Jesus replied, “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.” —John 12:23-25
One of the hard things about following Jesus is that everything is backwards. Jesus continually says things that are the opposite of what we expect, things that don’t make any sense to us. He says not to fight back against our enemies, but to turn the other cheek so they can strike that one too. What? He says that the least is the greatest and the last is the first. He says that persecuted people are blessed, and grieving people are blessed. I have been persecuted (a little) and I have grieved (a lot), and I certainly didn’t feel blessed. It just doesn’t make any sense.
Of course, when Jesus says things that seem backwards to us, He is not the one who is wrong. Jesus is the perfect Son of God, and we are flawed human beings. He sees things clearly, and we don’t. He thinks clearly, and we don’t. He knows the way things should be, and we only know things as they have been twisted by sin in the world and in our flesh. When He says those things that strike us as exactly wrong, we should pay special attention, because He is correcting something broken in us, and we will be better off if we take Him at His word than if we hold on to what we have always believed.
The above passage is a good example. First, with his shameful, agonizing death on the horizon, Jesus says that the hour has come for Him to be glorified. Most of us would not put it that way. Death on a cross was the worst kind of physical torture mixed with public humiliation. It was not glorious. But Jesus said that it would be, and now, as we look back on it, we see that He was right. Today we celebrate the cross, even though on that day no one was celebrating. We praise Jesus for his victory, even though on that day it looked like a crushing defeat. Now we see that the cross was Jesus at His best, even though at the time his friends could not have imagined anything worse.
Then Jesus says that a kernel of wheat has to die to be fruitful. It is not the living stalk of wheat that is the most fruitful, although it looks healthy. The value of a living stalk of wheat is limited to the amount of food it holds, which is not much. But the seed that falls off, that appears dead because it is cut off from the source of life, that is buried in the earth and looks on the outside to be worthless, that seed can produce many more seeds. It is far more fruitful once it has died.
Knowing what we know about Christ’s death and resurrection, most of us can read these words and see that they were true in His case. Because He died and rose again, Jesus became so much more than a miracle-worker and good teacher. He became a Savior and a Redeemer. Yes, there were some people in His day who were grateful for His life, because He healed their diseases or inspired them with His words. But in Revelation chapter 7 there is a picture of a countless multitude gathered around the throne of God, praising Jesus not for His words or his miracles, but for His sacrifice on the cross, for His victory over sin and death, for His salvation. The fruit of Christ’s death and resurrection was far greater than the fruit of His earthly life.
But where the above passage becomes really challenging is where it becomes clear that Jesus isn’t just talking about Himself. 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.” If you’re like me, you struggle with this. It’s one thing to acknowledge that things worked in this unexpected way for Jesus, because He is Jesus. It’s another thing to take Him at His word and believe that this is how it works for me, too. It’s not just that Jesus was the kernel of wheat that had to be buried. I have to be buried. I have to lose my life. And when I do, that’s when I’ll find life. Eternal life. Fruitful life. How can that be?
You may know that this was not the only time Jesus said something like this. He talked about the danger of gaining the whole world and losing our soul. He invited people to take up crosses and follow Him. Who talks like that? Who says, “Give up everything, including your dreams, give up living for yourself, give up comfort, and I will show you a better way. I’ll show you the joy of living for God and others. I’ll show you that God’s plans are better than your plans, that sacrifice is better than comfort, and giving is better than receiving”? Jesus does.
And, of course, He is right. It doesn’t work the way we expect it to. Living for self is empty. Living for comfort is boring. A life of self-protection isn’t half as fulfilling as a life of generosity and faith. Jesus didn’t just say this, He proved it. “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2) Jesus today lives a life of maximum joy, satisfaction, and fruitfulness. He just had to die first. And so do we.
I don’t know exactly what that looks like for you this week, but He does. If we are brave enough to say, “Okay, Jesus, I’m ready to be that kernel of wheat. Show me how to die so I can be fruitful and enjoy eternal life to the fullest,” I’m confident He will. And whatever sacrifices He calls us to, whatever our cross looks like, we can be sure there is glory on the other side.