Life and Fruitfulness Through Death
By Horatius Bonar, 1867
"I assure you—Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces a large crop." John 12:24
It is strange that, in a world made by the God only wise and good, there should be such a thing as death. It is more astonishing, that this death should come out of a thing so glorious as life. But, beyond these, there is a greater still wonder—that life should grow out of death, and corruption be the seed and parent of incorruption.
Yet this last is the process which God has been carrying on in our earth, since the threatening took effect against Adam—"In the day that you eat thereof, you shall surely die."
It needs no great power to bring death out of life. Man can effect that without an effort. But to bring life out of death needs other power than man's. Man can kill—but God alone can make alive. It is the Creator alone who can quicken; and hence the apostle sets these two things together when he says, "God, who gives life to the dead and calls things into existence that do not exist." (Rom. 4:17). The power to destroy life has been given to the creature; but the power to impart life, is a prerogative of Godhead and a function of Omnipotence. Thus all of death that is in us—we owe to ourselves; and all of life that is in us—we trace solely to God, to him whose name is "Jehovah," who not merely is King "eternal and immortal," but "who alone has immortality" (1 Tim. 6:16).
We can, however, go a step farther than this; and it is to this higher point that the apostle leads us when he says, "What you sow does not come to life unless it dies." (1 Cor. 15:36). These words are peculiar, and the thought embodied in them is not one which man has ever owned, far less originated. The apostle is speaking, no doubt, especially of the resurrection of the body, yet in so doing he enunciates a wider, more universal, and more subtle truth—a truth unacknowledged by philosophy—but largely recognized in Scripture, and taught by many natural processes—that death is the way to life, that the dissolution of the lower life is necessary in order to the development of the higher. Yes; this is the sum of the divine testimony concerning life and death. Death, instead of being the destruction or extinction of life, is the preparation for and introduction to it. The ascent from a lower kind and narrower region of life, to a loftier and wider life—is through DEATH. Death is the narrow isthmus, or rather the subterraneous passage, through which God is conducting us, from the bleak coasts of this poor pestilent marshland—to the shores of that fair ocean, whose waters spread themselves out under calmer skies, and break upon a sunnier shore.
"What you sow does not come to life unless it dies." Strange words—and most marvelous truth! Yet the apostle speaks as if this were one of the plainest and commonest of nature's laws; so that a man must be a fool, if he has not read that law in the every-day processes of sowing and springing. And as it is with the seed, so is it with man himself. It is by means of darkness that we reach the light. It is by falling that we rise; by going down into the depths of the valley that we find our way up to the mountains of immortality beyond. It is through winter that we pass into spring. It is by dying that we are made to live—live forever. The life that lasts—the life that is truly immortal and eternal—is only obtained by dying. It is resurrection-life that is the truest as well as the highest form of life, the surest as well as the most glorious immortality. It admits of no reversal and no decay. These souls of ours are quickened to an endless life, by having first passed through a death of trespasses and sins.
And these bodies must go down into the grave, and there be dissolved—that every particle of mortality may be shaken out of them, before they can be made partakers of the glory in reserve for them. They are sown in weakness, that they may be raised in power; they are sown in corruption, that they may be raised in incorruption. It is the grave, the abode of putrid loathsomeness, which is the womb of the undecaying and the undefiled. John Howe, in commenting on the expression, "armor of light," exclaims, "Strange armor that a man can see through!" So may we say here, "Strange life that is the offspring of death; how unlike the child and the parent to each other!"
Yet we shrink from death and abhor the grave! What! Are we afraid of becoming immortal? Are we reluctant to part with weakness, and disease, and corruption? Do we refuse to enter the porch and gate of life's temple? Are we dismayed at the prospect of going into the robing chamber, where the vestments of this vile flesh are put off, and the clothing of a glorious immortality put on? Fools that we are! Do we not remember that "what you sow does not come to life unless it dies."
But our Lord's words add another truth to those already noticed on this point. It is not merely life—but fruitfulness, that is to be reached through death; so that death is the parent of fruitfulness, and to retain life is to be unproductive. "I assure you—Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces a large crop." It is as if he said, Look at that grain of wheat; it contains in it both life and fruitfulness; but these are locked up, imprisoned in it; nor can they be disengaged or set loose, so as to unfold and multiply themselves, except by death. The fruitfulness which is in it must remain all folded up and lost, unless death comes in to break up its prison. It is life which is keeping it from living, and multiplying, and replenishing the earth. The outer life is imprisoning the inner life, and not until that outer life has perished can the inner life flow out upon the world. The seeds of a higher excellence are so closed up in its secret cells, so bound together, that they cannot expand or show themselves, until the dissolution of that which we call life, has bidden these secret treasures come forth. The various elements of higher being and powers of propagation are so wrapped around with this covering, this coating of life, that before they can come forth, death must do its work, breaking the bars of the prison-house, and making the deep cells of happy life to give up their wondrous inhabitants!
Thus, death, which is in itself an evil and a penalty, is yet God's instrument for opening prisons, and unloosing chains, and disengaging the higher vitalities and perfections of being. And we cannot but notice that our Lord, having thus vindicated the connection between productiveness and death, adds, by way of application, "He who loves his life shall lose it; but he who hates his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal."
Take that brown rough bulb, and preserve it with all care from damp and frost, and the foot of the destroyer; what is the result? Nothing. "It abides alone." Whatever may be its treasures, they are hidden. But cast it into the ground and bury it, and immediately a change comes over it. Corruption seizes it. Part after part falls off and dies. This, however, does not affect its inner vitalities, save to call them out, and send up to man the hidden beauty. It shoots up in its greenness to the sun; leaf after leaf unfolds itself; blossom after blossom comes forth from the mysterious recesses in the mouldering root; until the lily itself waves before us in its loveliness, and we feel "that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these."
Such is the law of creation, of the new as well as of the old creation—through darkness to light; through death to life; through corruption to fruitfulness and glory.
But our Lord's words primarily and especially concern himself. He was the grain of wheat (sower and seed in one); and, as such, he must fall into the ground and die; for, without his dying, his coming would profit nothing, his incarnation would be barren. It was death that was to draw out his treasures, and unlock the storehouse of his unsearchable riches.
That he was the true seed, in which were deposited all life and fruitfulness, a few passages will show. "It pleased the Father that in him should all fullness dwell." "In him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily." "In him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge."
The Christ, the Incarnate Word, is the one divine depository of all the riches of Godhead, whether the riches of grace or of glory, of wisdom or of power. And as he is the one depository, so is he the one channel of conveyance, to the creature, of all this fullness of the everlasting God. He is to the Creator what the eye, the ear, the tongue, the whole bodily frame, are to the creature. He is the one fountain-head of divine blessing, the one outlet of heavenly love, the one medium of communion between the finite and the infinite, the human and the divine. The invisible becomes visible in Him, and he who has seen him has seen the Father. That which man calls development is a reality only as connected with him; and progress is but a name or a falsehood, save as rooted in him. Man has many Christs—but the true Christ is one.
The seed, then, is divine; and, as such, it contains an infinite store of treasure. But this is not enough. How are its riches to be made available for us? Let the following statements be considered—
1. Incarnation is not enough.No doubt, in the incarnation is wrapped up the love of God—the love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and the simple announcement, "the Word was made flesh," "unto us a Child is born," is glad tidings of great joy. Still there is something lacking. It is the beginning—but it is not the end. Is love to meet with no obstructions? And if sin opposes, and righteousness opposes, and law opposes—what is love to do, or how is it to reach the sinner? The Son of God might take flesh and dwell among us; but this did not secure life for the dead, or pardon for the condemned, or salvation for the lost, or victory over man's great enemy, or honor to God's broken law. The fountain must be unsealed, else its waters are useless; the box of spikenard must be broken, else its fragrance will not flow out to cheer man's fainting heart, or heal this world's polluted air.
II. Power is not enough.Love, though armed with almighty power, finds mighty barriers. It is hedged in by righteousness, and righteousness is stronger than power; as much stronger as the moral is higher and greater than the physical. And just as God cannot lie, so omnipotence cannot conquer law, or set its provisions aside. Mere strength cannot come to the judgment, or prevail with the Judge. In the eye of law, power is unknown; in the decisions of judgment, it is not recognized as an element at all. Infinite power dwelt in the man Christ Jesus; and this was, no doubt, good news. But, until something has been done to cause this power to flow out, and do glorious things in righteousness, it is unavailable for the sinner, whatever it may be for the righteous. The vessel may be full—but there is a wall of iron between it and us.
III. Suffering is not enough.The Son of God did truly suffer; more truly and more greatly suffer than any other being has done or can do. His burden of grief was the heaviest ever borne by man; and from the cradle to the cross, he was the Man of sorrows, the suffering One both in body and in soul. Yet these tears and groans were not enough; they could not unlock the heavenly treasure deposited in him, nor draw forth the provision for a needy world contained in his unsearchable riches. If any amount or intensity of suffering could have done this, it would have been that of the man Christ Jesus; but even his suffering was not enough. It was part of the process—but it was not—the whole. Something deeper and more penal, something that had in it more of condemnation and wrath, was needed. Only such suffering as ended in death, could draw out the life and fruitfulness wrapped up in the divine seed.
IV. Holiness is not enough.At his conception he was "the holy One;" and during his life he was "the holy One;" and in his walk on earth there was seen an obedience, which, of all other obediences, was the most perfect; both for admiration and example. Yet this did not touch the law's inexorable penalty, nor help to bear the legal curse. He who would save us must be a substitute, as well as an example, and must undergo the law's last sentence, before he is in a legal condition to bless, or to pour out the divine love on us, in pardon, and healing, and joy.
V. Death alone can do the work.The love that stops short of death, effects nothing; and, however large it seems, or near it comes, it but mocks the sinner. If the fullness treasured up for us in the "Word made flesh" is to come forth—then he must die! There must be the pouring out of the soul unto death. Even he is not at liberty to communicate his love and joy to us, save through his own death; his death as the payment of the righteous penalty, and the fulfillment of the unchangeable sentence, "The soul that sins it shall die." He, though the true wheat, must "abide alone," except he dies.
He has died, the Just for the unjust; dying the sinner's death, and bearing the sinner's curse. Thus he "brings forth much fruit." All that made this fruitful One barren has been taken away. Death has done what life, in all its divine vigor, could not do. In the sinner's grave, to which the Surety went down, the dissolution of legal bonds has been effected, whereby the fullness, hitherto pent up and imprisoned, comes forth to a dead world, like spring sending up its warm breath and covering earth with verdure.
This truth is not here spoken for the first time. It is the truth wrapped 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 you shall make his soul in 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, "You have redeemed us to God by your blood." It is this which the apostle Paul had specially in view when he interprets the tabernacle veil as meaning "the flesh" of Christ (Heb. 10:20). That which shut out the worshiper from the mercy-seat was the symbol of the body of the Son of God! The veil, which was hung before the holiest, said to the Israelite, "Godhead is within; the mercy-seat is within; the glory is within; but there is a hindrance which makes them at present unapproachable. Before you can draw near, that veil must be 'RENT,' and then all is open; but until that is done there is no access to God, even to that God who has come down to make his dwelling in the midst of you." The flesh, or body, of Christ said to everyone, "Godhead is within; Jehovah has come down; he is at your side; but before this can profit you that body must be broken, that flesh must have its life poured out."
These, then, are the glad tidings which we bring. This veil has been rent in twain from the top to the bottom; the way is open for the sinner; go in at once into the holiest; go in now, go in as you are, and stand boldly before the mercy-seat. It is now the throne of grace for you! Yes; the good news to the sons of men are not merely that the Word was made flesh—but that that flesh was wounded, that body broken for us. The good news is, that the grain of wheat has fallen into the ground and died. Having died, it has not merely been again "quickened," but has itself become the quickener of the dead. It is death that has imparted to it this productiveness, this life-giving energy. It will not now abide alone; it will bring forth much fruit, and that fruit will remain.
The extent of this fruit-bearing we do not yet see. It is only one here, and another there, whom we see quickened from the death of sin by the all-vivifying power of him who, as the last Adam, is made a quickening spirit (1 Cor. 15:45). But, in the day of his glorious re-appearing; when he comes with the ten thousand of his saints, those who have slept in him, and those who shall be alive at his return; when he comes to smite Antichrist, to bind Satan, to deliver creation from its groans, to set up his righteous kingdom, and to make all things new; it shall be seen what he has done by dying. In that day, when he presents to himself the Church of the first-born, the redeemed from among men, without spot or wrinkle, a great multitude that no man can number, we shall learn the extent and excellency of that fruitfulness which he acquired by dying. Heaven and earth, men and angels, shall then see why it was that this grain of wheat fell into the ground and died.
That which is true of the Head is true also of the members, though in different manner and degree. The better life, both of soul and body, is only reached by death. And as the "quickening" comes by death, so does the fruitfulness. It is not merely the "eternal weight of glory" that is to be wrought for them by their present affliction—but their fitness for future service as God's kings and priests; their power of eternal ministry in the kingdom hereafter; their completeness, both of character and qualification, for the unending work; the kind and amount of their everlasting success; in other words, their "fruitfulness" depends on their assimilation to their Lord here, in weakness, in humiliation, in suffering, and in death.
Hence we sorrow not as those who have no hope, as to their life, or their glory, or their fruitfulness. Their life is hidden with Christ in God; and when he who is their life shall appear, they also shall appear with him in glory.
The heathen sorrowed without hope. To the philosophic Athenian, even the bold Roman, death was gloom, and nothing else. There was no hope about it. Their Elysian fields were poor, and the prospect of reaching them a sorrowful uncertainty. To them death connected itself with no hope, no brightness, no triumph. It was not sunset to them; for that bids us be on the outlook for another Sun, as bright as that which set. It was not autumn, nor winter; for these speak of returning spring and summer. It was not the seed cast into the rough soil; for that predicts the future tree or flower, more beautiful than the seed. It was pure and simple darkness; all cloud, shadow, desolation. The death of childhood and youth was especially bitter and terrible; nor can anything be more touching, nor more expressive of the "sorrow without hope," than the emblems, which we still find carved upon Grecian tombs. A shattered pillar; a ship gone to pieces; a race lost; a harp lying on the ground, with snapped strings, and all its music lost; a flower-bud crushed, with all its fragrance in it—these were the sad utterances of their hopeless grief.
The thought that death was the gate of life, came not in, to cheer the parting or brighten the sepulcher. The truth, that the grave was the soil, and the body the seed sown by God's hand, to call out all the latent life; that the race was not lost—but only a little earlier won; that the column was not destroyed—but transferred to another building and another city, to be "a pillar in the temple of God;" that the bud was not crushed—but transplanted, for fuller expansion, and with all its odor unexhaled and unimpaired, to a kindlier soil and air; that the harp was not broken, nor its music spilt and lost—but handed up to a truer minstrel, who, with a finer touch and heavenlier skill, will bring out all the rich compass of its hidden music, which man would not have appreciated, and which earth would but have spoiled—these were things which had no place in their theology, hardly in their dreams. They sorrowed as those who had no hope.
But the death even of the ripe and aged, was to them a thing of darkness and fear. It was less strange and sad than the death of the child; but it was still a perplexity, an unsolved mystery.
And do we not sometimes forget that this mystery has been cleared away? Not that we doubt the personal safety or blessedness of the departed heir of the kingdom; but we speak of his usefulness being ended, or at least only prolonged here on earth, in the good deeds, or good words, or good report which he has left behind, and by which he, being dead, still speaks, and still is useful. Now, no doubt, that which the text calls "fruitfulness" is thus carried out; so that a saint's death becomes a thing of life to thousands, and a saint's memory becomes as fruitful as his living person was.
But there is another productiveness, which spreads itself out over eternity, and which death, so far from destroying, only develops. It is for this that he is educating here—for this that he is undergoing his training below, and serving his earthly apprenticeship. The fitness for service—whether of priesthood or of kingship, for we are kings and priests unto God, the power of working truly and successfully for God, acquired here by hard experience, during years of doing and suffering—these, so far from being lost, or superseded, or thrown by, are but matured and unfolded hereafter; transferred from a narrow corner here to the spacious universe of God; set free from fetters and limits, to spread themselves out over a far wider range of objects, in the exercise of a ministry, at once priestly and kingly; a ministry as perfect and successful as it is boundless and everlasting.
No man's usefulness ever ends. The true becomes truer; the powerful becomes more powerful; the noble becomes nobler; the fruitful becomes more fruitful; the successful multiplies successes; and without fear of reverse, or failure, or discomfiture, or weariness, the liberated saint rejoices in the anticipation of an eternal future of usefulness—usefulness in all respects illimitable, usefulness far beyond that of his most productive days on earth. The grain of wheat, before it fell into the ground, was comparatively barren—but having fallen into the ground and died, it brings forth much fruit.