“He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” John 12:25
After Jesus used a grain of wheat analogy to show that He must die to produce life in many others including both Jews and Gentiles (12:23-24), He then applies this to discipleship when He says, “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (12:25). The issue here is rewards, not salvation from hell. The believer who “loves his life” by selfishly living for him or herself, “will lose” the fullness of that life both now and in eternity in terms of the loss of rewards. Christ goes on to say that “he who hates his life in the world” by making his or her love and loyalty to Christ a priority “will keep it for eternal life,” that is, they will enjoy a deeper and fuller experience of eternal life both now and in eternity. So, the issue is not salvation, but the quality of a believer’s life both now and in the world to come.
When Jesus mentions hating one’s life, He is not talking about self-abuse or mutilation. That would be contrary to His other teachings about loving others “as yourself” (Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27; cf. Ephesians 5:29). While self-denial is implied in the phrase, “he who hates his life” (cf. Matthew 16:24-25; Mark 8:34-35; Luke 9:23-24), this does not mean we are to deny our humanity which includes our physical and emotional needs.
For example, in a helpful article, entitled “Self-care and Self-Denial,” Amie Patrick talks about when we go through stressful seasons of life, we may have a greater need for sleep, nutrition, exercise, and emotional refreshment. Denying self does not mean we overlook these needs. She emphasizes that it is important to accept our God-given limits and receive the Lord’s gifts of rest, food, recreation, and solitude which are also acts of worship and obedience. While Jesus was fully human and fully God—He often set aside time in His ministry to be alone or to enjoy meals with friends (cf. Matthew 11:19; 14:13a; Mark 2:15; 6:31-32; Luke 5:15-16, 29; 7:36; 10:38-42; John 12:1-2).
The expression “he who hates his life” refers to Jesus being a priority in your life over self and the material things “in this world.” Our devotion to the Lord Jesus makes our interests in the material affairs of this life appear by comparison as hatred. Those who are dedicated to Christ will “keep” or preserve that lifestyle for eternal rewards. Our earthly experience becomes a part of “eternal life” in that it contributes to the quality of our future life in eternity. But if we put our material things and selfish ambitions ahead of Christ, we will decrease the quality of our life in the world to come.
The Bible teaches that eternal life as a future acquisition is always a reward that is based upon works (cf. Matthew 19:29-30; Mark 10:29-30; Luke 18:29-30; John 4:36; 12:25; Romans 2:7; Galatians 6:7-9; I Timothy 6:12, 19), but when eternal life is presented as a present possession it is always received as a free gift by faith alone in Christ alone (John 3:16; 4:10-14; 5:24; 6:40, 47; Romans 6:23; Ephesians 2:8-9; Revelation 22:17). If we die to self and make Jesus a priority in our lives, we can also experience His quality of life now. So, the way to truly live is to die to self and live to Christ.
Jesus explains further what it means to “hate” one’s life when He says, “If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor” (12:26). He is referring to self-denying service to Christ. If you want to serve Christ, you must follow Him. He is to be the number one priority in your life. Just as Jesus denied Himself and died for the world (12:27-28a), His disciples are to deny themselves and serve Him. When Christ says, “and where I am, there My servant will be also” in glory and honor is the main idea here as confirmed in the next part of the verse. “If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor.” The verb “will honor” refers to honoring faithful Christians with rewards. If you serve Jesus, you will receive “honor” or reward from His Father. If you want to be rewarded in the future, you must earn it by serving Christ now. Rewards are not a free gift. We must work for them to receive them in the future.
Jesus chose the way of the cross because of His desire to please His Father (cf. Philippians 2:5-11). Likewise, every follower of Christ must face a similar choice of taking the way of the cross. For example, a woman was told that the baby in her womb would be mentally impaired, but she refused the early abortion recommended by her doctors because she believed this would be wrong. An investment salesman lost his job because he insisted on being honest about the risks. And before the revolution in Romania, a lawyer lost his professional status and had to do menial labor because he openly confessed Christ as his Savior. These three Christians chose to take the way of the cross. They took seriously the words of Jesus, “If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me.” These two verbs, “serves” and “follow” are in the present tense and convey the idea of “keep on serving Me” and “keep on following Me.” Disciples of Christ who faithfully serve Him are promised His companionship (“where I am, there My servant will be also”) and those who faithfully serve Him are promised the Father’s “honor.”
We can often be busy “for” the Lord instead of being busy “with” the Lord. Jesus promises that when we serve Him, He will be there with us (John 12:26; cf. Matthew 28:20). When we serve the Lord, not others or ourselves, we are never alone. Christ guarantees “where I am, there My servant will be also” (12:26).
The world says to put your material things or earthly life and self, first. It says, “There’s no need to take God seriously.” But if you don’t take God seriously, then there’s no need to take your marriage seriously, or the rearing of your children seriously, or such character traits as submission, faithfulness, sexual purity, humility, repentance, and honesty seriously either. If we don’t take God seriously, if we don’t make Jesus Christ our #1 priority now, it will cost us in the future. Oh, we will go to heaven, but the quality of our life there will be less than it could have been if we took Christ seriously. You see, the things we do now will prepare us for what we do in eternity. How I live on earth now will contribute to the quality of my life in heaven. If I live for Christ now by His grace, death will not interrupt that lifestyle. It will continue in eternity without interruption.
First John 2:17says, “And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.” John reminds us that the world is passing away and therefore, it is a totally unworthy object of our sinful lusts and longings. If I am a laborer on earth, an architect, a musician, a secretary, a farmer, a teacher, a scientist, a physician – however skilled I may be at any of these activities – none of these designations will survive the present age. The term “abides” (2:17) is a fellowship term. The believer who is doing God’s will possesses a lifestyle that will not be interrupted by the passing away of this world. He experiences uninterrupted fellowship with God. He will experience “boldness” at the Judgment Seat of Christ (I John 2:28; 4:17) where the eternal worth of his earthly Christian life will be evaluated (I Corinthians 3:11-15; 2 Corinthians 5:10). But the believer who lives out of fellowship with the Lord does not “abide” forever in that his worldly lifestyle will be radically interrupted when he goes to heaven. His worldly lifestyle will not abide forever. It stops at heaven’s gates. But a dedicated lifestyle to Christ really has no ending.
Conclusion: Must I lose or hate my life to go to heaven? Absolutely not! The only condition for going to heaven is believing in Christ alone for His free gift of everlasting life (John 3:15-16, 36; 4:10-14; 5:24; 6:40, 47; 11:25-26; 20:31; Acts 16:31; Romans 4:5; Ephesians 2:8-9; I Timothy 1:16; I John 5:1, 13; et al.). But to experience eternal life as a reward in a deeper and richer way both now and in the future, I must faithfully and sacrificially serve Christ as His disciple (John 12:24-26; cf. Matthew 19:29-30; Mark 10:29-30; Luke 18:29-30; John 4:36; Romans 2:7; Galatians 6:7-9; I Timothy 6:12, 19). Such a Christ-centered lifestyle will be richly rewarded by Jesus at the Judgment Seat of Christ (Matthew 25:20-23; I Corinthians 3:12-14; 2 Corinthians 5:9-10; 2 Peter 1:5-11 ).