The well known pastor and author James Montgomery Boice was once reflecting on the many different pulpits he has had the privilege of preaching from in his travels around the world. He said from the outside most pulpits are beautifully carved, ornate, and striking in design. But from standing behind them you see a different story. Coffee cups lodged there, books over here, fans or heaters depending on the season. He said one even had a light on it with a note underneath that read ‘when light comes on you have 2 minutes left.’ Out of them all he said one pulpit always stood out. On the top of it where he placed his Bible, there was a little note on it that said “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Boice commented on this saying, “That is a good word for any preacher. I wish that every preacher and teacher of the Word of God might have those words before him constantly as he prepares and preaches his sermons.”
The note on that pulpit “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” comes from John 12:21, which is part of our text this morning. So this is not only a fitting introduction to our passage today, it is a fitting reminder of what the aim of this sermon is, and really every sermon and everything else we do as a local congregation in our city. Let’s look into this passage now.
As it begins in v20-22 we see rather ironically it is Greeks, not Jews, who are now seeking Jesus. These people being called Greeks in this passage weren’t people from Greece, they were something like regular Gentile “God-fearers” who admired much about the morality and deep devotion modeled in the Jewish religion and because of this they often frequented the large Jewish festivals and celebrations. The Jews even allowed them into the temple but kept them away from the inner courts in their own area outside. Well, these Greeks didn’t approach Jesus though, perhaps they were concerned about how Jesus (like the Jewish leaders) would feel about gentiles coming to see Him. So they came to Philip instead, probably because he had a Greek name and was from Bethsaida which was full of Gentiles, and asked him “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip seemingly shared their concern about gentiles approaching Jesus so he went and asked Andrew about it.And Andrew, being a bit bolder than Philip, then takes Philip with him to go tell Jesus about these Greeks seeking Him. This is how this passage begins.
But before we see how Jesus responds to these Greeks recall something. Jesus had come to His own, to God’s chosen people Israel, but His own repeatedly rejected Him. That Greeks are now coming to Him is vastly significant. While the Jews hostility toward Jesus was increasing, the Gentiles curiosity toward Jesus was also increasing. So by seeing them come and ask to talk with Jesus more intimately we’re reminded that Jesus came to be the Savior of, not just Israel, but the world.This is a tad comical when you notice v20-22 comes after the Pharisee’s statement in v19 about the whole world going after Him. A great turn has been made in the history of redemption, and what they said in their anger is gloriously coming true, the whole world is indeed coming to Him now.
Jesus’ answer to these Philip, Andrew, and these Greeks comes to us in v23-26 where we see Jesus focus on the hour of His glory. Herein lies the main three points of this text.
The Hour of Glory (v23)
The first thing Jesus says in response is in v23, “The hour of has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” This answer is surprising to say the least. We think Jesus would’ve said something like, ‘Sure, I’m eager to meet with Gentiles, remember I have many sheep that must come from the nations.’But He doesn’t say anything like this. It’s as if Philip and Andrew came to Jesus to let Him know about these Greeks who wanted to see Him and He answered in such a way as to make us wonder if He even heard what they said. But we shouldn’t wonder at His response, how often does Jesus in any of the four gospels answer questions as we expect Him too? Right, rarely. So rather we should ask, ‘What does Jesus mean by saying these things?’ That we can answer, and it all has to do with ‘His hour.’
So far in John’s gospel we’ve heard Jesus mention ‘the hour’ many times. He told His mother Mary in 2:4 that His hour had not yet come. In 4:21-24 He told the Samaritan woman that an hour is coming (and is now here) when true worship will occur, worship in spirit and truth, and not just in the temple but wherever Christ is present. Later, the authorities tried to arrest Him at the Feast of Booths in 7:30 but they couldn’t because His hour had not yet come. And after declaring Himself to be the Light of the World they tried to nab Him but no one could lay a hand on Him, why? Because His hour had not yet come. In the first 11 chapters of John’s gospel anytime the hour comes into view it’s always spoken of with a reference to the future.But now, in John 12 we find ourselves at the turn of the tide. The future is no longer in view, for his hour had now come.
But let’s linger more on v23 and notice two things.
First, ask the question of why He says His hour has come here in v23? Remember, who was it waiting to see Jesus at that very moment? Philip and Andrew came to tell Him that some Greeks were waiting to see Him, not Jews. Jesus hears of their coming and concludes that His mission had reached its climax, and that His hour had come. Why? Because before Him stood Gentiles, and in them He saw the sheep He must also bring into His fold, sheep from all over the world. Their coming signified that very soon He, the spotless Lamb of God, would shed His blood for the sins of the world – Greeks included.
Second, notice how He talks about His hour approaching. He knows that with the coming of His hour comes agonizing pain and death but He doesn’t refer to it as a tragedy he refers to it as a triumph.Here before the cross even happens, Jesus sees the pain, the agony, the humiliation of the cross, and yet talks of it as the hour of the Son of Man’s glorification. Yes the resurrection will follow, as will the ascension, but according to Jesus we ought to be able to see the shame of the cross and see it as He does, the hour of His glory. How can He see it like this? Because He knows His death on the cross is both the Father’s will for Him and the means by which the Father’s will in bringing many sons and daughters to glory shall come to pass. So the glory and joy of purchasing a particular people is set before Him, He anticipates the hour soon to come where He will endure the cross and (Hebrews 12:2), say ‘It is finished!’, and die.
This is His first response to Philip and Andrew and as He continues He expands on this giving us more detail why this hour of shame is His hour of glory.
The Loss/Gain of Glory (v24-25)
In v24 Jesus says, “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.
Think about those who heard this. Perhaps they heard Him say the hour of His glorification had come and thought it meant something else, that Jesus was about to set up His dominion on the earth and crush Israel’s enemies once and for all. To them, v24 would’ve been confusing and disappointing.‘What? The hour of your glorification has come and you’re speaking of dying?’ What Jesus implicitly stated with the donkey in His triumphal entry He now explicitly states here in an agrarian paradox. For Jesus, the way to fruitfulness lies through death, the way to gain lies through loss, the way to glorification lies through humiliation. Or to say it another way, like the seed whose death is the germination of life for a great crop, so too Jesus’ death produces an abundant harvest.When you hold a kernel of wheat (or an acorn) in your hand you cannot see all that is in it. It looks rather small and unimpressive but it contains a world of life on the inside. How does all that world of life get out? By the kernel being shoved beneath the ground. Then, and only then, life breaks forth out of it for all to see as new plants burst upward out of the ground. By speaking like this in v24 Jesus is saying that by dying He will bear much fruit. He will be plunged beneath the ground in death and put in the tomb. From the appearance of things this will look very unimpressive and disappointing. But this death will cause the life within Him to burst forth from the grave in resurrection power which in turn causes more resurrection fruit to come forth all over the globe.
You cannot believe this verse if you entertain or believe Jesus’ death on the cross just made salvation a possibility. Put away from you any doctrine of the atonement you have that involves any kind of possibility. Possibility is not present here. Christ, the seed in view in v24, does not get plunged into the ground in death in hopes that it might bear fruit. Jesus didn’t come, live, die, rise, and ascend to sit on the throne and fret anxiously hoping that someone will take advantage of what He did and be saved. This is what Jesus wanted Philip and Andrew, and these Greeks, to know. That His Kingdom doesn’t begin with a coronation, but with a crucifixion.That He, the great Seed of eternal life will be plunged into death, not to make a harvest possible, but to secure a harvest plentiful.
v24 is about Jesus and what will soon happen to Him. When Jesus goes on further to v25 He applies this same principle to those who follow Him. “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Jesus is saying the way to truly love life is by losing it and the way to truly gain eternal life is by hating our life in this world. This is the cost of discipleship, this is the cost of following Jesus, this is self-denial. This principle is the secret of the Christian life. Spiritually speaking, do you want to be rich? You must become poor in spirit. Do you want to be first? You must be willing to be last. Do you want to lead? You must be willing to serve. Do you want to live? You must be willing to die.Or perhaps think of it like this. Our conversion is a twofold event. On one hand it is as bright as dawn for we have been born again, raised to walk in new life, filled with the Spirit, and are now adopted children of God. On the other hand it is as dark as night for a death has occurred. Not the death of anyone else, no, the tombstone has our own name on it for our old nature has died. This means our will, our agenda, our plans, our desires, our loves, and ultimately our whole life is over. Someone may think, ‘Well geez, isn’t becoming a Christian by free grace?’ Of course it is, salvation is free indeed, but it costs us everything. Until you come to the end of yourself true life in Christ cannot begin. Are you willing to do this? If not, you have no part with Christ. If so, you’ve learned the secret of the Christian life. That by dying to self and dying to sin you have found out who you really are and discovered your true identity, not in yourself but in Christ.
For our congregation in particular, many are now coming here because they want their theology reformed, but how few want their lives reformed as well! We must learn anew. The character of Christ must also be the character of all those in His Kingdom. Like Jesus, our greatest gain comes by loss.
Lady Jane Grey is a mammoth historical figure in the Protestant Reformation. She, only being a teenager, caught wind of Reformation teaching and began teaching it to others. The local catholic priest heard of this and set up a debate with a catholic theologian to squash efforts and embarrass her, but to everyone’s shock she not only held her own, she presented the teachings of Scripture with such accuracy and fervor that she persuaded more than half in attendance that day. For this she was to be executed. And as the day came she gave her Bible to her sister Katherine with a note inside it that said, “If you with good mind read it, and with earnest desire follow it, no doubt it shall bring you to an immortal and everlasting life…my good sister…deny the world, defy the devil, despise the flesh, and delight yourself only in the Lord…with whom even in death there is life.”
Church, this is so timely for us, is it not? I know some of you young people are reaching the age where you’re beginning to come into your own and you’re now being tempted to go the ways of the world in indulging everything you feel. Be reminded of this text. I know some of you older folks among us are reaching the age where you recognize that you’re on the back nine of life and are tempted to go the ways of the world in comfort and leisure and the ease of retirement. Be reminded of this text. Be reminded of this text, all of you however young or old you may be. “Only one life twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last!” Life is found only in death. Identity is found only in self-denial. Gain, eternal gain, is only found is forsaking all for Christ!
We’ve seen the hour of glory in v23, the loss/gain of glory in v24-25, now see how Jesus continues on here in the end of our passage today with the honor of glory in v26.
The Honor of Glory (v26)
In v26 Jesus says, “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 honor him.” We learn here that those who come to Christ must not only die to self and die to sin, those who come to Christ must follow Christ and serve Christ. This shouldn’t surprise us. Soldiers follow their generals and obey their commands, scholars follow their teachers and embrace their teaching, so too, Christians do not follow themselves we follow Christ…Christians do not serve themselves we serve Christ. Jesus holds out a promise here. And if we do this, see two stunning promises. First, Jesus says we will be with Him where He is in glory. And second, Jesus says God will honor us as we come into glory. Only through the gospel of Christ can sinners be with Christ and honored by the Father. Church, we are called to give up much in this life, but take heart, “There is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for My sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29).
So Church, hear an invitation from this passage: Jesus’ path to exaltation was through humiliation. We all are sinners, and we must repent or perish. But take heed of the cost. If you come to Jesus it will lead to your death, but rejoice, for that death leads to everlasting life. “Deny the world, defy the devil, despise the flesh, and delight yourself only in the Lord…with whom even in death there is life.”
James Montgomery Boice, quoted in Richard Phillips, John 11-21 – Reformed Expository Commentary, page 91.
D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John – PNTC, page 437.
Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John – NICNT, page 590.
Reformation Study Bible, notes on John 12:20, page 1881.
R.C. Sproul, John – St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary, page 228-229.
R. Kent Hughes, John: That You May Believe – Preaching the Word Commentary, page 306.
J.C. Ryle, quoted in Hughes, page 95.