Edited by Rev. John Adams, B.D.
Studies in the Thought of the Fourth Gospel
By W. B. Selbie, MA., D.D.
DYING TO LIVE
(John xii. 20 - 26 )
These words, contained in John xii. 20-26, form the last and most important link in a considerable chain of events. The Evangelist has reached the supreme point of his story, and he arranges his material with dramatic power so as to bring out his meaning in the most forcible way. We have seen how his historical method leads him to exhibit Jesus as a witness to Himself. He is made to stand out before the reader’s mind as the one clear figure against a very varied background. Now He is revealing Himself to hostile and suspicious Jews, now to some poor supplicant for His favours, now to His disciples, and now to a circle of intimate friends at Bethany. And in every case He strikes out from contact with others some fresh spark of light, and fills up the sum of His revelation. The story of this Gospel reaches a culminating point in the raising of Lazarus from the dead. So signal an act of power could not pass unheeded, and the Evangelist shows how it was of great weight and moment in determining the future action of Jesus and the attitude of others towards Him. From this time it was clear — to use the language of another Evangelist — that "He could not be hid.” The fame of His action had gone abroad, and for the moment He had become notorious. It must surely have been the sense of this, the feeling that the old, quiet, unobtrusive method was no longer possible, that led Jesus to resolve on a formal public entry into Jerusalem. He seems to be considering that the end is now near, and that for a little while it behoves Him to step out into the open that He may do His work aright. The city was crammed with visitors for the great feast. The people are all on holiday, and ready for any excitement or novelty. The roads leading to the city are thronged with processions of pilgrims all bent on the same end. And Jesus with His little company simply makes one' more amongst, these. He does so with deliberate intention, and the people take Him at His word. The fame of Him has gone abroad, and His coming is eagerly expected. And when they see Him and the guise in which He comes, mounted "upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass,” all their surmises and half-formed hopes concerning Him are crystallised in a moment. They recall the old prophecy: "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold thy King cometh unto thee: He is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass"; and they break into the welcoming cry: "Hosanna to the son of David. Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord.” This means that they recognised then, as Jesus most probably intended that they should, that He claimed to be the Messiah who was to come, the Son of God and the Saviour of His people. And we soon learn how great was the excitement which this occasioned. The whole world seemed to go after Him, and for the moment His enemies despaired. The foreigners who had come up to the feast, as well as the home-born Jews, were deeply moved. Certain Greek-speaking proselytes came to Philip, who was of Bethsaida, and therefore probably familiar with their language, and asked him: "Sir, we would see Jesus.” They came in no mere spirit of curiosity, but to discover for themselves whether there was to be found in this stranger from Nazareth the answer to their lifelong desire. Philip, remembering how the Twelve had been forbidden to enter into the cities of the Gentiles, consults Andrew first, and then with Andrew tells Jesus of the strangers* request. The answer of Jesus is wonderful —one of those strange, baffling words which show us the deep undercurrents of His mind, and help us to see all the events of no His life in a new and more solemn light. The first thought is one of gladness, even exultation. To Jesus the visit of these Greeks is a prophecy of yet greater things. One begins to see almost the travail of His soul. The hour is come that the Son of Man should be glorified. But swift on this follows the shadow of the Cross. The sense of the way by which He is to walk, of the means by which He is to attain His end, seem never absent from the consciousness of Jesus. "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.”
1. The Parable as applied to Jesus.
It is a parable in a single sentence, and yet its meaning is perfectly clear. As Professor Rendel Harris says: "Some of the most solemn teaching of Jesus Christ rests on elementary facts and processes of Nature, and is all the more universal and comprehensible for so doing.” The lesson of "the corn of wheat" appeals to us to-day, and to men of every time, as it did to the hearers of Jesus. There are in the last analysis only two possible ways in which wheat grains may be used by men. They may either be consumed at once for food, or may be buried in the earth, there to rot until out of their death springs a new, manifold, and more beautiful life. And here is the teaching of this story as to Jesus Christ. He is the Messiah, acknowledged as such by the people. He is perfectly willing to let the fact be known, only He must be allowed to put His own interpretation upon it. The hosannas of the crowd, the eager inquiry of these Greek strangers, and the growing excitement of His own followers — these things all show how easy it would be to make mistakes at the initial point, and how necessary it was for Him to anticipate them. And it is this that gives rise to the words before us. To accept the role of the Messiah in the form in which it presented itself to the popular imagination, would have been to Jesus to waste His life, to use it for His own profit and pleasure rather than for the high ends of God; or, to return to the language of His parable, to consume His corn at once instead of sowing it in the hope of a fat harvest. In the mind of Jesus the Messianic office is never separated from the sacrifice of the Cross, and, as His earthly life advanced, the link between the two grew ever closer. It may fairly be said that His own idea of His work was so exalted that even to Him no price could be too great to pay for its safe accomplishment. We have to try to realise that He looked at things under the form of eternity, and that what seems to us sometimes revolting and unnecessary in His sacrifice, could have had no such meaning for Him. That a grain of wheat should die that it might bear fruit was in the natural order of things. And we may as well confess at once that, in the past, theology has often led men astray by representing the sacrifice of Jesus as though it were something artificial and of the nature of a set scheme. There is no doubt a reason and a meaning for such terms as "plan of salvation,” "scheme of redemption,” and the like; but they are false and misleading if they picture to us the sacrifice of Jesus as a clever contrivance on the part of Deity, instead of as the spontaneous and inevitable result of Divine love in a world of sinners. It must needs be that Christ should suffer, and the necessity lay not in the miserable condition into which the world had fallen through sin, but in the nature of God Himself, which made it a work of pure grace. And this is the reason why to separate this mystery of sacrifice from the life of Jesus Christ would be like tearing the heart out of a living human body. He lived in order that He might die. To strip His death of all special and peculiar significance is to stultify His whole life and appearance among men. Nor is all this a mere afterthought suggested by the story of Calvary. Again and again in the life and teaching of Jesus we meet with passages and incidents which are quite inexplicable save in view of His Cross. The very men who heard and witnessed them were by their own confession baffled and misled by them. To them Christ was still behind the veil. The mystery was only clear to the conscience of Jesus Himself; and it indicates how large a place it held in His mind and heart that He should have returned to it repeatedly in spite of the confusion and misunderstanding which He knew it must inevitably cause. He could not conceal from Himself or from those about Him that He had come into the world to lay down His life. And when we remember how the Apostle Paul set the sacrifice of Christ in the very forefront of his teaching, it should convince us that he had in him more of the mind of the Master than men sometimes have been willing to admit. If Jesus before the event looked to His death as the great purpose of His life, we need not wonder that His followers afterwards looked back to it with most passionate devotion and love. It was the crown and fulfilment of His whole being, the final achievement of the grand purpose of His life. "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.”
2. The Parable as applied to Us.
In these words Jesus was not merely enunciating a law of His own life; He was giving utterance to a principle which governs, or ought to govern, the life of man throughout the world. He had a definite purpose in the use of an analogy from the natural world of seed corn and hardest, and He showed that He was laying down a universal rule in the words which follow: "He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.” It is with the life of a man as with a grain of wheat. A man may keep his life for himself, spend it on the passing hour, and so in a sense have done with it; or he may keep it not for himself but for others, live for the future and the things which are above rather than for the present which is around him. Let him lose his life then, and so set in motion fruitful and mighty forces, as from a seed sown in the earth. This was the great law of human life, which Jesus made known. In Himself He exemplified it to the highest degree possible. And we cannot find a better means of interpreting His sacrifice than by watching the normal operation of the law of sacrifice in ourselves. Here our appeal is in the first instance simply to common sense and the more enlightened feelings of humanity. It needs no extraordinary depth of religion to condemn selfishness. That the selfish life is but a death in life even men of the world will sometimes admit. To be selfish is to be anti-social, a drag on the wheels of the chariot of progress. It hinders the comfort and advancement of all around, and therefore our very instincts condemn it. And the mere moralist speaks in the same strain. To be selfish has a hardening and deadening effect on human nature, drags a man down to the lowest possible depths, reveals him at his very worst. The life and teaching of Jesus Christ only carried to its logical conclusion this universal human sentiment. He showed that something more than mere unselfishness was needed if we would live well. He showed man that his life was as a seed which must be cast away into "the soil of other men’s needs" before it can attain its natural development and fulfil its true purpose in the world. It is a real sacrifice that has to be made. And the sacrifice will seem at first to frustrate its own end; but this is only in appearance, not in reality. According to the teaching of Jesus, the higher a man climbs in the scale of being, the more necessary, the more welcome will this sacrifice become. In all the loftiest religious systems of mankind the principle of self-renunciation has held a more or less important place. And Christianity solemnly claims for itself supremacy among religions when in its holy of holies it erects the Cross. But this cannot be done without large and willing assent from men. They have seen in the Cross the symbol of their salvation, the guarantee of eternal life. But the teaching of Jesus would take them further than this. To Him the Cross is not a mere means of escape from sin; it is a way of life. Only in the discipline and culture of the Cross does man reach the perfect fruit of grace. He has there God revealed to him as eternally giving, communicating, sacrificing Himself. And he sees there opened out for him the way to the Divine. As Herder says: "What has close fellowship with God ever proved to man but a costly self-sacrificing service.” We cannot enter the threshold of the Divine life, or even take the Divine name upon our lips in sincerity, without being called to renounce ourselves. "Thy will be done" is the beginning and the end of the life of faith. And nowhere is this so strongly and beautifully manifested as in the life and death of Jesus Christ. For this reason He has been accepted everywhere as an example of a true humanity. The Cross of Christ is life, not theology or dogma; and everywhere in the world’s history it has proved a reviving, stimulating force, a shower in a thirsty land. A few men strongly charged with the passion of the sacrifice of Jesus were able to renew the life of the decadent Empire of Rome. And to-day nothing so lifts a human life, fills it with high purpose and strong achievement, as fellowship in the suffering and sacrifice of Christ. This Christian ideal, which seems to the superficial mind mere effeminate asceticism, has proved that it can nerve the weakest of mankind to heroism, and build up characters as strong as steel. For “he that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.”
3. The Deeper Teaching of the Parable.
We must not evade the most important aspect of the subject. This sacrifice, which in man is the natural consequence of the work of Jesus Christ, was to Jesus Himself the supreme necessity of His position. He had to face the Cross in order to do the work for which He came into the world. This was necessary, not only for the development of His own person, but that He might become the Saviour of others. The beauty and ultimate beneficence of the law of selfsacrifice we can most of us admit, and yet only too often is the preaching of Christ crucified counted as a stumbling-block and foolishness. The reason for this is that we do not clearly distinguish between the purpose of Christ’s life and that of ours. He came into the world, not to live just as other men do, but with a definite aim before Him. We cannot read the story as told in the Gospels without realising that the great redemptive object of His life was never absent from His consciousness. He spoke and acted and strove simply with the one end in view. His life has been called a calculated sacrifice. Death was not merely the inevitable and natural end of it. He lived to die. And His death was but the completion of a process of self-renunciation which began with His entrance into the world, and which was a necessary condition of His saving work. It needs no great insight to prove that in order truly to benefit the race He must needs enter into its life, and take upon Himself its burden. Through His suffering He becomes identified with our humanity. His sacrifice was on a scale and for a purpose so different from ours that no mere human analogies can sufficiently account for it. It represents a divine wealth of love, a renunciation immense, immeasurable, of which we may well be content to enter into the benefits, without seeking to probe all its depths or to understand its meaning.
We can perhaps best realise it through its results. As a field of wheat is the best justification of the farmer’s action in dropping good seed into the ground to rot and die, so in the light of what it has accomplished we can read something of the power and fullness of the sacrifice of Christ. We cannot question the fruitfulness of the seed sown in the death of Jesus. For eighteen centuries the Christian Church has with one voice testified to this fact, that the Son of God was made flesh, and gave Himself as a ransom for many. Not all the many corruptions or rivalries of the Church have ever really silenced this testimony. It has been sometimes suppressed and sometimes concealed, but it has lived on in secret, shrined in men’s hearts, biding its time. As it was preached at first it is preached still, and it is the one message which men seem to hear, and which touches and arouses them alike, amid all their differences of culture, temperament, and creed. And it is known by its fruits. Wherever it has found due entrance into human hearts, it has brought forth a harvest of repentance and self-sacrifice and godly living. In the passion of devout gratitude which it breathes into the soul, it supplies a motive for living well of the strongest kind. The sacrifice and service of a life in Christ are never forced, reluctant, or constrained. His yoke is easy, and His burden light. All that we do for Him grows out of our loving thankfulness for all that He has done for us. We can do no less than give ourselves, for it is all we have, and little enough at that. Love is the secret of the whole. We love Him because He first loved us.
Now we have here the purely practical side of the matter. And it may perhaps be thought that we are evading difficulties rather than helping to solve them. But the difficulties in question can only be solved by practice, by experience. From the point of view of mere theory, this doctrine of sacrifice, whether in regard to Christ or ourselves, is at best a hard saying which few can receive. But a man’s heart does not stop beating because he cannot explain how it beats; nor need ignorance of divine things prevent him from entering into the fullest experience of the love of Christ. "Seek, and ye shall find. Knock, and it shall be opened unto you,”
With love, as with God, all things are possible.