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2. Death: Bid Goodbye to Self and the World


– Chapter 2 –

Death: Bid Goodbye to Self and the World

Are you alive or dead?

Do we feel that this is a strange question to ask? Let us then consider the Lord’s words to the Christians in Sardis, “You have a name that you are alive, but you are dead” (Rev.3:1). These Christians evidently supposed themselves to be alive, and even had the reputation of being alive, yet were told that they were dead and spiritually non-functional.

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

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

There are Christians who claim to be totally committed to God but are unsure of their commitment. Every time they sin, they begin to wonder all over again, “Am I really saved?” Some Christians carry on like this 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 true 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 are God’s children (Romans 8:16).

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 serving God full time in the full-time ministry.

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 a job or career is undeniably a big step to take. But what if in giving up our careers, we don’t give up our old stubbornness, bad temper, or self-centered­ness? What is the point of giving up our jobs if we retain our selfishness and 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 one part of our lives. What is the most centrally important thing to us? Undoubtedly, it is our self, our ego, the big “I” or “number one”. But have we given up what truly matters in our relation­ship with God? That is what I mean by the part being the enemy of the whole.

Giving up our careers does not mean that we have truly given up every­thing if the most important part — the self — has not been given up. It that is the case, then we still haven’t said goodbye to our old attitudes or forsaken our selfish pursuits. The tragic result of all this is that we enter into the Lord’s work with basically the same inward attitude and self-centeredness that we had before. The consequences of this for the church are lamentable.

Many become Christians or go into full-time service in search of something. Many seek an inner satisfaction that is deeper than what their secular professions can 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 God, when you see transformed lives and the power 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 wrong in itself because we are not to serve God without joy or satisfaction. But if you have gone into the Lord’s work without having abandoned your old mentality with self-satisfaction as its 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.

I recently talked with a pastor of a Chinese church in New Jersey, USA. This Chinese pastor used to be 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 needed to have his eyes opened in a rather painful way. He was shocked at the way many of the pastors and Christian workers behaved at the meeting which was closed to outsiders and lay people. He was stag­gered by the rude and unloving way they spoke to one another, and the way they insisted on their own opinions. When he 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.”

Making a commitment without forsaking the old self

Why do some full-time Christian workers behave like that? Yes, they did leave their professions behind in some kind of commitment; but no, they didn’t say goodbye to their old thinking 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, bringing 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.” But then we bring along our old habits, our old behavior, our critical attitude, into the Christian life and the church. We bring all these old things into the “new” life, producing a contradiction within ourselves. Some Christ­ians are a living embodiment of contra­diction, and before long they begin to wonder if they are dead or alive.

Do you know if you are dead or alive? Can you say without being self-deceived, “I am alive right now. I am confident that by God’s grace I am alive and not dead”?

Or will you admit that you don’t know whether you are dead or alive? Is it 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 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 if he is dead or alive, that really is a problem!

Is death instantaneous or progressive?

This leads to other 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 that, paradoxically, we live as we die, and die as we live? The whole thing is becoming incomprehensible.

Is it a matter of making a slow, gradual commitment to … die? If so, the Christian life would be progressive dying. Since we are not per­fectly sinless, this leads us to think that we die to sin in a slow process that goes on through the Christian life. Yet in our daily struggles, we get the nagging feeling that we could be wrong, because the Lord did say, “I came that they might have life, and have it abun­dantly” (John 10:10). In reality we are more familiar with abundant death than abundant life!

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

The absoluteness of the Lord’s words disturbs us. His demands are not only high, they are absolute, total, unlimited. He tells us to say goodbye to all that we have. We cannot evade this all-ness because in the Bible we repeatedly find this uncom­fortable “all”. God’s salvation is certainly a gift of grace, but if you accept this gift, it will cost you everything. We forsake everything to gain the pearl of great price (Mt.13:46). Costly grace and expensive grace, that is the grace of the Bible.

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 listeners (v.25). It is to them that he says, “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 go for a compromise, saying, “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 that the Lord talks about.

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, forever death, abundant death.

To reject the Lord’s words is death. It results in a life of defeat after defeat, failure after failure, and finally 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 reject Jesus’ statement as being too extreme, or think it is being too fanatical to follow Jesus’ call with its high cost of salvation and discipleship (versus the teaching that salvat­ion is unconditionally free), you will end up with a Christian life that is power­less, joyless, and meaningless — so much so that you might as well forget the whole thing and go back to the world. Enjoy the world while you still have the opportunity, for the alter­native is worse: being miserable now and miserable at the future judgment. At least enjoy yourself now even if it leads to misery at the judgment. But to be miserable 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 death and judgment await him, he might as well enjoy himself now, even if it’s only for a few decades. At least he has enjoyed himself for a short time prior to 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 easily into foolish­ness. The children of this age are wiser, in this respect, than those who claim to be the children of light (Lk. 16:8). It is the sons of the kingdom who are cast out because of their unbelief and disobed­ience (Mt.8:12). And people still ask, “How come we don’t experience the abundant life that Jesus spoke about?”

“Renouncing all” goes beyond material possessions

Jesus says that we can­not be his disciple unless we “give up all” our 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 read “give up all your possessions,” we often think of our prop­erty, our bank account, our earthly treasures. The term “everything he has” (NIV) or “all his own possessions” (NASB) certainly includes material possessions, but not exclusively. As Paul says, you can give up all these things and even offer your body to be burned, yet not have love (1Cor.13:3) because of being self-centered rather than God-centered.

It is of great importance that we 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”.

A careful look at Jesus’ teaching makes it clear that he is not talking exclusively, nor even primarily, about material possessions. The passage in Luke 14 says that our closest family members, whom we regard as more cherished than house or land, will have to be “hated” if they try to hinder us from follow­ing Jesus. And what does carrying our “own cross” mean but giving up even our own lives?

Take note of this, especially if you have little to lose in terms of material possessions. It is easy to give up your poss­essions if you have few possessions. If you have only $100, it would be relatively easy to obey the command, “Give up all your possessions.” Likewise, 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. 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 critical attitude. We cannot fool God, the One whom Scripture calls the “only wise God” (Rom.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,” our person as a whole.

It is possible to give up your job and possessions without surrend­ering your heart, your self, or your whole being, to God. That happens in a great many cases. In Philippians 2:19-21 Paul was grieved to discover that among his coworkers, no one apart from Timothy was genuinely concerned for the interests of the brethren. What kind of coworkers were the others? Some had un­doubtedly forsaken their material possessions to follow the Lord, yet without forsaking their selfishness. They transported their old life and their selfish interests into the new life. All that was “new” was merely external; nothing truly new had taken place within them.

Let’s get to the root of the matter. Do we think that we are totally committed to God? 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.

Take 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. We cannot escape the depth and power of the Lord’s wisdom.

If you want to experience the abun­dant life in Christ, do not say to yourself that you are willing to give up your job. It is not your posses­sions and the like that matters, but your very self. From now on, we will live totally for God and for others. Otherwise we will not exper­ience the victorious Christ­ian life, but will be left with an airy-fairy ideal. We would be like an astronomer who gazes at the stars with a telescope, admiring their beauty but unable to touch them. To many, the Lord’s teaching is 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, while 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 follow his example (v.17). Paul was inspired by this goal: to “gain Christ”. Does this goal in­spire us too?

Why gain Christ? Paul 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). Moreover, “Christ is our life” (Col.3:4), and that covers everything including salvation, a salvation that includes regeneration, sanctification, and glorification.

To gain Christ also means to be saved, as seen in 2 Timothy 2:10: “obtain the salva­tion which is in Christ”. Christ Jesus who became to us … redemption” (1Cor.1:30). Salvation and redemption are found only in Christ, and are obtained when we gain Christ.

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

Paul’s life and teaching fulfills Jesus’ own teaching

What Paul did, including what he teaches in Philippians 3, fulfills Jesus’ own teaching in Luke 14. Why do we quote Paul selectively, choos­ing the parts that suit our taste while rejecting the parts we find distaste­ful, and still imagine that we can be saved? Unlike Paul, we think that we can gain Christ without suffering the loss of all things, or perhaps with the loss of a few things.

That Paul gave up everything while at the same time teaching salvation by faith clearly demonstrates that he saw no contradiction between these two positions. Any perceived contradiction exists only in the minds of those Christians who have been taught a cheap grace that 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.

Would anyone be willing to give up everything, including one’s very self, to gain Christ without having absolute faith in Christ? The answer is obviously “no”. Without such faith no one would take such a step. It is possible only by faith. Forsaking all to gain Christ is the clear evidence of a genuine 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.

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” (BDAG Greek-English lexicon). It occurs 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; Acts 18:18; 2Cor.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” expresses departure. You say goodbye when you are going away. When you put on your coat and open the door, you say goodbye. What is more, the context of Luke 14:33 indicates that this action is not made impulsively but only after careful deliberation as in calculating the cost of building a tower, Lk.14:28-30, or in 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 Israel’s exodus out of Egypt. Many people don’t know why we need the Old Testa­ment. Paul says that it was written for our instruction (1Cor.10:11), telling us what will happen to those who don’t live according to the Lord’s teach­ing, or 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 dining table you in­herited from your grandmother. When the Israelites left Egypt, they had to say goodbye to their little veget­able patch, even abandoning their sacks of onion and garlic. In the wilderness, they were always dream­ing of the garlic 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. They wore clothes when they left Egypt, and took along 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 said 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.

Goodbye as signifying death

The New Testament uses the Greek word exodos (ἔξοδος) in two senses: the first is Israel’s departure from Egypt, the other is death. The link between the two is easy to understand because we 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.

Its spiritual significance is this: The exodus from Egypt symbol­izes our death to the world. Paul links the exodus to our being baptized into Christ when he says that the Israelites were 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. We likewise 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. Though God was the One who gave the Law at Sinai, it is often called “the Law of Moses” in both the Old and the New Testaments. That is because Moses is its chief representative, promul­gator, and spokesman. 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 (as in Romans 6:3,4).

In verses 3 and 4, Paul extends the parallel when he says that the Israelites ate the same spiritual food (manna, cf. Jn.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 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 entered the new life in him.

Have we left everything behind?

Have we truly said farewell to the world as did the Israel­ites when they left Egypt? Have we ever 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 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 even do that much when we became Christians? And what did we leave behind? In most cases, nothing. At the very least, the Israelites did leave behind most of what was dear to them.

No wonder most Christians cannot compare, in terms of spiritual power and stature, 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 nothing but a pipe dream to many Christ­ians. They have not abandoned anything, least of all the old ego.

And thanks to the church leaders, preachers and teachers who never stop insisting that salvation is a free gift that costs us nothing, we can dismiss Jesus’ teaching as irrelevant. “Of what use to us is his teaching? Who needs it?” Yet the same people who don’t listen to Jesus dare to call him “Lord”. To such people Jesus will ask, “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 and that disciple­ship is a higher level of Christianity suit­able for “elite” Christians but not “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).

Every Israelite, not just Moses, that “elite” servant of God, had to leave Egypt behind. Everyone had to literally get 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. They cherished their tables and chairs. They said goodbye to the things they could not take along with them. Many 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 some personal items needed for their journey. Everything else was left behind. Did you leave behind anything? For most Christians, the hon­est answer would have to be nothing, and for others, very little. Yet we wonder why we don’t experience the abundant Christian life.

God’s presence in the wilderness with His people

Yet the wilderness is a wonderful place to be in if God is with you. Many think that Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness was a terrible exper­ience, but 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 come the quail and manna! In the wilder­ness there was a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day (Ex.13:21) — a constant, visible assurance of God’s presence.

Have you ever wondered why the pillar of cloud by day became a pillar of fire by night? Why not a pillar of fire both day and night, since fire is visible also in the daytime? And why fire by night if its light is not needed when people are sleeping?

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 (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. Psalm 121:5,6 says:

Yahweh is your Keeper; Yahweh is your shade (or, protection[1]) 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 refers to 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 it is to walk with God in the wilderness. Without God, the wilderness would be a hostile, desolate place. But if God is with us, the wilder­ness would be a spiritual Garden of Eden in which He walks and talks with us as He did with Adam and Eve (Gen.3:8f).

What went wrong in the wilderness?

So what went wrong in the wilderness? The Israelites may have aban­doned their houses and poss­essions, yet they took along their old nature and attitudes, their selfishness, their complaining spirit. They ruined what could have been a wonderful journey with God in the wilderness. Their journey could have been a short one. Even a large com­munity moving slowly could have completed the journey in much less than a year, even if they took the circuitous route around 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 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?

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. They only had to wait a short time while He tested their faith to strength­en it.

Do we likewise 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 they had somehow forgotten why they were passing through the wilder­ness in the first place.

Many Christians complain when they run into difficulties: “Why did God bring me here?” They have forgotten why they are in the wilderness, and where they are heading. They have lost the vision of how God can make the wilderness blossom like a garden (Isa.35:1,2).

Have you truly died? If you have, 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?

If you say you don’t know whether you have left Egypt or not, your sanity might be questioned on the spiritual level. If an Israelite says, “I don’t know whether I am in Egypt or not,” surely he doesn’t have his wits together. Surely he would know whether he had crossed the Red Sea or not.

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

That is the situation of many Christians today. While they were crossing the Red Sea, Egypt somehow took over the other side. Egypt (which represents the world) seems to be forever expanding, and many Christ­ians are forever trapped in it because in their hearts they have never left it.

Saying goodbye to the world

Paul speaks of death, exodus and depar­ture in spiritual terms, so when we speak of dying, we are speaking spirit­ually. We are not speaking of physical death, not even at baptism. But that doesn’t make dying any less real.

In what spiritual sense have we died? The word “die” refers to the exodus by which we bade farewell to Egypt (= the world) and then crossed the Red Sea (= baptism). The old life is left behind. 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 means 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 family relationships? Death means fare­well to all these things. At death we say goodbye to everything. Our friends may reject us for getting bap­tized, so it could mean saying goodbye to them too.

Before getting baptized, ponder this well: “I am about to die to the world system. I will no longer live as a member of a world system which is alienated from God and doesn’t recognize His sovereignty 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 still have jobs or use our professional skills, but now everything is governed by God.

The old way of life lived under the control of the flesh has been terminated. As a result we no longer look at anyone or anything from the perspective of the old flesh-controlled, man-centered life. This revolutionizes our relationship to everyone and every­thing. “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 echo in our hearts? Mul­titudes of church­goers compro­mise with the world, seeking to serve both God and mammon but end up doing neither. Do we see why we cannot be the Lord’s 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!” 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 but the Lord’s. He knew that he could not buy a car for himself without the Lord’s approval, and the Lord was unlikely to approve of the purchase of a luxury car. This millionaire 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.

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.[2] Jesus does not mean that we give away everything in one go. It is a continuing process of administering and distributing the possessions 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 of the present tense here, which expresses “durative (linear) action”?[3] Another thing that we see is God’s wisdom: If I surrender everything as a one-time act, and one day I inherit a million dollars out of the blue, I may think that I have already given up every­thing, so Jesus’ words won’t apply to my new-found wealth, which is exempt from the “heavenly tax”. But Jesus uses the present tense, which means that the goodbye remains in effect permanently.

In our worldly and self-centered thinking, we think of God as a heavenly tax collector who snatches 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 reaching the land of promise.

When I was twelve years old, I was sent to school in Geneva, Switzerland, where my father worked for about a year at the United Nations. 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 light at first, but after an hour the strap begins to cut into your shoulders; two hours later, it feels 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, it will end up as firewood. Hebrews 12:1 tells us to put aside every encumbrance so that we may run the race that is set before us. Leave every­thing behind — especially the greed and covetousness that are never satisfied with any amount of possess­ions — for these things lead to disaster.

So, is dying progressive or instantaneous?

Let us return to the vital question: Is dying progressive or 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 instantaneous, once and for all?

As we have seen in the last chapter, Scripture depicts man as con­sisting of body and spirit. This distinction is vital for understand­ing the nature 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? 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.[4]

But the body of flesh is still with us; it has not yet died. 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 commitment to God by His grace through faith. It was a 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”. The words “you are putting to death” translate one Greek word (thanatoō, θανατόω), which is in the present (continuous) tense. It is something that is carried out 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. Colossians 3:5 ac­cordingly 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, the death is deci­sive and instantaneous. But on the physical level, the body is still there, ever responsive to sin and tempt­ation, 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 instantaneous. On the physical level of the body, the flesh, progressive.

Victory over sin

If we haven’t died spiritually, we wouldn’t be able to win the battle against sin, for sin is lodged in our flesh, causing us to live a 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 Spirit can empower us to live in constant victory without hin­drance.

Though sin is still in the flesh, it is being put to death progress­ively through the Spirit, and we triumph consistently. We experience the abundant life from the Lord, and the good news of 2Cor.2:14, “Thanks be to God who always leads us in His triumph in Christ.”

This tells us what being holy means. This is vital because God calls us to be holy (Eph.1:4; 1Pet.1:15; 1Thess.4:3; etc). Many still think of holiness as a mysterious sanctity, but 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 principles has led some Holiness preachers to say erroneously that sin has been eradicated in the believer. I repeat this crucial fact: In the Christian life, holiness is not the eradicat­ion of sin. So long as we are in the body we will al­ways have sin in us, but we can be victorious over it by God’s triumphant power in Christ.

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

Victory involves battle. Without a battle, where is there 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 until we fulfill the Lord’s teaching and bid farewell to all that we have, not just our material possess­ions but, above all, our old nature and 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 joy and power 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.

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

[2] 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),” in Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary, 1978, Eerdmans, on Luke 14:33.

[3] These are A.T Robertson’s words in 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”.

[4] 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.


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