“If any (one) would serve me, he must follow (the same path as) me, and where I am, there also my servant will be; (and) if any (one) would serve me, the Father will value him (greatly).”
This is the third of the three sayings which follow the initial declaration in verse 23. They all relate to the theme of discipleship—of following Jesus, even to the point of imitating (or participating in) his sacrificial death. As previously noted, there are similar sayings (and parables) in the Synoptic Gospels; indeed, there is a general parallel between 12:23-26ff and the discourse-block in Mark 8:31-9:1 par, which contains a similar cluster of discipleship-sayings. The saying here in verse 26 corresponds, more or less, to that of Mk 8:34 par, with the emphasis on following Jesus, using the same verb a)kolouqe/w:
“If any (one) wishes to follow [a)kolouqei=n] in back of me, (surely) he must deny himself and take up his stake [i.e. cross-piece] and follow [a)kolouqei/tw] me.”
The fundamental meaning of this verb entails following the same road or path (ke/leuqo$) that another person takes. The Synoptic saying uses the regular prepositional expression o)pi/sw (“in back of, behind”). In the Johannine saying, the emphasis is not on following behind Jesus, but on ending up in the same place that he does. Thus, we have a rather different aspect of discipleship here—one which corresponds entirely with the distinctive Johannine theology of the Gospel. The same basic point is made in Last Discourse (Jn 14:3-4):
“And if I should travel and make ready a place for you, I (will) come and will take you along toward myself, (so) that where [o(pou=] I am, (there) also you would be. And (the place) where [o(pou=] I lead (the way) under [u(pa/gw], you have seen [i.e. you know] the way (there).”
In both 12:26 and 14:3-4, the locational particle o(pou= (indicating “at whichever [place]”, i.e. “[the place] where”) is used. The lack of the preposition o)pi/sw is significant—the believer does not follow behind Jesus, but exists, united with him, in the same place. This all occurs with Jesus’ death and resurrection, as the Passion-context of these sayings would indicate. After this—that is, following his death, resurrection, and return to the Father—believers are united with him through the Spirit (in the present), and ultimately will be together with him in heaven (in the future). This does not eliminate the traditional idea of discipleship (cp. the Synoptic sayings), but, rather, gives to it a new and deeper meaning.
Significant also is the way that the Johannine saying here introduces the idea of serving (vb diakone/w). The verb is used in the Gospel of John only here in chapter 12—the Passion narrative setting of the Anointing of Jesus (v. 2), and twice here in v. 26. The related noun dia/kono$ (“servant”) is equally rare, occurring outside of this verse only in early Cana miracle-episode (2:5, 9). The terminology is more common in the Synoptics, including the idea that following Jesus (as a disciple) entails serving him (cf. Mark 15:41 par; Luke 8:3). Elsewhere, the emphasis is on Jesus acting as a servant—giving of himself to serve others—and on the need for his disciples to follow the same example (Mk 10:43-45; par Matt 20:26-28; Lk 17:7-10; 22:26-27, cf. also 12:37). While the Gospel of John does not contain any comparable sayings, the idea is expressed clearly in the Last Supper scene in chapter 13—the washing of the disciples’ feet (vv. 4-11), along with the explanation of what this signifies (vv. 12-20); there is a definite parallel with the setting of Lk 22:26-27.
Thus, in the Johannine context especially, the idea of serving is closely connected with the sacrificial death of Jesus, even as it is in a saying such as Mk 10:45 par. We may well infer here, in Jn 12:26, that for the disciple to serve Jesus means participation in his death, just as the parable in v. 24 also indicates. One is reminded of the statement by Ignatius of Antioch, in the early second century; himself following Jesus’ example, on his way to being put to death for his faith in Christ, he calls himself “the (grain of) wheat of God” (Romans 4:1). Indeed, with his death he declares “then I will be truly a disciple of Jesus Christ” (v. 2).
It is this aspect of the believer’s participation in Jesus death that explains the relationship of these sayings to the initial Son of Man statement in v. 23 (as well as the narrative introduction of vv. 20-22). I will be discussing this further in the next daily note. The reference to God the Father at the close of v. 26 is also of special importance, since it serves to unite the discipleship-sayings with what follows in vv. 27-30, to be studied in the next note.