Paradox abounds in the gospel accounts. There is no more central paradox than this: that to truly live one must first die. Jesus presents this life through death paradox not only as symbolic of the his own death and resurrection but as the normative pattern for all who would follow him.
And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” John 12.23-25
The scene of this particular text is the Passover feast at which both Jews and, in this instance, Gentiles gather. Verse 20 reads, “Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks (or Gentiles).” And these Greeks, or Gentiles, come to Philip and ask to see Jesus. So Philip grabs Andrew and then they together go and tell Jesus. It’s an odd sequence of events, especially given that Jesus never directly acknowledges or addresses these Gentiles in later verses. They simply disappear into the background of the narrative after having appeared on stage to deliver their single line. But what unfolds in the verses that follow demonstrate that this passage lies at the threshold of a dramatic shift in John’s gospel.
The indication that something has dramatically shifted is noted at the beginning of verse 23. “The hour has come.” Until now, “the hour” in John’s gospel has always been future. “My hour has not yet come” (John 2.4). “They were seeking to arrest him but no one laid a hand on hm because his hour had not yet come” (John 7.30). Now, the hour present. It has arrived. “The hour has come.” But what is the hour? Answering this question will lead us to discover three things. One, God is moving history to accomplish his purpose. Two, God’s purpose is to draw all peoples to his Son, Jesus. And three, God accomplishes his purpose to draw all people to Jesus by means of the willful death of Jesus.
The whole of verse 23 gives us the answer to the question at hand. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” In short, as Carson notes, “the ‘hour’ is nothing less than the appointed time for Jesus’ death, resurrection and exaltation—in short, his glorification.” This brings to mind Eisenhower’s letter to the Allied forces before D-Day: “You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months.” The climax of the narrative has arrived. The crescendo of the symphony is beginning. The eternal plan of God, designed before the foundation of the world, in motion since creation, sustained down through faithless generations, maintained against every threat of sin and evil, to crucify the incarnate Son for the redemption of sinners is upon us in John 12. God has and God will accomplish his purpose.
At the heart of the death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus is a loving and holy ambition to gather a people from among all the peoples into the kingdom of God.
It should be curious to us that this hour, indeed the hour, arrives in such a scene as this one. Gentiles come to the Passover feast, clearly an overtly Jewish event, and they want to see Jesus. And it is Jesus’ response to say, “The hour has come.” For all the build up throughout history, for all the anticipation of this momentous and glorious hour, it comes at last in John’s gospel when these Gentiles come seeking Jesus. In a twist of irony, it is the Pharisees whose rejection of Jesus leads them to ironically exaggerate in verse 19: “Look, the world has gone after him.” And then these Gentiles, the “world” in a sense, come wanting to see Jesus. John is helping us to see in this seemingly odd and insignificant text that at the heart of the gospel is God’s heart for the nations. At the heart of the death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus is a loving and holy ambition to gather a people from among all the peoples into the kingdom of God. God’s purpose is to draw all people to Jesus.
It is the way that God ultimately accomplishes this purpose that should astound us. The drawing of all peoples, all nations, to Jesus is made possible by the willful death of Jesus. The life of the nations will be made possible through the death of the incarnate Son. To make this point, Jesus uses the imagery of a grain of wheat that falls to the ground, dying to bring forth a rich harvest. “Truly, truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Jesus was a master of telling terrestrial and agrarian story to help illume the realities of the kingdom! It is only through the death of the seed that the harvest will come. No death. No harvest. No falling to the ground and dying. No new life. The seed may live, but it will live alone. So is it not amazing that the seed who dies is the eternal One? And he does so willingly! “No one takes my life from me. I lay it down on my own accord” Jesus declares in John 10.18. And he does not lay it down begrudgingly but in willful obedience to the Father who so loved the world. The Father so loved the world to give the Son, and the Son so loved the Father to lay down his life that the world might get swept up into this drama of eternal, divine love.
So we see in the opening parts of this passage, verses 23 & 24, that God, in infinite wisdom and eternal goodness and perfect power, has moved all of history to accomplish his purpose to draw all peoples to Jesus through the willful death of Jesus. And this should be for us wonder upon wonder.
It is inconceivable, then, that those who would wish to follow Jesus would do so while holding dear to life in this world.
Yet this passage is not simply about the means by which God accomplishes our salvation and gives life to the world. In the following verses, verses 25 & 26, Jesus applies the life through death motif as the normative pattern for all who would follow him.
Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.
The clear inference here is that to love our life in this world is to hate God. This was not true for Jesus who so loved God that he counted his own life as completely and utterly expendable for God’s purpose. Therefore, it must not and cannot be true of those who would follow him. Instead, like Jesus, those who would follow him must count their own life as expendable. Carson calls this “the mandated death of Jesus’ followers.” Similarly, Bonhoeffer’s famous words: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” It is inconceivable, then, that those who would wish to follow Jesus would do so while holding dear to life in this world. To again quote Carson: “The person who loves his life will lose it: it could not be otherwise, for to love one’s life is a fundamental denial of God’s sovereignty, of God’s rights, and a brazen elevation of self to the [pinnacle] of one’s perception, and therefore an idolatrous focus on self, which is the heart of all sin.”
As we bury our life in the ground of our marriage, of our children, of our work, of our neighborhood, of our work, we trust that the Lord of the harvest will reap a harvest of faith.
If we are to follow Christ, we are to be nothing. All that we are, all that we hope to be, all of our dreams, all of our ambitions, all of our comforts, all of our visions of success, everything, counted only as seed, useful only if it falls into the earth and dies. It is only through dying that we live. “Whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” But not us alone. We trust that our death will, like Christ, produce a harvest of new life. As we bury our life in the ground of our marriage, of our children, of our work, of our neighborhood, of our work, we trust that the Lord of the harvest will reap a harvest of faith. And as it was for Christ, this life through death, will win for us a great and imperishable reward. If we are “with Christ” in death on the cross then we will be “with Christ” in receiving honor and exaltation from the Father who will say to all those who lose their life, “Come and enter your Master’s joy.”