My parents have always kept a garden. As soon as I could follow instructions, part of my late spring activities were planting seeds, setting out jars of gasoline to catch and kill beetles, and then at harvest time stringing and popping beans. We always had quarts upon quarts of beans. But my mom is a master canner and I am confident that she has never bought a can of bean out of need. But my grandmother grew pink tip beans – they grow more in a bush than on poles – and my dad always kept a bunch in a jar to plant. I remember the first time my dad explained to me how the beans had to dry out and get “old” in order to plant them the next year. I thought it was so strange. Why would you have to take something alive, something fresh that would be good to eat, and kill it, in order for it to grow a plant? Why can’t you just dig a hole and put an apple in the ground and get an apple tree? Or a peach seed? I actually tried that one time; I took the pit out of a peach and planted it. No peach tree ever grew. Granted, I was living in Philadelphia, PA, where peach trees are not found in abundance! But the seed was not dead, dried out, and ready to grow a tree.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal.”
– John 12.24-25
Jesus uses the analogy to explain Spiritual life. In order to bear fruit, we must first die. What in the world does that mean? The salvation experience is explained in a variety of ways. Paul says that we are Spiritually dead apart from Christ. We are physically alive, but have no Spiritual life (Eph 2.1). Jesus explained it in terms of Spiritual birth: in order to be saved – to be Spiritually alive – we must be born a second time. Nicodemus (the man to whom Jesus gave this very difficult teaching) asked the reasonable follow up question, “How can a man be born again when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” (John 3.3-4). No, we clearly learn throughout Scripture that Jesus meant the natural man has no Spiritual life and needs to be born Spiritually. God breathes Spiritual life into dead creatures and gives them life, or births them, if you will.
So what does Jesus mean that a grain a wheat must die to produce fruit? If we need to be reborn, or given Spiritual life because we are already dead, why do we have to die?
“…for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
– Rom 8.13
Paul explains it in terms of our nature. When we are a “natural man” we are living according to the desires of our flesh: our sinful nature. But when we come to faith in Christ, we are given Spiritual life, a new heart, a new nature. But the rest of our lives are spent battling the old one. We must put to death the old one so that the new one can flourish.
What is profound about Jesus’ teaching, however, is that He was speaking both about Himself and us. In the verse proceeding this teaching, Jesus declared that His hour had come; it was time for Him to glorify Himself by preforming the most critical act in all of history that would lead to salvation: dying on the cross and raising back to life. Until Jesus sacrificed Himself for our sake, humanity lived under the Law. Once Jesus paid our penalty, we were offered His righteousness through the gift of a new heart, the Holy Spirit indwelling us and enabling us to obey and to grow in righteousness. By Jesus’ death and resurrection we are given life. He bore much fruit in His death. And we are compelled to follow His example by dying to our flesh in order to live to Him.
For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.
– Rom 6.5-7
Jesus died to pay the punishment and penalty for our sin so that we do not have to. So when we are given Spiritual life, we make the effort to die to our flesh and our sin and live to righteousness. We bear the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self control (Gal 5.22-23).
That is why Jesus concluded His teaching with the statement:
“He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal.”
– John 12.25
If we love sin and worldly pleasures, we will die and spend eternity in Hell. Hell will not be enjoyable, it will be suffering and misery. But if we hate sin, if we hate our natural selves, and if we love Jesus and seek to die to our flesh and to our sin, then we will find eternal life in Heaven. We must die. Like a grain of wheat. Like Jesus did. Like a pink tip bean.
Do you love your life? Do you love your sin, selfishness and worldliness? Or are you looking to greater things? Are you dying to your flesh in order to live to Christ? Are you following His example, and lead?