Tuesday, February 3, 2009


Reading in Paul’s letter to the Philippians this morning, I noticed two words juxtaposed: the words “gain” and “forfeit.”

“But what things were gain (Greek: kerdos) to me, these I consider forfeit (Greek: zemia) for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I rather consider everything to be forfeit for the sake of the surpassing value of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have forfeited (zemioo) everything and consider it as dung, in order that I may gain (kerdaino) Christ!” (Philippians 3:7, 8)

In my reading and study I have been looking for parallels between what Jesus said and what the later New Testament writers have said, looking for places where Paul and the others have taken Jesus’ words and made them their own. Here was one such place. In one place in the gospels Jesus juxtaposed these same two words.
(I realize that Jesus most likely usually spoke in Aramaic and that the gospel writers translated His sayings into Greek, hence the differences in the translations below.)

“For what will a man be profited if he should gain (kerdaino) the whole world, and forfeit (zemioo) his soul? (Matthew 16:26)

“For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what will a man give as an exchange for his soul?” (Mark 8:36, 37)

“For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world but loses or forfeits himself? (Luke 9:35)

These are not some of those “What must I do to be saved?” passages. Jesus was not talking here about eternal life; that is gained by faith (John 3:16). Rather, He was speaking about this present life. The word translated “soul,” could just as well have been translated “person” or “life.” In fact, Luke uses a different word, the word “himself” (heautos).

In the context, Jesus was talking about becoming a disciple of His, of taking up our cross, of self-denial. He was speaking of making a deliberate choice to follow Him. There are many alternatives. One can choose to gain the world, but in doing this he is forfeiting his soul, his self.

Paul understood this call. In the context in Philippians, he relates how he was on the fast-track to the top in the religious world, but he had forfeited it all – not to gain eternal life, but to know Christ – to have that intimate knowledge of the Son of God. In comparison with this, all else is excrement!

We might say that’s alright for Paul, but not for us; this is only for a select few (for fanatics?). But Paul a little farther on urges his readers to follow his example (3:17). He apparently expected the everyday common church-folks to do the same as he. And this is what Jesus is calling us to. The passages quoted above are addressed to “anyone”! (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:24; Luke 9:23)

Or we might say that we’re not trying to gain the whole world. That’s for CEOs and dictators to attempt. All we want is a little more. Jesus wouldn’t deny us that, would He?

I believe Jesus presents the Christian life as a paradox: the more we seek to gain in life, the more of life we forfeit; the more we are willing to forfeit, the more we gain. Paul understood this. Others have understood this.
We look at the economic crisis in America today and we can see this paradox. But it goes beyond gambling in the stock market. It goes beyond getting suckered in Ponzi schemes. It applies to every aspect of our lives. If I may say so, the whole world system is a Ponzi scheme.

I remember when I was a teenager seeing these words written on the flyleaf of Uni’s Bible:
Only one life, twill soon be past.
Only what’s done for Christ will last.

Bill Ball


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