What was He to do with these men who had walked with Him, laughed with Him, listened to Him day and night for years, and watched how He treated others? The disciples had lived and breathed Jesus day after day, yet they still failed to see that “ ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain’ ” (John 12:24)1. The disciples could never bring life to others until they brought death to themselves.
Jesus, out of heartfelt love and heartbroken disappointment called out His disciples for chatting about who could be the best and who could have the best (Mark 9:33–35). Yet in the very next chapter, James and John unashamedly ask Jesus for the best seats in the house (Mark 10:36–45). The displeasure of their colleagues related more to their competitiveness than their conversion.
Luke records, “Now there was also a dispute among them, as to which of them should be considered the greatest” (Luke 22:24). Where did they get this idea that they could rank themselves? Certainly not from the teachings of Jesus. And this fight was happening while they were eating the last meal they would ever have on earth with Jesus!
In that same conversation, Jesus tells Simon Peter that He’s praying for him (vv. 31, 32), and Simon declares that he’s already ready to stand up for Christ (v. 33). All of the disciples echoed the same sentiment (Matt. 26:35). Jesus knew different.
Their self-confidence took a beating from that night to the next morning. All talk of standing by their Lord turned to silence as they ran, lied, hid, and shook, in fear that any second the Roman soldiers would break down the door and kill them, as they had Jesus.
What made them exchange courage for fear and self-sacrifice for self-preservation?
Up close and personal
My father prayed for God’s will daily. “Lord, open my eyes to see people around me, my ears to hear Your voice; tell me how to serve; show me Your plans. Help me forget self and be a blessing to others. Help me be like Jesus.”
Under communism, it was against the law to bring Bibles into the country, build a church, or do many other things for the church, but my father risked his freedom and life and did it anyway. Our church building was old and too small for our needs. At that time, we had a wonderful, dedicated, hardworking pastor. My father, an elder in the church, talked to him and proposed that we build a new church. Doing so could easily mean prison for the leaders of the project. Yet they presented the proposal to the board. With much prayer, they decided to go ahead in faith.
Everyone came to work, young and old—children, men, and women. We worked at night for obscurity, without lights or power tools. We demolished the old church except for the front wall and built the new building hiding it behind the wall. In about three months, the new church was taller than the old front wall.
One night, the police approached.
“Open the gates!” My dad asked if they had a warrant. They didn’t.
“Not until you have a warrant.”
“You will pay for it!” retorted the police, as they turned and stomped off.
They returned a few months later. The church was now completed. My father told the pastor, “You are young and dedicated. God still has work for you. Take your wife and go away for a few days. There’s no reason for both you and me to be arrested.”
The pastor argued. He was willing to be interrogated, arrested, and even imprisoned. My father convinced him there was no benefit in that. He left my father to talk to the officers.
When they started to see the cross, to grasp the infinite enormousness of the sacrifice, they committed themselves to God and His service without reservation. They knew they might pay with their lives for their preaching, yet they still did it joyfully.
“Who led this project?”
“I did,” my father said.
They took him to the station. “We warned you time and again to stop bringing in Bibles, and now you have built a church. We will confiscate your salary!”
“Well, there is nothing to take. I joyfully give it all to the church each month. I keep very little.”
“Then, we will fire you from your job.”
“That is indeed good news. I will have more time to serve God then.”
Frustrated, an officer put a pistol to my father’s chest.
My father said, “Let me unbutton my shirt, and then you can shoot me.”
Confused, the officer said, “Why? Bullets go through shirts.”
“I know,” said my father. “But there are many poor people without a shirt. Let’s not ruin it. Give it to someone else after you shoot me. To live is Jesus, and to die is an honor. He died for me; shouldn’t I be happy to die for Him?”
The officer called the chief of police. The chief called the mayor of the city. The mayor gave the order for my father to be killed. Feeling a little bad now, the officer hung up, turned to my father, and apologized, “I am sorry, but I have clear orders.”
My father said, “Let me pray first.”
“Well, even if you pray, no one will save you.”
“My friend, I have no intention to pray for myself. I want to pray for you.” My father put his arm around the officer’s shoulder and prayed for his salvation. Then he said, “I am ready.”
At that moment, the telephone rang. The deputy of the city, the person under the mayor, called. “Do not touch this man! After the mayor gave the orders to kill him, he left in his car, and a drunk driver in a big truck hit the car and killed him. Let this man go home.”
I asked my father later, “Did you know God would intervene to save your life?”
“Son, I did not, and that is not important,” he answered. “I am not focused on my life but on God and His service. He shall increase, and I shall decrease. Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, and the one who is willing to lose his life for God will save it. You cannot and will never be a Christian, you will never experience God’s power in your life, unless you love Him to the degree that you daily surrender and sacrifice all, including self.”
The absolute requirement
Paul said that he considered all things a loss for the price of knowing Jesus (Phil. 3:8). Twenty-nine years after his conversion, Paul still wanted to know Jesus. For him, it was a lifetime quest to know Jesus, with daily surrender and self-sacrifice. He says, “I die daily” (1 Cor. 15:31). Dying to self is the absolute requirement to be a disciple, to follow Jesus. Nothing else can substitute for that. And it is not a one-time event at baptism but a lifelong process that must happen daily. Even as pastors with higher-education degrees and a commitment to be shepherds of God’s sheep on earth, we cannot live with Jesus eternally unless we die with Him daily.
The reason we have little power, little influence to save others around us, and minimal success with spiritual victory and church growth is that we need to sacrifice self. Jesus says in John 12 that unless a grain dies, it will never produce any fruit (v. 24). Unless we fully and daily surrender all, we cannot experience Jesus’ power in our lives. There is no way to have a car with two drivers in full control. You cannot have both Jesus and self in control. Either you are in control, or Jesus is. Can you do that, Pastor? Can you fully let go of the steering wheel?
What do you love more than Him?
Jesus calls His followers His martures—His witnesses (Acts 1:8). From this word, we get the English word martyr. Jesus says, “You are My martyrs.” If you love Him more than anything, you have no problem sacrificing everything, including self. Whatever you cannot sacrifice, that’s what you love more than Him; that’s your god. Wherever your treasure is, that’s where your heart is.
Daniel and Esther left their people. Joseph and Ruth left their family. All persons of faith have sacrificed everything, including self. They didn’t expect a blessing; they became blessings. Jesus said, “ ‘He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me . . . He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it’ ” (Matt. 10:37–39).
Real religion is to love God with everything you have and love your neighbor just as you love yourself. The acid test of Christianity is your love for others. If you want to know whether you love God, to the degree that you love others—even those that hate you—to that very degree, you love God. When you love God, you forget self and joyfully live for others. You serve and you save.
Author Ellen White asks a poignant question, “Have you so deep an appreciation of the sacrifice made on Calvary that you are willing to make every other interest subordinate to the work of saving souls? The same intensity of desire to save sinners that marked the life of the Saviour marks the life of His true follower. The Christian has no desire to live for self. He delights to consecrate all that he has and is to the Master’s service. He is moved by an inexpressible desire to win souls to Christ. Those who have nothing of this desire might better be concerned for their own salvation.”2
Jesus gave us many visuals of this. Here’s one: “ ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field’ ” (Matt. 13:44). This man is willing to sell, to sacrifice, to lose literally everything to get the treasure. Are you like this man, serious about the treasure, serious about complete self-sacrifice? We sing, “All to Jesus I surrender,”3 but it is a lot easier to sing it than do it. How do you do that? How do you fully renounce self and fully surrender; how do you make Christ and His service your focus and priority?
How is it done?
Remember the scared disciples we were discussing? They were in the upper room after having spent some glorious days with the risen Savior. Jesus commanded them to preach the gospel, the good news, to the whole world. But they were just a few people, with no means, no media, and they were being pursued. They knew they could not evangelize even their city or country, much less the whole world. So, they prayed for the promise of the Holy Spirit to enable them to do their mission. They not only prayed but also repeated Jesus’ teachings and the prophecies.
As the disciples focused on Jesus, His teaching, and the prophecies and prayed for the Holy Spirit, they started to understand the Cross and the plan of salvation, the gospel, what God had done for them. “They [the disciples] realized the greatness of their debt to heaven and the responsibility of their work. Strengthened by the endowment of the Holy Spirit, they went forth filled with zeal to extend the triumphs of the cross. . . . They had consecrated their lives to Him for service, and their very features bore evidence to the surrender they had made.”4 The disciples finally internalized what it meant that the Holy One came down, suffered, was crucified, and became sin for them, for you and me.
That realization was so overwhelming that it transformed them. When they started to see the cross, to grasp the infinite enormousness of the sacrifice, they committed themselves to God and His service without reservation. They knew they might pay with their lives for their preaching, yet they still did it joyfully.
Jesus was clear when He shared in Matthew 25:31–46 what happens when we have given up self, sold all we have, and taken His gift. It comes as second nature, so we don’t even know we do it. “ ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry . . . a stranger . . . naked . . . sick . . . in prison?’ ” (vv. 37–39). Lord, when? With love in His eyes, He’ll tell you, “My child, when you invited the young boy who just lost his father on a picnic with your family, when you and your spouse gave of your time to take a meal over and spend time with Mrs. Abraham who just lost her husband of 55 years, when you and your head deacon went to the county jail regularly and gave Bible studies, you may not have recognized Me, but that was Me.”
When you really see the Cross for what it is, when you understand and digest the gospel, then you will fully surrender to Christ and allow Him to use you, to make you a blessing for those around you. You will then pray and look for opportunities to serve, to bless, to save, to possibly give your life for another. You will do it joyfully—and consider it a privilege.
- Scripture is from the New King James Version.
- Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 7 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1902), 10.
- J. W. VanDeVenter, "I Surrender All" (1896).
- Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 46.