Short Sayings of Jesus

Life out of Death

John 12:24

Teaching t12288


Four weeks ago we began a series entitled “Short Sayings of Jesus.”  Jesus was a master teacher, and He employed many teaching forms (e.g., lecture, Socratic discussion, parables, etc.).  He also uttered short sayings that are easy to memorize and have wide application.  He used two types of short sayings:

Mini-teachings, which briefly develop an important truth.  Jesus frequently utters these in response to a situation/person, or as part of a longer teaching (e.g., LAST WEEK – Matt. 7:3-5). 

Aphorisms, which are short, pithy sayings that express a general truth.  Benjamin Franklin was master of aphorism: “Three may keep a secret if two are dead.”  Many of the Old Testament Proverbs are aphorisms (e.g., Prov. 14:4).  We will consider another one of Jesus’ aphorisms this morning – read Jn. 12:24.

The truth

The truth expressed in this aphorism is what theologians call the “life-out-of-death” principle.  The wheat seed illustrates this principle.  It contains physical life, but this life cannot reproduce unless the seed “dies.”  Only when it goes into the earth and the outer husk decays does the kernel germinate and produce wheat stalks with dozens of other seeds (POPPY SEED & FIELD SLIDES).

But Jesus is not giving a botany mini-lecture.  “Truly, truly, I say to you . . .” is the way Jesus introduced a solemn revelation of spiritual truth (e.g., Jn. 3:3).  Just as a plant must die before it can germinate and multiply, so also death is required before we can have spiritual life and multiply it to others.  Jesus applies this truth in three ways – one in the immediately preceding context, and two more in the immediately following context . . .

Life to us through Jesus’ death

Read 12:20-22.  The setting is that certain Greeks ask to see Jesus.  That they have come to Jerusalem to worship at one of the Jewish feasts shows that they are seeking God.  The fact that they ask to see Jesus shows that they believe that Jesus has access to God and can guide them to God.

You might expect Jesus to answer like Buddha (“Follow the 8-Fold Path”) or like Muhammad (“Observe the 4 Pillars).  Religion presumes that humans have the capacity to earn spiritual life from god or to generate spiritual life from within themselves.  But instead, Jesus says (read 12:23).  At first glance, this sounds self-absorbed and even narcissistic.  Here the Greeks are asking Jesus to help them find God, and Jesus responds by talking about the time has come for God to glorify Him! 

This is where familiarity with John’s gospel is helpful.  Both phrases (“the hour” and “the Son of Man . . . glorified”) refer to Jesus’ imminent crucifixion (read 12:27 & 17:1).  The Bible says that humanity is spiritually dead, separated from God because of our rebellion against Him and because of our violations of His moral character (Eph. 2:1).  Jesus is God’s unique Son, the spiritual life of God incarnate (Jn. 14:6).  He has come to provide access to God’s life to all humanity by dying for our sins, to pay the penalty of God’s judgment in our place.

In light of this, Jesus’ response to the Greeks makes perfect sense.  “You are seeking for spiritual life.  No set of spiritual disciplines that you perform for God can ever generate this life within you.  Access to God’s life requires that I perform something for you – that I voluntarily die for your sins.”

So here is Jesus’ first application of the “life-out-of-death” principle.  Let’s personalize it: “I am cut off from the spiritual life that I was created to possess and enjoy.  Jesus is that spiritual life (a Person, not a principle), and He has come to make His spiritual life freely available to me by dying for my sins (read Jn. 3:16).”  There is only one condition – that I personally entrust myself to Jesus as my Savior and life-Giver.  What good reason is there for not doing this (PASCAL’S WAGER)?

But there is more.  Once we receive spiritual life by entrusting ourselves to Jesus, God’s purpose of our lives is that He transmit His spiritual life both deeper into us and through us to others – to be seeds that bear much fruit.  And for seeds to bear much fruit, they must first die.  This is why in the immediately following context Jesus applies this principle to His disciples.   

Life deeper into us through death to self

Read 12:25.  The present tense, active mood verb (“hates his life”) indicates an ongoing and voluntary choice of “death” for Jesus’ followers that ironically results in “keeping” (phulasso – “guarding”) the spiritual life we have received.  What is this process?

Jesus is not prescribing literal self-hatred (e.g., habitual self-recrimination).  God made us as creatures in His image, and He has adopted believers as His own beloved sons and daughter – are we are commanded to revel in this new and glorious identity.  Nor is He prescribing being a door-mat to others’ abusive or exploitative control.  He taught that loving others involves respectful non-compliance and even discipline when needed.

But He is calling on us to deny our fallen self – that deeply ingrained egotistical desire to exalt ourselves above others, to protect ourselves from discomfort and inconvenience, etc.  We think (and our culture tells us) that gratifying these self-centered desires will make us healthy and fulfilled – but Jesus says that this way is actually the way of death that will cause us to lose forfeit true health and happiness.

Jesus says this same thing slightly differently in Lk. 9:23,24 (read).  Following Him involves daily deaths to self.  “Crucifying self is one of the most basic practices of the Christian life . . . Denying self and taking up the cross are daily practices for the Christian . . . Every day, we are faced with situations in which our wills clash with God’s.  Knowing that our thinking and ways are so different from God’s thinking and ways (Isa. 55:8,9), we should be asking God daily what he wants us to crucify.  Our failure to crucify self in the home (leads) to an unhappy home.”[1]

FAMILY EXAMPLES: venting annoyances at family members’ besetting sins, insensitively demanding sexual gratification, reciprocating nasty words and/or refusing to apologize first in conflicts, complaining about interruptions to comfort plans, refusing to sacrifice career opportunities for the family’s health, bringing up past sins to punish family members, exerting illegitimate control over family members’ decisions.

These daily “deaths” to self are painful at the time – they wound our pride.  But they also ironically lead to greater spiritual life: deepening appreciation of God’s love and grace, deepening experience of God’s Spirit’s empowering us to deny self (Rom. 8:13), deepening alignment with His design for our lives, and deepening fulfillment and even joy.

I don’t know about you – but this is a great ongoing challenge for me!  Which path will I choose today, in this situation – to gratify self and reap increasing spiritual defeat, or to crucify self and reap increasing spiritual life?

Life through us to others through circumstantial “deaths”

Jesus teaches yet another application of this “life-out-of-death” principle (read 12:26).  Jesus was heading into great circumstantial adversity and mistreatment and ultimately to death on the cross.  Yet this was the path not only to honor from the Father, but also to the spread of His life to others.  It will be the same for us.  As we follow Him, our path will take us into circumstantial adversities and mistreatments that we could otherwise avoid.  Yet God mysteriously works through these sufferings to release Christ’s life more potently through us to others.  Paul expounds upon this “life-out-of-death” application in 2 Cor. 4:7-12.

Read 4:7.  Note the same idea of the life trapped inside the husk.  Like a diamond ring inside a peanut butter jar, Christians possess the treasure of God’s life inside our common and fallen bodies.

Read 4:10-12.  Note the principle that for that God’s life to be manifested to and multiplied in others, we must undergo an ongoing divinely-orchestrated process of death.

This death process is described in 4:8,9 (read).  These negative experiences are different from denying self, which we choose.  They come upon us from without as we seek to serve others in the name of Christ.  Consider Paul’s four-fold description of this “death” process:

“Afflicted” – The additional nagging negative circumstances you will need to put up with in order to serve.  For Paul, this involved the hardships and dangers of travel in the first century Roman Empire.  For us, it may involve things like our houses getting messed up because of our hospitality, the load of a busy schedule of fulfilling multiple responsibilities, etc.

“Perplexed” – The confusion and bewilderment you sometimes experience when you follow God.  Where He is leading you, why He isn’t changing you the way or in the timing you thought He would, the doubts and spiritual deserts that sometimes plague you, the good plans and goals that He blocked, etc.

“Persecuted” – The mistreatment and even rejection you will inevitably face because of your allegiance to Christ (e.g., family members who mock accuse you of betraying the family religion and/or materialism; friends who mock you for refusing to party hard with them; academic and/or career colleagues who say you’re wasting your life; uncommitted Christians who say that following Jesus into a changed life is “fanatical;” etc.).

“Struck down” – The unexpected failures and disappointments you will experience in your plans to serve God (e.g., in evangelism, discipleship, ministry projects, etc.).  Paul, the itinerate church-planter, probably initially viewed being imprisoned for four-plus years as being struck down.

Is this “death” process worth it?  You bet it is!  It leads to the experience of God’s sustaining power (the “but not’s” of 4:8,9; read 4:16).  It also leads to the mysterious release of God’s power to impact others in ways we could never have imagined (re-read 4:12; read 4:15) – which is the greatest joy in this life (3 Jn. 1:4).  And all of this is just a foretaste of what we will experience when Jesus rewards us for our service in the next life.  This is worth more than all the suffering we experience along the way!  Listen to David Livingstone, a 19th century missionary in Africa, not long before he died of malaria and dysentery:

“For my own part, I have never ceased to rejoice that God has appointed me to such an office.  People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa.  Can that be called a sacrifice which is simply paid back as a small part of a great debt owing to our God, which we can never repay?  Is that a sacrifice which brings its own reward in healthful activity, the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind, and a bright hope of a glorious destiny hereafter?  Away with such a view, and with such a thought!  It is emphatically no sacrifice.  Say rather it is a privilege.  Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger, now and then, with a foregoing of common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this be only for a moment.  All these are nothing when compared to the glory which shall hereafter be revealed in and for us.  I never made a sacrifice.”[2]




[1] Ajith Fernando, The Family Life of a Christian Leader (Crossway, 2016), p. 32.  Examples are on pp. 33-37.

[2] David Livingstone, quoted in Winter & Hawthorne, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement (William Carey Library, 1982), p. 259.