The grain of wheat that falls and dies

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.
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It has seemed to me in my engagement of this verse and of John's Gospel that theself emptying theme comes up strongly in Jesus' conception of what he is to be about, in how God chooses to glorify himself and in the path he calls his disciples to follow. As such it seems to be John's slant on the places in the Synoptics where Christ speaks of taking up one's cross. (Which now after really reading the post I realize you connected!)

In terms of theology, as one strongly impressed by trinitarian theology I see really important insights towards having a healthy trinitarian concept of the mission deity.

It also in my opinion cuts pretty hard against the popular presentation of the wrathful God who really wants to destroy most of humanity but choose a few to save in order that they glorify him. Because if this insight is correct the sort of glorification God desires is a cruciform or martyrdom shaped glorification.

B.D., I would agree with that but with a couple of reservations.

First, our trinitarian theologies do not always fit very well with the narrative shape of the New Testament. I would interpret this passage first in relation to an eschatological narrative and only secondarily in relation to post-biblical trinitarian models. There were good historical reasons why the way of salvation for Israel was a narrow and difficult path of persecution and suffering.

Secondly, the wrath of God is a critical component in New Testament thought—wrath against Israel and wrath against the Greek-Roman world; and I would argue that it is this which draws out a cruciform glorification of Jesus and of his followers. Whether we should continue to use the concept of divine wrath beyond the eschatological horizon of the New Testament—that is after AD 70 and after the defeat of pagan imperialism—I’m not so sure.

Andrew, that is interesting, I can see how the immediate reading would require looking first at the eschatological narrative. I would offer however that throughout the Gospel of John, much of the ground work for the theology of the trinity is laid.

On the second point I should have been more clear. I'm not trying to get around the wrath of God, as much as to counter a line of thought I run into often in which, God has chosen who he wants to save and is not truly interested in saving everyone. This line of thought to me perverts the wrath of God and turns God into a bully who gets a kick out of inflicting pain in others. So, yes, I agree that God's wrath is important, but I was looking at how it isn't the gleefully wrathful storyline that seems to have become popular here in the states.

The discipleship motif has almwys seemed implicit within my reading of this scripture, Andrew. Given the context of the metaphor, it seems an unavoidable conclusion. 

Indeed, I'm using this concept of the seed --> death --> harvest as the foundational concept of the Discipleship Curriculum that I'm authoring.

It echoes the 'pars pro toto' concept that is a central element in some missiological thinking: the few for the sake of the many.

This begins with a process linking Jesus life and ministry with the charismata in the body:


This leads to a related process, as these gifts are given for 'world-directed' ministry, each part of the body equipped for "works of service" within the world:


Some are given (apostles, prophets etc.) in order to build up the community—the few—that together the whole body may exercise mediatory service on behalf of the many, within the world.

PS. I'm wondering if your translation of these verses is missing the words 'to come'?

The FEW in this context refers to those who are themeslves "gifts" to the body, such as apostles (emissaries), prophets, pastors (shepherds), teachers, evangelists (Eph. 4.11-12). 

(Their role is to prepare the body for works of service towards the world. N.B. To do this properly they must themselves be authentically world-facing people. It is not enough for them to be 'only' concerned with the body.)

I appreciate that your commentary is directing us towards the discipleship community that immediately is faced with actual, literal martyrdom.

I'm extending the 'arc' of scripture in my comments to suggest that both Jesus and the disciples martyrdom is suggestive of a life that must incorporate a form of dying… a 'martyrdom' to the priorities, the idolatries of the world systems that have become hostile to God and a hindrance to the emergence of new creation, that must be overcome.

Thus, I see your historical-critical survey of the NT as cleansing away some of the theological baggage that has accreted to evangelicalism over centuries, but still providing a highly relevant 'model' for Christian discipleship.

(This of it itself, though, says nothing about the goals of such discipleship, which is what I discussed in the other post that caught your attention.)

shalom, Andrew.

Well put. I especially like this:

Thus, I see your historical-critical survey of the NT as cleansing away some of the theological baggage that has accreted to evangelicalism over centuries, but still providing a highly relevant ‘model’ for Christian discipleship.

Thanks John. I was going to make some comment about the relevance of the martyrological theme, but you have preempted me.