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Dying to Live

March 17, 2024|Dying to Live|John 12:20-33

JD Cutler

Click here for the sermon audio

In the last month or so we have been examining various gospel accounts concerning the life and ministry of our Lord Jesus. 

We looked at his temptation after his baptism and saw what it revealed about who he is.

We examined what he said it looked like to follow him and found that we do not have the freedom to follow him anyway that we want to. But that he prescribed it for us.

We saw his passion on display as he cleansed the temple after finding that the worship of His Father in his father’s house had been disrupted by commerce. 

Last week we listened in on a conversation between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus to learn from him about entrance into the kingdom of God as well as the necessity of his coming death on the cross, or his lifting up. 

This week, we fast forward to the last week of his earthly ministry. 

According to the gospel accounts, we are now at the third passover of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Again, this week, we turn to John’s account where we find Jesus helping the disciples understand what it means to be his disciples, as well as helping them further understand his own ministry. As our minds are drawn towards Easter Sunday and the celebration of our living savior, we also turn our minds to the cross that precedes it, which is altogether appropriate. Jesus often tied his glorification to the cross, the two being united. Even before he made it explicit that he would die, even from the beginning, it was there, a part of his message. 

As we saw last week, in the very beginning of his ministry, when he tells Nicodemus that, John 3:14-15 (ESV) 4 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

In that account, Jesus doesn’t press too far into what it means for him to be lifted up, but now, here at the end of his ministry, with his disciples, he does. 

Now, this is not new, he has been teaching his disciples about what is coming from almost the very beginning. After he had separated out and called the apostles and they had confessed that he was the Christ, from that time, the Bible says began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. (Matthew 16) Again as they gathered in Galilee, Jesus said to the twelve, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, 23 and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” And they were greatly distressed. (Matthew 17) and again as they were going up to Jerusalem together, he took the twelve aside and said, 18 “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death 19 and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.”

Just a day before the account we are looking at today, in response to the grumblings of one of his disciples about what he saw as a wasting of resources as he was anointed by Mary, he said

“Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. 

Jesus openly and honestly explained to his disciples repeatedly that following him would not be easy because of where he was headed. Now, as his death is just days away, Jesus once again speaks of it as well as of what it looks like to follow him as a disciple. 

From this text I want to draw out two things for you this morning. One, a better understanding of the call of being a disciple of Jesus and two encouragement for you in enduring the call of discipleship. See, it is one thing to understand something, but to endure it, to carry it out despite difficulties, that is another thing altogether. 

My prayer today is that we would hold up the beautiful example of our Savior Jesus Christ as well as faithfully receive his instruction about how we are to follow him in faith and practice. We find this encounter in John, chapter 12, beginning at verse 20. 

As you turn there, let me bring you up to speed. 

Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead in front of many witnesses, which is causing great anxiety and concern for the Jewish leaders. The Bible says from that day on they made plans to put him to death, as well as Lazarus because him being alive was bringing people to faith in Jesus. Passover is approaching, so Jesus comes first to Bethany where Lazarus, Martha, and Mary are, and then Jesus comes into Jerusalem at the feast. The people who are at the feast hear Jesus is coming and rush out to meet him and they usher him into Jerusalem as King of Israel in what we call the triumphal entry. 

John 12:20-22 (ESV) 20 Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. 21 So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.

(You have men who have been drawn to Jesus, who want to see Jesus, with the implication to learn from him. Jesus does not say that this is not a good thing, but rather he says, in essence, they will see me, but they will see me in the glorification of the cross. They will see me, along with all other men exactly where they need to see me. Not now, when all is good, not now when I am being welcomed into Jerusalem as it’s rightful king and messiah, but they will see me at the true pinnacle of my mission, dying for the sins of humanity on a Roman cross, rejected and despised by some of the very people who celebrated me days before. This is what they need to see, this is what you disciples need to see, and friends this is what we desperately need to see today)

Yes, one day we will all see Jesus coming in victory, coming in to usher in his kingdom fully and finally, but Jesus wanted his disciples and presumably these Greeks, representing the nations of the world, to see that the path of his glorious victory would take him by way of the cross. 

With that understanding, let us look at the first of two divisions…

Understanding the call of discipleship verse 23-26

John 12:23-26 (ESV) 23 And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.

At its very core to be a disciple is to be a follower of one. To learn from their teachings as well as their manner of life. So when Jesus talks about the way he is obeying the Father, when he talks about how he is going to accomplish his purpose, when he expresses truths about his own obedience, we should listen closely. 

Here, specifically, Jesus talks about both his own mission as well as our mission as followers of Him. 

Let’s follow his order and begin with what he says about himself and then what he says about his followers. 

The hour has come for the son of man to be glorified- this is a contrast to what he has said all along. 

(ESV) 2:4 “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.”- to his mother

(ESV) 7:6 Jesus said to them, “My time has not yet come,- to his brothers

John comments twice to this effect in interpreting Jesus’ actions. 

John 7:30 (ESV) 30 So they were seeking to arrest him, but no one laid a hand on him, because his hour had not yet come.

John 8:20 (ESV) 20 These words he spoke in the treasury, as he taught in the temple; but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come. 

But now, now the hour has come for the son of man to be glorified. 

I’m just speculating, but if he had left it at that, we might be tempted to think that he was referencing the triumphal entry that had just occurred. John 12:12-13 (ESV) 12 The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 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!”

We might even be tempted to think that the arrivals of Greeks seeking him would signify that his popularity had risen even beyond the Jewish people so that now was his time to be glorified, but he does not leave it at that, he immediately says. 

Truly, truly, I say to you- The word translated truly here is the greek word am-ane', which transliterated in English is Amen.

When used at the end of something as a response, it means ‘so it is, so be it, may it be fulfilled. From strong’s concordance we read, It was a custom, which passed over from the synagogues to the Christian assemblies, that when he who had read or discoursed, had offered up solemn prayer to God, the others responded Amen, and thus made the substance of what was uttered their own. This is why when someone prays corporately, we say Amen, it’s why sometimes during the proclamation of the Bible from the pulpit, people in the congregation will say Amen, it is a verbal agreement with what has been proclaimed, it is affirmation of belief or hope in what has been said. 

But, when used at the beginning of a sentence, it signifies ‘pay attention to what I am about to say because it is surely true.’ Using a word twice in the Greek is often done for emphasis, so when Jesus says, Truly, truly, there is an emphasis here that what he is about to say is categorically and entirely true. After which Jesus gives a principle of agriculture that these first century hearers would have been familiar with. 

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone- That is to say, as long as a grain of wheat is attached to the stalk it is just that, a grain. If it is removed and kept out of the ground, it will remain, just that, a grain. But, if that seed, whether freshly fallen or planted after dormancy into the ground, it will absorb water, begin to break open, and become something altogether different. 

But if it dies, it bears much fruit- The single grain breaks down, releasing the plant contained within, which grows into a wheat plant and produces much more grain. 

By bringing in the concept of death here, now, Jesus directly ties his glorification to his impending death. 

It is his death that will lead to his resurrection and ascension to the right hand of the Father, it is his death that will accomplish salvation, make the gift of the Holy Spirit possible, and bring many who were not a people into the people of God. But this principle of dying to live does not stop with the grain, it does not stop with Jesus, he goes on to address those who would be his followers, his disciples. 

25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

He who loves his life loses it, he who hates his life, in this world, will keep it. 

Here we have the paradox of self-denial that Christ repeated over and over again in his teaching.

Matthew 10:34-39 (ESV) 34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Matthew 16:24-26 (ESV) 24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?

Luke 17:33 (ESV) 33 Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.

We must rightly understand what he is saying here. He is not saying we should hate life itself, because life is a gift from God. 

He is not saying that we should not love the good things that God has placed in this world and has given us. Our family, our church, our gifts and talents, good food, etc…We get closer to understanding what Jesus means by understanding that he uses two different words for life when he says do not love our life and we will keep it for eternal life. 

The first word for life is the word psyche, where we get the word psychology. It can mean a few different things, but namely I think Jesus is addressing life as our earthly experience. This life, from birth to death. To love it, to try and hold on to it at all cost, to try and preserve it as the most important thing we could ever have, is to ultimately lose it. 

How many people from 2,000 years ago, or 500 years ago, or even 200 years ago that dedicated themselves to the preservation of their lives are still alive today? Zero. 

No matter how precious you hold your life, no matter how well you insulate yourself against harm or danger, no matter how much money or time you throw at preserving your life, this natural life will end. 

But, Jesus says, there is eternal life, and he uses the word zoe. When coupled with the word eternal, it refers to the divine life in us. The real and genuine, actively devoted to God, blessed life, which begins this side of the grace and continues to the resurrection and eternal life with Him. 

Jesus says that you can either pursue this life with all your effort and end up losing eternal life, or you can forsake, lose, or here, hate your life in this world and end up keeping it for eternity. Like many places, Jesus uses strong language here. Just as when Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. We are not expected to hate our mother or father in the sense we usually associate the word hate, but that in comparison to our love for God and our devotion to Christ, even our most loving earthly relations ought to seem incomparable. 

In the same way, we ought to so love God, so desire to follow him, to obey him, that when it comes to regard for our earthly life, there ought not even be a comparison. 

The immediate principle is are we willing to die so that we may live? Are we willing to let this earthly life so fade into the background that it dissolves away like the outer portion of the grain in order to let the true, genuine, life-filled, fruit producing life grow in us?

To whom does Jesus expect this of? All Christians or just some Christians? Anyone that follows him, or can some follow him and hold on to their lives? Let’s see what he says next. 

26 If anyone serves me, he must follow me; -

If anyone wants to serve me, if anyone desires to serve me. The verb serves is in the subjunctive mood, which implies possibility and potentiality, which is where we get if anyone, what? If someone wants to serve Christ, he must follow me. 

Here ‘follow me‘ is the present active imperative, which means it is a command. He must follow Christ.  

Service to Christ is following Christ

J. C. Ryle comments: “As the soldier follows his general, as the servant follows his master, as the scholar follows his teacher, as the sheep follows its shepherd, just so ought the professing Christian to follow Christ. Faith and obedience are the leading marks of real followers, and will always be seen in true believing Christians.”

Follow him where? In a life of cross-bearing self-denial. In a life of service to God and others. In holding fast to the doctrines of his word, in pursuing a holy life through the power of the Holy Spirit. 

To be a disciple of Jesus is to be a servant of Jesus which is to be a follower of Jesus, which is to be a cross carrying, dying to self, living for God, follower of Jesus.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book the cost of discipleship says it this way. 

The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our  lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call. (The Cost of Discipleship, 99)

This is the call of discipleship, and Jesus says you cannot serve him if you do not follow him. 

As Pastor John Piper points out in an older sermon, this call is both hard and glorious

  1. Verse 24: the grain of wheat must die. “Unless the grain of wheat falls into the ground and die. . . .” This is hard.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

But, it is also glorious. 

  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.

  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.”

Jesus never said that following him would be easy, he never said it would not include times of trouble, difficulty, fear. 

He even went as far as to tell us that we would experience tribulation, and that the world would hate us. But that is not the kind of hard we are talking about here. What I am talking about here, I’m talking about the internal struggle that we experience in following Him as disciples. For most of you, this is not new to you. You have heard all of this before about following Jesus, and if you haven’t, I pray today that you understand the call of discipleship better than you did before. But if even half of us understand it, why don’t more of our lives reflect it?

Why do we let the smallest things interrupt our obedience to God? Why does it seem we are actively looking for the tiniest excuse to do anything other than be obedient in the things we have been called to do? 

Because although many of us understand what being a disciple is, we either haven’t fully grasped how it should look in our lives, or we simply did not expect our flesh to battle so fiercely against us. Either way, with our remaining time this morning, I would like to look at…

Enduring the call of discipleship verse 27-33

John 12:27-33 (ESV) 27 “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.

Lest we think that Jesus never struggled, lest we think that because he was God he never had moments of difficulty in his flesh, we need to look no farther than his statement in verse 27. 

Now is my soul troubled-

We might say it like this, I have become distressed in my heart. With this statement, I am so thankful that Jesus modeled that this was a normal part of obedience to God. That distress, uneasiness about the cost of obedience can well up within me. But we also remember that it was no normal circumstance that bothered our Lord. No, it was something of which we can barely comprehend. 

(Reformed Expository Commentary) A. W. Pink comments on Jesus’ anguish: “And what occasioned this? The insults and sufferings which He was to receive at the hands of men? The wounding of His heel by the Serpent? No, indeed. It was the prospect of being ‘made a curse for us,’ of suffering the righteous wrath of a sin-hating God.” 

His obedience was leading to a cross where he would bear the sins of the world. 

While our experience will never even be close to what he experienced, we do know what it is like to be distressed in our heart about what obedience to God will cost us here and now, do we not?

That friendship, that relationship, that opportunity, that trophy, that experience, that job, that healthcare. Things that are precious to us, but ultimately must be laid on the altar of self-denying obedience to Christ. 

And this was not the only time Jesus modeled this for us. In the garden of Gethsemane, we find our Lord again distressed in his heart. 

Matthew 26:36-46 (ESV) 36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” 37 And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” 39 And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” 40 And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? 41 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” 43 And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. 45 Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”

But, in our text today, Jesus also shows us how we can endure this, indeed, how we can continue despite it.

What shall I say?- So what should I say? So, since I feel this way, how should I pray?

Here is the question that pits our love of this life against our desire to live according to God’s purpose. Since I feel this tension, since I feel this distress, what should I say, how should I pray? Then Jesus gives an example of what one might say. 

Save me from this hour?

Deliver or preserve me from this hour. Here is expressed the very love for life that Jesus has warned us against. Should I pray, preserve my earthly life from this appointed hour? Wouldn’t that be a reasonable thing to ask?

If Jesus loved his life, it would be. But, he shows us a better way. 

He chooses obedience. What keeps us following Jesus in times like this? What does Jesus say keeps him obedient?

Resolve of purpose- But for this purpose I have come to this hour. 

How do we get to this point? It has to be ingrained into our thinking. Listen to how Jesus stated his purpose for his disciples. 

Matthew 20:25-28 (ESV) “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Luke, the gospel writer, says it this way early in Jesus’ ministry. Luke 9:51 (ESV) 51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. He knew his purpose, and he was resolved to fulfill it. 

You see Jesus may have been disturbed but he was not deterred. 

Do you know your purpose as a disciple of Jesus? Romans 8 gets about as close to summing it up as possible.

Romans 8:29-30 (ESV) 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

Your purpose is to be conformed to the image of his Son, to be conformed into the image of Jesus, it is to become like him. 

Are you resolved in that? Have you buried it so deep into your heart that although you are distressed, you are not deterred?

If not, no wonder we have such a hard time enduring as disciples. 

But there is another side to this, not only do we have to have resolve of purpose, we have to have a deep desire for something beyond ourselves. Namely and chiefly, the glory of God. 

Listen to what he says, instead of save me from this hour,  28 Father, glorify your name.

In the midst of his distress, his desire is the glory of God. 

Friends, let me ask you this question. What do you want your life to glorify? Because make no mistake, it will glorify something. 

One of these days, when men look back on your life, it will have glorified something. Your life will have shown that there was something you held precious, something that was of extraordinary worth to you. Furthermore, it will not matter what you said was most important, it will be how you lived that provides the evidence. 

For the Christian, for the disciple, it should be that it was God, it was Christ, it was the glory of the Kingdom of Heaven, over self, over life, over this world. 


Jesus, as he neared the end of his earthly mission, pointed the disciples to the kingdom principle of dying to live. In just a few days he would model it for us. The journey he had been on would reach its climactic act, he would give his life on a Roman cross and yet. Three days later he would take it up again and then he would ascend to the right hand of the Father, glorified as the Blessed Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, where he waits until the appointed time to return and bring everlasting life to those who have served him as followers. 

Here is the choice that these Greek inquirers faced, here is the choice each first generation disciple would face, and it is the question that every generation of disciples will face until he returns. Are we willing to die, so that we might truly live. 

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