Within the structure of 12:20-36, the main line moves from the initial saying in verse 23 to vv. 27-28ff. In between, there is a trio of sayings (vv. 24-26) which, on the surface, appear to be only marginally related to the main line of the discourse. Actually, there is an interesting parallel to this section in the Synoptics (Mark 8:31-9:1 par), in which there is a statement regarding the glory (do/ca) of the Son of Man (v. 38) in the context of his upcoming suffering and death (v. 31). Indeed, there is a reasonably close parallel for two of the Johannine sayings here in that Synoptic section (vv. 25-26, cp. Mk 8:34-35 par), sharing the basic discipleship-theme—of the willingness to give up one’s life to follow Jesus, even to the point of imitating his sacrificial death. This suggests that, quite independently, sayings-material has been combined in a similar way, in the Synoptic and Johannine Tradition respectively. In today’s note, we will be examining the first two of the sayings, in verses 24 and 25.
“Amen, amen, I relate to you: if the kernel of wheat falling into the earth should not die away, it remains alone; but if it should die away, it bears much fruit.”
This saying is an illustration (or short parable) utilizing agricultural (farming/planting) imagery, like many others we find in the Synoptic tradition. Several of these deal specifically with a grain or kernel (of wheat, etc), that is planted in the ground—most notably, the famous parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-9 par) and the parable of the mustard seed (4:26-29), the latter being closer to the Johannine illustration here.
The agricultural imagery is used to illustrate a basic premise: that new life comes as the result of death. This observation from the natural world has been noted and expressed many times by philosophers, theologians, and mystics around the world, regarding the interconnected mystery of life, death, and rebirth in the universe. Here, of course, it relates specifically to the death and resurrection of Jesus, but also—and more precisely—to the new (i.e. eternal) life that his death brings to those who trust in him.
The application of such agricultural symbolism to the person of a divine being is hardly unique to Jesus (as the Son of God); there are many ancient parallels of this sort, especially within (seasonal) cosmological and religious myths. One thinks, for example, of the Sumerian tales involving Dumuzi, who personified the life-giving power within the fruit-trees, etc, as well as that which enables the animals of the herd/flock to give birth; he ‘dies’ in the heat of summer, only to come back to life again in the spring-time. Similarly, we might note the daughter of Demeter in the myths at the core of the Greek Eleusinian mysteries; indeed, the mystery religions tended to make ritual of this symbolism, in a somewhat comparable manner to the early Christian baptism rite, in which believers participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus (cf. below). There are agricultural life/death/rebirth aspects to the Canaanite Baal Haddu, the Egyptian Osiris, and many other examples could be cited.
Jesus’ illustration makes an important contrast that can be easily overlooked—if it enters the ground, but does not die, the seed “remains alone” (an alliterative expression, mo/no$ me/nei). The verb me/nw (“remain”) is particularly significant within the Johannine theological vocabulary, being used repeatedly (in the Discourses, etc) to express the union of believers with Jesus. To “remain alone” is the opposite of this union, of separation from the life-giving power of Jesus (cp. the Vine illustration in chap. 15)—a power that is realized through the Spirit, but defined primarily by his sacrificial death. Thus, the illustration transitions from the idea of Jesus’ own death, to that of the believer who is united with Jesus’ through participation in his death. The effect of this union is depicted in the second part of the contrast—if the seed does die, then it becomes part of the natural process of bringing life and growth. This relates to the life-giving power of Jesus, but also to the way that this power is experienced by the believer.
“The (one) being fond of his (own) soul [i.e. life] suffers loss from it, but the (one) hating his soul in this world will guard it into (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life].”
This saying is quite similar to that of Mark 8:35 par (cf. above); in fact, there are several versions (or variations) of this saying in the Synoptic Tradition. In such instances, the critical view tends to be that the different versions go back to a single historical tradition, with the variations being primarily due to the process of transmission and (literary) adaptation; however, here it seems much more likely that the variations go back to Jesus himself. The saying is so simple, the the contrast so fundamental, that one can easily envision Jesus using it repeatedly in his teaching, in slightly different forms.
It is a dual-saying, each part with its own contrast—a conditional phrase (protasis) followed by the result statement (apodosis). Let us consider the first part of the saying, in its three Synoptic variations:
“Who ever would wish to save [sw=sai] his soul will suffer loss from it” (Mk 8:35; cf. also Lk 9:24)
“The (one) finding [eu(rw=n] his soul will suffer loss from it” (Matt 10:39)
“Who ever would wish to make his soul (secure) about (him) [peripoih/sasqai] will suffer loss from it” (Lk 17:33)
The version here in Jn 12:25 is:
“The (one) being fond of [filw=n] his soul will suffer loss from it”
Formally, the Johannine version is closer to Matt 10:39, with its use (in Greek) of the articular particple (“the one finding” / “the one being fond of”). The pattern of Jesus’ saying allows for four different verbs, each with its own nuance; however, in each version, the result-statement uses the verb a)po/llumi, which can be translated “lose”, “ruin”, “destroy”, but which I render more literally above as experiencing “loss from” something. Taken on its own (and out of context), the significance of the saying is not immediately clear, though its basic meaning (as a proverb) is straightforward—the person who is concerned about the welfare of his/her own life will end up experiencing the loss of (or from) it.
The second part of the saying is as follows:
“…but who ever suffers loss from his soul, for my sake and (for) the good message, will save it” (Mk 8:35)
“…and the (one) suffering loss from his soul, for my sake, will find it” (Matt 10:39)
“…but who ever would suffer loss from (his soul) will cause it to be [i.e. remain] alive” (Lk 17:33)
In Jn 12:25 it is:
“…and the (one) hating his soul in this world will guard it into (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life”
The Johannine version differs primarily in that the saying does not reverse itself, pivoting on a repeated use of the verb a)po/llumi; instead, a formal contrast is made between the verb file/w (“the one being fond of…”) and mise/w (“the one hating…”). This emphasis resembles the thought and language of the Synoptic sayings in Luke 14:26 and Matt 10:37. The thrust of this is explained by an additional layer of contrast in the saying: “this world” vs. eternal life (“life of the Age [to Come]”). The use of ko/smo$ (“world order, world”), in the context of Johannine theology, indicates that Jesus is not merely speaking of a concern for ordinary daily matters, but of involvement in the darkness and wickedness that is intrinsic to the current world order.
The opposite of losing/ruining one’s soul (vb a)po/llumi) is to guard it (vb fula/ssw)—i.e. protect it and keep it from harm. The verb fula/ssw is relatively rare in the Johannine writings, with the synonymous thre/w (“keep watch [over]”) being much more common. In 12:47, fula/ssw is used to describe the believer as one who “guards” Jesus’ words; while, in the great Prayer-discourse (17:12), it refers to the work of Jesus in guarding his disciples (believers) while he is present with them (a protection that will continue through the presence of the Spirit). The specific wording is worth noting, in light of 12:25:
“When I was with them, I kept watch (over) them in the name that you have given to me, and I guarded [e)fu/laca] (them), and not one out of them was lost/ruined [a)pw/leto]…”
The same juxtaposition of fula/ssw and a)pollumi occurs here as in 12:25, and we may infer here a similar meaning—it is Jesus who guards believers and keeps them from harm, when they unite with his life-giving (and preserving) power through participation in his sacrificial death. The Johannine theological context has shifted the emphasis somewhat from the straightforward discipleship motif (i.e. in Mark 8:34-38 par), to the idea of trusting in Jesus with the idiom of seeing and remaining (i.e. being united with him). However, the more traditional theme of discipleship—following Jesus—is still present in the Johannine discourse, as we will examine in the next daily note.