“And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honour him” (John 12: 23-26).
‘The hour has come’ – what does it really mean? It certainly refers to the cross and the impending crucifixion of the Lord Jesus. This is the hour that the whole world has been waiting for -it has consequences for the whole universe and the whole human race!
Briefly, we know that from Genesis, human beings were made from the first to be the image, the likeness of God. Sadly, the image of God in human beings has become defaced and distorted – we have turned in on ourselves and exerted our independence from God. We have forfeited that creation-likeness. We still carry the image of God, but like an old art masterpiece, we have been covered with grime and dirt and the original painting is no longer visible. We need to have the image restored. And in Jesus we see that image restored. Jesus is the revelation of God; He is also the revelation of the ultimate human being.
In Romans 5:12-21, the Apostle Paul compares Adam and Jesus – Paul wrote of how Adam was the gateway of sin into the world, and that death came into the world, and that death came on the back of sin. Sin and death are powers; sin kills us, and death reigns or rules over the human race. Condemnation follows – we are in the wrong with our Creator.
By contrast, Jesus is presented to us as living perfectly. Adam was disobedient while Jesus was obedient, showing us how human beings ought to live and flourish before God. Adam rebelled against God while Jesus gladly lived in accordance with the will and ways of His Father. The ‘hour’ refers to Jesus’ obedience to the point of death – even death on a cross.
Adam is humanity that has gone wrong. He is the human race with the image of God marred and distorted. This is what it is to be a human being today – trapped in the nexus of sin and death and condemnation, yet with the occasional flashes of the old glory and dignity coming through.
Jesus is the new humanity – in Him the original ancient humanity is restored. What Paul was saying is that, in and through Jesus Christ, we can get back to that original splendour. The ‘hour’ at the cross is when Jesus restored humanity – opening the way for the recreation of not just humanity, but also the liberation and transformation of the whole created order!
Paul was saying that by the sin of the one man, death reigned through Adam; how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ! It is all focused in Jesus Christ – God’s amazing gift of life, love and an eternal future. Just as Paul talked about death reigning, so now he referred to human beings reigning and ruling. Through Jesus, that image of God – humanity ruling creation – is restored – we are fully human again as God created us to be. In other words, Jesus died (in that ‘hour’) to make us fully human. We are restored to our truest selves in Jesus Christ so that we may play a part in God’s plan for the whole of creation – so this act of God towards us in Jesus Christ, in all its enormous grace and power, is not ultimately for us alone – it is for the whole human race, for the planet and even the cosmos!
Jesus remakes a new world by remaking human hearts one by one. We need to be remade on the inside before the outside. When we are changed from the inside out, then we can lastingly and authentically be brought into line with Jesus and HIs ways and purposes. On the one hand, we are like a stream which has become polluted – we need to be totally cleansed at source (‘born again’) and on the other hand we are like a glove – we need the presence of a hand within us (the Holy Spirit) if we are to have the power to act according to the ways of the ‘new man’. In other words, to live the Christian life in all its fullness, we need both rebirth and renewal; we need to be remade – we need God, through Jesus and the Holy Spirit to live this life in us. To be fully human, we need the ultimate human, Jesus, to live His life in and through us.The Apostle Paul puts it this way:
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).
We now understand why Jesus, in John 12, spoke of the grain of wheat that must fall into the earth and die; if we love our life in this world we lose it, and if we hate this life in this world and are willing to die to it, we will keep it for eternal life. When Paul wrote about having been crucified with Christ, he was stating that the old Paul has died (the seed or grain of wheat has died), and the new life he lived is the life of Christ living in him, enabling him to be fully human and to fulfil the role God had given him. It was no longer Paul who lived but Christ lived in Paul through the Spirit, empowering him to be the great Apostle who lived by faith in the Son of God.
So Jesus went on to say that anyone serves Him, he must follow Him. We must remember that the way back to His Father and to His glory is via the cross and resurrection. Following Him must also mean that the way for us is also via the cross and resurrection. Like Paul, we must ‘die with Jesus’ and be ‘resurrected’ to a new life – “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2Corin. 5:17). We see this truth elaborated in Colossians 3:
“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (Col. 3:1-4).
Bear in mind that Jesus is the perfect image of God – this is the ideal human life, the ultimate model for us to emulate as we were created to do, as we discover and live out our own truest selves. And here is the shock we see in John 12: the ultimate destination of Jesus’ life was the cross. He lived to die. He presents to us ultimate human life which takes love and self-sacrifice to the harsh reality of death. This is different from our usual conceptions of self-fulfilment and self-discovery. A fully human life will not be one which defines itself by comfort and the avoidance of suffering. It is the opposite: the fully human, Jesus-life to which we aspire as His followers will actually, in some sense, embrace suffering and bear it for the sake of others (the grain of wheat must die to bear fruits).
Jesus brings in the kingdom of God which reverses the effects of human alienation from God and one another. But He does so ultimately on the cross by taking it upon – and even into – Himself. And He offers His followers the same paradigm: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” So being a follower of Jesus is not about being immune to suffering. Christian faith is not a magic wand to make all nasty things go away. In fact, it may even be the opposite; we are more likely to encounter suffering. If we do not see this clearly, our prayers and complaints to God often centre on immediate relief from all sufferings and nasty situations; we then see Christian life as a life without the cross and without sacrifice and we fail to seek the things above and continue to concentrate on the things below and the life on earth.
Especially, during this current context of global pandemic, persecutions, suffering, the words of Jesus still stand:
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me” (Jn.14:1).
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (Jn.14:27).