John 12:20-33 A Grain Of Wheat

Authored By Rev. Takao Kiyohiro, Tokyo, Japan

1.  Within the biblical passage I read you today is verse twelve which I would like for us to keep our thoughts on in particular.  It reads like this there, "Truly I say to you.  Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it stays a grain.  But, if it dies, it yields forth much fruit."  So, in what type of setting were these words of the Lord spoken?  Skipping back just a bit, let's think about this first.  Please look at chapter twelve and verses twelve and so on.

2.  The crowd wildly welcomed Jesus.  It says in the text that at that time they "went out to meet him with palm branches," (12:13).  According to the dictionary they say the plant translated as palm branch grows in the Mediterranean coastal region and in the Jordanian lowlands, but not in the highlands in the outskirts of Jerusalem.  This means that they did not accidentally take up branches that had been growing up around them and held them in their hands.  This clearly is an act that has singular symbolical significance.  It is related to a particular historical event.

What The Crowd Was Looking For

3.  In the second century before Christ, the Jews were under Syrian rule.  In particular, when the king by the name of Antiochus IV governed, they experienced terrible persecution.  The scriptures were burned up, circumcision was forbidden, and the temple at Jerusalem was made into a shrine for idols.  They were then even forced to offer swine as a sacrifice.  Many of those who resisted met with death by martyrdom.  Under such circumstances as these, a rebellion at last arose against Syria.  It was the family of priests of the Hasmoneans who lead the rebellion.  In time, the army under the command of a person from among the Hasmoneans named Judas The Maccabee [The Hammer] came to defeat Syria and recaptured the Jerusalem temple.  The account related to this is recorded in The Old Testament Apocrypha in Second Maccabees (it is included in the New Interconfessional Deuterocanonical Version) as follows, "They held up thyrsus[1], branches with fruit attached, and leaves of dates [palms], and offered up songs of praise to the One who would lead them to the cleansing of the holy place," (Second Maccabees 10:7).  This thing called dates are the palms we saw in the text earlier.

4.  Later, the Jews lose the temple again, but for now Simon the older brother of Judas gets the temple back.  This is written of in that time as well, "Simon and his people were filled with joy and held up palm branches, they sounded the harps, the cymbals, and the twelve stringed instruments, and they entered the citadel while singing songs of praise," (First Maccabees 13:51).

5.  So, that's how these things called palm and date branches were deeply connected to the memory of the independence and liberation of the Jewish people.  However, this independence didn't last for long.  After Simon recaptured Jerusalem, in a little less than a hundred years the Jews fell back under the rule of a major power.  Jerusalem was reconquered by the Roman army under the command of Pompey.

6.  As time flowed on, in the time of the Lord Jesus, the Jews were still under Roman control but they welcomed the Lord Jesus to Jerusalem with palm branches.  While waving the branches of palms which were a symbol of independence and liberation, they shouted with happy voices and welcomed the Lord Jesus.  What might this mean?  I think I see something.  It's this.  They were looking for liberators like Judas and Simon Maccabeus.  This [all] became one with their messianic aspirations and lead to a fervor.  To them the messiah was but a king who would mightily win them independence and freedom.  They believed that there was enough power for that in this person by the name of Jesus of Nazareth.  Because they had seen his miracles and heard the rumors around him.  "The multitude who was with Jesus when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead were testifying to that so that [another] multitude who went out to greet Jesus had heard that Jesus did this particular sign," (verses seventeen and eighteen).

7.  However, the movement like this to make the Lord Jesus king by way of a political liberator did not first occur here at this place.  Previously, at the time he did the miracle of the bread the multitude would have grabbed Jesus and made him king, (6:15).  At that time the Lord withdrew to the mountains.  Here as well the Lord Jesus did a singularly symbolical act in order to make clear that he was not a king like the crowd was looking for.  He finds a donkey colt[2] and rides it.  This was an act based on the words from the book of Zechariah, "O daughter of Zion, do not be afraid.  Behold.  Your king is coming.  [He comes] by a colt of a donkey."  This is not a literal quote, but it is a quote from Zechariah chapter nine and verse nine.  Actually, in Zechariah the part that comes next goes like this, "I will cut off the chariots from Ephraim and the war horses from Jerusalem.  The bows of war will be severed, peace will be announced to the peoples of many nations."

8.  The crowd was looking for a king who would mightily do battle for them and who would win them their independence and freedom.  But, Jesus in daring to ride on a donkey showed that he himself was not that kind of messiah.

What The Lord Would Give Them

9.  What the multitudes were looking for and what the Lord Jesus would give them were always clashing strongly.  Sadly enough, it would continue all the way to the cross.  Before long these multitudes would shout "Crucify him."  When their selfish aspirations go unfulfilled, their expectations easily change to hostility.

10.  What the Lord Jesus would give them was not just the political independence of a people.  That's not [what he wanted to give them], rather it was the salvation which not only the Jews but all people fundamentally were in need of.  An event took place where this was clarified symbolically.  Greeks, who were Gentiles, came to where Jesus was.  They had a request for Philip.  "Excuse us, but we have a favor to ask.  We would like to see Jesus."  This was an event that lets us know the momentous time it was even for Jesus.  Here for the first time the Lord Jesus says, "The hour has come."  That was the event that announces that the last decisive hour has come for the Lord.  That is, it meant that he was not a savior of the Jews as the people anticipated, but that the hour had come that he should fulfill his mission on behalf of the salvation of all persons including the Greeks.

11.  Jesus pointed to his time and said, "The time has come for the son of man to receive glory."  However, I feel like the true meaning of these words is very hard to understand.  Because in a certain sense, these words are the very ones that both the multitudes and the disciples were really looking for.  At last the time has come for a king.  That's how the disciples probably took it.  At any rate, since it's about the Lord Jesus receiving glory, the disciples probably were thinking that they too could have a share in his glory.  But, some totally unexpected words came next like this, "Truly I say to you.  Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it stays a grain.  But, if it dies, it yields forth much fruit," (verse twenty-four).

12.  To fall to the ground and die sounds truly awful.  To receive glory is totally opposite to falling to the ground and dying.  But, the real meaning of [what] the Lord Jesus [said] was really in those words that were totally opposite [to their thinking].  For the Lord Jesus, receiving glory did not mean just to become king and be revered by the people.  Not hardly, it meant on the other hand to fall to the ground as a grain of wheat and to die.  The Lord was not saying that the time had come for him to become king and rule.  While in the face of worldly glory, he meant that he had to die, and worse, that he had to die miserably on a cross. Thus he begins to yield fruit - Jesus called the event of the cross that he so faced "glory."  And in order to bring salvation to all persons and to yield forth this kind of fruit, this was unavoidable.

13.  The people were looking for a political liberation like Judas Maccabeus once brought.  That was salvation for them, but that liberation was lost again to a military power.  What is gained by force is lost by force.  They didn't know what they really needed.  Their real problem was not in losing their political independence.  That really wasn't it, rather it was that they lost God.  It was that they lost a righteous relationship with God and fellowship with him.  For humankind, the real problem is not external governments or burdens.  It is that humans sin, are separated from God, and lose their relationship with God.  They lose their fellowship with God and the life of God [that was originally in humankind before the fall].

14.  It is the same for us moderns after two thousand years.  Problems fill this world.  Environmental problems, educational problems, the problem of an aging society, wide spread terrorism and the crisis of war ...   Even our own dear households are filled up with problems.  Of course, it's important to honestly tackle these different problems.  But, often times we think humanity is saved whenever these problems are resolved or if freed from all these different kinds of burdens and yokes.  Listen, all of you, this is just not so.  In the first place, external burdens don't just disappear.  And that's not even where the fundamental problem lies.  Humanity is not saved by just having external burdens taken away.  As long as a person does not turn to God, receive God's forgiveness, and live in real fellowship with Him, he or she is not saved.  In the book of Jeremiah, we find the words, "I will change their lamenting to joy and comfort them, and I will make them celebrate joyously instead of being sad," (31:13).  No one will be saved unless he or she recovers a relationship with the true God, with even the One who said ["I will change their lamenting to joy and comfort them, and I will make them celebrate joyously instead of being sad."]  This indeed is the salvation that all persons need, whether they are Jews, Greeks, or Japanese.

15.  For that reason what they needed was not for the Lord Jesus to be king and [their] political liberator.  [What they needed] was [for him to] bear the sins of all persons, and as a lamb for the atonement of sin, to take over [responsibility for] the judgment of sin and to die miserably on the cross.  He really wanted to be that grain of wheat.  And, the grain of wheat that fell to the ground had certainly yielded forth much fruit.  We can have a share in that fruit even right now.  By his death we can receive forgiveness of sin and eternal life.  We can live in fellowship with God for ever.

16.  And to the person who takes hold of the salvation that comes from the death of that grain of wheat an orientation from Christ is given, a completely new life style from Christ is given.  The Lord Jesus went on to say this, "He who loves his own life will lose it, but he who hates his life in this world will keep it and attain eternal life.  Whoever would serve me, obey me!  In so doing, where I am will the person be who serves me.  If a person serves me, the Father will respect that person," (verses twenty-five and twenty-six).

17.  Lining up loving and hatred together is a Jewish [way of] expression.  There is a considerable difference in saying we love or hate.  This is, in short, an issue of choice or election.  "To love" means to choose and "to hate" means not to choose.  In other words, "to love life" means "to pick the direction of one's life."  It is to make your own life number one.  Another way of putting it is to make yourself number one.  It is nothing but being devoted to making yourself happy, satisfying yourself, and steadfastly pursuing after your own self actualization.  Simply put, it is living with your own satisfaction and happiness as your greatest goal.  Conversely, "hating your life" is not a suicide wish.  It means to not chose a life that takes its own satisfaction and happiness for its highest goal.

18.  Those who think that the realization of their happiness and their aspirations will complete their own lives and be fulfilling are not going in the direction of life, but are heading for destruction.  Isn't that truly clear even in the places we look?  Those who pursue steadily after personal satisfaction and happiness alone, in reality, bear so many distresses, are taken in by jealousy and hatred, jerked around by sin and lead miserable lives.  Don't they!  It's clear that the future destination in which they are headed is not eternal life.  Conversely, those who do not pick their life in this world will attain eternal life, he says.

19.  However, this is not just grinning and bearing it and living alone in self denial.  The Lord is not looking for that kind of thing from us.  What the Lord is looking for is but that we live with Him.  "Whoever would serve me, obey me!"  That's what the Lord Jesus says.  We steadfastly follow after the Lord.  We don't leave, we follow.  And, as we are led by the one who loves us and became a grain of wheat to save us and who fell to the ground and yielded much fruit, he will make us too into a grain of wheat.  That meant martyrdom in the ancient church.  We know that as the blood of many martyrs was shed the gospel had yielded forth fruit.  But, to become a grain of wheat doesn't only mean to be a martyr.  We should become a grain of wheat in whatever situation we are placed in.

End Notes

1. Thrysus: A staff tipped with a pine cone and twined with ivy, carried by Dionysus, Dionysian revelers, and satyrs

Excerpted from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition  © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation; further reproduction and distribution in accordance with the Copyright Law of the United States. All rights reserved.

2. George R. Beasley-Murray makes the comment that:

The Evangelist's stating at this point in the narrative that Jesus procured a donkey on which to ride into Jerusalem emphasizes the intention of Jesus to correct a false messianic expectation, for to enter the city on a donkey instead of on a horse, which was associated by Jews with war (cf. Isa 31:1-3; 1 Kings 4:26), was itself a demonstration of the peaceable nature of the mission of Jesus, and the relation of the event to Zech 9:9 makes that motive explicit; for Zech 9:9-10 describes the joyous coming of the King-Messiah -- he is righteous, gentle, bringing salvation, riding on a donkey, proclaiming peace to the nations.  Nothing further from a Zealotic view of the Messiah could be imagined.

Quote from George R. Beasley-Murray, John in Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 36, (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1987), p. 210.

 
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