The Greeks, the Seed and the Glory
20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
27 ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.28Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’30Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.31Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. (John 12:20-33)
John’s Gospel is a gospel of signs. This is a fancy way of saying we often don’t understand what Jesus is saying and doing in the Gospel of John. But this passage, while daunting at first, really isn’t very difficult to understand even if it poses some very challenging ideas.
Some Greeks come to see Jesus. No big deal, right? Philip has a Greek name and seems to have been from Bethsaida so it makes perfect sense that these Greeks would go to Philip first. Nobody seems to know why Philip goes to Andrew, maybe this is just the bureaucracy at work. What is significant is how profoundly this visit by the Greeks changes the trajectory of Jesus’ ministry.
Throughout the first chapters of John’s Gospel Jesus deflects requests for self-disclosure and certain acts by saying that his “hour” had not yet come. This changes when the Greeks show up. For the first time Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” This seems important but why?
The fact that Greeks are gentiles (non-Jews) is important. The four gospels exhibit changing attitudes toward the gentiles as they progress. Mark, the earliest written gospel (circa 60 CE) is really ambivalent toward gentiles, Jesus largely avoids them. Matthew (circa 80-90 CE) isn’t much more indulgent of them. It is not until Luke (circa 80-90 CE) that the gentiles seem to become more of a target of the church’s ministry. By the time you get to John (circa 100-120 CE) the importance of gentiles in Jesus’ own ministry is significant. Perhaps, the coming of the gentile Greeks to Jesus is a signal that the time is right for Jesus to enter into the time of glorification which for John is Jesus “laying down his life” for the sake of the world (not just the Jews).
In John’s Gospel Jesus’ repeatedly references to the time of “glorification” which will be when Jesus lays down his life. This term “lay down one’s life” is significant. Jesus makes it clear that he lays down his life voluntarily, no one takes it from him. The language of sacrifice is missing in Jesus’ description of what “glory” looks like. Jesus, like the Good Shepherd of chapter 10 is willing to lay down their life for the sheep. The hired hand is not. This is the language Jesus uses over and over again in John’s Gospel to describe what he will be doing on the cross. But what does it mean?
To explain Jesus tells a parable. 23Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
Jesus recognizes that the hour for his glory has come, and his glory is when he will be lifted up (on the cross). He describes the effect of this with a metaphor. A grain of wheat has to die and be put into the earth in order not to be alone. Only through the death of that grain of wheat can it become more grains of wheat. (Jesus is not talking zygotes, etc. but what appears to happen) Here the effect is obvious it is about going from a solitary unit to many. This is how it is “fruitful,” another important image in John. Jesus’ laying down his life then will result in the possibility of the many to come together. Perhaps this is why the coming of the gentiles was so significant. Jesus will be lifted up in order to save the world (John 3:16), literally cosmos.
This is a beautiful passage I read very often at the graveside. I love this passage. But I don’t love reading the next sentence because I know it will likely be misunderstood and I can’t stop and explain it.
25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
There is a lot going on in this passage. First, one of the most important theological themes in John’s Gospel is knowing where you are from, who you belong to. People are constantly misunderstanding where Jesus is from and this is because they misunderstand where they are from. John begins his gospel by making it absolutely clear that everyone is from Jesus who is of God. But people think and act as if they are from the world they find around them. Their “real world” is what Jesus sees as the false world (realm of evil/darkness), but he has come to bring them back into the life they were made for…REAL LIFE.
The Greek has a way of expressing this which is not immediately obvious in English.
In Greek there were three principle words for the English word “life.” They are: bios, psyche, and zoe. All three of these words make English appearances so they shouldn’t seem completely foreign to you.
Bios is the very earthly life of cells and blood and tissue. Bios can also refer to “stuff/possessions” so it is about the material of life. It’s not germane to our present discussion.
Psyche is a much more complicated word and it is the word for life used in this passage. That it comes into English as psyche and psychology gives some hints as to how this word is to be understood from Greek. It is life but the sense of self side of life. It is life as one understands it. Later on in verse 27 it is the word which is translated “soul.” Translators used the word life instead of soul in verse 26 because of the danger of dualistic thinking. Greeks were good with a dualistic separation of body and soul, the Hebrew worldview of Jesus was not. Body and soul are inseparable in Hebrew cosmology. Because Greek (dualistic) philosophy is so pervasive in western thought and even influences Christians as early as Paul the body-soul dichotomy creeps in to Christian theology but be advised, Jesus did not think that way. So translators are careful about how they render the word psyche.
Significant for us, psyche is what Jesus calls his followers to hate or lay down. And this psyche (life/soul/self-understanding) is that understanding which misidentifies where you are from and who you belong to which is so toxic in John.
The third Greek word for life is zoe. Put bluntly, zoe is the good life, the life Jesus brings. It is the word used in the phrase “will keep it for eternal life.” Zoe is real, quality life, whole life rather than half-life. Zoe is eternal in duration but this isn’t the only reason it is important. It is the life intended because it is perfected life which, of course, means it is not ended.
There is so much in this section alone that I am surprised the lectionary presents more (Jesus’ Gethsemane-like agony experience in John) verses 27-33. But think about the ideas presented in the first section such as the nature of Jesus’ glory and what it means for his to be lifted up and you begin to see a coherence to John which is sometimes missed.