Mark 8:36-37
Great Texts of the Bible
A World for a Life

For what doth it profit a man, to gain the whole world, and forfeit his life (RVm. soul)? For what should a man give in exchange for his life (RVm. soul)?—Mark 8:36-37.

1. The text is often spoken of as if it stated a problem in profit and loss. But the point of it may be missed in that way. For a man may have some profit and suffer some loss, and balance the one against the other. Christ says it is all profit or all loss. It is in fact an exchange. We have a life and barter it for a world. It is a double exchange, or an attempt at it. First the life is given for the world—“What doth it profit a man, to gain the whole world, and forfeit his life?” And then, when the bargain is seen to be a bad one, the attempt is made to barter the world for the life—“What should a man give in exchange for his life?”

We are not to understand these two verses, says James Vaughan,1 [Note: Sermons, iv. 1.] as if they conveyed exactly the same truth. The thoughts are two—and perfectly distinct. The first—supposing a man to have his “soul,” is, “What shall it profit him if, for any advantage whatsoever, he loses it?” And the other, supposing he has “lost” it, “How can he get it again?”

2. This does not raise the question, once much debated, whether it is possible to make the best of both worlds. In that question the two worlds are taken to mean the present and the future, and between these there is no opposition. If a man does not make the best of this world, by finding God in it and living for Him, he will not make the best of the world to come; nor will he make anything of it. In our text the question is between finding pleasure in this world apart from God, or finding God in this world and all our pleasure in Him.

So we have first the World, next the Life, and then the double exchange between these two.


The World

What is the World? It is this world we live in. God made the world: did He not make it to be enjoyed and used by man? Undoubtedly He did. But not that the world should be enjoyed to the exclusion of the Maker of it. Suppose that you invite some one to your table. You furnish the table. But what would you think of the guest who occupied himself entirely with the table, eating and drinking without once lifting up his head to hold conversation with you? God made man chiefly for conversation and communion with Himself. And when a man prefers to occupy himself with the good things of this world, he is gaining the world and losing his own soul.

To gain the world is to gain (1) the riches of the world, as the rich young ruler (Mark 10:22), or as Demas; (2) the honours and fame of the world, as Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4:30), or as Herod (Acts 12:21-23); (3) the sinful pleasures of the world (Hebrews 11:25; Proverbs 23:31); (4) the amusements and follies of the world (Ecclesiastes 11:9).1 [Note: R. Brewin.]

At Aix-la-Chapelle is the tomb of the great Emperor Charlemagne. He was buried in the central space beneath the dome; but the manner of his burial is one of the most impressive sermons ever preached. In the death-chamber beneath the floor he sat on a marble chair—the chair in which kings had been crowned—wrapped in his Imperial robes. A book of the Gospel lay open in his lap; and as he sat there, silent, cold, motionless, the finger of the dead man’s hand pointed to the words of Jesus: “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”2 [Note: H. H. Griffiths.]

I built me my own little world,

Not God—but my world was fair;

I perfumed it fragrant with blossoms,

I hedged it around with care.

And I said, “It is well; it is quarried

Strong now, as strong love dare plan;

A home for two hearts it is carven,

Built by the will of a man.”

And I shouted and sang “Jubilate!”

The heart within me was light,

It heard not the brooding footstep

That bringeth the blinding night.

It saw not the cloud from the sun-set

A man might hold in his hand,

Yet it swam on nearer and blacker,

To darken my pleasant Land.

And a wind span out o’ the East—

God has four—a sword his breath,

And he shook my portals and pillars

With a shaking that meaneth death.

God o’ four winds! Thine east wind smote it;

My fair world trembled and fell:

Still I stood—at my feet in ashes

Lay the World I loved so well.1 [Note: Agnes H. Begbie, The Rosebud Wall, 21.]


The Life

What is the Life? The word psyche, here translated “life,” and often translated “soul,” is the equivalent of nephesh in Hebrew, the conscious life of feeling and desire. The New Testament distinguishes this life from merely physical animation on the one hand, and from the higher life of the pneuma on the other. Thus the life or soul (ψυχή) holds a mediating position between the body (σῶμα) and the spirit (πνεῦμα), and the word is used with a lower or a higher reference in different contexts. So says Swete, and gives examples of the lower reference (Matthew 2:20; Matthew 6:25; John 10:15 ff.; Romans 11:3; Php 2:30), and of the higher (Matthew 11:29; Mark 14:34; John 12:27; Hebrews 6:19; 1 Peter 1:22).

Life, says Menzies, stands here, not for one of several elements of the human person, as with Paul, but for the whole sentient life of the individual. Christ does not mean, says Stopford Brooke,1 [Note: The Gospel of Joy, 266.] a personal, selfish thing inside of you which was in danger of hell-fire or punishment, and which had first to be saved from them, and then put into a comfortable position in heaven. But He did mean all those qualities and their harmonies which make up in a man, in a society or in a nation, a character like the character of God, our Father.

What an incalculable depth of gratitude we owe to our authorized English translation of the Bible! But it has done us all the same a few wrongs; and among these not the least considerable is that often, even in the same passage, it has translated one word in the original at one time “soul” and at another time “life.” The result is we have got into the habit of thinking that a man’s soul is something mystical, something vague, something different from that actual, breathing, struggling human life which he knows so well. But it is not so. The soul is nothing else than the life, the sum of vital powers which we expend. To save your soul is nothing else than to preserve your life; to make the best of yourself; to lose your soul is nothing else than to defile, to spoil, to waste your vital powers, to make the worst of yourself. Of course, if this is to be true, you must remember that your soul is yourself and yours beyond the grave; and to save your soul is to make the best of yourself considered as an immortal being.2 [Note: Bishop Gore.]

What is it to lose the soul? It is (1) to lose Christ and all spiritual enjoyments; (2) to lose heaven and all its joys for ever; (3) to lose all rest and peace to all eternity (Revelation 14:11); (4) to lose all hope of ever bettering our condition (Revelation 9:6); (5) to lose the very world itself (Luke 16:23-24).3 [Note: R. Brewin.]

Large numbers of men hardly seem to have a life to forfeit; they can hardly be said to live; their intellect has never felt the thrill which comes with a true intellectual awakening; their conscience has never discovered how august duty is; the infinite mystery and glory of the eternal Kingdom which environs every man has never been revealed to them; there are the germs and the possibilities in them of a very great life, but the germs have never been quickened, the possibilities are remote from realisation.4 [Note: R. W. Dale.]

I remember some years ago being present at a meeting held in honour of an old teacher who was passing into retirement. A large company had gathered together, among them men who had made their mark in public life. Several of these rose and spoke in the old man’s praise. He was not a man of unusual attainments or of notable gifts, but he had evidently done these men, who were paying him honour, a service they had come long distances to acknowledge. As I listened to the words of generous eulogy I discerned what it was that drew them all to respectful gratitude. The words they quoted with deepest feeling were not his pregnant comments on men and things, not his wittiest jests, and not his wisest counsels. They were the words in which they had felt the trembling of a deep passion, all the deeper for a shy man’s reticence, which believed that each of them had a spiritual nature to be created anew in the image of Christ. These men, busy in the keen struggle of life, one by one bowed down in reverence before the man whose years had been spent, and whose duty had been fulfilled, under a supreme sense of the value of the soul.1 [Note: W. M. Clow.]


The Exchange

The exchange is to give the man himself, all that makes him a man, for the things that are without. And when the discovery is made that the exchange is a bad one, it is the futile attempt to get back the man in exchange for the things. But it may be considered in respect of the physical life, the intellectual life, the moral and social life, and the spiritual life.

1. The Physical Life.—Does it profit a man if he gain the world and forfeit his physical life? Is the loss of bodily strength, physical vigour, nervous energy, and all the capacity for enjoyment which these things bring—is that loss sufficiently offset by the gain of a whole world? The other evening I counted over in my mind no fewer than thirteen men who within recent years had died under fifty-two years of age literally from the pressure of overwork. These were all highly successful men, not licentious nor drunkards, and not all of them were irreligious men. But in gaining their little world they had simply toiled and struggled for themselves, denied themselves hours of relaxation and rest. Late and soon they were at the daily grind of getting without spending, and, physically depleted, they died, not only in the prime of manhood, but in the summit of success, when, humanly speaking, there was everything to live for. They had gained a world, and had forfeited the only life which could enjoy it. At their funerals, I doubt not, remarks were made on the mysterious Providence which had cut short their days in the meridian of their maturity. But, as a matter of fact, there was no mysterious Providence about it. The men had died by their own acts, by the surrender of the righteous claims of their physical life in the struggle to gain a world. Well, was it worth while? Does that bargain pay? Is money of so much matter to any man that he should make himself a suicide for that one end?1 [Note: D. Sage Mackay.]

One summer afternoon a steamer crowded with passengers, many of them miners from California, was speeding along the Mississippi. Striking suddenly and strongly against the wreck of another vessel, which, unknown to the captain, lay near the surface of the water, her bow was stove in, and she began to fill rapidly. Her deck was a scene of wild confusion. Her boats were launched, but did not suffice to carry off one-fourth of the terrified passengers. The rest, divesting themselves of their garments, cast themselves into the river, “some on boards, and some on broken pieces of the ship. And so it came to pass that they escaped all safe to land.” All except one. Some minutes after the last of them had quitted the vessel, another man appeared on her deck. Seizing a spar, he also leaped into the river, but, instead of floating, as the others had done, he sank instantly, as if he had been a stone. His body was afterwards recovered, and it was found that he had employed the quarter of an hour in which his fellow passengers had been striving to save their lives, in rifling the trunks of the miners. All round his waist their bags of gold were fastened. In one short quarter of an hour he had gained more gold than most men earn in their lifetime.2 [Note: A. C. Price.]

2. The Intellectual Life.—You can see men dying, dying as trees sometimes die, not from the roots but from the top. It is a melancholy sight. Their intellect is dying year by year as they become richer. Fifteen years ago their intellectual interests were vigorous, varied, and active; now they are narrow, monotonous, and languid; their whole strength has gone into the pursuit of wealth, and all their higher intellectual faculties are withering. I do not mean merely that very much of the book knowledge that they had when they left school or college has been lost—loss of that kind is almost inevitable, and no great harm comes of it. I remember hearing a very able man, who was a high wrangler (I am not sure whether he was not a senior), I remember hearing him say, “I should be very sorry if I remembered all the mathematics I knew when I took my degree.” But men not only lose their book knowledge, they lose their very intellectual life. Through this passionate devotion to business some of the intellectual powers decay, and you can see them decaying, and that, I say, is a melancholy thing; they keep their eyesight, their hearing is as keen as ever; but their higher faculties are fast going; they are no longer able to feel the enchantment, the fascination, the wonder of the great creations of genius—Milton’s majestic song, the meditative verse of Wordsworth, the sweet music of Shelley, the storm winds that sweep through the verse of Byron, the childlike charm of Charles Lamb, the political vision of Edmund Burke and the gorgeous pomp of his rhetoric—have lost all power to console, to charm, to animate them.1 [Note: R. W. Dale.]

The late George Romanes, one who himself stood in the first rank of scientific knowledge, and who enjoyed a singularly large range of acquaintance among men of light, has put it on record in his posthumous thoughts about religion that he has found it in his own experience true,—and he passed the greater part of his life in unbelief, though, thank God, that unbelief passed into belief at the end—and in that of his friends, that wide knowledge does not make a man happy; for man is personal, he was made for God, “and unquiet is the heart of man until it rests in Thee.”2 [Note: Bishop Gore.]

Only the other day a well-known man told me that some years ago he had sent a copy of his first book, then just published, to a prominent master of finance, a man who, from nothing, had amassed a colossal fortune. Some time after, my friend met this man, who, in congratulating the author, remarked that “he should feel particularly flattered by the fact that he had read the book at all.” “Why so?” inquired my friend. “Because,” replied the millionaire, “it is the only book of any kind I have read in five years!”1 [Note: D. Sage Mackay.]

3. The Moral and Social Life.—The records of recent days, involving the downfall of so many men high up in public estimation, have revealed, as with flaming fingers, how possible it is in these days to secure reputation and wealth and influence at the expense of integrity and honour. In the fierce struggle for wealth men have deliberately trampled their principles, and in gaining a world they have forfeited their moral ideals.

And what is true of the moral life of the individual is not less true of the social life. There is the steady effort which the capitalists in England are now making for mastery; there is the effort which labour is making against the capitalists. It is not my business here to approve or to blame either section, but it is my business to say that if either side, during the strife, or after the victory, lose their soul—if they lose the sense of justice between man and man; if they forget that men, being God’s children, are brothers one of another, knit together by love; if in victory, they are greedy of self-interest or cruel; if they do wrong to freedom, if they are not magnanimous, if they become incapable of forgiveness—there will be no true advantage to themselves in their success, and they will do harm to mankind.2 [Note: Stopford Brooke.]

There was one living who, scarcely in a figure, might be said to have the whole world. The Roman Emperor Tiberius was at that moment infinitely the most powerful of living men, the absolute, undisputed, deified ruler of all that was fairest and richest in the kingdoms of the earth. There was no control to his power, no limit to his wealth, no restraint upon his pleasures. And, to yield himself still more unreservedly to the boundless self-gratification of a voluptuous luxury, not long after this time he chose for himself a home on one of the loveliest spots on the earth’s surface, under the shadow of the slumbering volcano, upon an enchanting islet in one of the most softly delicious climates of the world. What came of it all? He was, as Pliny calls him, “tristissimus ut constat hominum,” confessedly the most gloomy of mankind. And there, from this home of his hidden infamies, from this island where on a scale so splendid he had tried the experiment of what happiness can be achieved by pressing the world’s most absolute authority, and the world’s guiltiest indulgences, into the service of an exclusively selfish life, he wrote to his servile and corrupted Senate, “What to write to you, Conscript Fathers, or how to write, or what not to write, may all the gods and goddesses destroy me worse than I feel that they are daily destroying me, if I know.” Rarely has there been vouchsafed to the world a more overwhelming proof that its richest gifts are but fairy gold that turns to dust and dross, and its most colossal edifices of personal splendour and greatness no more durable barrier against the encroachment of bitter misery than are the babe’s sandheaps to stay the mighty march of the Atlantic tide.1 [Note: Farrar, Life of Christ, i. 136.]

4. The Spiritual Life.—But it is of the diviner regions of life that our Lord was especially thinking. If the signs of failing health, of approaching death, are not hard to recognise in the physical, they are not harder to recognise in the spiritual, sphere. There is less reverence in worship, there is less care for it, there is less heart in it; Christ, the living Christ, is not so constantly present to the thought; there is less of exultation in Him; His glory is gradually becoming dim, and it seems to have descended from the heights, and to have taken its place with no splendours about it among common men. Faith in Christ is less vigorous and intense, and there is less concern that other men should have faith in Him. If a man who was an effective Sunday-school teacher at twenty is only a Bank Director or a Town Councillor at fifty, if he has no spiritual gift and can do no spiritual work, honourable and Christian as his present function is if fulfilled in a spirit of loyalty to Christ, he has suffered loss of life, loss of rank. If, however, with the public functions he still possesses and exercises the spiritual gift, and exercises it faithfully, then it is well with him, his life is fuller and richer than before.2 [Note: R. W. Dale.]

A man must live; we justify

Low shift and trick to treasure high

A little note for a little gold

To a whole senate bought and sold

By that self-evident reply.

But is it so? Pray tell me why

Life at such cost you have to buy?

In what religion were you told

A man must live?

There are times when a man must die.

Imagine, for a battle cry,

For soldiers, for soldiers with a sword to hold—

For soldiers with the flag unrolled—

This coward’s whine, this liar’s lie—

A man must live?

A World for a Life


Askew (E. A.), The Service of Perfect Freedom, 76.

Brooke (S. A.), The Gospel of Joy, 263.

Butler (H. M.), Harrow School Sermons, ii. 259.

Clow (W. M.), The Secret of the Lord, 123.

Finney (C. G.), The Way of Salvation, 48.

Keble (J.), Sermons for the Christian Year: Lent to Passiontide, 115.

Lightfoot (J. B.), Ordination Addresses, 271.

Little (W. J. Knox), The Hope of the Passion, 130.

Mills (B. R. V.), The Marks of the Church, 164.

Mursell (W. A.), The Waggon and the Star, 32.

Neville (W. G.), Sermons, 34.

Price (A. C.), Fifty Sermons, vii. 177.

Ryle (J. C.), The Christian Race, 231.

Spurgeon (C. H.), New Park Street Pulpit, ii., No. 92.

Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), iv., No. 452.

Vaux (J. E.), Sermon Notes, 3rd Ser., 2.

Christian World Pulpit, xv. 30 (Solomon); xviii. 202 (Cuthbertson); xlvii. 161 (Gore); l. 36 (Dale); liii. 252 (Wilkin).

Churchman’s Pulpit (General Advent Season), xiv. 155 (Hobhouse).

Homiletic Review, lvi. 138 (Mackay).

Preacher’s Magazine, [1900] 430 (Brewin).

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