I don’t believe that unusual coincidences by themselves have divine authority to guide our lives. It’s not the mark of a healthy mind if one is habitually fascinated or preoccupied by strange coincidences — like the endless similarities between the death of John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln. Fixation on coincidences is a mark of imbalance in life.
Nevertheless, since we believe in the total rule of God over all coincidences, great or small, it is not wrong to be amazed and encouraged by certain occasional coincidences — or as Noël reminded me on Friday, “God-incidences.” And the timing and text of this weekend’s message is one of them.
As I came to prepare for this message, the church context that I have in mind is that next Sunday night we are gathering to celebrate 140 years of God’s faithfulness to this church looking back, and to express our unshakable confidence in God’s faithfulness for the future. And I am aware that one specific aspect of that future that we will focus on is the establishment of the South Site on its own campus.
Treasuring Christ Together
Underneath our mission statement, Bethlehem has a strategy of growth and impact for the glory of Christ in the Twin Cities and beyond. We call it Treasuring Christ Together (TCT). TCT is a movement to multiply campuses, plant churches, and care for the poorest of the poor (the Global Diaconate). Five percent of all gifts to Treasuring Christ Together goes to church planting, five percent goes to the Global Diaconate, and ninety goes to pay for establishing new campuses. And of course, all of this is over and above the nine-million-dollar budget that supports all our missionaries and ministries day in and day out.
The South Site has been meeting in Burnsville High School for over five years. And we believe it is strategic for long-term impact for the gospel that the people who worship and serve in the South have their own campus the way the Downtown and North congregations do. So we are praying toward an amazing outpouring of generosity and sacrifice next week to raise a million dollars toward the land purchase for the South Campus. And be encouraged that since TCT started in 2004, you have given almost ten million dollars.
So that’s what’s on my mind as I come to prepare for this message from John 12:12–26. I want it to be relevant, for this situation — one week from today, a major effort from our whole church to give stability and fruitfulness to our south site by giving one million dollars towards their campus.
An Encouraging Providence
So I went to our website to remind myself if I had preached on this text from John 12 before. I couldn’t remember. And this is the coincidence — the God-incidence. I did preach on this text. I preached on it September 3, 2006. It was the Sunday before the launch of the South Site and their first worship service at Burnsville High School. I believe God gave me in 2006 this text, especially verses 20–26, as the word we needed for the launching of the South Site.
“Jesus really is the King, not just of Israel, but of the whole world.”
Today we are again one week away from a major effort to establish the South Site. And I didn’t choose for us to be on this text in John on this particular weekend. God did. I chose the text five years ago, under God’s providence, but this time, it’s simply there in the sequence without anybody but God planning it this way.
So like I said, we don’t guide our lives by these kinds of providences. We guide our lives by the word of God and by the wisdom of his Spirit. But I think God means this for our encouragement. I really do. It really is a remarkable thing. All of the Bible is God’s word. But I would say that this text has a special relevance for us in relation to the South Campus.
With this that in mind, with an earnest prayer that God would work wonders next weekend, let’s look at what it says.
Jesus, King of Israel — and the World
There are two parts to the text of John 12, verses 12–19 and verses 20–26. I think the point of the first part is that Jesus is, in fact, the King of Israel — he is embracing it now, not pushing it away (as in John 6:15) — and not just the king of Israel, but the king of the world. Watch how this comes clear.
The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:12–13)
So they are quoting Psalm 118:25–26 and celebrating Jesus as the Messiah, the long-awaited king. This is the nightmare the Pharisees and chief priests feared. Will Jesus walk away from this acclamation like he did in John 6:15 or will he embrace it?
And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him. (John 12:14–16)
No, Jesus did not walk away from the acclamation, he heightened it by choosing to fulfill a prophecy about the coming King of Israel from Zechariah 9:9. He is saying with his action: Yes, I am the King of Israel. I am the Messiah. And he is doing it at the most explosively dangerous moment.
Now notice how John weaves his story together to make plain that the kingship of Jesus is more than a local, Jewish, tribal kingship, but in fact the king of the world.
The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign. So the Pharisees said to one another, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.” (John 12:17–19)
These adversaries of Jesus continue to speak more than they know (see John 11:50–52). The “whole world”? Really? What an odd thing to say at the beginning of a Jewish festival? Or was it?
The Greeks Want to See Too
And that brings to the second part of the text (verses 20–26). Who should show up now, but some Greeks — out of the blue, so to speak.
Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. (John 12:20–22)
Amazing! Greeks are asking to see Jesus at the Passover celebration. Why here? Why now? I think because God wants to show, and John wants to underline, that Jesus really is the King, not just of Israel, but of the “whole world” — here represented by the Gentiles, these foreigners. In verse 19 the Pharisees say, “The whole world has gone after him.” And now even Greeks are going after him.
Jesus Speaks About Himself — and Us
So God’s word to us so far is that Jesus really is the Messiah. He really did come into the world to be the king of Israel. That’s why he got on the donkey and fulfilled Zechariah 9. And Jesus is more than the Jewish Messiah — more than the King of Israel. He is the king of the whole world. He is the king over all the nations and all the neighborhoods, including Downtown, North and South. And people are going to go after him from all the peoples and all the neighborhoods. Our job — our very happy job — is to lift up Jesus in witness and in corporate worship North, Downtown, and South so that he might draw “all the world” to himself.
All of this sounds very triumphant and very wonderful. But then come the words of Jesus in response to the Greek’s desire to see him. The Greeks want to see Jesus. Did they get to see him? Does Jesus show himself to them? Physically, we don’t know. John doesn’t say. But this may be for our sake. Because Jesus does show himself to them the same way he shows himself to us.
He speaks truth about himself that becomes a truth about us. This is how Jesus shows himself in power: he gives truth about himself that becomes truth about us.
Wanting to See Jesus Is Right
He says in verse 23,
“If we follow Jesus to Calvary, we will be with him in glory.”
[So there are Greeks who want to see me? Here is the truth about me that matters for Greeks — and for the people at Bethlehem — who want to see me and know me:] The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.
In other words, I am on my way to glory. I really will be something to see. They are right to want to see me. I will pray for this — that they will see my glory (John 17:20). I will be the most glorious person in the universe when my Father raises me from the dead and gives me a name that is above every name so that at my name every knee will bow — including Jews and Greeks and Americans. Yes, they are right to want to see me — and even want to be identified with me.
What They Didn’t Expect
But here is a truth that they may not expect. Verse 24:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
My pathway to glory is through death. Do you want to see that? I will indeed bear much fruit — including Greeks. But I will not and I cannot bear this fruit any way but through dying.
If I leave the road I’m on now and try to be seen by people who want a glimpse of a king, I will remain alone like a seed in a bag, not in the ground. And you will not be saved. Not the Jews or the Greeks.
But if I go and die on my way to glory, then I will bear much fruit — you will be saved and the Greeks will be saved, and all who believe in me will be saved. Do they want to see me? This is what I want them to see. See me dying. See me bearing fruit.
Jesus’s Design for Our Imitation
That is the truth about Jesus that he reveals to the Greeks — and to us. But now it also becomes a truth about them — and about us. He says in verses 25 and 26: my dying for your salvation is also my design for your imitation. If you want to see me, be prepared to become like me. Prepare to follow me on the road I am going. So he says, verse John 12:25,
He who loves his life loses it; and he who hates his life in this world shall keep it to life eternal. If anyone serves me, let him follow me [Where? To Gethsemane and to Calvary and to the grave]; and where I am, there shall my servant also be [in the presence of my Father in glory]; if anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.
So Jesus begins with truth about himself — the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified, and this will happen by the grain of wheat falling into the ground and dying. Then he makes the truth about himself a truth about us. Will we hate our lives in this world? Will we follow him on the path to Calvary? Will we serve the Son in this way? Will we let the truth about the Son of Man become truth about us? Will we identify with the one we are so eager to see?
The Hard and Glorious Call
So we see Jesus the same way the Greeks did — by his word and his action. He says I am going to glory. I am going to bear much fruit. And the way I am going is by hating my life in this world, by suffering and dying for you. And then he says, Follow me. Die with me. Hate your life in this world with me. Serve me.
Two things become unmistakably clear. One is that this is hard. And the other is that this is glorious. And I wonder if this is why God put this text in my mind for the South launch five years ago, and arranged for it to be on the schedule today one week before the effort to raise a million dollars for the South Campus. Of course, it has a hundred applications to our lives — and the one you may feel right now is painfully personal. But God is always doing more than one thing.
So, as a church stretching to bless the South site, and as individual Christians with many hard things in front of you, let’s not miss either of these — the hard and the glorious. If we only see the hard part, we will miss the power and the freedom. If we only see the glorious part, we will minimize the sacrifice. So let me show you four hard things and four glorious things that Jesus says.
Four Hard Things
Verse 24: the grain of wheat must die. “Unless the grain of wheat fall into the ground and die. . . .” This is hard.
Verse 25: Jesus calls us to hate our lives in this world. “He who loves his life loses it; and he who hates his life in this world. . . .” This is hard.
Verse 26a: Jesus calls us to follow him — on his Calvary road, leading to death. “If anyone serves me let him follow me. . . .” This is hard.
Finally, verse 26b: he calls us to serve him. “If anyone serves me.” To take the role of a waiter at his table to do his bidding, no matter what the demand or how lowly the status. This is hard.
That’s what it means to be a Christian, a disciple of Jesus. Jesus knew it would be hard. That’s why he said in Matthew 7:14, “The gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” It’s hard to die. It’s hard to hate your life in this world. It’s hard to follow Jesus on the road that leads to the cross. It’s hard to take the role of a servant in a world of power.
But it is also glorious. So don’t miss this. If you are at the South site and you feel that five years is a long time to wait . . . and if you feel that a million dollars next week is not easy to imagine, remember this: the glory Jesus’s promises compensates for the hardness of it all. In fact, the glory turns the hardness into the most significant life imaginable.
Four Glorious Things
1. Verse 24: Yes the seed must die, but “if it dies it bears much fruit.” The death is not in vain. It is significant. It bears fruit.
2. Verse 25: Yes, if we love our life, we will lose it; and yes, we must hate our life in this world. But why? What will be the outcome? That we may keep it to eternal life. “He who hates his life in this world shall keep it to life eternal.” What we lay down for Christ he will put in our hands again with glory. You cannot out-sacrifice his resurrection generosity.
“It’s hard to take the role of a servant in a world of power. But it is also glorious.”
3. Verse 26a: Yes, we must follow him to Calvary. But with what outcome? “And where I am, there shall my servant be.” Jesus used those very words one other time (John 14:3), and he meant heaven: “I go to prepare a place for you that where I am there you may be also.” If we follow him to Calvary, we will be with him in glory.
4. Verse 26b: Yes, we must become his servants. But what does the Father do to his servants? “If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.”
Don’t Miss This
So don’t miss the glory and the overflowing joy in this hard life of being a Christian.
- We die;
- we hate our lives in this world;
- we follow Jesus on the Calvary road;
- we become servants.
And when we do, what we find is that
- We bear much fruit;
- we keep our lives for eternal life;
- we join Jesus where he is in glory;
- the Father honors us.
Not Easy, but Glorious
That’s the way I want to live the few remaining years I have left in this world. And that’s the way I want to spend eternity. Jesus shows us who he is, and what he is going to do, and what it will mean. And he invites us to join him. My dying for your salvation is my design for your imitation. I pay the price for the one (John 10:16). I give the strength for the other (John 15:5).
It won’t be easy, but it will be significant. It will be eternal. That’s true for your life. And that’s true for Treasuring Christ Together. Multiplying campuses, planting churches, caring about the poorest of the poor won’t be easy. But it will be glorious.