Commenting on the teaching of Jesus in Mark 8:34–35, John Calvin writes, “None can be reckoned to be the disciples of Christ unless they are true imitators of him, and are willing to pursue the same course.” To be a Christian means engaging in the lifelong pursuit of conformity to the teaching and example of Christ. We are united to our Lord by faith in Him alone (Phil. 3:9), and then we prove that faith over the course of our lives by obeying our Savior and following Him as our example.
This inevitably leads to suffering for the believer, for Jesus’ own path of discipleship in relation to His Father included the cross (Mark 8:31–33). How much suffering the believer faces is a matter of the Lord’s sovereign decision, and some endure harsher consequences for following Christ than others do. But all must consider their lives as secondary when the call to obey the Lord comes. This includes literally dying for Christ if it comes to that. Whatever the case, it means dying to self, dying to our old lives of sin and dying to the notion that we must always place ourselves first (Phil. 2:5– 11; Col. 3:5). In short, we must place Christ and obedience to Him first, which will entail serving others before we serve ourselves. The world hates those who are being conformed to Christ in such a way (John 15:18). Sometimes the hatred is so great that it bears the final fruit of murder.
Paying the price of death is worth it not only because of the promise of eternal life for those who die to themselves (Mark 8:35) but also because of the value of our souls. Being made in God’s image, human beings have been granted a value that far surpasses anything else in creation. Jesus, in fact, tells us in today’s passage that gaining the whole world is not a prize equal in value to the worth of our souls (vv. 36–37). Here the word “soul” refers primarily to the inner part of a person, that which gives true identity to a man or woman. It encompasses everything that we are, including our bodies, but the point is that it is foolish to seek to preserve our physical existence by denying Christ when such an act will come at the far greater cost of our souls. Our bodies the world may kill, but that is only a temporary loss, for all who trust in Christ alone for salvation will receive resurrected bodies in the new heaven and earth. But those who deny Christ end up killing their souls, and that is a permanent loss, leading to suffering in the eternal fires of hell (Rev. 20).