John 12:20-36 – how one seed produces many

Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the Feast. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus. 23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. 27 “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? `Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name!” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him. 30 Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. 31 Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. 32 But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” 33 He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die. 34 The crowd spoke up, “We have heard from the Law that the Christ will remain forever, so how can you say, `The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this `Son of Man’?”35 Then Jesus told them, “You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. The man who walks in the dark does not know where he is going. 36 Put your trust in the light while you have it, so that you may become sons of light.” When he had finished speaking, Jesus left and hid himself from them.

The Greeks who were seeking after Jesus were probably proselytes (circumcised Gentiles who could thus participate in the Passover). The significance of their appears from Matthew 8: I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (verses 11-12).

 Jesus’ life began with visitors from the East (the wise men of Persia) and ends with those from the West (the Greek proselytes).  According to Stier,“These men from the west represent, at the end of Christ’s life, what the wise men from the east represented at its beginning; but those come to the cross of the King, even as these to His manger”.

 Their request to see Jesus seemingly marks the end of his public ministry. Before this, he had graciously met with any who sought healing or instruction. Henceforth Jesus is concerned only with the cross and the final preparation of his disciples for the mission that would follow.

The time had now come for Jesus to be glorified. The glory is not his death, but rather the harvest that would come of it (i.e. the crop that would spring up from the kernel that fell to the ground). Isaiah saw it as follows: ‘Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,and he will divide the spoils with the strong,because he poured out his life unto death,and was numbered with the transgressors’ (Isaiah 53:12).

The idea of a seed dying to produce a harvest was meant to be true of Israel as a whole. Israel under the Law of Moses was intended as a manifestation of God among the nations, that would provoke them to jealousy and draw them into His kingdom (see Deut. 4:5-8). Life under the Law also required, as a ‘type and shadow’ of the new covenant reality, a ‘dying to self’ in order to ‘live unto God’ – i.e. the Law constrained the natural, sinful inclinations of man and offered life in obedience to God. (See the study notes on John 3.)

Shortly after the Passover the Jews celebrate ‘first-fruits’. This commemorates the consecration of Jacob’s descendants (‘the first of God’s increase’ [1]after their deliverance from Egypt. As the first-fruits are planted to produce a greater harvest, so Israel is described as a planting of the Lord  (Is. 61:3). Through the process of ‘dying to live’ Israel was to bear the fruit of universal salvation.

 Although the ‘servant nation’ fell into disobedience and seemingly failed in its mission, its ‘servant king’ would ‘triumph gloriously’ and accomplish Israel’s prophetic destiny on its behalf. When Jesus explains, ‘unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed’, he is thus confirming the manner in which he would accomplish this mission, namely by drawing all men to himself, through his sacrificial death. What was true of Jesus, would also be true for his disciples and others who followed his example (the remnant of Israel). The man who tried to clink onto his life would lose it, but the one who laid it down would gain it for eternity. The servant is not greater than his master, and ‘whoever serves me must follow me,’ says Jesus. As the Son of man will be glorified – i.e. through the bountiful harvest resulting from his death and resurrection – so, ‘my Father will honour the one who serves me’ – i.e. will cause the servant who walks after him, to be fruitful also. Having now resolutely turned to the cross, Jesus’ ‘heart is troubled’. We cannot ever forget that Jesus shared in our humanity – felt pain and discomfort just like any man, and shared our emotions of disappointment, loneliness, and even anxiety.

 ‘He who was in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death –
even death on a cross!’ 
(Phil. 2:7-8)

With this prospect now clearly before him, Jesus cries “what shall I say? `Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!”

 Grayston [2] points out that Jesus’ words are intended as a contrast with David’s in Psalm 6: 

‘My soul is in anguish.How long, O LORD, how long?Turn, O LORD, and deliver me [i.e. save me from this hour];save me because of your unfailing love.No one remembers you when he is dead.Who praises you from the grave?I am worn out from groaning;all night long I flood my bed with weepingand drench my couch with tears.My eyes grow weak with sorrow;they fail because of all my foes.Away from me, all you who do evil,for the LORD has heard my weeping.The LORD has heard my cry for mercy;the LORD accepts my prayer.All my enemies will be ashamed and dismayed;they will turn back in sudden disgrace.’(Psalm 6:3-10) 

David always prayed for deliverance – i.e. save me from this hour – and also that God would avenge his trouble upon his enemies. Jesus deliberately breaks ranks with David (who was a type of the Messiah, but not a perfect type). Even though Jesus in his anguish is reminded of David’s, Jesus will not cry ‘save me from this hour’, but will rather give himself up to the cross to do the Father’s will. Thus, ‘Father – glorify your name’! (Later we  also see, instead of David’s ‘avenge my enemies,’ Jesus prays: ‘forgive them for they know not what they’re doing.’)

 The Voice from heaven is a reassurance – that everything Jesus had done so far has been perfectly in accordance with the Father’s will and altogether for His glory. Nor would he at this critical time fail to conclude his mission – again perfectly in accordance with the Father’s will and thus for the integrity of His Name. The voice from heaven is said to be for the peoples’ benefit – even though they could not understand it. The benefit lay in the fact that the Voice strengthened Jesus in his last hour and put the victory before him.

 As a result of this victory the following would happen:

  • judgment would come on the world;
  • the prince of this world would now be driven out;
  • Jesus when lifted up would draw all men to himself.

 Let’s consider each of these in turn:


Judgment had thus far been reserved. Remember how Paul spoke to the Athenians: ‘in the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he demands all men everywhere to repent’ (Acts 17:30). Now that the way of salvation was being revealed and through the gospel the knowledge of God would spread to the ends of the earth, judgment would follow as a consequence. Those who resisted the message would be held accountable for its rebellion. For, ‘this is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God’ (John 3:19-21).


What is meant by ‘driving out’ the prince of this world? The letter to the Hebrews explains that  Jesus has vanquished the devil by removing the fear of death.

‘Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil –  and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. Thus he would no longer have power over the believers.’(Heb. 2:14-15).


‘Lifted up’ as we have seen previously refers to the manner of death that Jesus would die. This is the way in which the cross would draw men to Jesus: (i) the full horror of our sins would become evident to us in this revelation of it, and (ii) our conscience would be satisfied that the price for that sin has been paid.

 This last stamen about Jesus being ‘lifted up’ was confusing to those who knew God’s word. ‘The Messiah will remain forever’ – this is clear from a number of prophecies – ‘who then is this Son of Man?’

 We saw earlier that the Jews knew Messiah as the ‘Son of God’, i.e. from Nathan’s declaration to David in 1 Chronicles 17:

`I declare to you that the LORD will build a house for you: When your days are over and you go to be with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. I will never take my love away from him, as I took it away from your predecessor. I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever.’ (verses 11-14)

So, who then is this Son of Man? ‘Son of Man’ was unfamiliar terminology to them in relation to the Messiah. The answer lies of course in Daniel 7:

 ‘In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.’ (Dan. 7:13-14) This explains that the Son of Man, i.e. the pre-existent Messiah who had been ‘with God from the beginning’ would be born of a woman and then share in humanity, but having once done that (i.e. having become a Son of Man), would then return into the presence of the Ancient of Days, and THERE (i.e. not on earth) would receive his eternal dominion and rule. Yes, indeed, ‘Messiah will remain forever,’ not however on an earthly throne, but as it says in 1 Pet 3:22, ‘seated at the right hand of the Father … with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.’ 

Jesus does not spell this out to them at this time. His response is rather to receive the light while it is still available. By this light all things will become clear as events unfold, and their faith will be preserved.  

[1] Jeremiah 2:3.

[2] Kenneth Grayston, Epworth Commentaries, The Gospel of John, 1990.