fall into this kind of error when we think exclusively in terms of material possessions.

The Israelites were saying goodbye to the old way of life in Egypt. That had to be left behind. They were leaving a life of slavery under Pharaoh, which represents the old life enslaved by sin. And leaving everything behind, they departed.

8. Goodbye As Signifying Death

The New Testament uses the word “exodus” (Greek exodos, ἔξοδος) in two senses. It is used of Israel’s departure from Egypt, and but it can also refer to death. The link between the two is easy to understand because we often think of death as departure.

Exodos is used in Hebrews 11.22 of Israel’s departure from Egypt, and in Luke 9.31 of the death of Jesus. In 2 Peter 1.15 it is used of the death of Christians in general, and of Peter in particular.

The spiritual significance is this: The exodus from Egypt symbolizes our death to the world. Paul connects this to our having been baptized into Christ when he says that the Israelites were all baptized into Moses in the Red Sea when they came out of Egypt (1Cor.10.2). Only after they had left Egypt did God establish a covenant with them. Likewise, we enter the New Covenant only after we have exited the old life.

Moses was God’s appointed representative of the legal system of the Old Covenant, just as Jesus is the representative of the New Covenant. Although God was the One who gave the Law at Sinai, yet in both the Old and New Testaments it is often called “the Law of Moses”; this is because Moses is its chief representative, promulgator, and spokesman. Therefore, in being baptized into Moses, the people were in effect baptized into the Old Covenant.

1Corinthians 10.2 (“all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea”) shows a direct link between exodus and baptism. But because exodus also signifies death, we now have a link between death and baptism (Ro.6.3,4).

In 1Cor.10.3-4 Paul extends the parallel when he says that the Israelites ate the same spiritual food (the manna, cf. Jo.6.51) and drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spirit­ual rock, which was Christ. The allusion to the communion is unmis­takable.

Note also the sequence: baptism first, then communion. Paul goes on to say that these things were written for our instruction (v.11).

The Israelites entered into the old covenant after they had left Egypt, and began a new life under God. Similarly, we left the old life behind; we were baptized into Christ and then we entered the new life in him.

Have We Left Everything Behind?

The vital question is: Have we really said farewell to the world as did the Israel­ites when they left Egypt? Have we ever actually said goodbye to the old life as they did? If not, then we are not even on the level of the Israelites. Never mind the New Coven­ant, most Christians are, sad to say, not even on the level of the Old Covenant. The Israelites did literally leave their old life behind in Egypt once and for all, and crossed the Red Sea. Did we do even that much when we became Christians? And what exactly did we leave behind? In most cases, nothing. At the very least, the Israelites did leave behind most of what was valuable and dear to them; but most Christians have probably not said goodbye to anything.

No wonder most Christians cannot compare, in terms of spiritual power and vigor, with some of the Old Testament people, never mind living up to the New Testament standards. What the New Testa­ment says about every true Christian—that he or she is great­er than that last great servant of God of the Old Testament era, John the Baptist (Mt.11.11)—is that not just a pipe dream? Christians have not abandoned anything, least of all the old ego.

And thanks to the church leaders, preachers and teachers who never tire of insisting that salvation is a free gift that costs us nothing and that there is no need to suffer the loss of anything, we can dismiss Jesus’ teaching as irrelevant. Of what use to us is his teaching? Who needs it? Whom was Jesus talking to anyway? Presum­ably not to us! Yet the same people who don’t listen to Jesus dare to call him “Lord”! To such people Jesus sternly ask, “And why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Lk.6.46).

Multitudes of Christians listen to the preachers who teach cheap grace. These are the preachers who also tell us that disciple­ship is a higher level of Christianity suitable for “elite” Christians but is not necessary for “ordinary” Christians like us. That is false teaching as far as the Bible is concerned. In the New Testament, every Christian is a disciple. “Disciple” is just another name for a Christian. The disciples were first called “Christians” in Antioch (Acts 11.26). Disciples are not a higher class of Christians. Scripture-twisting is to be abhorred.

Every Israelite, not just Moses, that “elite” servant of God, had to leave Egypt behind. Everyone had to literally stand up and go. Their mud houses may mean nothing to us, but they were precious to the Israelites because they were born and brought up in them; these were their homes. They cherished their tables, chairs and dishes. They said goodbye to the things they could not take along with them. Many people must have wept as they looked at their homes for the last time. “My garden patch may be tiny, but it’s precious to me!” Then they left.

The Israelites abandoned everything except their clothes and the personal items needed for their journey. Everything else was left behind. Now please tell me, what did you leave behind? Anything? For most Christians, the honest answer would have to be nothing, absolutely nothing—and for others, very little. And yet we wonder why we don’t experience the abundant Christian life. In many cases there is no life, period, much less the abundant life.

9. God’s Presence in the Wilderness with His People

Incidentally, the wilderness is a wonderful place to be in if God is with you. Many people think that Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness was a terrible experience. I don’t think so. The wilder­ness may be a hostile place, but if God is with you, it is a wonderful place.

Was the parting of the Red Sea a terrible experience for the Israelites? No, it was a wonderful experience of God’s deliv­erance! You have no water to drink? He causes water to gush out of the rock. You have no food to eat? Here comes the manna! In the wilderness there was the pillar of fire by night and the pillar of cloud by day (Ex.13.21)—a constant, visible assurance of God’s personal presence.

Have you ever thought about why the pillar of cloud by day became a pillar of fire by night? Why not a pillar of fire by day and night, since fire is perfectly visible also in the day time? And why fire by night, since the people would usually be sleeping at that time and wouldn’t need the light of the fire?

But consider this: If the column of smoke is not imagined as being a thin vertical column, but as one that has the shape of a mushroom (such as that produced by a nuclear explosion) then the cloud would provide shade for God’s people from the scorching heat of the desert sun at midday! At night the column of fire would provide warmth in the cold desert night. Pure imagina­tion? Perhaps not. Consider, for example, Psalm 121.5,6:

Yahweh is your Keeper; Yahweh is your shade (or, protection[8]) on your right hand (that is, just when and where you need Him). The sun will not smite you by day, nor the moon by night.

Consider also the remarkable promise in Isaiah 4.5,6 which is based on the wilderness events:

Then Yahweh will create over the whole area of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, even smoke, and the brightness of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory will be a canopy. And there will be a shelter to give shade from the heat by day, and refuge and protection from the storm and the rain.

Echoes of the wilderness experience are heard also in another of the prophecies in Isaiah:

They will not hunger or thirst, neither will the scorch­ing heat or sun strike them down; For He who has compassion on them will lead them, And will guide them to springs of water. (49.10; it was by the pillar of cloud and of fire that He led and guided the Israelites in the wilderness, Dt.1.33.)

This promise is taken up in the book of Revelation:

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; nei­ther shall the sun beat down on them, nor any heat; for the Lamb in the center of the throne shall be their shep­herd, and shall guide them to springs of the water of life; and God shall wipe every tear from their eyes. (Rev.7.16,17)

How wonderful, then, it is to walk with God in the wilderness. Without God, of course, the wilderness would be a hostile, desolate place. But if God is present with us, the wilder­ness is as a spiritual Garden of Eden in which He would walk and talk with Adam and Eve (Gen.3.8ff).

What Went Wrong in The Wilderness?

So what went wrong in the wilderness? It soon became clear that although the Israelites may have abandoned their houses and their poss­essions, they took along their old nature, their old attitudes, their selfishness, their complaining spirit. It ruined what could have been a wonderful journey with God in the wilderness. Their journey could have been short. Even a large community moving slowly could have completed the journey in much less than a year, even if they traveled by a circuitous route around the Sinai Peninsula. But they brought along their old wretched attitudes into the wilderness, turning it into a living hell.

Do we likewise bring our old nature with us into the Christian life? If we claim to have left Egypt, what is the state of our Christian life right now? Is it a wilderness or is it the abundant life? In the wilderness of this world, do we experience God’s presence in a way as to feel that we are in a Garden of Eden? Do we experience His presence, the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire?

And how God looked after His people! When Israel’s enemies went on the attack, God protected His people and gave them victory. When they were thirsty, He gave them water to drink. They only had to wait a short while when, from time to time, He tested their faith to strengthen it.

As for us, do we also fail every test that God puts us through? Do we stumble over every stone in the wilderness and fall into every ditch? Do we then complain as did the Israelites, “Why did God bring me into the wilderness?” Well, the answer is simple: God was leading the Israelites to the land of promise. But somehow they had forgotten why they were passing through the wilder­ness in the first place.

Many Christians today complain in the same way when they run into difficulties: “Why did God bring me here?” What kind of Christians are we talking about? Good question, because these Christians have forgotten where they are heading to, and why they are in the wilderness. They have lost the sense of direction and the vision of how God can make the wilderness blossom like a garden (Isa.35.1,2).

Have you truly died? Only you can answer that for yourself. If you have truly died, you would know it. Have you left Egypt? Have you, by God’s grace, left the world controlled by sin and Satan, the Pharaoh of this world?

Please don’t say that you don’t know whether you have left it or not, because your sanity might be questioned, at least on the spiritual level. If an Israelite says, “I don’t know whether I am in Egypt or have left it,” surely he doesn’t have his wits together. If he had crossed the Red Sea or if he had not, surely he would know the answer to that question. We too should know whether we have left “Egypt” or not. Is it possible not to know?

I say to those who wish to be baptized: If you don’t know whether in your heart you want to leave Egypt or not, I beg of you not to go through the Red Sea of baptism because if you do cross it, you will discover that Egypt is also on the other side! It will be as though Egypt’s borders had been extended, for you will have brought it over with you in your heart.

That is the situation many Christians find themselves in. While they were crossing the Red Sea, Egypt somehow took over the other side of the Sea. Egypt (the world) seems to be forever expanding, and many Christ­ians are forever trapped in it, because in their hearts they have never left it. Received in this way, baptism becomes an act of self-deception.

10. Saying Goodbye to the World

Paul speaks of death, exodus and depar­ture in spiritual terms. Likewise, when we speak of dying, we are speaking spirit­ually. But that doesn’t make dying any less real. In using the word “die” we don’t mean physical death. At our baptism, we didn’t die physically; we weren’t left in the water to drown.

In what spiritual sense, then, have we died? What does “die” signify? It refers to the exodus by which we bade farewell to Egypt (the world) and then went through the Red Sea (baptism). The old life is left behind, abandoned. Paul says, “May it never be that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal.6.14). Death means to be finished with the world.

Whether you use the picture of farewell or the picture of death, it amounts to the same thing. Think of what happens when we die. What will happen to our job or bank account? What will death do to our marriage and our family relationships? Death means fare­well to all these things. At death we say goodbye to everything.

Therefore, before getting baptized, ponder this well: “I am about to die to the whole world system. I will no longer live as a member of a world system that is alienated from God and which doesn’t acknowledge Him as sovereign over it. I am about to say goodbye to everything: my job, my profession, my future in this world.” In the new life in Christ we can certainly still have jobs or use our professional skills, but now everything is governed by God.

Our family members and friends may reject us when we get baptized, so it could mean goodbye to them too. Goodbye does not, of course, mean that you or they will somehow disappear as a result of bap­tism! But something has disappeared: the old way of life lived under the control of the flesh. That has been terminated.

The result is that we no longer look at anyone or anything from the perspective of the old flesh-controlled, man-centered life. This inevitably revolutionizes our relationship to everyone and every­thing. As Paul puts it this way: “From now on, we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know him thus no longer” (2Cor.5.16).

Ponder Galatians 6.14 again: “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world”. Do these words find an echo in our hearts? There are mul­titudes of churchgoers who compromise with the world, who want to serve both God and mammon but end up doing neither. Do we really understand what the Lord means when he says that we cannot be his disciples unless we forsake all that we have (Lk.14.33)?

The story is told of a millionaire, a member of the Borden family of Boston, who had become a Christian. One day when he saw a beau­tiful luxury car, he was heard to say (with a touch of humor), “I wish I could afford one!” In fact, as a multi-millionaire he could have owned dozens such cars. But he knew he had no more possess­ions. He had a lot of money in the bank, but it was his no longer—it was now the Lord’s. That was why he knew he could not buy a car for himself without the Lord’s approval, and the Lord was unlikely to approve of the purchase of that kind of car. He now had the important responsibility of being a steward of God’s money, which was to be used as He leads, for the furtherance of the Gospel and the salvation of mankind.

11. Saying Goodbye: A Process

“Renounce” or “say goodbye” in the Greek text of Luke 14.33 is in the present tense, indicating a continuous process[9]. Jesus does not mean that we must necessarily give away everything in one go. It is a continuing process of administering and distributing every­thing as good stewards. As good stewards, we say goodbye to every­thing we have, and dispose of it in an orderly step-by-step procedure according to God’s leading, since all that we are and have belong to Him. When the Israelites left Egypt, they too made careful preparations.

Is there something more to the use here of the present tense, which expresses “durative (linear) action”[10]? Another thing is this, and here again we see God’s wisdom: If I surrender everything as a one-time act, and then one day I inherit a million dollars out of the blue, I might say that I have already given up every­thing, so Jesus’ words don’t apply to this new-found wealth, and it is there­fore exempt from any “heavenly tax”. But Jesus uses the present tense, which means that saying goodbye remains in effect permanently.

In our worldly, self-centered thinking we regard God as a heavenly tax collector who delights in snatching every dollar from us. But His concern is simply this: What we carry with us out of Egypt will ruin us in the wilderness, hindering us from getting to the land of promise.

When I was twelve years old, I was sent to school in Switzerland, where my father worked for about a year at the United Nations in Geneva. Our class would sometimes go on long-distance hikes. The students would usually want to take along all sorts of things—cam­eras, flashlights and so on—but the teacher would advise against that because what feels like one pound at the beginning is going to feel like ten pounds after several hours. And those who didn’t listen to his advice had every reason to regret it afterwards. Have you ever tried carrying a full-sized camera (e.g. an SLR) on a long hike? The camera feels quite light at first, but after an hour the strap begins to cut into your shoulder; two hours later, it is starting to feel like five pounds. After a few more hours, you wish you had never owned a camera in your life.

That is why Jesus tells us to abandon all. Any Israelite who takes along his favorite armchair into the wilderness will soon find it a burden. On the first day, it may be tolerable. A week later, the chair will end up as firewood. Hebrews 12.1 tells us to put aside every encumbrance so that we may run the spiritual race that is set before us. Leave everything behind—especially the covetousness and greed that is never satisfied with any amount of possess­ions—because these things lead to disaster.

So, Is Dying Progressive or Instantaneous?

Let us return to the important question: Is dying progressive or is it instantaneous? Do we spend the whole Christian life dying? Do we die to one sin, then to another, then to yet another, so that the Christian life is more death than life? Or is this dying once and for all?

As we have seen in the previous chapter, Scripture portrays man as consisting of body and spirit. This distinction is vital for understanding the question of dying. When Paul says, “I was cruci­fied with Christ, and the world was crucified to me” (Gal.2.20; 6.14), what actually died? Was Paul’s physical body crucified on the cross? Of course not. What then died with Christ? Clearly, it was his spirit. Paul died with Christ on the spiritual level even while his physical body was still alive.

Is this kind of death instantaneous? Yes, assuming that we have truly said goodbye, once and for all, to the world at baptism. The crucifixion to the world (Gal.6.14) is not an ongoing process but a completed event. The perfect tense of “crucified” in the Greek text of Galatians 6.14 refers to an action completed in past time but with continuing result or effect.[11]

The body of flesh, however, is still with us; it has not died yet. And as Paul says in Romans 7.25, the law of sin continues to dwell in the flesh—in the body. There you have it. The operational base of sin, which is the flesh, will remain with us until the physical body dies. Spiritually I have died once and for all, having made my total commitment to God by His grace through faith. This was done in response to the work of the Holy Spirit in me. But the flesh is still with me, and sin is still in the flesh.

That is why Paul says in Romans 8.13, “If by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live”. “You are putting to death” translates one Greek word (thanatoō, θανατόω), which is in the present (continuous) tense. It is something that needs to be done continuously. If I, by the power of the Spirit living in me, put to death the activities of the flesh working in me, I will live. But if I don’t put them to death, I will die. Accordingly, Colossians 3.5 says, “Put to death (an imperative in the Greek), therefore, whatever be­longs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry”. (NIV)

So, on the spiritual level, death is deci­sive and instantaneous. But on the physical level, the body is still there, ever responsive to tempt­ation and to sin, and in constant need of being “mortified,” put to death; this is a continuing process.

Is death, then, instantaneous or progressive? On the spiritual level it is instantaneous; but on the physical level of the body, the flesh, it is progressive.

12. Victory Over Sin

If we haven’t died spiritually, we won’t be able to win the battle against sin, for sin is lodged in our flesh, causing us to live a constantly defeated life. But if the self has died with Christ, if our spirit is totally yielded to Christ, if it has said goodbye to the world, then the Holy Spirit can empower us to live in constant victory without hin­drance.

Although sin is still in the flesh, it is being put to death progressively through the Spirit, and we triumph consistently. In this way we experience the abundant life from the Lord. We will then experience the truth of 2Corinthians 2.14, “Thanks be to God who always leads us in His triumph in Christ.”

This also tells us what being holy means. It is important to know what it means because God calls us to be holy (Eph.1.4; 1Pt.1.15; 1Thess.4.3; etc), and because many people still suppose holiness to be some kind of mysterious sanctity. In the New Testa­ment, holiness means victory over sin in our lives, not the eradica­tion of sin.

A “saint” in the New Testament sense of the word is one who, by God’s redeeming power in Christ, has been set free from the guilt and power of sin. Failure to grasp these facts has led some Holiness preachers into error, claiming that sin has been eradicated in the believer. I repeat this important fact: In the Christian life, holiness is not the eradication of sin. As long as we are in the body we will al­ways have sin in us, but we can always be victorious over it through God’s triumphant power in Christ.

God promises us in Romans 8 and elsewhere in Scripture that we need not be controlled by the power of sin. That being so, we can always be victorious because, having died to the old life, we now walk in newness of life through God’s indwelling Holy Spirit.

Victory implies battle. Where there is no battle, how can there be victory? It is in the battle against sin and the flesh that we taste the reality of victory. And victory requires power. That power, let me say again, will not be ours unless we fulfill the Lord’s teaching and bid farewell to all that we have. This, let us remember, refers not just to our material possess­ions but, above all, to our whole old nature and its attitudes.

Some of this teaching may be hard for a non-Christian to under­stand. To him or her I say this: Please understand that Jesus makes no false promises. When you become a Christian, you will experience the power and joy of the Christian life as he promised, but only if you fulfill what he tells you to do: Forsake your old way of life and follow him with all your heart. Then you will enter into the fullness of the new life with Christ.

[7] A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich, 2nd ed. 1979, University of Chicago Press.

[8] Cf. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, Brown, Driver, and Briggs, 1972 ed., p.853.

[9] Cf. also e.g. I.H. Marshall, “the disciple must be continually ready (present tense) to give up all he has got in order to follow Jesus (cf. 9.23)” on Lk.14.33 in Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary, 1978, Eerdmans.

[10] This is A.T Robertson’s phrase, A Grammar of The Greek New Testament in The Light of Historical Research, Broadman Press, 1934, p.879. Cf. also C.F.D. Moule, An Idiom Book of New Testament Greek, Cambridge, 1960, p.7, “The Greek Present Indicative normally denotes ‘linear’ action in present time”.

[11] For the meaning of the perfect in Greek see any Greek grammar, e.g. The Language of the New Testament, E.V.N. Goetchius, Scribners, 1965, p.293.


(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church