On the afternoon before his arrest, Jesus tells the crowds who have gathered to hear him at the Jerusalem Temple, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 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…” (Jn 12:23-24). This was a bewildering message, particularly for those who didn’t know about the world-changing events that were soon to take place. As twenty-first century readers, we’re almost too familiar with the basic plot and outline of this story, but put yourself in the shoes—or perhaps sandals—of those who came to hear Jesus speak on this particular afternoon. First Jesus declared that the hour of his glorification had finally arrived, but then he went on to give a peculiar analogy about a seed that bears fruit only after it dies. Was Jesus referring to himself? And if so, how could his own death be a vehicle for his glorification?
We’re given a little more information in verse 27 of John chapter 12, as Jesus says “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour…” In other words, the hour in which Jesus was to be glorified, was somehow going to look a lot like an hour in which he needed to be rescued. And yet, this moment of vulnerability and weakness was actually at the heart of his mission. Though he had taught many moral lessons, Jesus had not ultimately come as a teacher; though he had helped many people, he had not come primarily as a healer, therapist or life-coach. He hadn’t come to help us all attain our best life now, but rather, he came for this hour in which he was called to have his worst life then. In short, his ultimate mission was to “give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28).
This is why Jesus goes on to say to the crowds gathered at the Temple, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (Jn 12:32). Now, just in case we didn’t catch the significance of those words, John steps in to clarify things for us saying, “He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die” (12:33). What’s fascinating about Jesus’ statement, particularly when explained by John’s narration, is the way it appears to echo certain lines from Isaiah’s famous prophecy of the Suffering Servant. Notice for example how Isaiah had described the coming of this servant with such lofty and elevated language: “Behold, my servant shall act wisely. He shall be high and lifted up, and shall be greatly exalted” (52:13). But then immediately the prophet’s vision transitions to dark and disturbing images: “As many were astonished at you—his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—so shall he sprinkle many nations” (52:14-15). In other words, all those confusing ideas which Jesus presented that afternoon on the grounds of Temple concerning his being both glorified and humiliated, were actually ideas that Isaiah wrote about more than half a millennia earlier. And this is not mere conjecture, for John himself alerts us to this fact as he concludes his narrative of these events:
When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them. Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’…Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him (Jn 12:36-41).
Through the mysterious nature of prophecy, Isaiah was given the supernatural ability to see the glory of Jesus many centuries before he was ever born. And yet, what was it that the prophet actually foresaw? The passage which John cites is taken from the very first line of Isaiah 53, which is a chapter that goes on to describe in great detail the rejection, grief and sorrow of the coming messiah. In fact, this suffering servant was to be stricken, smitten and afflicted (53:4); he would be pierced for our transgressions (53:5), cut off from the land of the living (53:8), and laid in the grave with the wicked (53:9). And yet, somehow, mysteriously, this same individual would later see light (53:11), and divide the spoils in a victory celebration (53:12). In other words, the glory that Isaiah foresaw, related specifically to Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection.
This is the glory of the Christian gospel which Paul declares to be of first importance (1Cor 15:3ff). It’s the announcement of one who “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame” (Heb 12:2). Out of the anguish of his soul, this Jesus made many to be accounted righteous, and bore their iniquities (Is 53:11). So though the cross looks to outsiders like foolishness and weakness, in reality, it is Christ’s supreme moment of glorification. In other words, he wasn’t merely glorified as a result of his humiliation, but according to John—and the prophet Isaiah before him—his hour of suffering and death should be seen as the pinnacle of his glory.
In John 3, Jesus told Nicodemus that unless a man is born again he can’t even see the kingdom of God (Jn 3:3). Perhaps this also helps to explain why most people cannot see the glory of our resplendent crucified king. It is often difficult—even for us—to believe that the king of the universe was born in a cattle stall, worked as a carpenter in an obscure village of Galilee, and was later executed on the charge of blasphemy. It’s even more difficult to believe that somehow, all this amounts to our redemption. Whenever you find yourself struggling with these questions, remember that Isaiah saw his glory long before any of the Gospels were ever composed. And he was also given the insight to recognize that apart from God’s grace, all men will remain forever blind to the amazing splendor of this king and his cross of shame and glory. “For who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed” (53:1).
O unexampled love, so vast, so strong!
So great, so high, so deep, so broad, so long!
Can finite thought this ocean huge explore,
Unconscious of a bottom or a shore?
His love admits no parallel; for why,
At one great draught of love, he drank hell dry…
The sword of awful justice pierced his side,
That mercy thence might gush upon the bride.
Shane Rosenthal is the executive producer of the White Horse Inn, a contributor to Modern Reformation magazine, and a ruling elder at Christ Presbyterian Church (OPC) in St. Charles, Missouri.
 Ralph Erskine, Gospel Sonnets (London, J. Oswald, 1750) p. 5-6
White Horse Inn Podcasts
Hide Not Your Face, by Michael Horton
Christ the Victim, Christ the Priest, by Rick Ritchie
Fascinations that Lead Away from the Cross, by Michael Horton
Resurrection: Fact or Fiction?, by Doug Powell
The Cross of Christ, by John Stott
Pierced for Our Transgressions, by Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, Andrew Sach
The Gospel According to Isaiah 53, Darrell Bock and Mitch Glaser
In My Place Condemned He Stood, by J.I. Packer & Mark Dever