23 And Jesus answered them, saying: The hour has come that the Son of Man might be glorified.
24 Amen, amen, I say to you, unless the grain of wheat having fallen to the earth dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
25 The one loving his soul destroys it, and the one hating his soul in this world keeps it for life of the age.
26 If anyone serves me, let him follow me; and where I am, there also my servant will be. If anyone serves me, the Father will honour him.
Jesus’ image of the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies is, I imagine, most commonly understood as saying something about his death as the means by which many will be saved. Beasley-Murray, for example, writes: “so surely as a grain of wheat must be buried if it is to yield fruit for man, so the Son of Man must give himself in death if he is to produce a harvest of life for the world”.1 The verses that follow, however, suggest that this may not be so much an image of salvation as of discipleship—or perhaps of salvation through a model of self-sacrificing discipleship.
First, I think that by speaking of the glorification of the Son of Man, Jesus invokes a story of the suffering and vindication of an oppressed righteous community. Clearly he is speaking primarily—and perhaps only—of his own imminent suffering and death; but we need to keep in mind, nevertheless, that the controlling story is of the deliverance of Israel through the faithfulness of the Son of Man, and the thought is at least latent in the saying that as the Son of Man Jesus anticipates in his own fate the suffering and vindication of his disciples.
In any case, verses 25-26 make it clear that Jesus expects his disciples to participate concretely and realistically—not merely figuratively—in his own experience. In this tumultuous period of eschatological transition, those who cling to their souls will be destroyed (apolluei autēn)—along with the whole nation (John 11:50). Those who refuse to cling to life, will receive the life of the age to come. We have the same argument in Mark 8:31-9:1 (cf. Matt. 16:21-28; Lk. 9:22-27). The Son of Man will be killed and will be raised; those who would follow him must also take up their cross; they must lose (apolesei) their lives for Jesus’ sake and for the gospel; but they will be vindicated when the Son of Man comes with his glorious angels. Jesus writes his disciples into the story of the Son of Man.
In other words, the people of God will be saved from the coming destruction by the willingness of Jesus’ disciples to follow him along a path of martyrdom. The argument recurs in John 13:36-14:6—see my comments on “Jn. 14:6 - I am the way and the truth and the life”.
But if this is the contextual argument, we should perhaps read the metaphor of the grain of wheat a little differently. The point would be not that through Jesus’ death many will be “saved”—not, at least, in the conventional Christian sense. If Jesus speaks of himself as one who dies and bears much fruit (cf. 12:32), it is likely that he finds the metaphor equally applicable for his disciples. This is not an argument against attributing a unique significance to Jesus in the salvation of Israel, but it does reinforce the point that this salvation was a process that had to be lived out, walked out, by a company of disciples who would also have to die in order to bear much fruit.
- 1. G.R. Beasley-Murray, John (Word Biblical Commentary), 211.