That passage. You know, the one that you read when you were younger, or a preacher pounded the pulpit while his words were pounded into your heart. Many of us have a few of those which trip us up, instill fear, and limit our experience of the goodness of God. I actually love to find those passages now, because I know that context and history always shed a different light on them, and light always drives out darkness.
If you are old enough to remember the rapture movies with the threat of guillotines unless they denied Christ, then you have probably been etched with fear. If you deny him, he will deny your access to heaven and you will be lost forever. That gets applied to things like, "if you don't stand up for Jesus, and instead you are ashamed of him, he will say he never knew you and you lose your salvation and go to hell!" I bet you've heard something like that. Right? Well... that really isn't what those passages were trying to communicate. In fact, they have nothing to do with going to heaven at all.
One of those passages is Mark 8:35-38
35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
Be Brave for Christ or Go to Hell?
In order to understand this passage, lets look first at the context and timing of when this event was going to occur.
First of all, he is speaking to a very specific generation. He says, "...THIS adulterous and sinful generation..." That alone disqualifies the application of this passage to any generation beyond the one that Jesus was living in 2000 years ago.
It was THIS generation that Jesus said would be the most demonized generation ever after he cleaned and swept the house, but because they didn't fill the house with truth and receive the kingdom it would be worse than when he was there. Matthew 12:45, "Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is WORSE than the first. So shall it also be with THIS wicked generation.”
First he says to the Scribes and Pharisees that a judgment was coming on them, and then said in Matthew 23:36, "Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon THIS generation." After the disciples ask WHEN these things would happen and what the signs would be, Jesus explains and teaches them and ends by saying in Matthew 24:34, "Assuredly, I say to you, THIS generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place."
But there is even more clear evidence of WHEN this would happen. Not only does Jesus say it would happen in the generation that he was living in, he gave us some more clues. He said it would be WHEN he comes in the glory of his Father with his angels. Now look at Matthew 16:27-28, "For the son of man will come in the glory of his Father with his angels and reward each man according to his deeds. Assuredly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." Same thing right? It had to be an event that happened while some of those disciples were still alive.
Notice in Mark 9:1, same context he says, And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” This is the parallel context to Matthew 16:27-28. So here he says some of those disciples will still be alive and be able to LOOK BACK and see that the kingdom had COME.
By the way, the coming on clouds motif is found throughout scripture as judgment on a city-state. For instance:
See, the LORD RIDES ON A SWIFT CLOUD AND IS COMING to Egypt. The idols of Egypt tremble before him, and the hearts of the Egyptians melt with fear (Isaiah 19: 1).
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming. It is close at hand— a day of darkness and gloom, A DAY OF CLOUDS and blackness. Like dawn spreading across the mountains a large and mighty army comes, such as never was in ancient times nor ever will be in ages to come (Joel 2: 1-2).
The great day of the LORD is near— near and coming quickly. The cry on the day of the LORD is bitter; the Mighty Warrior shouts his battle cry. That day will be a day of wrath— a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day OF CLOUDS and blackness (Zephaniah 1: 14-15).
The LORD is slow to anger but great in power; the LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished. His way is in the whirlwind and the storm, and CLOUDS ARE THE DUST OF HIS FEET (Nahum 1: 3).
Let's look in the same gospel of Mark at what Jesus said TO THE HIGH PRIEST...in HIS GENERATION, that same WICKED generation:
Mark 14:61-63, "But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer.Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” “I am,” said Jesus. “And YOU (PRIESTS) will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF HEAVEN.” The high priest tore his clothes. “Why do we need any more witnesses?” he asked.
So who was it that was ashamed of Jesus and his words? Who was it that was going to deny that they knew him? It was the religious elite and those who followed them.
Jesus is saying the same thing in Matthew 10:32-34, “Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven."
In particular, Jesus wasn't eternally disowning anybody... but he WAS NOT taking OWNERSHIP of the LAW system nor would he acknowledge their faith in that Law. He was separating the sheep (Jewish believers) from the goats (Jewish apostate unbelievers). He denied that he was aligned with that Law covenant and he refused to accept IT. The entire system was destroyed including temple, priesthood system, etc.
What Was it to Lose The Soul?
So what does this mean? "For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?"
The word for "life" is also used for "soul", but not in every context. In Matthew 2:20 the same word is used, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s LIFE are dead.” They weren't seeking to kill Jesus' soul, but literally kill him. Yet in Matthew 11:29 he uses it to mean the inner life saying, "Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."
So which is it? Both.
It is a play on words. Whoever wants to save their physical life (by not trusting in Jesus' words) will lose their soul (their dreams, emotions, their hopes of religious Jewish nationalism based on the Law). But whoever loses their soul, (their their dreams, emotions, their hopes of religious Jewish nationalism based on the Law) for the sake of Jesus and the gospel will save it (physical and emotional inner life).
This is confirmed by the way that Jesus uses the word ashamed here as an internal soul experience. He says the ones who are ashamed are the same ones who forfeit their soul (the inner life, dreams and plans). Notice the Greek definition of ashamed:
1870 epaisxýnomai (from epi, "on, fitting" intensifying 153/aisxynō, "disgrace") – properly, disgraced, like someone "singled out" because they misplaced their confidence or support ("believed the big lie"); to be ashamed (personally humiliated).
In sum, 1870/epaisxynomai ("dishonor") refers to being disgraced, bringing on "fitting" shame that matches the error of wrongly identifying (aligning) with something.
They had to be willing to give up the "world" with its hopes and dreams. “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written.” (Luke 21:20-22, NIV)
So when the Romans came in AD 66 in siege against the city, believers are the ones who trusted Christ, and left their houses, and lands, and mothers and fathers, for the sake of Jesus and the gospel. They gave up their "world". That is why Jesus said about THEIR WORLD, in Matthew 19:29-30, "And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit [aionios-age enduring] life."
So this passage is all about trusting Christ and fleeing the city when the Romans arrived. It was about the "coming of the Lord" in the city judgment of Jerusalem. It was about giving up their soulish dreams about their world as a Jewish religious Law system, and exchanging it for good news. It is not about a future event.
Can we apply that on a micro-level? Yes, of course. But it is more about us giving up our dreams of legalistic religion so that Christ can continually give us more revelation. It is a lesson about trusting the leadership of God in our lives. But it is not about God eternally denying you access to heaven.
Of course we need to grow in boldness and courage... Paul even asked if the church would pray that he be more bold. But let's not confuse that, with the meaning of this passage.
Don't forget... Peter denied Jesus three times. Jesus did what needed to be done to restore his heart, three times. Jesus prays over you, the same thing he prayed for Peter, "Peter, I've prayed for you that your faith fail not." Then he set about to make sure it ultimately didn't.