“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” — John 20:24
As Easter approaches, our thoughts often turn to the happy events of Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey while adoring followers paved the path with their cloaks.
The disciples were so enthused by the popularity of their movement that they hardly noticed how Jesus was weeping over the failure of the people to understand what his mission was all about.
Encouraging signs(vv. 20-22)
Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem stirred all sorts of excitement, and shortly after they entered the city, a group of Greek people who worshipped the God of Israel let it be known that they wanted to see Jesus and learn more about him. They told this to Philip, whose name is Greek and who came from the Hellenistic city of Bethsaida. Philip took the message to Andrew, who was famous for introducing people to the teacher, and together they approached Jesus with the good news.
Greeks were not easily impressed, and the disciples saw their interest as an exciting turn of events. The Jesus movement was growing in popularity! They could use a broader base of support. Opposition to Jesus was growing rapidly among the Jewish leaders, and there were dark rumors that they intended to do him harm.
Maybe this was just what they needed: By going to the Greeks, Jesus could avoid the dangers of Jerusalem and widen his sphere of influence at the same time. Philip and Andrew would certainly have been smiling when they approached Jesus to arrange a meeting with the Greeks.
Surprising words(vv. 23-26)
Like the disciples, we would have expected a happy response from Jesus. But did the Lord say “Well done, good and faithful servants”? Did he say “Thanks, boys. I can’t wait to meet them!”?
He did not. According to John, Jesus said: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, 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.”
It’s not hard to imagine the puzzled expression on the disciples’ faces, or the questions they may have mumbled to each other: “What’s up with that? We talk about growth, and he talks about death … We talk about opening up to the world, and he talks about turning away … We talk about live prospects, and he talks about dead wheat.”
Jesus’ response may seem strange to us, too. Can we understand this interchange any better than his disciples?
The surface meaning of what Jesus said is fairly obvious. To have more wheat for tomorrow, you have to sacrifice some of the wheat you have today. This was a familiar reality in an early agrarian society where people couldn’t just go down to the farm supply store to buy the latest hybrid strain of wheat for their planting needs.
Instead, when harvesting the crop, smart farmers would keep back part of it to use as seed for the next planting. If possible, they would also keep back a reserve supply in case that crop failed, or the next one.
Every planting was a risk. Birds might eat some of the scattered grains. Rain might fail, or fall too heavily. The wheat might produce a bumper crop – but the planter has to give up the seed before he knows.
That made sense. The disciples understood that. But what did that have to do with whether Jesus should be excited about meeting potential Greek converts? What was wrong with showing a little optimism about the interest these people had shown?
Evidently, Jesus knew that his disciples were still thinking short term. They called him “Lord.” They believed he was the Messiah. But they still expected him to set up an earthly rule, to conquer Rome, and to usher in the kingdom.
For the disciples, the addition of fresh troops with Greek influence would be a sign of progress.
For Jesus, it was a temptation, because he could have gone that route. He had the power. He had the charisma. He could have ruled the world and saved his own skin in the process. But that was not what we needed most, and Jesus knew it.
Troubled spirits(vv. 27-33)
The disciples weren’t the only ones feeling uneasy, for Jesus admitted that his own soul was troubled (v. 27). He knew what lay ahead: he would have to choose whether to face the hard and painful realities of a cruel death, or to bail out.
When he prayed “Father, glorify your name” (v. 28), it was as if he were asking for the needed strength to stay the path. Jesus knew he had come to save all people from eternal death, not just to save some people from Roman domination.
That’s what the talk about driving out “the ruler of this world” and being lifted up to “draw all people to myself” was about (vv. 29-33). And in order to accomplish that goal, Jesus had to look down the long road, knowing that death lay ahead, but was not the end.
Somehow, in God’s wisdom, for the church to be birthed, for Christians to be reborn, for the kingdom of God to sprout and take root on the earth, Jesus had to die. In that light, v. 24 begins to make more sense: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
As Jesus came into Jerusalem during the last week of his earthly life, recruiting potential Greek followers was not as important as committing himself to the road ahead.
As he did so, Jesus wanted his disciples to understand that the story did not end with his death. For his mission to be fully accomplished, for the church to grow, for the world to be reached, Jesus’ disciples would have to follow him down the same path. That’s why he had told them “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (v. 25).
Here we come to the core of the gospel and the central reason we observe the Lenten season: we must learn to die if we want to truly live. And John is not alone in telling us this. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Jesus saying “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:39, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24). Paul reflected that reality when he said “I die every day” (1 Cor. 15:31a).
We must die to our old way of living if we are to find a new way of living, and give up our old way of dying in order to discover a new way of dying – and living again.
We can lose ourselves in ourselves, and be lost to the world or we can allow ourselves to be constantly reborn by faith in Christ through the realities of life, and in doing so become new and stronger and somehow more holy because of our experience.
Jesus called on those who would follow him to throw themselves into the cosmic ground like wheat and to be willing to let themselves die, believing that a new and more productive life would follow. The servant follows the pattern of sacrifice that has been set by the master: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also” (v. 26a).
Our word “sacrifice” comes from a Latin root that means something like “to make sacred by setting apart.” Sacrifice is not a dollar here and a volunteer hour there. To sacrifice is to give up anything that rivals our relationship with Jesus, and not just during Lent.
Consider this story, from Tales of a Magic Monastery (1981). Recalling the day when he first tried to surrender to God completely, Theophane the Monk wrote: “I had just one desire – to give myself completely to God. So I headed for the monastery. An old monk asked me, ‘What is it you want?’ I said, ‘I just want to give myself to God.’ I expected him to be gentle, fatherly, but he shouted at me. ‘Now!’ I was stunned. He shouted again, ‘Now!’ Then he reached for a club and came after me. I turned and ran. He kept coming after me, brandishing his club and shouting, ‘Now, Now!’ That was years ago. He still follows me, wherever I go. Always that stick, always that ‘Now!’”
God does not chase us with a stick, but God does pursue us – now. God does call us – now. If you would follow me, Jesus says, you must go where I go. You must walk where I walk. You must give as I give. You must be with me where I am.
And where is Jesus? Some popular writers suggest that we must “find out where God is working” (defined largely as where evangelism is bearing fruit and church planting is easy) and to focus our efforts there, but the Bible does not teach that God’s work is limited to those places where ministry yields quick results.
Rather, if we listen to what Jesus has to say in places such as Matthew 25, we come to understand that Jesus is present and at work where children are hurting, where parents are searching, where people are losing themselves to the broad way of destruction.
Jesus is present in the lowest depths of human misery and the highest reaches of eternal glory. Today he calls us to take with us our scars and go with him into the pain of a hurting world. One day he will call us to come with him into the joy of eternal life, remembering his promise: “My Father will honor the one who serves me” (v. 26b). BT
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