In corporate and personal life, we all tend to want to preserve the past. Yet, that is the opposite of what Jesus taught.
Jesus taught that self-preservation is self-destructive but self-sacrifice is real life.
We will examine the passage where Jesus predicts his death in John 12:20-33 and his example for us.
The Paradox of Glory through Shame
Jesus introduced us to the paradox of glory through shame. It was through the shame of the cross that he now lives in glory (John 12:23). In dying alone he gave life to many. In giving up his life in this world he gained eternal life in glory for all. In the disrepute of the cross the greatest reputation in the world was built. In the greatest dishonor the greatest honor to any man in history was given. How does that affect us? Our natural desire is for glory and honor, but Jesus’ paradox teaches us that our means of getting it is all wrong. We seek it by means of self-promotion rather than self-sacrifice. The paradox of glory through shame teaches us that it is precisely at moments when we give it all up, that victory is ours. Self-sacrifice is real life. A seed dies and life begins.
Son of Humanity
As Christians we are members of a global community. I have lived in four countries and heard the jingoism and xenophobia that exists everywhere. People tend to think that their country is the best. Each criticizes and puts down the others for various reasons. Yet God hates pride. Self-importance and arrogance are not on any list of holy attitudes. In John 12:23, Jesus introduced his ultimate sacrifice not as a son of David, a loyal son of Israel, but as the Son of Man. In today’s language, we would call him the son of humanity. Jesus did not die for God and country, although that is a worthy thing. As the son of Man, or son of Humankind, Jesus died for God and all human beings. Christianity is not a narrow, nationalistic religion, but a faith for all humanity. Self-sacrifice is real life. A seed dies and life begins.
A Grain of Wheat
Self-preservation is a natural desire. We don’t want to die. We don’t want our way of life destroyed. However, do we know Jesus well enough to know that he would challenge our way of thinking? One such place is in John 12:24. Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it abides alone; but if it dies, it brings forth much fruit. Jesus confirmed this teaching in different words at different times. If we try to make our lives secure we will lose them, but if we lose our lives we will save them. A kernel of wheat preserved is unfruitful, but a kernel of wheat planted can produce an unlimited amount more. A grain of wheat must die if it is to produce. So too, only the life that dies to self is truly productive. Self-sacrifice is real life. A seed dies and life begins.
Why Self-Preservation is Death
When I was a young man I worked in a factory that produced typewriter ribbons. In our department we had about a dozen people and a man who inked all the ribbons. My job was to clean up. I was bottom of the rung. The inker was unwilling to train anyone else lest he lose his position. He was afraid and wanted to preserve his job. The big boss took me into his office and told me that the inker could not be promoted, because he would train nobody to do his job. But, the boss liked my attitude and promoted me to be the boss of the department. Naturally, the inker was angry, but he created his own dilemma. As Jesus said in John 12:24, unless a grain of wheat dies it has no future. Self-preservation is death. Self-sacrifice is real life. A seed dies and life begins.
Change or Die
Unless a grain of wheat dies it has no future (John 12:24). Unless the church buries out-of-date practices it too has no future. Change we must or become irrelevant to everybody. The message of the Gospel will never change, but the package must. Vacuum tubes, transistor radios and printed circuits have all competed in the electronic world. Two of them died and most companies that made them are gone too. What is the difference? Companies that refused to change and keep up with the new waves of technology have died. Technology remains, but doing it the old-fashioned way has not. Companies willing to let old ideas and departments die survive while those that try to preserve old ways die. Churches must be willing to let old traditions die and change to make the unchanging Gospel relevant to new generations. Self-sacrifice is real life. A seed dies and life begins.
Material capitalism says that those who die with the most toys wins. It is a lie, because those who die having hoarded the most, will possibly not even have eternal life. They are in danger of becoming the ultimate losers. Spiritual capitalism says that those who die to self give life to many others (John 12:24). Material capitalists are deceived that they love their souls, but in reality they have lost their souls to the devil for temporary material gain. Those who love their lives (or souls) will lose it. Spiritual capitalists give their souls away to enrich the lives of others and so keep their souls forever. Anyone who hates their lives (or souls) in this world will keep them for eternal life. Our Savior calls us to be creators of spiritual capital, enriching the lives of others. Self-sacrifice is real life. A seed dies and life begins.
What is Life?
A queen preserves her wealth. Mother Teresa gave up her life of material wealth to find true life and true wealth. Jesus said that anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12:24). What is life? Righteous living is life, but wicked living is sin and death. Right living is true life and immortality. When our minds are ruled by the things of the flesh we are not truly living but dead. Having our minds focused on the things of the Spirit is the way to true life and peace. (Proverbs 10:16; 12:28; Romans 8:6) Selfish kings and queens of this world are in spiritual poverty. Mother Teresa found true life and true riches. We can find true life too. Self-sacrifice is real life. A seed dies and life begins.
Materialism is death not life. We may have things but let us not be deceived. Things do not define life. Over a lifetime we collect a lot of things, a favorite set of cutlery, dishes, a favorite car or dolls perhaps, a gun collection or a set of fine china. We get really emotional about the potential loss of these things, yet if we end up in a nursing home at the end of our lives, we can’t take them with us and our children may sell them for junk. We think that these things define our lives but they do not. If we give up what we think is life but is not and lose these fake lives, then we can find true life (John 12:24). True life is defined by what we give, not what we get. Self-sacrifice is real life. A seed dies and life begins.
Qualification for Leadership
As we look at potential candidates for a leader what do we look for? What makes a leader worthy of any honor? Is it success in the greedy business world, making millions off of people for overpriced goods and services? Is it success in lying and flip-flopping and slinging mud? Is it the ability to win debates? None of that was at the center of what glorified Jesus as King of Kings. In John 12:25, we see Jesus’ glory and honor defined by personal sacrifice. While most leaders are self-defensive and self-promoting, Jesus set us all an example of true leadership by self-sacrifice. That is why when Jesus returns he will take the kingdoms of this world from its leaders and give the leadership roles to those who have proven themselves worthy of honor by lives of selfless service. Self-sacrifice is real life. A seed dies and life begins.
Humanity’s Self-Destructive Behavior
Easter Island is famous as a microcosm of what all humanity could potentially do to our planet. Destruction of the island’s natural resources almost totally destroyed everyone living there. Greedy materialism is like that. We destroy our entire civilization in the lust for more and in the end we also destroy ourselves. The saying in John 12:25 that he who loves his life loses it, has a far more profound meaning in the original Greek. It says that he who loves his life "destroys it utterly." Mental health professionals recognize the need for people to get outside of themselves and give to others. In helping others, mental health improves. That is why greed is the ultimate insanity, because it only ends up destroying the greedy. The remedy is selflessness. Giving life to others is the ultimate act of sanity. Self-sacrifice is real life. A seed dies and life begins.
The Weakness of the Sinner’s Prayer
The “sinner’s prayer” is a gimmick not found in the Bible. It is a manipulative, cheap substitute for repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38-39). Quality evangelism is best done by evangelists in local churches, not by transitory evangelists who have no stake in our community. The Holy Spirit leads people to repentance, uses local pastors to baptize and local Christians to mentor new converts. A seed being transformed into a new plant is not instantaneous gratification. The struggle with the old person and sins of the past are not solved by a quickie prayer that is not found anywhere in the Bible. Learning to allow Christ to reign in our hearts, to follow him and serve him (John 12:26) takes time. Like a seed metaphorically dying and giving life, it takes time for new life to germinate and grow.
Tourists or Pilgrims at Church
Do we go to church as tourists or as pilgrims? Tourists go out of curiosity, to see Jesus but not to change. Pilgrims go to change their lives. The after-church experience of tourists is not to die to self, but to preserve their way of life. The after-church experience of pilgrims is much different, they go away inspired by a new life in Christ and to deepen their repentance. The tourist leaves church still loving their life in this world and its sins. The pilgrim leaves church loving this world even less and loving Christ all the more. The tourist leaves still following their favorite political party, or the advice of their favorite TV host, or the counterfeit wisdom of a false Gospel. The pilgrim realizes that all these are cheap substitutes for following Christ (John 12:26).
Jesus taught that self-preservation is self-destructive, but self-sacrifice is real life. A seed dies and life begins.