Read John 12:20–36.
Every spring, my wife, Laurin, and I take up our spades, bags of curated dirt, and packets of heirloom seeds to participate in the small miracle of gardening. I call it a miracle because, when you stop and think about it, it really is magic: a small seed pushed into the dirt, fed with just water and sunlight, opens, transforms, and grows into a plant that produces tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, or pumpkins. Every fruit and vegetable we harvest comes from a little kernel that once appeared dead and unchangeable.
One of the main reasons Laurin and I bother with a garden is the process. We want our three boys to witness the sprouts push up through the dirt, to see the stalks daily grow toward the sky and the vines spread wide into our yard, to eat what God provided, knowing exactly how He provided it. In the middle of summer, as our boys are snacking on cucumber slices and wiping tomato juice off their chins, we remind them of the seeds. We point them back to the beginning of the miracle so they can join us in marveling at the goodness and creativity of God—how He takes what seems so small and lifeless, and multiplies it to fill our table.
With so many people around Him connected in some way to agriculture, Jesus talked about seeds a lot. He talked about the need for good soil (Matthew 13:1–23), the growth potential of a mustard seed (Mark 4:30–32), and here in John 12, the seed that falls to the ground and dies: “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies it produces many seeds” (v. 24).
Jesus is that seed. In just a few days, He will die at the behest of Jewish authorities and at the hands of Roman soldiers. His body, lifeless and pierced, will be placed in the earth. But it will not remain there. He will be the firstborn of a new creation, producing others of His kind, until the whole earth is filled.
It’s a beautiful image. At the same time, it’s a strange thing to say in response to some Greek visitors who want to get a closer glimpse at Jesus. That’s right—a fan visit prompts these remarks from Jesus. A group of Greeks had come to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. They are God-fearers who haven’t converted fully to the Jewish faith. With knowledge of the Scriptures and God’s promises, they are intrigued by what have been hearing about Jesus of Nazareth, and so they approach Philip, who in turn finds Andrew, who then delivers word to Jesus. His response to this ancient game of telephone is to talk about seeds and His impending death.
Of course, no one looks forward to public torture, humiliation, and crucifixion, not even someone who is willingly laying down His life for the sake of the world. “Now my soul is troubled,” says Jesus (v. 27). In His humanity, He admits His desire for another way. Like anyone with a death sentence hanging over their head, Jesus is filled with emotion not so easily contained. Yet, in His love for the Father, He is undeterred. He knows His mission. He knows what He must do. “Father, glorify your name!” He prays.
The Father answers the Son with an audible voice from heaven: “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again” (v. 28). The crowd can hear the sound, although they debate whether it’s thunder or the voice of an angel. Either way, and whether or not they choose to accept it, it’s confirmation from above that Jesus is speaking truth.
As this scene plays out, it seems we’re getting further and further away from what originally prompted these words from Jesus. What happened to the Greeks? And what does any of this have to do with their request to see Jesus? It’s unclear whether they’ve gotten the closer look they were after or if they’re somewhere waiting in the wings, hoping for Philip to return with positive news. Either way, Jesus hasn’t forgotten about them. In the talk of His impending death, He says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (v. 32).
There it is. Jesus hasn’t trailed off into another subject, and He hasn’t forgotten about His Greek admirers. He’s letting them know they’re too early. As Jesus said another time, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). But once the Son has triumphed over death and the devil, then the good news of the kingdom will travel far and wide beyond the borders of Israel. Once sin is paid for and the way made clear, then people of every tribe and tongue will enter through the narrow gate. Even so, “the hour has come” (John 12:23). These Gentiles, who are eager to learn more of Jesus, need only wait a little while longer.
You and I live on the other side of the cross. The price has already been paid. The way has already been made. The dead seed has been planted and the new life has come. All that’s left is for us to share the good news east and west and north and south, until every last soul has heard.