My wife says that whenever she sees this passage in her English Standard Version, she always misreads the paragraph title as, “Some Geeks seek Jesus.” I’m sure glad that Jesus accepts geeks like me! But he does more than just accept us, he challenges us, just as he does these… Greeks. Let’s consider Jesus’ words here phrase by phrase.
First of all, notice that the request Andrew relays to Jesus is,
Sir, we wish to see Jesus…
Have you noticed how often it seems like Jesus’ response to questions is unrelated to the question asked or issue raised? I think this is because Jesus was constantly dealing with the questions and circumstances around him on a deeper, more foundational level than those who come to him. Here, rather than saying, “OK, I’ll see these gentlemen.” or “No, I don’t have time to see them,” what does he say?
The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified
Jesus is using the curiosity of these Greeks as an opportunity to say to his disciples, “Yes, people like these Greeks want to see me, but the way I am going to be ‘shown’ is much greater than what you or they realize.”
Jesus is announcing that his death is near. “the hour has come…”
Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
The “grain of wheat” that “falls into the earth and dies” is of course, Jesus himself. If Jesus does not die, then he will “remain alone” in the sense that the life that is in him will not be given to his followers. All along in John’s gospel, Jesus has been offering life. Here he shows how that life is going to be given–it is through his death. “Bears much fruit” refers to the life that is in Jesus being given to his followers.
Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
What does it mean to “love one’s life”? In the context, we know it is a negative idea since it results in the loss of one’s life. Before answering that, let’s note that Jesus is offering an invitation here. “Whoever” is an inviting word. We are called to join either the group that loves their life, or the group that hates their life. And what Jesus calls us to, he himself does. He has just compared himself to a grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies in order to bear fruit. In the same way, “loves his life” refers to one who is unwilling to die. This is a person who holds on to his life in this world and is unwilling to “serve” Jesus (v. 26) and “follow” Jesus (v. 26). This is a call to be willing to die for Jesus–to lose one’s life for him.
If one is unwilling to do this, Jesus says that person will lose his life anyway. But if one “hates his life” or in other words, is willing to die for Jesus, to “serve” and “follow” him (v. 26) then that person will “keep” his life “for eternal life.” The contrast here is between our life here and now (“in this world”), and our life after physical death. This is Jesus calling us to “set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3.2)
If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also.
This verse gives more details about what it means to “hate one’s life.” When Jesus says, “he must follow me” he is referring to his dying like a grain of wheat. In the same way that Jesus dies to provide life for us, we also must follow him in that death. In the words of the other gospels, to follow Jesus is to “take up our cross” (Matt 16.24, Mark 8.34, Luke 9.23). The result of this is that we will be where he is.
To be “where I am” is an interesting phrase. To me, it points to the fact that the “follow me” here refers to more than just “taking up our cross” and dying like a grain of wheat. It starts with that, but Jesus did not stay on the cross, and so following him only starts there, but it goes on to new places, which are not specified here. Jesus could be referring to his exaltation in glory, or he could be referring to his continued working in the world by the Spirit whom he will send. The promise reminds me of Jesus’ words in the Great Commission, “and, lo, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Only here in John 12.26, it is not he with us, but us with him. This pictures Jesus taking the initiative, and our being with him by virtue of having followed him.
“If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” Jesus did not stay dead in the tomb, but rose again to life. Jesus was exalted after his death and resurrection. That is where he is now (“…and where I am”). Thus he promises that the Father will “honor” those who serve and follow him in the sense that they will also be exalted “in Christ”.
So throughout this challenge from Jesus, notice that there is a very intimate connection that Jesus is forging between himself and those who would follow him. To heed this call to a radical, life-surrendering discipleship is to enter into an intimate relationship with Jesus in which yes, there is suffering, but there is also glory and life everlasting. This is the call of the gospel–to be united with Jesus Christ and to live his life. Ultimately, there is no other life worth living. If you are searching for “real life,” here in Jesus’ words is the only place you will ever find it.