The Paradox of Faith John 12:20-36


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What follows now is a difficult text full of dense thought and frequent turns in the argument.  It is the kind of text I used to read and wonder what in the world I was supposed to make of it and why it wasn’t clearer. I am going to comment at length on the text as we read it, so that we get the drift of the argument in our minds.

v.20     “Greeks” here means Gentiles from someplace in the Greek speaking world.  These were probably God-fearers, that is, converts to the theology and ethics of Judaism but not so far as to have undergone circumcision and become Jews themselves.  This is indicated by the fact that they had come to Jerusalem at Passover in order to worship.

v.23     What is curious about the following narratives is that, strictly speaking, the Lord never replies directly to the inquiry from the Greeks passed on through Andrew and Philip.  In what follows he never says that he will see them or that he will not.  What is more, the Greeks who make their request, make it and then disappear from the narrative. John seems to regard their coming to Jesus as a significant event but not their presence or any conversation they may have had with him. Rather it seems that the Lord took the request of these men as a kind of signal that the hour had come for him to be glorified.  Judaism may have rejected Jesus, but the world, for he whom he came to die, is now ready to receive him and has come seeking him.  That seems to be the thought.

It is important to notice, of course, that “glorified” in the Gospel of John always includes a reference to the Lord’s death.  The disciples, especially following the triumphal entry, would have thought of his triumph as a king about to be crowned, but what Jesus meant was his crucifixion.

Up to this point in the Gospel the Lord’s “hour” has always been in the future.  All through the Gospel the “hour” is a reference to the Lord’s death, resurrection, and exaltation, the consummation and culmination of the work he came into the world to do.  Now, however, and throughout the passion week, his hour is upon him.  This use of “hour” in the Gospel is a powerful demonstration of the point:  Jesus came into the world for this purpose, to give his life up in death and to save his people from their sins.

v.24     His point is straightforward.  The Lord’s death will produce a great harvest.

v.25     As so often in the Bible, Christ’s work – his death for the salvation of the world – leads immediately to a reflection on the life of those who follow him.  For them too a certain kind of death is the precondition of life.  [Carson, 438]

v.26     For the Christian, however, the self-denial required of him is not self-denial for its own sake, but self-denial for the sake of Christ, which the Father will certainly reward.

v.28     John does not include an account of the Lord’s agony in Gethsemane, but he alerts us nevertheless, by citing the Lord’s words here, to the terrible ordeal that the Lord knew he faced and his human recoil from it.  In v. 27, the second sentence, “Father, save me from this hour?”  Should probably be read as an actual prayer, with an exclamation point not a question mark at the end.  In that case we would have something similar to the Lord’s “Take this cup from me,” in Gethsemane.  [Carson, 440]  But as soon as he prays that, he must face his unswerving commitment to do the Father’s will.  As Bengal, the great early German commentator puts it, “The horror of death and the ardor of his obedience were meeting!”  And so he concludes, “Father, glorify your name.”

And heaven answers his prayer (just as in Gethsemane, after his terrible struggle and its culmination in a similar prayer to his Father – “Not my will but yours be done” – angels are sent to comfort him).  This is one of three instances in the Lord’s ministry when God speaks with an audible voice to Jesus:  the first at his baptism; then at his transfiguration.  “I have glorified it” could refer to these previous instances, perhaps especially in the transfiguration, or perhaps the entire ministry of the Lord is meant.  “I will glorify it,” would then be a reference to the Lord’s death and resurrection.  The Father is glorifying himself in the life and work of his Son.

v.30     Remember, when the Lord spoke to Paul on the road to Damascus, his companions heard the sound but couldn’t make out the voice.  But if only some even recognized that it was a voice from heaven and no one but Jesus understood what was being said, and if the voice of God spoke in response to the Lord’s heart being troubled, how can Jesus say that it was for the crowd’s benefit, or his disciples’ benefit and not for his own?   First, it is typical Semitic idiom to put a relative contrast in absolute terms.  No doubt we should understand the Lord to mean that the voice came more for their sake than for his, not that it was of no benefit to him.  But, as with many things that happened during the ministry, later on, when understanding dawned, this would be all very important for the disciples to remember and understand.  How important later to know that God himself had said, before the cross, that it would be the means of his own glorification!  Finally, that a voice did speak from heaven should lend urgency to what Jesus was about to say in vv. 31-33, for he is going to elaborate the significance of what was just said by God.  Clearly the train of comment set off by the arrival of the Greeks is of vast importance.  Heaven itself has added its own attestation.

v.31     The Jews thought that they were judging Jesus on the cross, but, in fact, the cross was judging them.  The cross effects a separation from the children of light and darkness, a point already made in the Gospel.  So, the cross is both judgment and salvation, depending upon the response of men to it.  Again, though the cross might seem to be Satan’s triumph, it will, in fact, be his defeat.

v.32     “lifted up” is used because the Lord was lifted up on the cross physically, but also, by the cross, was lifted up or exalted to glory.

The “all men” is a question, of course, because the Lord has already said that he wouldn’t draw everyone to himself and, as a matter of fact, all men to not come to him.  Calvin writes, “When he says all it must be referred to the children of God, who are of His flock.   Yet I agree with Chrysostom, who says that Christ used the universal word because the Church was to be gathered from Gentiles and Jews alike.”  In the context that makes sense, the whole train of thought, remember, was introduced by the request of the Greeks to see Jesus.  These are not, then, just scattered thoughts, but a coherent argument the Lord is making.

v.33     “kind of death” refers both to actual crucifixion – a lifting up – and to a death that would lead to glory.

v.34     Here “the Law” = the Scripture.  There are many texts that speak of the everlasting rule of the Messiah.  The people have made the connection:  Jesus is the Messiah and he is predicting that he will die and go away.  Their expectation was that he would triumphant be when he appeared in the world.  “So, who and what is the Son of Man.  He doesn’t seem to fit our idea of the Messiah.”  That is their confusion.

v.35     Lit. “lest the darkness overtake you.”  In other words, believe in the light you have so far been given and then the darkness that must come – when Christ is taken from them – will not overwhelm you.  It won’t be easier to believe in Christ after he is gone from the world.

v.36     Here the Lord makes explicit that he is speaking of the necessity of their believing in him.  In Semitic idiom to be a “son of light” is to be a person whose life is characterized by light.  You can’t be a follower of Jesus and be half-hearted about the Light!

He departs from them because he still must keep himself inaccessible to the authorities who want to seize him.

There are great riches in this text we have read and a sermon on it could take off in any number of profitable directions.  But some of the most obvious of those directions are those that we have taken most recently in sermons on texts previous to this one.  And so I thought I should not pass by the extraordinarily important statement that the Lord made in v. 25.  In the previous verse the Lord spoke of his death as necessary if the world were to be saved.  And now he strikes out from there to make a similar and related point:  that there is a kind of death that they who would be saved must also die.

Of course, the fact that the Messiah had to die to accomplish his mission was precisely what created such confusion and such a scandal in the mind of the people.  As we said last Lord’s Day, they had no problem with a king who would lead them in triumph against their enemies, but they were not looking for and really had lost all expectation of a Redeemer who would die for the sins of the world.  They no longer understood their need for such a Messiah as that.  So, in the historical context in which the Lord spoke the words of vv. 23-24, they amounted to a shocking and completely unexpected utterance.  Indeed, that point is emphasized in v. 34, when the crowd puts its confusion on this very point into the form of a question. They ask Jesus, in effect, “What in the world are you talking about?” And, from this point on, the doctrine of the cross and our salvation through Christ’s death would continue to prove, as Paul would later put it, foolishness to the Gentiles and a scandal to the Jews.

But, in the very same way, the Lord’s remark in v. 25 concerning the death that those must die who want to have eternal life was then and has remained since a shocking, confusing, even offensive message.  In fact, I would say that v. 25 gives us in a nutshell the primary reason why more people do not become Christians and why so many who call themselves Christians remain only nominal in their commitment, that is, remain Christians in name only.

Now, the form of the Lord’s words itself takes us aback, as, no doubt it is intended to do.  The man who loves his life will lose it and the man who hates his life will keep it?  It is, to be sure, a Semitic way of speaking that the Lord used here.  Hyperbole or overstatement is a figure of speech common to all languages, but it is a very characteristic feature of Semitic languages.  One scholar speaks of its being a reflection of a “habitual cast of mind” among Semitic peoples, which he calls “absoluteness – a tendency to think in extremes without qualification.”  [Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible, 110]

T.E. Lawrence, the famous Lawrence of Arabia, after living among the Arabs for some time during World War I, said that it was this quality of their speech and their thought that most impressed him, still all those many centuries after the time of Christ.

“In the very outset, at the first meeting with them, was found a universal clearness or hardness of belief… Semites had no half-tones in their register of vision.  They were a people of primary colors, or rather of black and white…”  [Ibid.]

The entire Bible is like this and so the teaching of the Lord.  Think, for example, when he spoke of the necessity of our hating our own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters if we would be his disciples.  But it is well for us to ask why so often we find in the Bible this manner of speaking, this radical, antithetical, and absolutist way of putting things.  Why, after all, did God write his Bible in a Semitic language and have his truth communicated to all mankind in that form of expression and have his thoughts communicated to us in that form of words so characteristic of that culture?  Is it not, in part, precisely so that we would not domesticate God’s truth, that we would not miss the radical character of the summons God was issuing to us?  These statements hit us between the eyes.  They unsettle us.  They make us think.  They make us consider what in the world the Lord meant by what he said.  And they force an honest Christian heart to ask, “Am I myself doing what Christ here says I must?”

We know, of course, that the Lord is not requiring us to hate our parents. But, there is a way in which the love of life, the love of this world and even people in this world, can be an idolatry, in which one’s life in this world, one’s happiness, one’s comfort, one’s name and reputation, and one’s relationships are regarded as more important and more precious than the knowledge of God himself and the promise of eternal life with him.  Lest we miss the terrible mistake of that and the death that lies in that idolatry, Jesus says that we must hate our life.  The strong language forces us to consider carefully what he means with the words he uses.

Now, just as people complain against and reject a way of salvation that requires the death of the Son of God to remove their sin and guilt, so, in the same way, people have, from time immemorial, objected to a condition of salvation that requires them so completely to surrender themselves to God and to Christ, so completely to make God’s will the principle of their living, so completely to embrace the principle of living by faith in the unseen God and his unseen promises, that it can be said that a real Christian hates his life in order to save it.  A real Christian, that is, so completely repudiates life as it is defined and measured by the world, repudiates life defined by the worldly principles of sight and sense, self-love and self-interest that he can be said to hate his life.  It is this principle of radical self-denial and radical surrender of one’s mind and heart to Christ that the Lord is describing in these arresting terms in v. 25.

And don’t suppose for a moment that the Lord’s words here can finally be reduced to a platitude, to something comfortable and simple and easy.  Brothers and sisters, here lies the entire challenge and difficulty of faith and of living by faith.

I talk all the time to people who are in one practical way or another saying to God, “Lord, if you will just let me love my life in this world, I promise that I will lose it then for your sake.”  Or in the terms of a very similar way of speaking that we find in Matt. 10:39, they are saying to the Lord, “Lord, if you will just let me find my life, then I will be willing to lose it for your sake.”  But that is not faith and the kingdom of God does not work that way.

People say to the Lord, “I will believe in you, I will follow you, I will serve you, if you do this or that for me.”  But the Lord says, “No, you give up your life, your hopes, your plans – you surrender them to me – and I will give you your life back far better than you had it before.  But you must make that surrender.  And you must make it blind, by faith in other words, without the help of first being able to hold in your hand the blessings that I promise to give you.  You cannot bargain with the Living God and with the Redeemer of your soul.  You must trust him.”  That is faith and that is why comparatively few people live by faith.  It is a daring business.  It is absolutely the right thing to do and the sensible thing to do – for Christ has risen and God has spoken – but it is in no case the natural thing to do!

You may well complain in your heart – many have before you – that God has made it more difficult and painful.  Why can’t he let you see the life he will give you in exchange for the life you have hated and surrendered to him.  Why can’t he let you see ahead of time the surpassing wonders of that life that he promises to give to those, to all those who forsake the life of this world to follow Jesus and his other-worldly way of life?

Many have wondered why God has made the way of faith, so difficult, so demanding as it is, the way to heaven and the only way to heaven.  I don’t suppose anyone can answer that question completely.  Faith is the way of salvation, of course, so that it will be clear that salvation is God’s work and not ours.  No doubt, but that does not explain why we must hate our life to keep it.  The principle of self and of sight must be destroyed if we are to truly look up to the unseen God with love and trust and humility.  For what God wants us to be, what he wants to make of us, these steps of self-denial and self-surrender are essential.  What is more, there must be a way of telling who are the true followers of Jesus and nothing distinguishes true and nominal believers more effectively than their willingness to hate their lives in this world.  But those are only general answers.  The fact is, this is what the Bible everywhere teaches us is what God requires.  We must forsake the world and the love of the world, we must die to self if we are to live to God.  We are not required completely to understand this, only to do it!

Donald Grey Barnhouse, the celebrated pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia a generation ago, put this point in a conversation he once had with a man.

“Suppose someone came [to your house] at three o’clock in the morning and put a ladder up to the second-floor window and began to climb in, what would you do?  ‘Well,’ said the man, ‘I suppose I’d shoot him.’  I said, ‘What right have you to shoot a man?  After all, can’t a man come into your house in any way he wants to come?’  He said, ‘No.’  Then I said, ‘You are saying that you can get into God’s heaven any way, any time – by any back window that you choose.  God Almighty has made definite, positive and absolute rules for entering His heaven – rules as definite as our civilization makes – if you go to somebody’s house you ring, you knock. … Make a noise and come up in the way that house owner decides…. God has done the same thing.  He says that anyone may come in, but they must come [by his way: by the cross of Jesus Christ embraced by a faith that is willing to bear any earthly loss to have him and his salvation].

But what of us, brothers and sisters, who are already Christians.  Jesus, of course, was speaking not only of that faith by which one begins to walk with Christ and first finds salvation.  He is speaking as well to those who are already his disciples, of that life that they must live as long as they live in this world.  The next verse confirms that.  “Whoever serves me must follow me…”

Oh, believe me, my friends, there is still a great deal more hating of our lives that you and I must do.  We have not hated our lives nearly so much, nearly so completely as we might, as we should, as we must.  There should be as much a radical cast to our living today as ever there was when we first became Christians or first came to feel the delicious pleasure of forsaking all for Jesus, of surrendering ourselves for the sake of our Lord and Master.  There is still much more hating of our lives to do today so as to keep our lives for ever.  For “hating our lives” is just another more homecoming way to say “living by faith” and, as Rabbi Duncan said – I cited this last Sunday evening – “Believers live not on the first act of their faith, but on the continual act of their faith; because it is not faith they live on but Christ.  We can no more live by yesterday’s faith, than we can see by yesterday’s light, or have our life supported by yesterday’s food.” [Just a Talker, 64-67]

Well, just so.  And in the same way we cannot keep our life for eternal life by yesterday’s hating of our lives.  No!  That must be done today as well and every day to the very end.

Prof. Waltke tells the story of a conversation he had with a Christian man who had a job that a Christian shouldn’t have.  His work itself was sinful.  “You’ve got to give up that job,” said Dr. Waltke.  “I’ve got to eat,” the man replied.  “No, you don’t!  You only have to follow the Lord and serve him.” That man wasn’t hating his life and was in great danger of losing it forever.  He wasn’t truly living by faith and had no confidence that God would keep the promises he had made to those who trust in him.

Well, in the same way, when you are likewise tempted to say, “Well, I’ve got to do this or do that,” I say to you, “No! You don’t have to be happy in your marriage, you don’t have to make your way up the corporate ladder, you don’t have to feel content with the way your circumstances are turning out, you don’t have to get a better house or car, you don’t have to do or have any number of things that seem very important to you in this world.  You don’t have to follow that sport you love so much even though to follow it requires you to dishonor the Lord’s Day.  My Scottish friend who was a passionate fan of Formula One racing years ago, simply gave it up as an interest after the races were moved from Saturday to Sunday.  You don’t have to follow your favorite sport.  You have only to follow and to serve the Lord Jesus Christ.  There is so much more to say, of course, about God’s love and his compassion for his children.  But hear what our Savior is saying here in these very strong words he used.  You must hate your life and you will if you firmly believe that Christ has far better designs on your life than you do, loves you far more and far better than you love yourself, and is far better able to choose the life for you that is best calculated to land you safely on the shore of the eternal country.  That is what he meant when he said that you must hate your life if you would keep it for eternal life.

That is why it is so important for us to know the church’s past and to be acquainted with the heroes of Christian faith who have lived before us.  They show us not only how to hate our lives in this world, to deny ourselves for Christ’s sake, to hate our fathers and our mothers, but as well what beautiful and astonishingly fruitful lives are lived by those who hate their lives that way.

You remember the great Charles Simeon of Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge.  So many young men who studied at the University sat under Simeon’s ministry and were inspired to take the gospel to the world.  One of the greatest of these was Henry Martyn for whom Simeon was a spiritual father and mentor.  It was Simeon who saw Martyn off when he sailed for India.  They never saw one another again.  But for seven years Simeon prayed for his young protégé and kept track as well as he could of the amazing labors of the young missionary, crowned as they were with such wonderful success, first in India and then in Persia.  And then the terrible news.  Martyn had died on his way home to England for a visit.

There was a portrait of Henry Martyn painted while he was in India.  It was thought right that it be sent back to Simeon.  He hung it in the honored place over his mantle.  Years later he would say to guests, “See that … man.  No one looks at me as he does – he never takes his eyes off me; and seems to be saying, ‘The years are short.  Be serious.  Be in earnest.’”  Or, in other words, I hated my life, you be sure to hate yours also and onward to the end.  What a great help to have people looking down at us saying the same thing: Christians of the past or friends today.

And what will come of that?  The Lord says plainly.  “My Father will honor the one who serves me.”  That is what it means to hate one’s life.  It means to put Christ absolutely first in one’s life and let all the chips fall where they may.  And, believe me when I tell you, not one man or woman has ever done that who – no matter what they suffered for Christ’s sake – did not later say that they received from Christ many times what they surrendered to him.  No one out-gives the Prince of Life and Love!