"I tell you the truth, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds." John 12:24
To understand the scope and meaning of these words, we must connect them with the verses in the immediately preceding context.
Some Greeks, not Grecian Jews, but Gentiles—what were called Proselytes of the Gate—had gone to Jerusalem to worship with other pilgrims at the Feast of the Passover. They came to Philip of Bethsaida, probably attracted by his Greek name, with the request, "Sir, we would see Jesus."
The disciples could not fail to observe the profound emotion which the desire thus expressed produced on their divine Lord. When Philip told Andrew, and Andrew and Philip together told Jesus, it brought from His lips an utterance of strange triumph—"The hour is come that the Son of man should be glorified!" Occurring as it did in that solemn season of Passion week, there was something in the petition and the petitioners alike remarkable. These Greeks were Representative men. In the eye of Christ, it was "a prayer," to use the words of Stier, "in the name of their nation and of all nations," to see the world's Savior. It was the heathen (the "other sheep not of the Jewish fold") soliciting to be gathered in; yes, too, and the Jew introducing the Gentile. Need we wonder, that the Redeemer beholds in this, the first-fruits of a mighty ingathering—a pledge that the time was at hand when the covenant and uncovenanted nations would be blended and reconciled; the middle wall of partition broken down, and all the ends of the earth see the salvation of God? 'What!' He seems to say, 'Gentiles coming to My light! aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenant of promise! Men from Pagan shores, and that, too, from no vague curiosity, but with the intense earnestness and wistful longing of "watchers for the morning," uttering the cry of weary humanity, "Sir, we would see Jesus!" Then, the hour is come that the heathen are given for My inheritance; when men shall be blessed in Me, and all nations shall call Me blessed.'
But, His exclamation of triumph comes to an abrupt conclusion. All at once, by a singularly rapid transition, He changes the theme. That momentary glimpse of glory seems dimmed and clouded by the intervention of some troubled thought—"a prelude to Gethsemane." It is as if some bolt had suddenly darted athwart the azure sky; and He had called to mind that the way to glorification is by suffering and death. The Cross must be borne before the Crown can be gained. While in one breath, with an unusual gleam of joy on His countenance, He proclaims, "The hour is come that the Son of man should be glorified," the "decease" He must first "accomplish" casts its dreadful shadow on His path; and He adds the similitude of our text—"Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it abides alone." You will observe, in the announcement and enforcement of a great truth, He goes, not to the Volume of Prophecy (this He might have done, and probably would have done, had He been discoursing to Jews alone). But in the presence of these Greeks, He turns to pages better understood by them; and allows Nature, through her simplest processes, to speak, and unfold the impending mystery. He brings before them the familiar parable of the seed-grain dropped into the earth—showing how life comes out of death—a new and more exuberant growth springing from the destruction of the inserted grain.
Dear brethren, the subject surely is specially appropriate in the prospect we have of commemorating the death and sufferings of our divine Savior. Come, then, let us gather around the lowly emblem, and contemplate "Christ, THE GRAIN OF WHEAT."
In doing so, let me direct your meditations to these three points—
The Grain of Wheat abiding alone.
The Grain of Wheat falling into the ground and dying.
The Grain of Wheat bringing forth much fruit.
I. The Grain of Wheat ABIDING ALONE.
It is Christ's humiliation which we are mainly called in these words, as well as in our commemorative feast of today, to ponder.
But in order, by contrast, to bring out the wonders of that humiliation, let us, as here suggested, go back to a past Eternity, and contemplate that Grain of Wheat abiding alone.
Immensity a void. The mysterious Trinity in unity, pervading and filling all space. No need of worlds or angels to glorify them. Stupendous thought! To wing our way up the ascending steeps, with no planet for a resting-place—No created spots where we can breathe, and pause, and breathe again—Nothing above, below, around, but GOD!! No trill of an angel's song, to break the trance of everlasting ages—There was the Grain of Wheat abiding alone—The Eternal Son with the Eternal Father, in the glory which He had with Him before the world was!
Sublime indeed is it to contemplate Christ at this moment, as the Sovereign Ruler of His vast universe marshaling its hosts of stars; kindling up the Altar-fires of Heaven, "binding the sweet influences of Pleiades; loosing the bands of Orion; guiding Arcturus with his sons." But equally grand and magnificent is it to revert to the period before the existence of this wealth and munificence of power—when no forests were waving, no waters rolling, no planets circling in their spheres. To think of the great Center of all, then reposing in the solitudes of His own Infinite Being—no tongue of angel, redeemed or unredeemed, to hymn His praise—yet ineffably glorious in His own blessed Nature!
Behold "the Grain of Wheat"—behold the Second Person in
the Ever-blessed Trinity "abiding alone!"
II. The Grain of Wheat FALLING INTO THE GROUND, AND DYING.
Impelled by nothing but His own free, sovereign, unmerited grace, Christ resolves not to abide alone. He has to come down to a ruined world in order to effect its ransom and salvation. Compassionating the wandering star which had broken loose from its orbit, plunging ever deeper and deeper into darkness—He resolves to replace it within the sphere of the divine regards.
But, how replace it? How, in other words, is this Redemption from sin and death to be effected? Is it by becoming incarnate in order to live a pattern-life, the embodiment and manifestation of all virtue and moral excellence; and thus exhibit in the sight of apostate men a model of unsullied purity, sublime unselfishness, peerless self-sacrifice, divine love?
He doubtless did so. He, the Infinite One, descended in the likeness of sinful flesh; and as He walked through a guilt-stricken woe-worn world, wherever He went He scattered the riches of His beneficence. Compassion beamed in His look; grace flowed from His lips; disease crouched at His feet; sickness at His touch took wings, and fled away. God the Father complacently beholding that sinless, Holy Being, proclaimed from the excellent glory—"This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."
But all this was subordinate to higher requirements—more dreadful responsibilities. "Christ also has once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God" (1 Peter 3:18). Regarding Him as merely the Ideal of Humanity, the manifested perfection of divine "Manhood," He could not, in that capacity, save us. Death (in this most majestic and solemn of all illustrations) must be the condition of life. The grain of wheat—to revert to the symbol in outer material Nature—may be perfect, a perfect specimen of its kind. No more, it has in it the germ of vitality—the seminal principle of life. But if left by itself in the granary, it cannot fructify. It remains an inert unproductive thing—"it abides alone." It must first be sown, or, we may figuratively express it, be buried in the earth. But thus falling into the ground and dying, it comes up a verdant stalk, ultimately bearing fruit, the parent and progenitor of a thousand harvests.
So it was with Jesus, the Lord and Giver of life. How wondrously does Nature's lowliest page thus preach to us the great central truth of the Gospel—"Him who died for us, and rose again." As I go to the field where the husbandman is scattering his grain, I see in one of those tiny seeds a type and interpreter of that Mystery which angels desire to look into. It tells me that the way to the seed's multiplication and to Christ's glorification is the same—by the law of death. I see the grain of wheat, which abode alone in the barn, taken and cast into the ground; harrowed over; left during winter or in early spring to slumber under the insensate clod. Anon the field is flushed with living green—the one yellow seed has started up, multiplied thirty-fold. Out of apparent decay and dissolution there emerges prolific life and loveliness—"it brings forth much fruit." "I came," says the Great Antitype, and Interpreter of these nature-teachings, "that you might have life, and that you might have it more abundantly."
There are two words in our text, on which we may for a moment instructively pause. The one suggesting the necessity, the other the voluntariness of the death of Jesus.
(1) "EXCEPT a grain of wheat fall into the ground." "Unless."—There was no other possible way by which the world could be redeemed. Without the dying of the grain-seed—no life. Without the shedding of blood in the person of the Divine Sin-bearer—no remission.
This is not the place to enter on the consideration or explanation of theological difficulties and perplexities. The whole principle of Surety substitution is a mystery to us; though, too, abundantly exemplified and manifested, alike in the analogy of Nature and in human experience. But we may well believe, that had there been any other possible method, by which the vindication of God's law could have been effected and the sinner saved—the Grain of Wheat would to this day have remained (if we can with reverence employ such a figure) where it had been from all Eternity, in its place in the Heavenly Garner. Christ would have "abode alone,"—God, the Being of infinite compassion as well as of righteousness, would never and could never have permitted unnecessary and superfluous suffering in the Son of His love. It was the one only means of restitution and safety. "It became Him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the Captain of their Salvation perfect through suffering" (Heb. 2:10.) There was a necessity for all that He endured, arising out of the very Nature of God. The law, in the outer world, of the seed-growing, became a law to the Moral Lawgiver Himself.
(2.) We have the voluntariness of Christ's death here set forth. "If it dies!" "If." This same monosyllable He Himself repeats with similar emphasis a few verses further on—"And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto Me."
It is a conditional particle of intense and momentous significance. It sets before us the perfect freeness and spontaneity of the Sacrifice—uttered at the moment it was, with the shadow of the Cross projected on His path—His hour of untold Suffering close at hand. May we not take it as revealing to us the human, in the divine Person of the God-man—for the instant shrinking at the anticipation of coming anguish? "If it dies!" As if He were casting up and pondering in His own infinite Mind, the possibility of evading the terrible necessity. "If it dies." For a moment, if I may so express it, appalled at the dreadful yet indispensable conditions Suretyship involved!
How full indeed is all this passage of His strong human emotions. A few verses succeeding He exclaims—"Now is the judgment," or, as some have rendered it, though we may challenge the accuracy of the rendering—"Now is the CRISIS of this world." But in reality it was so—the crisis-moment—the great turning-point in the world's salvation. Am I to save Myself—or save it? Am I (the Grain of Wheat) to fall into the ground and die, or am I to return, unsurrendered to death, to the heaven whence I came? Are the longings and hopes and aspirations of 4000 years to be rolled back again into the abyss of chaos and night? Or, is the debt to be paid, and earth's millions to be saved? "Now is the Crisis of this world."—The Church of the past and the Church of the future are, as it were, hushed into silence, listening with arrested ear for the announcement of the resolve, which rests with the Divine Speaker. Is He to pause or go on? Is the cup to pass from Him, or is He to drink it? Is He to drop into the ground and become life for others; or, to "abide alone?" He Himself, at this same crisis-hour, prolongs the soliloquy—"Now is my soul troubled, and what shall I say?" "What shall I say?"—Shall it be, Father, save Me! Accept My past life of loving filial obedience! Father, let Me leave untasted this dire chalice of death. Let Me revoke My word of promised Surrender and Sacrifice, "I will ransom them from the power of the grave, I will redeem them from death!" Father, let the world perish. Forego the world's harvest—take me to Yourself to abide alone, and forever?
We read in another place, regarding the great Harvest-home of the world, that "the Reapers are the Angels." A writer on this passage of a bygone age, has graphically pictured angel whispering in breathless interest to angel, as they look forward to this reaping time—"What will be the solution of this stupendous problem?" "What will He say?" Shall we have the joy of reaping our golden harvest—or, will the Grain of Wheat refuse to fall into the earth, and abide alone? What DID He say? "Father, save Me from this hour! nevertheless for this cause came I unto this hour. Father, glorify Your Name!" It is enough. In these last words He has given the sure "prelude of victory." He will save others, Himself He will not save! The angels are not to be bereft of their glorious reaping. This Man of Sorrows (His soul in trouble)—this God-man Mediator, going forth weeping, bearing in Himself precious Seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing His sheaves with Him.
We all recall the old Roman story, when, in obedience to the oracular response, a human life, by an act of heroic self-surrender, paid the demanded penalty, and the earthquake-rent was closed.
Christ, in a nobler sense, was that Victim. By the supremest of all deeds of self-sacrifice, because superhuman and divine, the yawning gulf between earth and Heaven has been filled up. The Prince of Life, the sinless Son of God, has given Himself for a ransom.
Like another Aaron, "He stood between the living and the dead, and the plague was stayed." In the lowly emblem of our text, the Grain of Wheat dies, and becomes the life of a perishing world. This leads us–
III. To the Grain of Wheat BRINGING FORTH MUCH FRUIT.
It was prophesied regarding the Redeemer, that He would "see His seed" (Isaiah 53:10). "This," says He, "is the Father's will who has sent Me, that of all whom He has given Me, I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day" (John 6:39). In that group of Hellenists—men from the shores of the most intellectual of the European nations—who now stood in His presence and had given the key-note to all this discourse, the Savior beheld the first "handful of grain on the top of the mountains, whose fruit would yet shake like Lebanon." The wise men had come from the East to worship at His birth—these Greeks had come from the West to worship before His death. The simple desire, "We would see Jesus," was, to Him who heard it, better than all gold and frankincense and myrrh. It was as precious ointment against the day of His burial. With the omniscient glance of Deity, He that moment foreknew that He was about to die. He (the Tree of Life) was to be felled to the ground; the axe was already laid to the root. But as many a noble inhabitant of the forest, coming with a crash on the sward, scatters its seed all around, and in a few years there starts up a vast plantation—So Christ, by dying, scattered far and wide the grain of spiritual and immortal life. The seed and the leaves of this Tree are for the healing of the nations. The divine Grain-Seed drops into the ground; a golden harvest waves, and Heaven is garnered with ransomed souls.
Brethren, it is surely delightful for us, on this Day of Communion, to connect the cross with the triumphal crown. We are about to contemplate the one solitary fact, the Grain of Wheat falling into the ground and dying. But the eye of faith is carried forward to that final harvest of the world, when the mighty Conqueror will be recognized and welcomed, as the Balm of all hearts, the Redressor of all wrongs. Seeing of the fruit of the travail of His Soul, He shall be satisfied—and surrounded with His spiritual Seed exclaim, "Behold I, and the children whom You have given Me." The cry subsequently heard from these same Greeks and their shores, "Come over and help us," will become the shout of nations. "Unto Him shall the gathering of the people be."
Oh wondrous multitude which no man can number! A multitude growing ever since Abel bent, a solitary worshiper, in the heavenly Sanctuary, with his solitary song—the first solitary sheaf in these Heavenly granaries. Yes! the song is deepening; the sheaves are multiplying. The patriarchal Church swelled the store; the Mosaic Church added to its bundles of first-fruits, and its members prolonged the festal anthem. The strain was taken up by shepherds and fishermen of Galilee. It was echoed by Magi of Persia, and heathens of Greece. It spread along the shores of the Mediterranean; it rang in the halls of Caesar. It was taken up by the waves of the Western seas. It reached the shores of Britain, and from her sent its echoes round the world. India uttered it from her Pagodas. Iceland proclaimed it amid her eternal winters. Ethiopia stretched out her hands unto God; and this was the burden of the universal prayer, "Sir, we would see Jesus."
The song of the Church on earth is nothing to the song of the Church above. It has expanded into "the sound of much people, the sound of a great multitude, the noise of many waters, the voice of mighty thunderings." And what is its theme? It is the death of the Grain-Seed, and the resultant "much fruit." "You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every kingdom and tongue and people and nation."
Brethren, we come this day to present ourselves as an offering—living sacrifices on God's altar; as it were a portion of the fruits of the Savior's atonement—acknowledging, that if we have any life in us—it is as springing from that Grain of Wheat we have now seen (and are about through the more vivid emblem of His own instituted Ordinance to see) falling into the ground and dying. We come, joyfully owning and confessing, that all we have we derive from Him, as the life of our souls.
May not this appropriately form the closing practical thought—If He died for us, what have we done, what are we willing to do for Him? The lowly disciple of Bethany brought the best offering she had, with which to embalm her Lord on the eve of His decease. Are we preparing our tributes of affection?—our alabaster box filled with the choicest graces of humility, faith, repentance, new obedience—loving Him who has given us, as the mightiest proof and measure of His love, that instead of "abiding alone" through the everlasting ages with the Father, He was willing to fall into the ground and die?
Spirit of God! consecrate our Communion Sabbath! Open the doors of the banqueting house! Unseal the Sacred mysteries! Let Your people leave the din of the world behind them, that they may come and "see Jesus!" With their hearts full of the lowly similitude of our text; with their footsteps turned to Gethsemane and Calvary—the cross and the grave—let them obey the summons, 'Come, see the Grain of Wheat laid in the furrow of darkness and death! Come, see the place where the Lord suffered; Come, see the place where the Lord lay—for He has swallowed up death in Victory!' May Angels, looking down upon us as we are assembled at the Holy Table, be able to say, "They joy before You, according to the joy in harvest; and as men rejoice when they divide the spoil!"