These four verses are packed with rich practical and theological truth, and I hope you get as much enjoyment from them as I did.
12:24 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.
The Necessity of Christ’s Death
It is a sign of His condescension and His gracious self-revelation, that in the mystery of His plans, and the complexity of the moment Christ gives an agrarian example in explaining the necessity of His death. He gives us the “why” in anticipation of our asking the question. He foresees the ultimate triumph, and yet knows our own weaknesses and frailty of mind and graciously shares His mind with us. The example of the seed that dies in the earth and yields fruit is most certainly referring to Christ’s atoning death – a death that yielded life for many.
Jesus knew that in order for His people to be saved, they would need a perfect sacrifice. For without the shedding of blood, there can be no remission for sins (Heb. 9:22), and because we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23), we were under the sentence of death for those sins. We needed a sacrifice – a perfect sacrifice that would cover all of our sins for all time – one of infinite value. Christ came to be that sacrifice: To stand in our place as a substitutionary Savior. It was man who sinned and yet the sin was so great that no man could ever atone for it all. Enter Jesus, the God-man, who was perfect and sinless. He was a perfect man like Adam before Him, only He never sinned, and could therefore represent our race perfectly. Yet He was also God so that He could bear the weight of the burden of sin of millions upon millions of Christians – not simply those who were alive during the time of Jesus, but those who would later believe on His name (John 17): Jesus new that His death would produce life for millions upon millions of his chosen people.
Caiaphas accidentally states this fact at the end of chapters 11, “it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should parish.” John further expanded the reach of the prophecy in 11:52 when he states in an editorial fashion, “not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.”
That one representative should be able to act on behalf of an entire people is deeply rooted in the federalism of Scripture, and the role of kingship. A king would act as the voice for his people. The original regent of God’s creation was Adam, and because he failed to obey God’s rules, his actions represented the race as a whole. Similarly Christ represented His people when he lived a perfect life, and died an atoning death for us on the cross, and then subsequently triumphed over death for us so that we might forever live with Him – not based on our own work, but on His meritorious work. Paul explains the doctrine of this in Romans 5:
But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:15-21)
What is amazing to look at is the choice Jesus made at this moment in history. This was a moment so charged with expectation, so politically tumultuous, so ripe for revolution that if Jesus had followed the course of this world He could have incited a military coup against the Romans and the Jewish leadership (Carson), and ruled as king of Israel. Instead, He set in motion a revolution that far outstripped the expectations of any man or woman watching Him ride into Jerusalem that day. He ushered in a kingdom of life everlasting by a death that was only temporary. He took the road – not less traveled – but never traveled. He did what no human being could do – and frankly what no human being would choose to do (Rom. 5:7).
I am thankful that at this crucial time Jesus chose to die for me, a sinner:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8 ESV)
12:25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
The Imitation of Christ
Verse 25 says that those who love their lives will lose them, and this statement is clarified more by the one that follows it which says that “whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life”, which is to say that those who value their eternal soul more than the temporal things of this earth will save their souls.
Matthew records a similar statement in his gospel narrative as well, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39).
But what does it mean to love or hate the world? Leon Morris explains the words well:
The verb translated “lose” often means “destroy”. John means us to understand that loving the life is a self-defeating process. It destroys the very life it seeks to retain…Jesus is saying that anyone who loves this life is destroying it right now. “Hates”, of course, is not to be taken literally, but “hating the life” is the natural antithesis of loving is. It points to the attitude that sets no store by this life in itself. People whose priorities are right have such an attitude of love for the things of God that all the interest in the affairs of this life appear by comparison as hatred.
This plainly means that while on earth we must not get wrapped up in the things of earth too deeply. I have to admit this is certainly easier said than done. First, there is the death by which we die to our sins by the power of God’s Spirit who breathes new life into us. But we can do nothing to affect this transformational reality of the new birth – that is the work of God. However, once born again, we must lay aside every hindrance and press on toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14). We must put to death those things that so easily entangle us.
This is what the author of Hebrews exhorts us to do:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, (Heb. 12:1)
This is also the antithesis of the thinking of this world. The world focuses on ‘Your Best Life Now’, saving for retirement, getting your kids into the best schools, and making sure you have the biggest house your budget can afford. I’m not saying that all of these things are a bad thing in and of themselves, but that more often than not we assign an energy level toward obtaining the temporal that we refuse to assign to working for what lasts, for the eternal treasures that Jesus talks about in the Sermon on the Mount. And in so doing, we put off till tomorrow what we need to be doing today.
In a recent article entitled, ‘Faith and Repentance’, Sinclair Ferguson addresses the need to die to self:
Jesus’ parable of the sower is instructive here. In one type of soil, the seed sprouts quickly but dies suddenly. This represents “converts” who receive the word with joy—but with no sense of fallow ground being broken up by conviction of sin or any pain in turning from it (Mark 4:5–6, 16–17). On the other hand, a conversion that is only sorrow for sin without any joy in pardon will prove to have been only “worldly grief” that “produces death” (2 Cor. 7:10). In the end, it will come to nothing.
The principle here is simple, in order for us to faithfully follow Christ, we need to die to our selfish ambitions and seek that which is not of this world. A true convert will both die to oneself, and live to the Lord in joy. Listen to the Apostle Paul’s exhortation in his letter to the church at Colossae:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. (Colossians 3:1-6 ESV)
Here Paul shows a heavy emphasis on setting our minds on the things above, and putting to death the sinful passions of this world. The two are closely connected. There’s an old adage that says, in affect, ‘where your mind goes your feet will follow.’ Therefore let us focus on the things of heaven and of God and lay aside our infatuation with video games, movies, TV shows, hobbies and any other thing that has become a distraction from following Christ.
Some people balk at the idea that their favorite hobby is “an idol”, but let me ask you this: is it a distraction from the things of God? Do you spend more time watching movies or building model airplanes or playing video games than you do talking with your wife, or doing family worship, or spending time in the Word and in prayer? If you can answer in the affirmative, then I would urge you to cut out the worthless things, that you die to this world and its passions, and that you follow Christ.
I’m not trying to be a downer, but simply explain that the things of this life are not the supreme joy in this life. The root of our joy must be Christ, and the blessings He gives us must be seen as happy realities of His kindness toward us. But if we replace the temporary blessings with the root of those blessings, then we will fall into despondence when these things are stripped from us by evil people, natural disaster, or other uncontrollable circumstances, we will not be shaken as easily and will keep our testimony despite the difficulty.
Christ also realized the difficulty. He could have had an easier life. He had forever prior to this lived in amazing splendor – a magnificence that no king or billionaire on earth could even imagine. But He took all of this into consideration, and looked forward to a more permanent joy. We looked earlier at Hebrews 12:1, now let us look at the verse following it:
“…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2 ESV)
I know what you’re thinking, “That was Jesus! I’m not Jesus! This is easier said than done my friend!” And I would agree with you! Taking the doctrinal reality that Jesus is our joy, and realizing what that means for how we approach the more tangible reality that my house is getting small for a growing family, my car is breaks down, my neighborhood isn’t safe, and my paycheck prevents us from taking a much needed vacation, isn’t easy. This is hard work. But it’s worth it – if it was worth it for Jesus who had everything, it’s worth it for us who really have nothing very splendid at all.
These are things we all struggle with, and I struggle with particularly. Who doesn’t want a big house? Who doesn’t want a nice car? Who wouldn’t want to see their children succeed and their bank accounts full and their life less troubled by rough patches of sickness and disease. But because life is full of these things, we must grab hold of what is everlasting, and learn to have joy through both blessing and storm, or we will find ourselves shipwrecked and depressed and miss out on a life full of real tangible awesome joy – the fruit of the abundant life that Christ came to give us.