“Pity the nations, O our God, Constrain the earth to come; Send Thy victorious Word abroad, And bring the strangers home.” —Isaac Watts, “How Sweet and Awesome Is the Place”
As servants of the Lord Jesus Christ living on this side of the cross, we labor with joy in the dawn of the new creation—praying for God’s mercy upon the nations, that He would constrain the earth to come, and that He would send forth His Word and bring the strangers home. We pray these things with confidence and boldness, based on the finished work of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, for it is His finished work that compels us to plant churches. Many themes, texts, and teachings of Scripture, of which the reader is quite likely aware, demonstrate the need for church planting. For our purposes, however, we will consider this theme in John’s gospel, specifically in 12:20–26, where we see the biblical foundation for church planting in Jesus, the fruitful grain of wheat, who died in order to produce much fruit—the salvation of men and women from every nation, tribe, people, and tongue.
When Jesus began His earthly ministry, John the Baptist proclaimed Him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Following Jesus’ meeting with the woman at the well, the Samaritans confessed, “This is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world” (John 4:42). After Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, Caiaphas, the high priest, prophesied that Jesus would die not only for the Jewish nation, “but also that He would gather together in one the children of God who were scattered abroad” (John 11:51–52). After Jesus’ triumphal entry, the Pharisees—His mortal enemies—were compelled to say, “The world has gone after Him!” (John 12:19). Jesus’ ministry and work are for people of all nations, tribes, and tongues. John the Baptist proclaimed it. The Samaritans recognized it. Caiaphas prophesied of it. Even the Pharisees confessed it. Jesus did not make all of these statements, however; others did. It is not until John 12:20–26 that Jesus Himself declares such things. In this pivotal passage, Jesus connects the work He is about to accomplish on the cross with the gathering in of the nations, describing Himself as the fruitful grain of wheat.
The Time of Harvest Has Come
John begins this text in a most arresting fashion, fixing our eyes on the Gentiles: “Now there were certain Greeks among those who came up to worship at the feast” (12:20). The Jews had once complained among themselves: “Does He intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?” (John 7:35). Their complaint reveals their blindness, for even now Jesus is beginning to draw all peoples to Himself. The Greeks come to Jesus.
John does not want us to miss the irony here. These “certain Greeks” were “among those who came up to worship at the feast” (12:20). The feast to which John is referring is the great feast of the Jews, the Passover, which celebrated the deliverance of the infant Jewish nation from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. Not only did this feast look back on the great redemptive act of the Old Testament, but it also looked forward in hope to the nation’s future redemption.1 It was a thoroughly nationalistic feast that commemorated God’s separation of the Jews not only from the Egyptians but also from all the other peoples of the earth. The means by which God separated the Jews from all others was the blood of the lamb. Meredith Kline writes:
The picture in Exodus 12 is . . . one of God’s . . . coming to them and abiding with them through the dark night of judgment on Egypt. Like a hovering bird spreading its protective wings over its young, the Lord covered the Israelite houses, keeping watch over them. He was their gatekeeper, their guardian against the entrance of the angel of death. . . . The Lord shielded his people from his own wrath by himself intercepting the death angel’s thrust as he stood guard at the door of their dwellings. . . . The lamb’s blood on these sanctuary tombs presaged their becoming empty tombs in the morning. Their blood-covered doors would be opened and their redeemed occupants would emerge as the children of the resurrection day.2
The annual celebration of the Passover should have reminded the Jews of their unique status as those who lived in the freedom of a new day.
Though we do not know what these Greeks were doing at this Jewish feast, we do know they wanted to see Jesus and perhaps begin to enjoy the freedom of a new day themselves: “Then they came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida of Galilee, and asked him, saying, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’” (12:21). The Greeks came to Philip, most likely because Philip was one of only two disciples with a Greek name.3 The point, however, is not that they came to Philip. The point is their request: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” The implication is that these Greeks were not satisfied with the Jewish feast. The Jewish feast left them empty, unfulfilled, and in the shadows. These Greeks were hungry and longed to be filled; they sought the Light of the World. They wanted to see Jesus.
Here, John gives us a hint of the history of redemption as he takes us from the Old Testament shadows of a Jewish feast to the New Testament reality of Jesus. John is signaling to us that in Jesus the dawn of the new age has arrived—an age in which men and women of every nation, tribe, tongue, and people will be counted among the children of the resurrection day. Though the new age is already intruding in history here in John 12, it has not fully arrived. Notice that the Greeks do not yet come to Jesus; they come to Philip. Nevertheless, they do come to see Jesus.4 Remarkably, the Greeks understand, though only in part, that this Jewish feast is but a shadow. Jesus is the reality. Thus, the Greeks understand—and appear ready to accept—what the Jews do not: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Philip receives the request of the Greeks, proceeds to tell Andrew, and in turn Andrew and Philip tell Jesus (12:22). Thus, John does something remarkable in this text: he fixes our eyes on the Gentiles in order to fix our eyes on Jesus. John’s only purpose in introducing other characters in his gospel is to point us to Jesus, that we might behold His glory. Raymond Brown comments, “The coming of the Gentiles is so theologically important that the writer never tells us if they got to see Jesus, and indeed they disappear from the scene.”5 The Greeks disappear from the scene so that we might see Jesus. He is, after all, the Great Harvester who draws all peoples to Himself. Now we see Jesus.
The Great Harvester
Jesus receives the report from Andrew and Philip that the Greeks have come with a request to see Him. Remarkably, Jesus does not address the Greeks. Instead, He simply says, “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified” (12:23). Jesus interprets the coming of the Greeks as the arrival of His hour.
Everything in John’s gospel has been pressing toward this hour. At the wedding feast of Cana in Galilee, Jesus says to His mother, “My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). John tells us later that no one could lay a hand upon Jesus “because His hour had not yet come” (7:30). We find the same thing in 8:20. In the opening half of John’s gospel, Jesus’ hour has not yet come. But now, with the Gentiles drawing near to Him, Jesus says, “the hour has come.”
The hour to which Jesus is referring, of course, is the hour of His death. We learn that from John 13:1, where “His hour” is defined in terms of Jesus’ departure from this world. We see it again in John 17:1 as Jesus begins His High Priestly Prayer with those words anticipating His death: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You.” The hour of which Jesus is speaking—the hour that has now come—is the hour of Jesus’ death, and it is the drawing near of the Gentiles that signals its arrival. Thus, the inclusion of the Gentiles is brought about through the Jewish rejection of Jesus. The Greeks wish to see Jesus, and the Jews wish to see Jesus no more. Jesus’ hour—the hour of His death—has come.
The connection Jesus draws between the coming of the Gentiles and the arrival of the hour of His death on the cross is vital to church planting. Prior to Jesus’ work on the cross, the message of the gospel was proclaimed almost exclusively to the Jews. From henceforth, however, it goes forth to Jew and Gentile alike—to men and women from every nation, tribe, tongue, and people. The gospel is to be “declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction” (Canons of Dort, 2.5).
This leads us to one of the most profound ironies of John’s gospel: the hour of Jesus’ death is the hour of Jesus’ glory. In John’s gospel, Jesus is not merely glorified after His death on the cross but in His death on the cross. John wants us to fix our eyes upon Jesus, hanging on the cross, and to see there His glory!6
Jesus refers to the hour of His death as the hour “that the Son of Man should be glorified” (12:23). Picture the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion. The place itself conjures up the most disturbing images; it is called “the Place of a Skull,” in Hebrew, “Golgotha” (John 19:17). Here the soldiers pierced Jesus’ hands, nailing them to the horizontal bar. They pierced His feet, fastening them to the vertical bar. They lifted Him up on the cross between two thieves. Above Him they fastened the title “JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS” (19:19). The soldiers stripped Him of His garments and cast lots for His clothing. Where is the glory in all of this?
How can the hour of Jesus’ death be the hour that the Son of Man is glorified? Jesus tells us in John 12:24: “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.” The hour of Jesus’ death is the hour of His glory, because at the cross, Jesus actually saves His people, securing their redemption for time and eternity.7 He dies in order to produce much fruit, and the fruit of His death is the salvation of men and women from every nation, tribe, people, and tongue. Jesus explains, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself” (John 12:32).
In John 12:24, Jesus indicates the absolute necessity of His death if there is to be a church. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone” (emphasis added). The implication is clear. If Jesus does not die, there will be no church; but He does die, and so He brings forth His church, in which He reveals His glory. In fact, as Raymond Brown has pointed out, “The parable is concerned not with the fate of the grain but with its productivity.”8 Such is the love and compassion of Christ for His church, that His glory is bound up with His fruit—that is, with the church. Though He is all-glorious in and of Himself, His glory is revealed and demonstrated most powerfully in the salvation of His church.
By His death, Jesus produces much fruit. In His being lifted up, He draws all peoples to Himself. This season of harvest was anticipated from the beginning of the world and will not cease until the world’s end. The Belgic Confession states, “This church has existed from the beginning of the world and will last until the end, as appears from the fact that Christ is an eternal King who cannot be without subjects” (BC, art. 27). The Confession goes on to state, “This holy church is not confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or certain persons. But it is spread and dispersed throughout the entire world, though still joined and united in heart and will, in one and the same Spirit, by the power of faith” (BC, art. 27). The Heidelberg Catechism echoes the Confession when it states, “The Son of God, through his Spirit and Word, out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith” (HC, Q&A 54). The Westminster Standards (WCF 25, WLC, Q&A 61–64) use similar language, stating that the “universal Church” consists “of the whole number of the elect . . . from all places in the world.”
This, then, is the purpose for which Jesus came and died: to produce a great harvest, His church. Francis Turretin observed, “He came into the world and performed the mediatorial office for no other reason than to acquire a church for himself and call it (when acquired) into a participation of grace and glory.”9 The growth of the church from a small band of disciples in Acts 1 to the ends of the earth in Acts 28 is proof, as Johannes VanderKemp puts it, that “the satisfaction of the Son cannot be frustrated.”10 Our Lord Jesus Christ is a most successful harvester. He calls the church into existence by His messianic acts.11 This is the point Jesus is making when He compares Himself to a grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies, and by that death produces much fruit. By His suffering and death Jesus produces the church and now calls her to be fruitful.
The Fruit of His Labor
The fruit that Jesus produces by His death resembles Him. An apple seed produces apples. A pear seed produces pears. A grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies produces grain. In other words, Jesus’ church is conformed to Him. Listen to the words with which Jesus concludes our text: “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal 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” (12:25–26).
Here Jesus speaks of conformity to His image. He produces His image in His people—and His people are made like Him. The true church of Jesus Christ resembles Him. This means that as He died to self in order to produce much fruit, so His church, in conformity to Him, dies to self in order to produce much fruit for His glory. The pattern that we observe in Jesus—dying that others may live—He now reproduces in His church. In Him His church lives and moves and has her being. Sometimes it is said that couples who have been married for a long time come to resemble each other. So also here, the bride resembles her Bridegroom; the church resembles Christ. And the church counts this her joy, delighting to live as “children of the resurrection day.” As the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, “By His power we too are already now resurrected to a new life” (HC, Q&A 45).
Thus, the principle of “death to self / life in Christ” articulated by Jesus in John 12: 25–26 is the paradigm not only for the life of Christian discipleship but also for the life of the church. Though this pattern is found in every facet of the church’s life, perhaps it is most profoundly seen in the work of the church planter and in the corporate life of the church plant.
Not only the church planter, but the church body as a whole, must die to self. Luther once stated, “The Church is misery on earth.”12 He also stated that the church “is like unto her bridegroom, Christ Jesus, torn, spit on, derided, and crucified.”13 Indeed, this is the way it must be so that we do not depend upon ourselves, but always upon Christ—that the glory may never be ours, but that it may always be His. Luther went on to say, “We tell our Lord God plainly, that if He will have His Church, He must maintain and defend it; for we can neither uphold nor protect it. If we could, indeed, we should become the proudest asses under heaven. But God says: I say it, I do it.”14 Calvin also recognized the need for the church to be conformed to the image of her Savior: “The Church, so long as she is a pilgrim in this world, is subjected to the cross, that she may be humble, and may be conformed to her Head. . . . Her highest ornament and luster is modesty.”15 The church’s greatest glory is to be found in her conformity to Christ, and that means death to self and life in Him.
How does the church planter die to self? He dies to self each time he gives up another evening of precious time he would otherwise spend with his wife and children to encourage struggling members of the church. He accepts a much smaller salary than he would receive in a larger church. He refuses to build the church upon his personality, choosing instead to decrease that Christ may increase. He gladly spends and is spent for the life of the congregation. He imparts to the congregation not only the gospel but also his life.
How does the church plant die to self? The church plant dies to self by refusing to be discouraged by small numbers. It refuses to give up when the funds are low and instead seeks help from sister churches that are more established. It foregoes its desire for a nice, large building, choosing instead to meet in less-than-ideal quarters, even though each time it gathers the members have to set up chairs for the worship service again. The church plant dies to self as it refuses to promote itself, choosing instead to proclaim Christ to a lost and dying world.
Edmund Clowney reminds us that this is precisely the work to which the servants of Christ Jesus are called: “Jesus came to gather, and to call gatherers, disciples who would gather with him, seeking the poor and helpless from city streets and country roads. . . . Mission is not an optional activity for Christ’s disciples. If they are not gatherers, they are scatterers.”16 Conformity to Christ means the difficult work of missions and evangelism and church planting. Christ came to seek and to save the lost—not the righteous, but the unrighteous—and that work cost Him His life. Even as Christ came to serve sinners, so in Him we are called to serve sinners (John 13:14–17). Clowney goes on to state the great danger for those churches that fail to conform to Christ in terms of seeking the lost: “The congregation that ignores mission will atrophy and soon find itself shattered by internal dissension. It will inevitably begin to lose its own young people, disillusioned by hearing the gospel trumpet sounded every Sunday for those who never march.”17 A church that does not die to self in service to Christ will necessarily turn inward and thereby lose her life. The work of missions, evangelism, and church planting is vital to the life of the church—through it she dies to self and lives to Christ.
As the church dies to self, she begins to experience the transforming power of the gospel, for in dying to self she lives to Christ—better yet, Christ lives in her. She becomes an instrument in the Redeemer’s hands as He works in her and through her. 18 In his letter to the Colossians Paul says, “To this end I also labor, striving according to His working which works in me mightily” (1:29). It is no coincidence that Paul, who was the great church planter of the New Testament, writes of these themes of death to self and life to Christ often. In his second letter to the Corinthians, for example, he writes,
In all things we commend ourselves as ministers of God: in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fastings; by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known, as dying, and behold, we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things (2 Cor. 6:4–10, emphasis added).
In fact, later in the same letter, Paul defines the marks of a true servant of Christ in these same terms:
Are they ministers of Christ?—I speak as a fool—I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness—besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation? If I must boast, I will boast in the things which concern my infirmity. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. In Damascus the governor, under Aretas the king, was guarding the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desiring to arrest me; but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands (2 Cor. 11:23–33).
The persecutor of the church became persecuted for the church’s sake—including churches he had planted. The persecutor of Christ became persecuted for Christ’s sake. Yet in this suffering and death, Paul found glory and life. In so doing, he tasted of the power of God, as God’s strength was made perfect in weakness. Therefore Paul could most gladly boast in his infirmities, for in these infirmities the power of Christ rested upon him. Therefore he took pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake. For when he was weak, then he was strong (2 Cor. 12:9–10).
This paradigm of death to self and to life in Christ is not unique to the apostle Paul; it characterizes the life of all true servants of Christ. Indeed, it characterizes the life of the church herself. As the church is conformed to Christ, she proclaims Him in Word and deed, and Christ Himself is then at work producing still more fruit. Thus, as a statement from the Mission to North America points out, “From the beginning of the established church, missionaries have started new congregations from which to share the Gospel to a desperate and hurting world.”19
But why should mission work take the form of church planting? The answer is simple: Church planting is essential because the risen Christ has bound Himself to the assembly of His people on the Lord’s Day. It is in the assembly that He has promised to work through the preaching of the gospel to create faith in our hearts and through the sacraments to strengthen that faith (HC, Q&A 65–68). Michael Horton writes,
The church is first of all a place where God does certain things. . . . Christ, both Lord and Savior of his church, appointed an official ministry . . . so that he could continue to serve his covenant people and extend his kingdom of grace to the ends of the earth by his Spirit. Even in the present—every time we gather—it is God who summons us in judgment and grace. It is not our devotion, praise, piety, or service that comes first, but God’s service to us. This is why we must assemble at a place where the gospel is truly preached, the sacraments are administered according to Christ’s institution, and there is a visible form of Christ’s heavenly reign through officers whom he has called and sent.20
It is through the “ordinary means” of the church’s ministry—namely the foolishness of preaching and the weakness of water, bread, and wine—that Christ has promised to work, bringing sinners to salvation in Christ through repentance and faith in Him.
Geerhardus Vos states, “The church actually has within herself the powers of the world to come. She . . . forms an intermediate link between the present life and the life of eternity. . . . The consummation of the kingdom in which all is fulfilled began with [Jesus’] resurrection and ascension.”21 And so, by God’s grace, we press on in planting churches, proclaiming Christ, that sinners may be ushered into the life of the world to come. And as they begin to taste the powers of the age to come, they too lay down their lives in service to Christ, knowing that these present sufferings are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us. As Calvin notes, “The afflictions of the Church are always momentary, when we raise our eyes to its eternal happiness.”22 Thus, in all our labor, we echo the words of Paul: “I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. . . . For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself” (Phil. 3:12, 20–21).
Jesus Christ is the fruitful grain of wheat who died in order that He might produce much fruit. The church is His fruit, and she exists to bring glory and honor to Him. Thus, the biblical foundation for church planting is the glory of Christ Jesus our Lord. Therefore, as Vos comments, “The joy of working in the dawn of the world to come quickens the pulse of all New Testament servants of Christ.”23 As we long for the fullness of the day when we behold the Sun of Righteousness in all of His glory, let us go forth and plant churches with the words of Isaac Watts’s hymn in our hearts:
We long to see Thy churches full,
That all the chosen race
May, with one voice and heart and soul,
Sing thy redeeming grace. 1. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, s.v. “Passover.”
2. Meredith Kline, “The Feast of Cover-Over,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37, 4 (December 1994): 497–510.
3. The other disciple with a Greek name was Andrew, the one to whom Philip went in verse 22 (William Hendriksen, The Gospel of John [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1954], 194).
4. This is likely a pregnant term in John’s gospel, indicating far more than a desire to see Jesus physically. Implied here is a desire to follow Jesus as disciples (cf. John 1:39, 46, 50, 51) (James T. Dennison, “Come and See,” Kerux 9, 2 [September 1994]: 23–29).
5. Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I–XII (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 470.
6. It is noteworthy that in John’s record of the crucifixion there is no reference to the three hours of darkness. This is remarkable, for of all the gospel writers, John develops the imagery of light and darkness most fully. Perhaps John doesn’t record the three hours of darkness at Golgotha, however, because he wants us to focus only on the glory of Christ, the Light of the World.
7. For a recent, helpful discussion on definite atonement, see Joel Beeke, Living for God’s Glory (Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2008), 74–100.
8. Brown, The Gospel According to John, 472.
9. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 1997), 3:1.
10. Johannes VanderKemp, The Christian Entirely the Property of Christ, in Life and Death: Exhibited in Fifty-three Sermons on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. John M. Harlingen (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1997), 1:427.
11. Geerhardus Vos, The Kingdom and the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), 78.
12. Martin Luther, Table Talk (Gainesville, Fla.: Bridge-Logos, 2004), 255.
13. Ibid., 253.
15. As quoted in Graham Miller, Calvin’s Wisdom (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1992), 52.
16. Edmund Clowney, The Church (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1995), 159.
17. Ibid., 160.
18. Cf. Paul Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hand: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change (Phillipsburg, N. J.: P&R, 2002).
19. “Frequently Asked Questions,” Mission to North America (PCA), accessed July 2008,www.pca-mna.org/churchplanting/faqs.php.
20. Michael Horton, “No Church, No Problem?” Modern Reformation 17, 4 (July/August 2008): 17.
21. Vos, The Kingdom and the Church, 84–85.
22. As quoted in Miller, Calvin’s Wisdom, 61.
23. Geerhardus Vos, Grace and Glory (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994), 90.
Article reprinted from Planting, Watering, Growing: Planting Confessionally Reformed Churches in the 21st Century, edited by Daniel R. Hyde and Shane Lems, by permission of the publisher, Reformation Heritage Books, www.heritagebooks.org
Rev. Brian Vos is the pastor of the Trinity United Reformed Church in Caledonia, Michigan.