Great Texts of the Bible
Fruitfulness through Death
Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die, it abideth by itself alone; but if it die, it beareth much fruit.—John 12:24.
1. Jesus was always alive to the beautiful and instructive analogies between the natural and the moral world; but this occasion, when He illustrated heavenly truth by the striking comparison of the grain of wheat, was one of more than ordinary interest. The Apostles Andrew and Philip had approached Him on the part of certain Greeks, with the request that they might be introduced to Him of whom, no doubt, they had heard much. It is probable, since Greek Jews are called Hellenists and not Greeks in the New Testament, that these persons were proselytes of the gate from among the nations where the Greek tongue was then spoken. As they had been won over from heathenism into acceptance of the Mosaic religion, they seem to have awakened in the prophetic soul of Christ the conception of a time when the heathen would flock to His spiritual standard, and the prince of this world would be cast out from his kingdom. The next associated thought was the means for such a great and fruitful result, which was no other than His death. He who was thus waited on by men from strange lands would, in a very few days, be hanging on a cross, under condemnation as a malefactor. But His death and burial, so far from destroying His cause, were to become the life of the world. And the same in substance holds good of those who will follow Him. Just as the seed committed to the earth suffers a separation of its parts and is buried before it can germinate, so man must, in a spiritual sense, pass through death before he can truly live and be to others a source of life. If he abideth alone, he is unfruitful; but if he die, he bringeth forth much fruit.
2. Jesus is just about to be conclusively rejected by His own people; just on the point of being crucified by them. Some have shut their eyes, and stopped their ears, and hardened their hearts in the most determined manner against Him and His teaching; others, not insensible to His merits, have meanly and heartlessly concealed their convictions, fearing the consequences of an open profession. Pharisaism, Sadduceeism, ignorance, indifference, fickleness, cowardice, have confronted Him on every side. How refreshing, amidst abounding contradiction, stupidity, and dull insusceptibility, this intimation brought to Him at the eleventh hour: “Here are certain Greeks who are interested in you, and want to see you.” The words fall on His ear like a strain of sweet music; the news is as reviving to His burdened spirit as the sight of a spring to a weary traveller in a sandy desert; and in the fulness of His joy He exclaims: “The hour is come that the Son of man should be glorified.” Rejected by His own people, He is consoled by the inspiring assurance that He shall be believed on in the world, and accepted by the outlying nations as all their salvation and all their desire.
3. The thoughts of Jesus at this time were as deep as His emotions were intense. Specially remarkable is the first thought to which He gave utterance in these words: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the earth and die, it abideth by itself alone; but if it die, it beareth much fruit.” He speaks here with the solemnity of one conscious that He is announcing a truth new and strange to His hearers. His object is to make it credible and comprehensible to His disciples that death and increase may go together. He points out to them that the fact is so in the case of grain; and He would have them understand that the law of increase, not only in spite but in virtue of death, will hold equally true in His own case. “A grain of wheat, by dying, becometh fruitful; so I must die in order to become, on a large scale, an object of faith and source of life. During My lifetime I have had little success. Few have believed, many have disbelieved; and they are about to crown their unbelief by putting Me to death. But My death, so far from being, as they fancy, My defeat and destruction, will be but the beginning of My glorification. After I have been crucified, I shall begin to be believed in extensively as the Lord and Saviour of men.”
4. It is not at all difficult to see why Jesus laid special and weighty emphasis on the fact that death, self-surrender, self-renunciation, self-sacrifice, is the condition of all life, or why He called the special and earnest attention of the Greeks to it. For not only is the truth itself a fundamental truth of His Gospel and Kingdom, lying at the very root both of Christian theology and of Christian experience, and finding its supreme expression in the Cross; not only is it repugnant to man’s general bent and inclination—for who cares to impose on himself either a yoke or a cross?—but it also ran right in the teeth of Greek thought and civilization. Self-culture and self-enjoyment were the master words with the Greeks—the chief good of human life, the supreme aim, the ruling bent of the whole Grecian world, as we may learn from their literature, their art, their political economy, their social and civic institutions; from which we may also learn how miserably, in pursuing this aim, they fell short of the ends for which man was created and made. So that in calling them to substitute self-renunciation for self-culture, and self-sacrifice for self-gratification, the Lord Jesus was virtually asking them to reverse the whole bent of their thought and conduct, and to set before themselves an ideal the very opposite to that which they had hitherto pursued.
Death the Condition of Fruitfulness in Nature
The illustration which our Saviour employs is generic. Take a particle of grain into your hand. It is round and complete; hard and self-contained. It seems to be dead, but there lies within it the possibility of a wondrous and manifold life. The mystery of life sleeps within it. The beauty of summer lies hidden in its dark and narrow breast. But of it the paradox is true, that it is dead, because it has not died. It must die in order to become alive. It must be cast away from the hand of the sower, fall into the ground, and be buried in darkness. Its outer form must be broken up and decay, that the dormant life within it may be awakened, and manifested, and its beautiful and manifold being come out of the prison-house of its loneliness, and wave and rustle and shine in the sunlight. Unless it go through this process, it remains a lonely and unproductive seed. Every seed is alone until it dies. It may be laid up with other seeds in the store house; but in the midst of multitudes it is alone. It has no living union with any, being cut off from the universal life; and the reason why it escapes from its loneliness through death is, that thereby its individual life is placed in living contact with the all-pervading life of nature. When it is embedded in the soil, it is no longer alone, but unites itself with the universal life; and thus the day of its death is the day of its birth to a higher life.
Every annual plant dies when it has produced blossom and fruit; every individual branch in a tree which corresponds with an annual plant also dies when it has blossomed and fruited. It is interesting to notice the strange effect of the effort to flower in the American aloe. It appears to exhaust all its energies, so that the huge, fleshy leaves, which before stood firm and erect, gradually shrink, shrivel, and droop as the process of inflorescence advances, and the plant becomes a mere ghost of its former self. So, too, the Talipat palm, which lives to a great age and attains a lofty stature, flowers only once, but it bears an enormous quantity of blossoms, succeeded by a crop of nuts sufficient to supply a large district with seed, while the tree immediately perishes from the exhaustion of over-production. These are beautiful illustrations of the natural love of self-sacrifice.1 [Note: Hugh Macmillan.]
This law of self-sacrifice is embedded in nature. Minot, the embryologist, and Drummond, the scientist, tell us that only by losing its life does the cell save it. The new science exhibits the body as a temple, constructed out of cells, as a building is made of bricks. Just as some St. Peter’s represents strange marble from Athens, beauteous woods from Cyprus, granite from Italy, porphyry from Egypt, all brought together in a single cathedral, so the human body is a glorious temple built by those architects called living cells. When the scientist searches out the beginning of bird or bud or acorn he comes to a single cell. Under the microscope that cell is seen to be absorbing nutrition through its outer covering. But when the cell has attained a certain size its life is suddenly threatened. The centre of the cell is seen to be so far from the surface that it can no longer draw in the nutrition from without. The bulk has outrun the absorbing surface. “The alternative is very sharp,” says the scientist, “the cell must divide or die.” Only by losing its life and becoming two cells can it save its life.
Later on, when each of the two cells has grown again to the size of the original one, the same peril threatens them and they too must divide or die. And when, through this law of saving life by losing it, nature has made sure the basis for bud and bird, for beast and man, then the principle of sacrifice goes on to secure beauty of the individual plant or animal and perpetuity for the species. In the centre of each grain of wheat there is a golden spot that gives a yellow cast to the fine flour. That spot is called the germ. When the germ sprouts and begins to increase, the white flour taken up as food begins to decrease. As the plant waxes, the surrounding kernel wanes. The life of the higher means the death of the lower. In the orchard also the flower must fall that the fruit may swell. If the young apple grows large, it must begin by pushing off the blossom. But by losing the lower bud the tree saves the higher fruit.1 [Note: N. D. Hillis, The Investment of Influence, 159.]
First the grain, and then the blade—
The one destroyed, the other made;
Then stalk and blossom, and again
The gold of newly minted grain.
So Life, by Death the reaper cast
To earth, again shall rise at last;
For ’tis the service of the sod
To render God the things of God.2 [Note: John B. Tabb.]
Death the Condition of Fruitfulness in the Life of Christ
1. The need for Christ’s death.—A comparison of the good done by the life of Christ with that done by His death shows how truly He judged when He declared that it was by His death He should effectually gather all men to Him. His death, like the dissolution of the seed, seemed to terminate His work, but really was its germination. So long as He lived, it was but His single strength that was used; He abode alone. There was great virtue in His life—great power for the healing, the instruction, the elevation of mankind. In His brief public career He suggested much to the influential men of His time, set all men who knew Him a-thinking, aided many to reform their lives, and removed a large amount of distress and disease. He communicated to the world a mass of new truth, so that those who have lived after Him have stood at quite a different level of knowledge from that of those who lived before Him. And yet how little of the proper results of Christ’s influence, how little understanding of Christianity, do you find even in His nearest friends until He died. By the visible appearance and the external benefits and the false expectations His greatness created, the minds of men were detained from penetrating to the spirit and mind of Christ. It was expedient for them that He should go away, for until He went they depended on His visible power, and His spirit could not be wholly received by them. They were looking at the husk of the seed, and its life could not reach them. They were looking for help from Him instead of themselves becoming like Him.
When Jesus was upon the earth, the Spirit of God was in some peculiar sense associated with, and confined to, His person; and He taught His disciples that He must needs depart from them, that the Spirit might be poured out in larger measure. “I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away; for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.” And, therefore, He departed from the world, that He might come nearer to it; inasmuch as a spiritual presence is nearer than a bodily presence. The one living temple of God was broken down and removed out of sight, that every Christian might be a temple of the Holy One.1 [Note: Fergus Ferguson.]
This truth is not here spoken for the first time. It is the truth wrapt up in the first promise respecting the woman’s seed, the man with the bruised heel. It is the truth to which Abel’s sacrifice pointed so explicitly. It is the truth coming out in all the Levitical sacrifices and rites. It is the truth uttered by prophets: “When thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days.” It is the truth announced by apostles: “Without shedding of blood is no remission.” It is the truth to which such prominence is given in the Apocalypse, when the Son of God is seen as the Lamb slain, and when the saints sing, “Thou hast redeemed us to God by thy blood.”2 [Note: Horatius Bonar.]
2. The fruit of Chrisf’s death.—As seed produces grain of its own kind, so Christ produces men like Christ. He ceasing to do good in this world as a living man, a multitude of others by this very cessation are raised in His likeness. By His death we receive both inclination and ability to become with Him sons of God. “The love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge that if one died for all, then were all dead; and that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them.” By His death He has effected an entrance for this law of self-surrender into human life, has exhibited it in a perfect form, and has won others to live as He lived.
Who shall measure the fruitfulness of that one death? It is the source of all true thought, of all holy feeling, of all noble action, of all the heavenly graces of the Spirit. We see but the beginning of what it is designed to bear. The day alone will declare it; that day when Jesus will appear at the head of the whole family of God, saying, “Behold I and the children which God has given me.”1 [Note: Fergus Ferguson.]
The voluntary death of the Son of God, His self-sacrifice, put mankind in a new position. He came back from the grave with the powers of Godhead no longer in abeyance. He came back to act no longer according to the restrictions which He had imposed on Himself during those previous three and thirty years; no longer to confine Himself to man’s condition, to be seen only in one place, heard only by one company, teaching a handful of men; but He was to act henceforth in the plenitude of Godhead. He was to give efficacy to the work of those three years of His ministry, He was to fill His sacraments with grace, to make them channels for conveying and renewing life, for imparting the life that was in Himself to His members. He was to write His new law on the heart, i.e. to work it into the mind, to make it men’s pleasure to obey. He was to perform to the end of time moral miracles, corresponding to those first physical ones. The Apostles He had trained were to perpetuate a succession to the end of time. The society He founded was never to be broken up. The prayer He had issued, whenever earnestly offered, should be supported by His own intercession. The cross He died on should be for ever dear. Not only the literal cross should be honoured, be worn as an ornament and decoration, be lifted high over cities, wave in banners, be the ground-plan of cathedrals; but, far more important than these outward effects, men should carry out the idea of the cross, call their trials crosses, take them up in His Spirit, bear them meekly, patiently, as He had borne His.1 [Note: H. W. Burrows.]
Death to Self the Condition of Fruitfulness in the Christian Life
1. The law of the seed is the law of human life. If we use our life for present and selfish gratification and to satisfy our present cravings, we lose it for ever. If we renounce self, yield ourselves to God, spend our life for the common good, irrespective of recognition or the lack of it, personal pleasure or the absence of it, although our life may thus seem to be lost, it is finding its best and highest development and passes into life eternal. Our life is a seed now, not a developed plant, and it can become a developed plant only by our taking heart to cast it from us and sow it in the fertile soil of other men’s needs. This will seem, indeed, to disintegrate it and fritter it away, and leave it a contemptible, obscure, forgotten thing; but it does, in fact, set free the vital forces that are in it, and give it its fit career and maturity.
This may be called a dying life, when a man for the love of God refuses to gratify his senses and take his natural pleasure, and follow his own will; and as many lusts as he dies to, so many deaths does he offer to God, and so many fruits of life will he receive in return. For in what measure a man dies to himself, and grows out of himself, in the same measure does God, who is our Life, enter into him.2 [Note: Tauler.]
One night I got a letter from one of the students of the University of Edinburgh, page after page of agnosticism and atheism. I went over to see him, and spent a whole afternoon with him, and did not make the slightest impression. At Edinburgh University we have a Students’ Evangelistic Meeting on Sunday nights, at which there are eight hundred or one thousand men present. A few nights after this, I saw that man in the meeting, and next to him sat another man whom I had seen occasionally at the meetings. I did not know his name, but I wanted to find out more about my sceptic, so when the meeting was over, I went up to him and said, “Do you happen to know ——?”—“Yes,” he replied, “it is he that has brought me to Edinburgh.”—“Are you an old friend?” I asked.—“I am an American, a graduate of an American University,” he said. “After I had finished there I wanted to take a post-graduate course, and finally decided to come to Edinburgh. In the dissecting-room I happened to be placed next to ——, and I took a singular liking to him. I found out that he was a man of very remarkable ability, though not a religious man, and I thought I might be able to do something for him. A year passed and he was just where I found him.” He certainly was blind enough, because it was only two or three weeks before that that he wrote me that letter. “I think you said,” I resumed, “that you only came here to take a year of the post-graduate course.”—“Well,” he said, “I packed my trunks to go home, and I thought of this friend, and I wondered whether a year of my life would be better spent to go and start in my profession in America, or to stay in Edinburgh and try to win that one man for Christ, and I stayed.”—“Well,” I said, “my dear fellow, it will pay you; you will get that man.” Two or three months passed, and it came to the last night of our meetings. We have men in Edinburgh from every part of the world. Every year, five or six hundred of them go out never to meet again, and in our religious work we get very close to one another, and on the last night of the year we sit down together in our common hall to the Lord’s Supper. This is entirely a students’ meeting. On that night we get in the members of the Theological Faculty, so that things may be done decently and in order. Hundreds of men are there, the cream of the youth of the world, sitting down at the Lord’s table. Many of them are not members of the Church, but are there for the first time pledging themselves to become members of the Kingdom of God. I saw —— sitting down and handing the communion cup to his American friend. He had got his man. A week after he was back in his own country. I do not know his name; he made no impression in our country, nobody knew him. He was a subject of Christ’s kingdom, doing His work in silence and in humility. A few weeks passed and —— came to see me. I said, “What do you come here for?”—He said, “I want to tell you I am going to be a medical missionary.” It was worth a year, was it not?1 [Note: The Life of Henry Drummond, 338.]
2. The seed must die if a harvest is to spring firm it. That is the law for all moral and spiritual reformations. Every cause must have its martyrs. No man can be fruit-bearing unless he sacrifices himself. We shall not “quicken” our fellows unless we “die,” either literally or by the not less real martyrdom of rigid self-crucifixion and suppression. But that necessity is not only for Apostles or missionaries of great causes; it is the condition of all true, noble life, and prescribes the path not only for those who would live for others, but for all who would truly live their own lives. Self-renunciation guards the way to the “tree of life.” That lesson was specially needed by “Greeks,” for ignorance of it was the worm that gnawed the blossoms of their trees, whether of art or of literature. It is no less needed by our sensuously luxurious and eagerly acquisitive generation. The world’s war-cries to-day are two—“Get!” “Enjoy!” Christ’s command is, “Renounce!” And in renouncing we shall realize both of these other aims, which they who pursue them alone never attain.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]
The apparent death of a cause is sometimes but the beginning of its true and world-wide life. Let it alone, and it will remain alone; but persecute it—threaten it with death, and you only increase its vitality. When you try to chase a truth out of sight you only chase it into public notice. When you think you have exterminated it, cut it in pieces or burned it, there springs up around you a thousand witnesses to the truth that seemed to be dead. Every drop of blood shed has a voice, and cries from the ground. It is the truth of this text that is expressed in the familiar words, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.2 [Note: Fergus Ferguson.]
You have heard of Henry Martyn, the Cornishman, of whom Cornishmen are justly proud. Though with all the devotion of a saint he laboured to carry the story of the Cross to the hearts of the heathen, perseveringly and without complaint, he saw but little result. His death did what his life could not do. The noble self-sacrifice was not in vain. The news of his death sent a thrill of interest and love through many English hearts, which resulted in a deeper sense of responsibility towards the heathen, which has not died away. The corn of wheat fell into the ground, and died, and brought forth much fruit.3 [Note: W. R. Hutton, Low Spirits, 64.]
But all through life I see a Cross,
Where sons of God yield up their breath:
There is no gain except by loss,
There is no life except by death,
And no full vision but by Faith,
Nor glory but by bearing shame,
Nor Justice but by taking blame;
And that Eternal Passion saith,
“Be emptied of glory and right and name.”1 [Note: Walter C. Smith, “Olrig Grange.”]
3. If a man does not die to himself, to his selfishness, to his own will; if he is not born to a new life, to a life of renunciation, of expansion and of love, he remains alone—alone with regard to God, and with regard to all creatures in the universe,—alone in the present life, and alone in the life to come. The life of the man who is not dead to himself in order to live again spiritually, the life whose principle is selfishness, is a perpetual moral solitude: and there is no chastisement more frightful than that eternal solitude which is its inevitable result. To escape that fatal isolation, to have on earth and in heaven loved hearts which understand us, which beat in sympathy with our own, can be secured but in one way—that is, to die to ourselves, to our lusts; it is to crucify our selfishness as Jesus Christ was crucified, in order to be born again with Jesus Christ to a new life, the principle of which is love—love to God and love to man.
The measure of our willingness to deny ourselves in order to do good, is the measure, also, of the good that we actually will do. If we do for Christ and for our fellow-men only that which costs us nothing, we shall do but little good, and that little will scarcely be worth the doing. Cost, sacrifice, self-denial, toil, generosity, self-forgetfulness, the laying down, every day, in whole or in part, of even life itself—this is ever the Divine condition of usefulness, the price we must ever pay in order to be benefactors to our fellow-men or helpers to advance the Kingdom of Christ in the world.
Annihilation of self; Selbsttödtung, as Novalis calls it; casting yourself at the footstool of God’s throne, “To live or to die forever; as Thou wilt, not as I will.” Brother, hadst thou never, in any form, such moments in thy history? Thou knowest them not even by credible rumour? Well, thy earthly path was peaceabler, I suppose. But the Highest was never in thee, the Highest will never come out of thee. Thou shalt at best abide by the stuff; as cherished house-dog, guard the stuff,—perhaps with enormous gold-collars and provender: but the battle, and the hero-death, and victory’s fire-chariot carrying men to the Immortals, shall never be thine. I pity thee; brag not, or I shall have to despise thee.1 [Note: Carlyle, Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches, i. 89.]
The great obdurate world I know no more,
The clanging of the brazen wheels of greed,
The taloned hands that build the miser’s store,
The stony streets where feeble feet must bleed.
No more I walk beneath thy ashen skies,
With pallid martyrs cruelly crucified
Upon thy predetermined Calvaries:
I, too, have suffered, yea, and I have died!
Now, at the last, another road I take
Thro’ peaceful gardens, by a lilied way,
To those low eaves beside the silver lake,
Where Christ waits for me at the close of day.
Farewell, proud world! In vain thou callest me.
I go to meet my Lord in Galilee.
Fruitfulness through Death
Bonar (H.), Family Sermons, 168, 175.
Burrell (D. J.), The Verilies of Jesus, 39.
Burrows (H. W.), Lenten and other Sermons, 111.
Cox (S.), Expositions, ii. 258.
Debenham (A.), On Guard, 24.
Eyton (R.), The True Life, 440.
Ferguson (F.), Sermons, 123.
Gotwald (L. A.), Joy in the Divine Government, 107.
Howell (D.), in The Welsh Pulpit of To-Day, 214.
Humberstone (W. J.), The Cure of Care, 97.
Hutton (W. R.), Low Spirits, 63.
Inge (W. R.), Death the Fulfilment of Life, 1.
Jay (W.), Short Discourses, i. 51.
Leitch (R.), The Light of the Gentiles, 125.
Liddon (H. P.), Passiontide Sermons, 100.
Lorimer (G. C.), The Modern Crisis in Religion, 37.
Mackenzie (W. L.), Pure Religion, 20.
Macmillan (H.), Two Worlds are Ours, 230
Mantle (J. G.), “The Way of the Cross,” 83.
Moberly (G.), Plain Sermons at Brighstone, 76.
Monod (H.), in The Foreign Protestant Pulpit, ii. 43.
Morrison (G. H.), Sunrise, 84.
Mulling (E. Y.), in The Southern Baptist Pulpit, 246.
Rogers (J. H.), The “Verily, Verilys” of Christ, 164.
Selby (T. G.), in God’s Garden, 193.
Skrine (J. H.), The Heart’s Counsel, 34.
Tauler (J.), Life and Sermons (by Winkworth), 395.
Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit, 1865), No. 513.
Woolsey (T. D.), The Religion of the Present and of the Future, 288.
Christian World Pulpit, x. 347 (Mercer); xxiv. 247 (Heard); xxix. 253 (Young); xxx. 368 (Austin); xxxviii. 206 (Rice); lxii. 44 (Jeffs).
Contemporary Pulpit, 1st Ser, x. 30 (Liddon).