A paradox is a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement which upon further investigation is deemed to be true. The Bible is full of paradoxes (2 Cor 12:10, James 4:10) and Jesus often spoke in paradoxical language (Matt 23:11, Mark 9:35). He spoke in shocking language in order to emphasize the most important truths regarding spiritual things. The teaching method was designed by Jesus to stir the heart and the mind causing His listeners to think deeply and soberly and to give them an image that is not easily forgotten.
The Seed Principle: Death Precedes Life
Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” It shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus uses this agricultural image which would have been well known in a predominantly agrarian culture. Not only Jesus but the New Testament authors used the “seed” imagery many times (1 Cor 15:36-38, Mk 4:3-9, Mat 13:24-30).
Jesus oftentime began his most solemn teaching with the phrase, “truly, truly, I say to you” (Jn 1:51, 3:3,5,11, 5:19, 6:26, 14:12). This phrase indicated that the teaching of Jesus was of vital importance. And the important truth Jesus taught was modeled by the seed, namely that death is the necessary condition for the generation of life. Every seed planted in the ground must undergo decay in order to give birth to a plant. When a seed dies in the ground its shell is opened and new life comes forth producing many more seeds. It is amazing that a whole forest is wrapped up in one single seed. When the seed dies, it produces a tree, and the tree produces more seeds and more trees.
The First Seed to Die: Jesus on the Cross
This seed analogy was first applied to the Savior Himself. In this particular passage Jesus was teaching a group of Gentile Greeks who had traveled to Jerusalem to “see Jesus” (Jn 12:22) and to learn from Him. Jesus taught them that, “The hour [had] come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” It is possible that they had thought, like most Jews, that Jesus was going to be a physical deliverer and bring back Israel to a glorious state and particularly raise up a Kingdom on earth. But Jesus directly tells them that he came to be glorified and that glorification involved death, not coronation. The hour had finally arrived for Jesus to undergo death that would provide the necessary condition for the generation of life. J. C. Ryle explains it clearly,
“This sentence was primarily meant to teach the wondering Greeks the true nature of the Messiah’s kingdom… Our Lord would have them know that He came to carry a cross, and not to wear a crown. He came not to live a life of honour, ease, and magnificence, but to die a shameful and dishonoured death. The kingdom He came to set up was to begin with a crucifixion, and not with a coronation. Its glory was to take its rise not from victories won by the sword, and from accumulated treasure of gold and silver, but from the death of its King,” (J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: John, 3 vols. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1999, 2:376)
And indeed, Jesus did go to the cross and die. And as a result, He was the “first fruit” of a great harvest (1 Cor 15:20). He died and was buried and then rose again! And all who follow Him will be His harvest, and the “much fruit” that He will bear!
Other Seeds Must Die: His Followers
Not only was Jesus to die, but His followers must also die. Shockingly Jesus says, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (v. 25). Jesus actually uses two different forms of “life” here which helps us
distinguish what He is trying to teach. Those who love their psuche (life) in this world will forfeit eternal zoe (life) in the next world. Psuche refers to the human personality that thinks and plans for the future. This is what Jesus says must die. “The independent will of man must die, so that the follower of Christ actively submits his will to Christ” (James Boice, The Gospel of John, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1985, 817). Unbelievers love their life to the point where they are unwilling to turn it over to another master. This kind of love of self is ultimate idolatry. But true believers in Christ are willing to “take up their cross daily” dying to self and giving themselves over to Christ’s Lordship (Matt 10:38).
Hating our life sounds extreme. But Jesus uses this hyperbolic language to show us a major contrast. Becoming a follower of Jesus means that in this world we are to love Christ and follow Him more than we love our own lives, to the point where it looks like we actually “hate” our own lives. In order to help us understand, Jesus tells us that hating our lives means we are willing to do two things. In v. 26 Jesus says, “If anyone serves me, he must follow me.” Here is the essence of hating our own lives. Hating our own lives means that we serve Christ and follow Him. It means that we recognize that He is Lord. It means that we recognize that we are no longer the masters of our own lives, but are willing to submit and obey whatever Christ commands of us! It means that the Bible and God’s Word become the focus of our lives and we strive to obey it through the power of the Holy Spirit in us. Hating our lives means that we no longer do what we want, but we now have an allegiance to do what Christ wants us to do!
Jesus gives two glorious promises to those who hate their life in this world by serving and following Christ (Jn 12:26). First, followers are guaranteed the eternal presence of Christ. Jesus promises “where I am, there will my servant be also.” This promise includes being with Jesus eternally forever (Jn 14:3). Jesus is with the Father and all those who serve Him will also be with Christ and the Father in heaven forever. The second promise is that followers are guaranteed that “the Father will honor” them. God the Father will treat Christ’s followers with glory and delight and praise.
Keeping our Life
The world teaches that there is nothing after death, so we are to “eat, drink and be merry.” But this is farthest from the truth. The afterlife is coming for every person. Those who loved their life in this world by living for self will lose eternal life. But whoever serves and follows Christ will gain an eternal life full of joy (Ps 16:11).