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It has sometimes been said that people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good, but that is actually a slander and a lie. In fact, C.S. Lewis said rightly, “If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.” Likewise, Lewis said, “Aim at heaven and you get earth thrown in; aim at earth and you get neither.”
“And there were certain Greeks among them that came up to worship at the feast:21 The same came therefore to Philip, which was of Bethsaida of Galilee, and desired him, saying, Sir, we would see Jesus.22 Philip cometh and telleth Andrew: and again Andrew and Philip tell Jesus.23 And Jesus answered them, saying, The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified.24 Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.25 He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.26 If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will my Father honour.27 Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour.28 Father, glorify thy name. Then came there a voice from heaven, saying, I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.29 The people therefore, that stood by, and heard it, said that it thundered: others said, An angel spake to him.30 Jesus answered and said, This voice came not because of me, but for your sakes.31 Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out.32 And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.33 This he said, signifying what death he should die” (Jn. 12:20–33).
OVERVIEW OF THE TEXT
There were God-fearing Greeks that came to the Feast of Passover in Jerusalem who wanted to see Jesus, and the disciples told Him (12:20-22). Jesus answered by saying that his hour had come to be glorified – the glory of fruit coming out of the ground after a seed has died (12:23-24). But Jesus is not only talking about Himself since He immediately says that this is true of anyone who would seek eternal life: they must lose their life and follow Jesus to be with Him and receive the honor of His Father (12:25-26). Jesus says He is troubled by what is about to happen, but He prays that the Father will glorify His name (12:27-28). God answers that prayer immediately saying He has glorified His name and He will again (12:28). Some thought God’s answer sounded like thunder, others said it was an angel, and Jesus said the answer was for the encouragement of the people (12:29-30). Finally, Jesus declares the judgment of the world and its prince, and that His death will surely draw all men to Himself (12:31-33).
THE BATTLE OF THERMOPYLAE
It doesn’t seem to be an accident that Jesus responds this way to the message that some Greeks are wanting to see Him. Whether He made this reply in their presence, or this reply was relayed to them, a message about glory and honor and dying seems well suited for Greeks, steeped in the glory-lore of their civilization, for example the Battle of Thermopylae. In August or September of 480 B.C. hundreds of thousands (or millions) of Persians descended upon the Pass of Thermopylae, called the Hot Gates, manned by 300 Spartan warriors and a few thousand other Greeks. Led by King Leonidas, the Spartans held the Persians off for two full days inflicting massive casualties on the Persian forces. As the third day dawned, Persians had broken through another pass, flanking the Greeks. At that point Leonidas apprised the other Greeks of their position and offered them the chance to retreat, which most took, but the Spartans had no intention of retreating. As they ate breakfast, preparing for the third day of battle, legend has it that Leonidas told his men, “Eat well, for tonight we dine in Hades.” The 300 Spartans launched themselves into the Persian forces expecting to die, and so they did to the last man. And yet, many consider that last stand of the Spartans to have actually saved Greek civilization and with it many virtues of the West. We have a similar story in American history with the Alamo. What was a momentary loss, became a rallying cry for freedom and eventual victory.
DEATH, DEATH EVERYWHERE
One of the things the ancients have over us is their general understanding that death comes to all and very soon. On average, in the US, 7-8,000 people die every day from all causes. Around 153,000 people die every day in the world, over 56 million every year. And the mortality rate is holding steady at 100%. Between average longevity increasing substantially, infant mortality plummeting significantly, and the fact that most death happens in the West in hospitals and nursing homes, we are tempted to be shocked by death. But this side of the Fall, the plan is to die. The only question, Jesus says, is what your death will accomplish. We have been trained to think almost the exact opposite. We are catechized by our culture to do anything we can to put off death since our lives will be defined by what we accomplish before we die. But Jesus says here that a seed cannot bear any fruit unless it goes into the ground and dies (12:24). Jesus says He is aiming for this glory: He expects the great fruit of His life to come after He is lifted up and dies (12:31-33). Anyone who wants eternal life must think and act the same way (12:26-27).
THE HOUR HAS COME
In John’s gospel, “the hour” has been referenced a number of times, usually stressing that it is “coming” or that it is “not yet come” (Jn. 2:4, 5:28, 7:30, 8:20), but here, for the first time, Jesus emphatically says, “the hour is come” (12:23). Clearly, Jesus is talking about His impending death – it was for this purpose that He came to this hour (12:27). But this hour brings with it not only the death of Christ but also the judgement of this world, the casting out of the devil, and drawing all men to Himself (12:31-32). Now this will happen. Theologians often refer to these kinds of statements in the gospels as “already/not yet.” For example, the Kingdom was already in the midst of the disciples (Lk. 17:21), but they were also to pray for it to come, as we still do (Lk. 11:2). Likewise, Christ already died, and the deathblow has been delivered to Satan who has been cast down (Lk. 10:18, Rev. 12:9), but he still prowls about seeking whom he may devour (1 Pet. 5:8). His power has already been destroyed (Heb. 2:14), and yet he is not yet cast into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:10). The kingdoms of this world have been become the Kingdom of our Lord (Mt. 28:18, Rev. 11:15), but we do not yet see all things put beneath His feet (Heb. 2:8) and He must reign in heaven until we do (1 Cor. 15:25). And all the indications are that God intends to accomplish this fruitfulness over the course of many generations.
Having marinated in secular individualism for the last century, even self-conscious Christians find it difficult to think of their lives covenantally. But this is the underlying logic of what Jesus is talking about. People are connected by ties far deeper than blood and genes and the hurly-burly of life. How were we born into sin? By Adam’s sin, a man who died thousands of years ago. How have we been forgiven and made righteous? By Christ’s obedient death two thousand years ago. He was lifted up on the cross and destroyed the power of the Devil. But this is all to say that Christ is the Lord of history. We are not just trapped in the system. He is at work.
Abraham is still the Father of the Faithful, fathering of every nation on earth receiving the blessing of Jesus, and he and Sarah died believing the promises but not seeing them fulfilled (Rom. 4:17-25). Both he and Sarah have been increasingly fruitful as the centuries have gone on (cf. 1 Pet. 3:6). How is that possible? Christ is doing it. His efficacious death and resurrection are doing it. But that is a covenantal fruitfulness that has sprung from Abraham and Sarah’s dead bodies (Rom. 4:19), a fruitfulness we have joined by faith in the death of Christ, sealed in the waters of our baptism. We have already died, and our lives are hidden with Christ in God. True fruit and real glory are found in the answer to our Master’s prayer: Father, glorify Thyname.