How can we overcome self-centeredness? Part 2

“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.” John 12:24

We are learning from John 12:20-33 how to overcome self-centeredness in our lives. The first way is to seek Jesus (John 12:20-22) and grow closer to Him. As we grow closer to Jesus, we will be more motivated to apply the second way to overcome self-centeredness which is SELF-DENYING SERVICE TO CHRIST (John 12:23-26). The coming of the Greeks (John 12:20-22) stirred Jesus’ heart to its depths. But Jesus answered them, saying, “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified.” (John 12;23). Their coming confirmed that it was time (“the hour has come”) for “the Son of Man” to “be glorified” through the cross. The cross must come before the Greeks can “really come” to Jesus in a spiritual sense. We see interest in Christ extending beyond Jewish circles now as news of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead spreads. When Jesus speaks of being glorified He is referring to His death. To Him, His death would be a triumph, not a tragedy. This is not a kingly glory from people; this is the glory of the cross from the Father. The world views death by crucifixion as a humiliating defeat, but Jesus sees it as a means of glorification.

What about us? Do we see suffering for Jesus as a shameful thing to be avoided or as a God-honoring thing which expresses the power of God working in us (cf. I Corinthians 1:18)? God wants us to set our sights on Christ and His calling in our lives which includes suffering for His sake (cf. Philippians 1:29).

“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.” (John 12:24). That Jesus’ death is in view here can be seen in the grain of wheat analogy. A grain of wheat must fall into the ground and die to produce many seeds (fruit). So, until a kernel of wheat died, it could not multiply itself. Jesus is the grain of wheat. The word “alone” refers to Christ dealing with Jews alone. It was necessary for Jesus to die to produce life in many others – both Jews and Gentiles in one body. Death was necessary for life and fruitfulness. This idea was foreign to the Greeks.

In the Encyclopedia Britannica, there is an account of a notable experiment at Wolverhampton, England. One grain of wheat was planted and produced several distinct stalks with ears of wheat. Each grain was transplanted. The grains produced by each were again separated and transplanted. In two years, 32,500 grains of wheat were produced from one single “grain of wheat.” Christ’s death would produce a tremendous harvest of Jews and Gentiles!

Why does Jesus use this grain of wheat analogy? I believe one reason is because He wants to address the obstacle that hinders our spiritual growth. Every seed has a shell and a grain inside that shell – an inner and outer nature. A grain of wheat has the potential to produce thousands of other grains on one condition, if the shell “dies” and releases the life that is inside which can produce more plants that will produce other grains. 

When you become a Christian, the Spirit of God comes to live inside you (John 7:38-39; Romans 5:5; 8:9-11; I Corinthians 6:19; Galatians 3:2; Ephesians 1:13-14), but the Spirit is encased in the shell of your “outward man” i.e. your physical body (2 Corinthians 4:16) and sin nature or “old man (self)” (cf. Ephesians 4:22; Colossians 3:8-9). The Spirit of God will never leave you, that’s what the last few verses of Romans 8 guarantees (Romans 8:31-39; cf. Psalm 139:7-10).

But that does not mean that He will be in full control of your life. You have the choice to keep the Spirit of Christ in its shell. It is like pushing the Spirit of Christ into the back seat while you take the steering wheel of your life. In I Corinthians 3:1-3, the apostle Paul gives a name to the believer who is not letting the Spirit of God direct his or her life because the Spirit is still in the seed shell. They are called “carnal”or worldly Christians. How can we let the Spirit take full control of our lives? Christian author Watchman Nee explains:

“As long as this shell does not break open, the grain cannot grow. ‘Unless the grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies’ What is this death? It is the action of the temperature and moisture of the earth upon the grain which results in the breaking of the shell. When the shell breaks, the grain grows. Therefore, it is not a matter of whether or not the grain has life, but whether the outer shell is broken.” 1

“Whether our works are fruitful or not depends upon whether our outward man has been broken by the Lord so that the inward man can pass through that brokenness and come forth. This is the basic problem. The Lord wants to break our outward man in order that the inward may have a way out. When the inward man is released, both unbelievers and Christians will be blessed.” 2

Do you understand what he’s saying? He’s saying that it is possible to live your life as a Christian and even do ministry as a Christian in your own strength and not by the power of the Holy Spirit. But two things will always be true: your ministry won’t be very effective, and your life won’t be very satisfying. It is possible as a Christian to live in the outer person, the shell, and not the inner person, the Spirit. And if you are multi-gifted, you will probably be considered a great success. The church will grow, the money will pour in, the books will sell, but lives will not be changed. And deep inside you won’t feel like a success because the Holy Spirit of God inside of you will be telling you the truth. He will be saying, “This is not My work. It is your work.” That is why it is effective from the world’s viewpoint, but it is not effective from God’s viewpoint and that is why you don’t have any joy.

The Lord Jesus then applies this wheat analogy of death leading to life to discipleship. “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25). The issue here is rewards, not salvation from hell. The believer who “loves his life” by selfishly living for his or herself, “will lose” the fullness of that life both now and in eternity in terms of the loss of rewards. Living a self-centered life results in losing the very thing we are trying to hold on to. If my life is all about me and finding myself, I will not find the “me” I am looking for. To hate my life means not living in a self-centered way but being a servant of others. The one who lives a life of service in the name of the Lord Jesus will be rewarded in this life and in the life to come.3

Christ goes on to say that “he who hates his life in the world” by making his or her love and loyalty to Christ a priority “will keep it for eternal life,” that is, they will enjoy a deeper and fuller experience of eternal life both now and in eternity. 4  So, the issue is not salvation, but the quality of a believer’s life both now and in the world to come.

When Jesus mentions hating one’s life, He is not talking about self-abuse or mutilation. That would be contrary to His other teachings about loving others “as yourself” (Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27; cf. Ephesians 5:29). While self-denial is implied in the phrase, “he who hates his life” (cf. Matthew 16:24-25; Mark 8:34-35; Luke 9:23-24), this does not mean we are to deny our humanity which includes our physical and emotional needs.

For example, in a helpful article, Amie Patrick talks about when we go through stressful seasons of life, we may have a greater need for sleep, nutrition, exercise, and emotional refreshment. Denying self does not mean we overlook these needs. She emphasizes that it is important to accept our God-given limits and receive the Lord’s gifts of rest, food, recreation, and solitude which are also acts of worship and obedience. While Jesus was fully human and fully God—He often set aside time in His ministry to be alone or enjoy meals with friends. 5

The expression “he who hates his life” refers to Jesus being a priority in your life over self and the material things “in this world.” Our devotion to the Lord Jesus makes our interests in the material affairs of this life appear by comparison as hatred. Those who are dedicated to Christ will “keep” or preserve that lifestyle for eternal rewards. Our earthly experience becomes a part of “eternal life”in that it contributes to the quality of our future life in eternity. If we put our material things and selfish ambitions ahead of Christ, we will decrease the quality of our life in the world to come.

The Bible teaches that eternal life as a future acquisition is always a reward that is based upon works (cf. Matthew 19:29-30; Mark 10:29-30; Luke 18:29-30; John 4:36; 12:25; Romans 2:7; Galatians 6:7-9; I Timothy 6:12, 19), but when eternal life is presented as a present possession it is always received as a free gift by faith alone in Christ alone (John 3:16; 4:10-14; 5:24; 6:40, 47; Romans 6:23; Ephesians 2:8-9; Revelation 22:17). 6  If we die to self and make Jesus a priority in our lives, we can also experience His quality of life now. So, the way to truly live is to die to self and live to Christ.

Jesus explains further what it means to “hate” one’s life. “If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor.” (John 12:26). He is referring to self-denying service to Christ. If you want to serve Christ, you must follow Him. He is to be the number one priority in your life. Just as Jesus denied Himself and died for the world (John 12:27-28a), His disciples are to deny themselves and serve Him. When Christ says, “and where I am, there My servant will be also”in glory and honor is the main idea here as confirmed in the next part of the verse. “If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor.” The verb “will honor” (timēsei) refers to honoring faithful Christians with rewards. If you serve Jesus, you will receive “honor” or reward from His heavenly Father. If you want to be rewarded in the future, you must earn it by serving Christ now. Rewards are not a free gift. We must work for them to receive them in the future.

Jesus chose the way of the cross because of His desire to please His Father (cf. Philippians 2:5-11). Likewise, every follower of Christ must face a similar choice of taking the way of the cross. For example, a woman was told that the baby in her womb would be mentally impaired, but she refused the early abortion recommended by her doctors because she believed this would be wrong. An investment salesman lost his job because he insisted on being honest about the risks. And before the revolution in Romania, a lawyer lost his professional status and had to do menial labor because he openly confessed Christ as his Savior. These three Christians chose to take the way of the cross. They took seriously the words of Jesus, “If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me.” These two verbs, “serves” (diakonē) and “follow” (akoloutheitō) are in the present tense and convey the idea of “keep on serving Me” and “keep on following Me.” 8  Disciples of Christ who faithfully serve Him are promised His companionship (“where I am, there My servant will be also”)and those who faithfully serve Him are promised the Father’s “honor.”

The world says to put your material things or earthly life and self, first. It says, “There’s no need to take God seriously.” But if you don’t take God seriously, then there’s no need to take your marriage seriously, or the rearing of your children seriously, or such character traits as submission, faithfulness, sexual purity, humility, repentance, and honesty seriously either. If we don’t take God seriously, if we don’t make Jesus Christ our #1 priority now, it will cost us in the future. Oh, we will go to heaven, but the quality of our life there will be less than it could have been if we took Christ seriously. You see, the things we do now will prepare us for what we do in eternity. How I live on earth now will contribute to the quality of my life in heaven. If I live for Christ now by His grace, death will not interrupt that lifestyle. It will continue in eternity without interruption.

First John 2:17 says, “And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.”  John reminds us that the world is passing away and therefore, it is a totally unworthy object of our sinful lusts and longings. If I am a laborer on earth, an architect, a musician, a secretary, a farmer, a teacher, a scientist, a physician – however skilled I may be at any of these activities – none of these designations will survive the present age. The term “abides” (menō) is a fellowship term. The believer who is doing God’s will possesses a lifestyle that will not be interrupted by the passing away of this world. He experiences uninterrupted fellowship with God. He will experience “boldness” at the Judgment Seat of Christ (I John 2:28; 4:17) where the eternal worth of his earthly Christian life will be evaluated (I Corinthians 3:11-15; 2 Corinthians 5:10). But the believer who lives out of fellowship with the Lord does not “abide”forever in that his worldly lifestyle will be radically interrupted when he goes to heaven. His worldly lifestyle will not abide forever. It stops at heaven’s gates. But a dedicated lifestyle to Christ really has no ending. 

Prayer: Father God, thank You for bringing me back to Your eternal perspective in these verses today. As the Lord Jesus approached the time of His sufferings and death on the cross, He began to focus on the outcome of His death. Like a grain of wheat that must fall into the ground and die to produce many seeds, so Jesus had to die to produce life in untold millions of people, including both Jews and Gentiles. In the same way, Father, I need to focus beyond this life to the life to come. Envisioning that future life motivates me to serve You faithfully as a disciple or follower of Christ. As Your disciple, You call me to deny my selfish desires so I may sacrificially serve You by serving others. Instead of living a self-centered life, I am to live a Christ-centered life that will honor both You, Father, and Jesus. And Jesus promises that You will reward such sacrificial service both now and in eternity. As missionary C.T. Studd once said, “Only one life, twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.” By Your grace, Lord, I want to invest in what lasts forever – You and the works You have prepared for me to walk in (Ephesians 2:10). In Jesus’ life-giving name I pray. Amen.

ENDNOTES:

1. Watchman Nee, The Breaking of the Outer Man and the Release of the Spirit, (Anaheim: Living Stream Ministry, 1997), pp. 8-9.

2. Watchman Nee, The Release of the Spirit (Cloverdale: Sure Foundation Publishers, 1965), pg. 11.

3. Dr. Tony Evans, The Tony Evans Bible Commentary (pg. 1795). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

4. See EvanTell’s The Evangelism Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2014), pg. 1180; Robert N. Wilkin, “The Gospel According to John,” The Grace New Testament Commentary [TGNTC], Vol. 1: Matthew – Acts (Denton, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 2010), pp. 433-434.

5. Amie Patrick, “Self-care and Self-Denial,” The Gospel Coalition at https://www.thegospel coalition.org/article/ self-care-and-self-denial.

6. See Zane C. Hodges, Grace in Eclipse: A Study on Eternal Rewards, (Dallas: Redencion Viva, 1985), pp. 35-56; see Jody C. Dillow, The Reign of the Servant Kings: A Study of Eternal Security and the Final Significance of Man, (Hayesville: Schoettle Publishing Co., 1992), pp. 135-145.

7. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature [BAGD], compiled by Walter Bauer, trans. and adapted by William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, 2nd ed., rev. and augmented by F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), pg. 817.

8. J. Carl Laney, Moody Gospel John Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), pg. 228.

How can we honor only Jesus? Part 3

“Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.” John 12:3

So far in our study of John 12:1-8, we have learned to honor only Jesus by serving Christ out of thanksgiving for what he has done (John 12:1-2a) and by spending time with christ out of joy for his gift of salvation (John 12:2b).

The third way to honor only Jesus is to SACRIFICE FOR CHRIST OUT OF LOVE FOR HIM (John 12:3). What happens next is an amazing expression of love toward Jesus. “Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.” (John 12:3). I can picture Mary quietly arising from her couch to walk around the other couches with people reclining on them and reaching down to pour “this pound of very costly oil of spikenard” on Jesus’ feet which were propped up on the couch. The value of this ointment was equivalent to a year’s wages (12:5).

This perfume was very expensive for several reasons. First, because of the large quantity that Mary used. A “pound” was the equivalent of a Roman pound or approximately twelve ounces. Mary had enough anointment to not only anoint His feet, but His entire body. In fact, Matthew and Mark indicate that she also anoints Jesus’ head perhaps to focus on honoring Him (Matthew 26:7; Mark 14:3). John may have reported Mary anointing Jesus’ feet to draw attention to her humility and devotion in contrast to the pride of the Sanhedrin and disciples (cf. John 11:47-53, 57; 13:1-17). 1 It is likely then that Mary anointed both Jesus’ head and feet.

Secondly, this was costly ointment because of its quality. John reports that it is “pure spikenard” in contrast to ointment which had been diluted. 2 A third reason why this perfume was costly is because it was made from the nard plant in East India and imported from there. 3 It is normally shipped in a sealed alabaster jar and would only be broke open for very special occasions. Because this ointment was so expensive, only the wealthy could afford to buy it. It was usually reserved to be given to kings. Mary wanted to give Jesus the best ointment because of her love for Him. Nothing was too good for her Lord.

Do you treasure the Lord Jesus more than your possessions or money? Does your spending of money reflect that Jesus is first in your life? If others looked at how you spend money, would they conclude that you love Jesus more than anyone or anything else?

Mary “anointed the feet of Jesus” with this costly perfume. Normally a Rabbi’s head would be anointed with such perfume. To tend to Jesus’ feet was the task of a lowly house slave or servant. But Mary chooses to anoint His feet as an expression of her humility and devotion to Christ. To use “her hair” to wipe off the excess oil from Jesus’ feet is also significant. “Normally Jewish women never unbound their hair in public, since loose hair was a sign of loose morals.” But Mary did not seem to care what others thought at this moment. Her heart went out to her Lord and she expressed her feelings of gratitude for Him raising Lazarus from the dead.

Do you love Jesus more than your pride? Or are you more concerned about what others think of you than what Jesus thinks of you? People may think you are a religious fanatic, but what matters is what Jesus thinks about your sacrificial love for Him.

John then informs us that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.”  Mary’s expression of love and gratitude for the Lord filled the entire house with a fragrant aroma. I’m reminded of a Rabbinic saying: “The scent of good oil is diffused from the bed-chamber to the dining-hall while a good name is diffused from one end of the world to the other.” 5 This may be John’s way of saying that Mary’s action would be spoken of throughout the world (cf. Matthew 26:13; Mark 14:9). Her devotion and sacrifice for Christ would become a perpetual memorial of world-wide honor.

John leaves out an important detail that Mark’s account includes. Before Mary could anoint Jesus with the pure spikenard, she had to break “the flask” containing it (Mark 14:3). Christian author Watchman Nee equates the flask to our “outer man” or soul which must be broken to release “the inward man” or spirit (2 Corinthians 4:16). 6 Our outer man must be broken to allow the inward man containing the fragrance of Christ to be released.

Nee states, “God purposely used this term ‘pure’ in His Word to show that it is truly spiritual. But if the alabaster box is not broken, the pure spikenard will not flow forth. Strange to say, many are still treasuring the alabaster box, thinking that its value exceeds that of the ointment. Many think that their outward man is more precious than their inward man. This becomes the problem in the Church. One will treasure his cleverness, thinking he is quite important; another will treasure his own emotions, esteeming himself to be more advanced than other people. Others highly regard themselves, because they feel they are better than others, their eloquence surpasses that of others, or their quickness of action and exactness of judgment are superior, and so forth.

“However, we are not antique collectors; we are not ‘vase’ admirers; we should be those who desire to smell only the fragrance of the ointment. Without the breaking of the outward, the inward fragrance will not come forth. Hence, not only do we individually have no flowing out, but also the church has no living way. Why then should we hold our inner man to be so precious, especially if the outward only contains the fragrance, instead of releasing the fragrance?

“The Holy Spirit has not ceased working. He makes sure one event after another and one difficulty after another come to us. These disciplinary workings of the Holy Spirit have but one purpose – to break our outward man so that our inward man may come through. Yet here is our difficulty – we fret over trifles, we murmur at small losses, and we complain about insignificant things. The Lord is ever finding and preparing a way in order to use us. Yet when His hand slightly touches us, we begin to feel unhappy – even to the extent of quarreling with God and having a negative attitude. Since the time when we were saved, we have been touched by the Lord many times in various ways – all with the purpose of breaking our outward man. Whether we are conscious of it or not, the aim of the Lord is to break this stubborn vessel called our outward man.

“Nevertheless, the Treasure is in the earthen vessel (2 Cor. 4:7). But if the earthen vessel cannot be broken, who can see the Treasure within? Have we seen what is the final objective of the Lord’s working in our lives? It is to break open this earthen vessel (2 Cor. 4:7), to burst open our alabaster box (Mark 14:3), to crack open our shell (John 12:24). The Lord longs to find a way to bless the world through those who belong to Him. Brokenness is the way of blessing, the way of fragrance, the way of fruitfulness. But, it is also a path sprinkled with ‘blood from our wounds.’  Yes, there is blood from the many wounds we suffer. When we offer ourselves to the Lord for His service, we cannot afford to be lenient and spare ourselves. We must allow the Lord to crack open our outward man utterly so that He may find a way for His working through us.” 7

Does our devotion and sacrifice for Christ fill the place we occupy with a fragrant aroma? Does our praise please the Lord? Does our lifestyle honor the Lord (Hebrews 13:15-16) and emit the beautiful fragrance of Jesus (2 Corinthians 2:14-16)? What kind of odor does our devotion to Christ emit? Is it pleasant or unpleasant? Unbearable or refreshing?

We all have reason to live for the Lord. Mary was thankful that Christ raised Lazarus from the dead physically. But Jesus has done even more for us! He has raised each of us who believe in Him from the dead spiritually. He has given us never-ending life and guarantees to resurrect us from the dead in the future (John 11:25-26)! Only Jesus could motivate a person to do what Mary did. What a wonderful Savior we have!

Prayer: Thank You, Lord Jesus, for drawing my attention to what honors You! Mary gave to You what was most precious to her as a way of thanking Your for raising her brother from the dead. But it also seems that she wanted to bless You before Your upcoming crucifixion. She seems to understand, at least in part, what you were about to face at the cross, and she wanted to minister to You while You were still with her. Lord, I must admit that my love for You is so pale compared to Your love for me. Nevertheless, I want to express my love to You by giving You what is most precious to me – my family, my dreams, and my time. You are worthy of my very best. As I look back on my life, I can see You at work breaking my outer man to release my inner man containing Your fragrance. I am beginning to understand how much You want to bless this world through my own brokenness. Help me not to resist this process, but to surrender to You so more people can enjoy Your fragrance and be drawn to You. In Your powerful name I pray. Amen.

ENDNOTES:

1. Donald A. Carson, “Current Source Criticism of the Fourth Gospel: Some Methodological Questions.” Journal of Biblical Literature 97 (1978):411-29.

2. While the New King James English translation omits the word “pure,” John does include it (pistikēs) in his Greek text.

3. W.E. Shewell-Cooper, “Spikenard,” in the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. Marrill C. Tenney (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), 5:502.

4. Dr. Tom Constable, Notes on John, 2015 Edition,pg. 213.

5. William B. Silverman, The Sages Speak: Rabbinic Wisdom and Jewish Values (Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc., 1995), pg. 72.

6. Watchman Nee, The Release of the Spirit, (New York: Christian Fellowship Publishers, 2000) pp. 12-17.

7. Ibid., pp. 14-16.