For 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;
There is no vision but by faith,
No glory but in bearing shame,
No justice but in taking blame;
And that Eternal Passion saith
Be emptied of glory and right and name
The seed must die if a harvest is to spring from it. That is the law of all moral and spiritual transformations. 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. Self-renunciation guards the way to the "tree of life." The world's war cries today 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 ("get;" "enjoy") only never attain.
The fecundity of plants, or their capacity for producing seeds, is remarkable. The common cereals often yield from sixty to a hundred fold. One castor-oil plant will produce 1,500, one sunﬂower 4,000, and one thistle 24,000 seeds in a single season. A well-known botanist counted 2,000 grains of maize on a single plant of maize sprung from one seed, and 32,000 seeds on a single poppy plant. Pliny tells us that a Roman Governor in Africa sent to the Emperor Augustus a single plant of corn with 340 stems, bearing 340 ears. That is to say, at least 60,000 grains of corn had been produced from a single seed. In eight years, as much corn might spring from one seed as would supply all mankind with bread for a year and a half.
Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” John xii. 24). That we are here brought face to face with a truth of exceptional importance and signiﬁcance is evident from the formula, “Verily, verily,” with which our Saviour prefaces this statement. The truth which lies beneath the surface of this beautiful sentence may not be instantly perceived, it may, moreover, be repugnant to our conception of life and service, but this renders it only the more necessary that it should be pressed upon our attention.
Augustine reminds us that this “Verily, verily,” is not the language of friend to friend; it rather indicates that we know so little of Christ’s mind, and have so little conﬁdence in Him, that His oath and bond are required by us before we can believe Him. Does not this language also reveal to us a Teacher, who bears with our slowness and ignorance, who deigns to meet us where we are, and who uses such words to arrest our attention as are needed by our dull intellect and unresponsive heart? May He not speak to my heart and thine, dear reader, in vain.
There is but one path to the blessedness which opens before us here. Abundant fruitfulness, the life which is life indeed, fellowship with Christ in service, and fellowship with Christ in glory, are all attained by our identiﬁcation in Christ’s death. The key to the wonderful life which is outlined here is: “EXCEPT IT DIE.” Death is the gate of life; self-oblation is the law of self-preservation, and self-preservation is the law of self-destruction.
Two conditions of being are possible, either of which must constitute our character — love or self. Love seeks its life outside itself; self seeks its life within itself. Love, in order to possess, sacriﬁces selﬁshness; while self, in order to possess, keeps itself and sacriﬁces love.
The law which the great Teacher here illustrates from the vegetable kingdom, that self-sacriﬁce is the condition of all life, is a law universal in its application. It obtains throughout the physical universe, and “nothing truly lives or fulﬁlls its true function, save as a part of the great whole, and in so far as it ministers to the welfare and advance of the whole. All things minister to and help each other — even sun, moon, and stars. All things give out life, or give up life and power, to quicken and cherish life in other forms; earth, water, and heat ministering to the life of the plant, the plant dying that it may minister to the life of the bird and beast, bird and beast dying that they may minister to the life of man.”
“Life everywhere replaces death,
In earth, and sea, and sky;
And that the rose may breathe its breath,
Some living thing must die.”
To the Greeks peculiar difﬁculties were presented to the reception of the Saviour’s teaching into their intellect and heart. For ﬁve centuries the Greeks had marched at the head of humanity. The whole world gathered round the torch of Greek genius. Their rich and ﬂexible language, fashioned into the most perfect vehicle of thought, had become almost universal. Yet their failure in the regeneration of society was so conspicuous, that though the highest state of intellectual culture of which human nature is capable in its sinful state was attained prior to the Incarnation, their wise men were as though they had never been. Hence St. Paul asks, “Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?” (I Cor. i. 20). So far as the moral and spiritual regeneration of mankind was concerned, these philosophers, thinkers, writers, and orators had left no trace of their existence, and men were halting between a superstition which believed every. thing, and a skepticism which believed nothing.
How is this failure to be accounted for? Their master-words were self-culture and self-enjoyment. This was, according to the Greeks, the supreme aim, the chief good of human life. The gods of Olympus were represented as beings who lived only to enjoy themselves, and who, when they came to earth, came only for the sake of pleasant adventure, or selﬁsh amusement, caring nothing for the sins and sorrows of humanity. And the character of the gods was reﬂected in their Grecian votaries. Their highest conception of life was enjoyment of the senses, the intellect, and the imagination. And this was the life they loved and cherished.
Christ calls upon them to substitute self-oblation for self-culture, and self-sacriﬁce for self-gratiﬁcation. In other words, He asks them to reverse the whole bent of their thought and conduct, and to set before themselves a conception of life diametrically opposed to that which they for centuries had held. As Godet says: “This saying included the judgment of Hellenism; for what was Greek civilization but human life cultivated from the view-point of enjoyment and withdrawn from the law of sacriﬁce.”
We cannot state too emphatically, in these days when self-sacriﬁce is so little understood, that it is the very salt of the Christian character, and that without self-sacriﬁce the Christian life is salt without the savor. It is the test by which, above every other test, a man may know what reality there is in his Christianity. And we halt over the elements and alphabet of the life divine, until we have learned to hate the self-life, and, renouncing it, have “laid hold on the life which is life indeed.”
These are days of marvelous religious activity but think of the disproportion between activity and achievement! Are there not multitudes of Christian workers who have grown so accustomed to failure that they have almost ceased to expect success? Surely, with so much preaching and teaching, with so much Bible circulation and tract distribution, we ought not only to be holding our ground, but to be making inroads upon the kingdom of darkness. Yet we are not nearly keeping pace with the increasing population of the world, and today there are more millions sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death than ever there were.
One explanation of the fact that results are so often scanty and meager, or not real and abiding, lies here, the initial step to fruitful service has not been taken. Either through ignorance or unwillingness, the vast majority of those who profess to be fellow-workers with God in the regeneration of the world have never deﬁnitely hated and renounced the self-life, and it is because they are so much alive to self that they are so little alive to God.
Many, in their eagerness to succeed, are continually crying to God for the gift of spiritual power. But God cannot fulﬁll their desire, for He is a jealous God, and will not give His glory to another; and to trust men and women with spiritual power who are full of self-assertion would only be to feed their vanity and promote their self-idolization and love of self-display.
It is narrated of the great sculptor, Michael Angelo, that when at work he wore over his forehead, fastened on his artist’s cap, a lighted candle, in order that no shadow of himself might fall on his work! It was a beautiful custom, and spoke more eloquently than, perchance, the sculptor knew, for the shadows that fall upon our work, how often do they fall from ourselves!
Is it so in your case, my reader? Are you, Baruch-like, seeking great things for yourself? Are you sensitive to the approbation or censure of men; elated when praised, disheartened when blamed? Do you consult your natural tastes and feelings in your work, missing the footsteps of Him who pleased not Himself? Do you shrink from the work that is disagreeable, that is unseen of men, and that carries with it no outward recompense? Verily, verily, I say unto you, you have your reward, but it is not the reward of gathering fruit unto life eternal.
It is said that properly ripened seeds, if placed in certain conditions, are capable of retaining their growing-power indeﬁnitely; not merely for a few years, not merely for a few centuries, but for thousands of years — how long, indeed, no man can say. The earthy crust of our planet appears to be stocked in every part with seeds that have been produced in years gone by, scattered upon the surface, and subsequently covered up with soil. Whenever the ground is disturbed, either by the plow, or by the spade of the railway excavator, or for any purpose which causes its depths to be overturned, that portion which was many feet below being thrown to the surface, and exposed to the air, the sunbeams, and the moisture of dew and rain, immediately there springs up a crop of young plants, certainly not originating in seeds only just then brought from neighboring ﬁelds, and as certainly from seeds that have been lying in the soil for ages.
But away there in the depths of the earth, though the seed retains its vitality, it abides alone. Note, it is only as the seed dies that it attracts to itself the carbon, the nitrogen, and the various salts that contribute to the nurture of the grain, and that lie in the earth unused and unproductive until a power comes into contact with them that brings them forth from their lurking-places. The latent life-germ needs the penetrating sunbeam and the warm rain of heaven, then decay and death begin, and out of decay and death spring life and beauty. What dormant powers, what divine possibilities lie sleeping in human lives today! What talents and gifts are buried away in those depths! If men and women would only expose themselves to “the open sunshine of God’s love,” and throw open their hearts to the fertilizing dew of His Spirit, there would start into life latent forces, which, under the vitalizing power and guidance of the Holy Ghost, would ﬁll hundreds of other lives with blessing, and their own with unspeakable joy.
“Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” Let us follow in imagination, that corn of wheat as it falls into the ground. Within its tiny husk is the farina or ﬂower, and inside that a Divine secret, a life germ, which the microscope cannot detect. It is full of latent life, and contains the germ of boundless harvests. But its dormant capabilities are only quickened, and. that secret germ is only released by a rending asunder, a disintegration, a death.
The little seed surrenders itself to the forces of nature, which seize upon it and speedily destroy its shapeliness and beauty. Down there, beneath the red mold, God has His laboratory, and he carries on and completes that process of transmutation which is the most wonderful that takes place beneath the sun. As the dissolution takes place, the life-germ begins to feed on the farina till it is all consumed.
It is like a prisoner shut up in his cell with a cruse of water and a crust of bread, and when the water is consumed to the last drop, and the crust consumed to the last crumb, then it begins to burst its prison-walls. The germ then divides into two. One, the plumule, tends upward, the other, the radicle, tends downwards. The part that shoots downwards seeks from the soil such particles as are required to build up its future life, and passes them on for the growth of the plant in the upper air. It lays all nature under contribution for its sustenance; from earth and sky it borrows materials of growth, and at length becomes a luxuriant corn laden with its fruitful ear.
“Now mark,” says Rev. C. G. Moore — in a most suggestive article on this subject — “how much larger is the life which the corn of wheat can lay hold of in its new body. As to receiving, it at once has fellowship with all the resources of nature. Air, light, rain, dew, earth, all minister to its upbuilding and welfare. From all these in its former body it could take nothing. As to giving, too, what a change! For now it bringeth forth fruit, thirty-fold, sixty-fold, it may be a hundred-fold.” The spiritual application of this is so apparent, that every reader will be able to make it for himself.
Before the Son of God stooped to clothe Himself in human form, — in order that He might become “obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross “ — every element of power (excepting self-sacriﬁcing love) had been tried and had ignominiously failed. But the Cross becomes a throne, and the cruciﬁed a conqueror; He who was lifted up from the earth is drawing all men unto Himself, and the measure of our drawing power is the measure of our self-emptied and Christ-possessed lives, for “except it die it abideth alone, but if it die it bringeth forth much fruit.”
“Have you ever heard of the aloe plant,
Far away in the sunny clime?
By a humble growth of a number of years
It reacheth its blooming time;
And then a wondrous bud at its crown
Breaks into a thousand ﬂowers:
But the plant to the ﬂower is a sacriﬁce,
For it blooms but once, and in blooming dies.
And each and all of its thousand ﬂowers,
As they drop in the blooming time,
Are infant plants that fasten their roots
In the place where they fall on the ground;
And fast as they fall from the dying stem
Grow lively and lovely around;
So dying, it liveth a thousand fold
In the young that spring from the dead of the old.
“You have heard of Him whom the heavens adore,
Before Whom the hosts of them fall;
How He left the choir and anthems above,
For earth, in its wailing and woes;
To suffer the pain, the shame of the Cross,
And die for the life of His foes!
He died, but His life in numberless souls,
Lives on in the world anew.
His seed prevails and is ﬁlling the earth,
As the stars ﬁll the sky above;
He teaches to yield up the love of life,
For the sake of the life of love:
His death is our life — His life the world’s glory,
And we are commanded to spread the glad story.”