When we lived in Ireland with Douglas and Merrie Gresham, they had growing on their property a kind of tree I had not seen before; it was a horse chestnut tree. One autumn day after many of the horse chestnuts had fallen from the tree, Doug picked one of them up off the ground and told us how he used to play a game in school called conkers. English school boys would take the green outer shell off and inside would be the dark brown chestnut. Then they would pierce a hole in the middle of the chestnut, thread a piece of string through, and knot it on the end. Next, the game of conkers would actually begin, where a boy would swing his horse chestnut in the air until it hit another boy’s horse chestnut and smash it to pieces. Of course, that is not what a horse chestnut was created by God to do. It was created by God to be planted in the ground so another horse chestnut tree would grow from that seed.
In our passage for today, we will hear Jesus talking about a seed going into the ground and dying so that it can produce other seeds. However, as we will also see, the Jews were expecting to do something different with that seed.
Let's read what Jesus has to say in John 12:23-26….
The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.The Hour Has Come
The passage immediately preceding this one is all about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and some Greeks approaching the disciple Philip wanting to see Jesus. Up to this point in the Gospel of John, we have heard Jesus, or John say about Jesus, that his hour had not yet come. However, now, in response to the Greeks seeking to see him, Jesus says: “The hour has come.” Why is Jesus saying this in response to the Greeks? Perhaps the fullest answer is given in verse 32 where Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
N. T. Wright explains,
In other words, if the Greeks want to see him, want to benefit fully from what he has been sent into the world to do, his proper response is to carry on and complete the work the father has given him. Only by this strange vocation will the non-Jewish world, the world of ‘Greeks’… come to gain the truest and deepest access to him that God intended. They wouldn’t just ‘see’ him, as they’d asked; they would ‘come to’ him, in the sense of being drawn by the powerful love of God, drawn into fellowship and new life.For The Son of Man to be Glorified
Thus, Jesus talks about the hour for the Son of Man to be glorified. However, we must understand that this statement would have conjured up a different picture in the mind of Jesus’ Jewish audience than what he goes on to describe. For the Jews, the Son of Man was this mysterious figure from Daniel 7. As William Barclay once wrote, “To the Jews the Son of Man stood for the undefeatable world conqueror sent by God.” When Jesus talked about the hour for the Son of Man to be glorified, his Jewish audience would have pictured God’s champion wiping out their enemies—the Romans. However, Jesus draws a different picture of what the Son of Man is going to do, how he is going to be glorified. The Jews want to play conkers with their horse chestnut and wipe out their enemies. Jesus, the horse chestnut if you will, is going like a seed into the ground to die, but that death will produce other seeds.
William Barclay says,
The first sentence which Jesus spoke would excite the hearts of those who heard it; then began a succession of sayings which must have left them staggered and bewildered by their sheer incredibility, for they spoke, not in terms of conquest, but in terms of sacrifice and death. We will never understand Jesus nor the attitude of the Jews to him, until we understand how he turned their ideas upside down, replacing a dream of conquest with a vision of a Cross. No wonder they did not understand him; the tragedy is that they refused to try.Jesus states a Great Principle
After stating that the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified, Jesus states a great principle. He says, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
The principle is: only by death comes life. Jesus illustrates this principle by talking about a kernel of wheat. If you don’t plant the kernel of wheat in the ground, it will remain by itself. The irony is that the kernel of wheat that is not planted really does die. However, the kernel of wheat that seems to die by going into the ground actually produces more life, more seeds, and more grain.
We can see this principle worked out in many areas of life. The worker who only works to earn a paycheck and cares nothing for the person or organization he or she is working for, does not produce very much. On the other hand, the person who really gives himself or herself to their work, is enthusiastic about it, wants to do a good job, tries to develop teamwork with his or her co-workers, that person is eventually going to produce a lot.
Another illustration would be in the home. The parent who is self-centered and doesn’t really care for his or her child is going to produce an unhealthy child in some way. However, the parent who sacrifices for their child, maybe even giving up some of his or her dreams so that the child can succeed, that parent is going to produce a fine human being with God’s help.
This great principle, that is true in agriculture, business and the home, is also true in the spiritual arena. It is only when we say no to our self-centered desires that we become capable of saying yes to God. This is what Paul was talking about when he said in Galatians 2:20,
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.Jesus demonstrated this principle by dying for us on the cross that we might receive new life.
A Personal Application
Jesus was not simply content to annunciate a great principle; he also applies it to our everyday lives. He says, “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
Thus, the application of the great principle is that: only by spending life do we retain it.
The first word for life that is used here is ψυχην, from which we get our word psyche. It means the soul. Literally, it means breath and so refers to the principal of animal life. It often is translated as soul, and so means the immaterial life of human beings, the seat of religious and moral sentiment and feeling, the inner self.
William Barclay says,
The man who loves his life is moved by two aims, by selfishness and by the desire for security. Not once or twice but many times Jesus insisted that the man who hoarded his life must in the end lose it.Jesus is saying that the independent will of human beings must die. Every follower of Christ must actively submit his or her will to the Lord.
That’s where the second word for life in this passage comes in: ζωην. Zoe when joined to the adjective eternal refers to the divine life. Every Christian has this divine life. However, we begin to have it in its fullness only when we surrender our entire soul, our likes and our dislikes, to Christ.
George Mueller lived many years ago in England and founded a number of orphanages. He decided he would never ask for money to support the work but pray about it instead. God provided for George Mueller and his work in both ordinary and miraculous ways on many occasions. When he was asked the secret of his effective service, George Mueller said,
There was a day when I died—died to George Mueller, his opinions, preferences, tastes and will; died to the world, its approval or censure; died to the approval or blame of my brethren or friends; and since then I have studied only to show myself approved unto God.To lose your life for Christ does not mean that you have to start orphanages like George Mueller did. However, I think it does mean that we must be willing to do whatever Jesus wants us to do and go wherever he wants us to go. I don’t believe that doing and that going will be a gloomy affair. It is often exciting when you know you are in the center of God’s will. Even Jesus was able to endure the pain of the cross “for the joy set before him” (Hebrews 12:2).
Furthermore, I think it is important to remember that losing one’s life for Christ doesn’t happen all at once. Like my friend Tim Hansel, who struggled with chronic pain for most of his life, once said: “Crucifixion is a slow death.” Losing one’s life for Christ is a process.
A Pointed Invitation
Thus, Jesus has given us a great principle and a personal application. Now, he gives us a pointed invitation: “Whoever serves me must follow me.”
How are we to follow Jesus today? Many people say, “If only I could have been around in Jesus’ time, seen him and heard him, then I would believe, then I would follow him.” To these people it seems difficult, if not impossible, to follow Jesus today. Well, to be honest, it is difficult. In fact, it is impossible to follow Jesus on our own power. We can only do it when empowered by the Holy Spirit. However, we still must ask and answer: how do we follow him today?
First, Jesus talks elsewhere about taking up our cross and following him. Sometimes we think we have to look for a cross to take up. However, very often, that cross is often given to us. Perhaps it is some disability, or wound that we did not choose for ourselves, but we have to learn how to bear it, day by day for Jesus, and turn our scars into stars for him. That is not easy. Learning how to bear our own cross and follow Jesus is a lifelong process.
Secondly, we can follow Jesus in service. You may ask, “How do I serve him when he is not physically here today?” Jesus has given us the answer. In Matthew 25:40 he said, “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me.” Are we feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and those in prison? If so, we are serving Jesus.
Thirdly, we can follow Jesus in holiness. Holiness means being set apart for the Father’s service. Jesus’ life was completely set apart for the Father’s service. I believe holiness requires “wholiness”. We must seek to become whole, integrated people. So often, we live compartmentalized lives. On Sunday, we are one kind of person and perhaps the rest of the week we are different. The Lord wants us to become whole people. Because we are not yet whole, this requires healing. Again, it is a process, but the end goal for which we should be striving is “wholeness”.
A fourth way I think we can serve Jesus is through faithfulness to his teaching. I believe the teaching of Jesus ought to shape who we are and everything we do. Meditating on this teaching and seeking to put it into practice ought to be the daily occupation of our lives. This often involves getting back to basics. Charles Spurgeon once said, “Proud man has a desire to preach new doctrine, to set up a new Church; to be an original thinker, to judge, and consider, and do anything but obey.”
Two Incentives to Follow
Finally, Jesus gives us two incentives, two motivations, to follow him. These two incentives come in the form of two promises. The first promise is that Jesus will be with anyone who follows him. Jesus says, “Where I am, my servant also will be.” We can turn that around and say, “Where his servant is, there Jesus will be.” At the end of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus promises his disciples, “Lo, I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.” We can be sure that wherever we go on this earth serving Christ, he is there with us.
In 1985, when I left my home, and all my friends and family in California, to attend seminary in Princeton, New Jersey, a place I had never so much as visited before, it was a very lonely experience at first. However, as I drove across country I came to some place in Oklahoma where there was a billboard. I don’t remember the name of the town, but in effect the sign said, “Jesus is Lord of Podunk, Oklahoma.” That billboard message brought me great encouragement and reminded me that Jesus was with me all the way along my journey. He will be with you all the way along your journey as well.
However, not only will he be with us along our earthly journey, I think Jesus' statement implies something else. As he spoke this, he was about to go and be with his heavenly Father. James Boice says, “It means that if we are with Jesus here, identifying with him in his suffering and sorrow, we will also be with him in glory.” It is like Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:11, “If we died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him.”
This leads to the second incentive, or promise, that Jesus gives us to serve him. He says, “My Father will honor the one who serves me.” In other words, by service comes true greatness.
There was a woman named Mrs. Berwick who had been very active in Salvation Army work in Liverpool. She retired to London. Then the Second World War started and along with it came the air raids. People got some superstitious ideas about Mrs. Berwick’s house, I guess because a bomb never hit it. Thus, people started thinking her house was especially safe. By this time, Mrs. Berwick was rather old, but she thought she ought to continue serving somehow. Therefore, she put together a simple first aid kit and put a sign on her door: “If you need help, knock here.”
Wow! I think people like that, some people we have never heard of, will be the first in line in heaven to receive their honors from the Lord because they served him well and faithfully here on earth.
A student was once asked by his teacher, “What parts of speech are my and mine?” Of course, the correct answer is “possessive pronouns”. However, the student answered, more truly than he realized, “My and mine are aggressive pronouns.”
Some people use those aggressive pronouns quite a lot. They think the goal of life is to pronounce my and mine over as many people, places and things as they can. What they don’t realize is that the greatest power in life comes to those who give up their lives for Jesus Christ and learn to say about every person, place or thing: “Thy and thine”.
Jesus presented to the people of his day a new outlook on life. The people of his place and time, much like those of our own place and time, looked on glory as conquest. They were out to play conkers with everyone around and smash everyone else’s horse chestnuts to pieces. However, Jesus’ message was: “Bury that seed in the ground and it will produce so much more.” The question is: Will we dare to follow Jesus in his counter-cultural way of life? Instead of playing conkers, will we plant seeds of new life?