In “how to keep your soul” Jefferson Vann explains how John 12:24-25 fits with John’s emphasis on Jesus’ promise to give permanent life to believers through a future resurrection.
John wrote that Jesus had life in him, and his life was the light of men. He wrote that Jesus was lifted up on the cross so that people could trust in him, and have permanent life. Those outside of Jesus will not see that permanent life; they will experience God’s permanent wrath. But Jesus offers a life like a permanent well that can spring up inside and never go dry. He proves that he is his Father’s Son by doing only what the Father can do: raising dead people back to life. He offers to give us food that will last – himself. Those who want to experience this future resurrection life must trust Christ during this mortal life. Trusting Christ during this mortal life is following his light, living our new life from above. It is life in excess – not a mere additional quality of life, but a life anticipating more than this first life could offer.
There are a few more lessons about this permanent life in John’s Gospel. Reading these passages in light of lessons we have already been taught from John will help us to track with him, and not become sidetracked. But sometimes the wording of these passages in our English bibles can be a bit misleading, as we will see in today’s text.
- John 12:24-25 (NASB) “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal.
- John 12:24-25 (ESV) Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
- John 12:24-25 (my translation) I honestly tell you, unless a kernel of wheat after falling to the ground – dies, it stays alone. But if it dies, it produces much fruit. The one who cares about his soul destroys it, and the one who hates his soul in this world will keep it for permanent life.
Jesus had just announced to his disciples that he was going to die. He used this opportunity to teach his disciples that their own self-preservation instinct could keep them from obtaining this permanent life that he had promised. He taught them that if they truly cared about their soul, they should destroy it, because that is the only way to preserve it, assuring that it would experience the permanent life he promised.
Popular theology has problems with this text because popular theology teaches that a soul cannot be destroyed, and here Jesus is recommending that his disciples do just that. One of the ways that traditionalists have masked this problem is by translating the word ψυχή (psuchē) (soul) as life. That way, they pretend that Jesus is merely talking about a believer losing her physical life, so that she can preserve her spiritual life. So, people reading such texts in English (KJV, NKJV, NLT, NIV, ESV, CSB, NASB, NET, RSV, ASV, YLT, DBY, WEB) have no clue that Jesus is telling them to kill something they think is immortal.
The masking of the use of ψυχή is only part of the problem. These same English texts then have to deal with the fact that the normal word for life is also in John 12:25. So these texts repeat the same English word in the phrase “eternal life.” Thus the same English word appears three times in the same verse, but twice it is a translation of ψυχή, and once it is a translation of ζωή (zōē). If the translators wanted to use “life” for both words, they could have simply used the phrase “temporary life” for ψυχή, and “future permanent life for ζωή. But that is not how traditionalists think. They think that the ψυχή already has eternal life, regardless of what the text here says.
But wait … there’s more. Did you notice that I use the word destroy in verse 25? this is our old friend ἀπόλλυμι (apollumi) that we have already seen a few times in John:
- John 3:16 Because God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone faithful to him will not be destroyed (ἀπόλλυμι) but have permanent life.
- John 6:12 When they were full, he told his disciples, “Collect the leftovers so that nothing is wasted (ἀπόλλυμι).”
- John 6:27 Don’t work for the consumable that perishes (ἀπόλλυμι) but for the consumable that lasts for permanent life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set his seal of approval on him.”
- John 6:39 This is what my sender wants: that each thing given to me by him I will not destroy (ἀπόλλυμι), but resurrect it on the last day.
- John 10:10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy (ἀπόλλυμι). I have come so that they may have life and have it in excess.
- John 10:28 I am also giving them permanent life, and they will certainly not be destroyed (ἀπόλλυμι) permanently. No one will snatch them out of my hand.
With the exception of two references to leftover food rotting, every instance of ἀπόλλυμι in John until this point refers to the opposite of the permanent life he promised for believers at the resurrection. So, Jesus is describing two choices regarding the soul. The first choice is to care about the soul in the sense of seeking to preserve it from (in this case) the kind of death Jesus will die. The result is the opposite. Anyone caring so much to preserve his soul is actually destroying it, because such choices will actually lead to the soul’s permanent destruction in hell.
The second choice is to hate your soul. To hate your soul in this world is to subject it to death at the hands of evildoers, as Christ is about to do. Such a choice does not make sense unless there is some incentive that goes beyond our mortal existence. Jesus gives that incentive here. By following Christ in potential martyrdom, the disciples would be assured of ζωὴν αἰώνιον – permanent life at the resurrection.
Most English translations follow the KJV tradition and render ἀπόλλυμι as lose (as in losing your soul) instead of destroy. Neither translation actually fit the traditional view that the soul is immortal. Something inherently immortal can neither be lost nor destroyed.
Jesus offers the only way to keep (φυλάσσω) our souls. By trusting in Christ even if it means dying a martyr’s death, we can keep our souls for the permanent life Jesus promised at the resurrection in the future. We have to treat our mortal lives as seed to be planted. This does not mean we have to seek martyrdom. But it does mean that seeking to preserve our mortal existence in the present can be an obstacle to our aspirations of gaining immortality in the future through faith in Christ.
previous articles in this series:
- Christmas light December 15, 2017
- The desert snake January 5, 2018
- having life, or awaiting wrath >January 23, 2018
- Spring up, Oh Well February 8, 2018
- The dead will hear, and come out February 13, 2018
- sustenance and sacrifice March 13, 2018
- tripping over words November 29, 2018
- life from above January 31, 2019
- excess life February 13, 2019
- the resurrection is Jesus March 6, 2019