Recently I received an email from a pastor in Switzerland who wondered what this verse means: “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25).
Love and Hate Are Figures of Speech Concerning Priorities
The person who “loves his life [psyche]” is one who is living for the now. He is contradicting Jesus’ command, “Don’t lay up treasure on earth” (Matt 6:19). He is failing to serve Jesus (“If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor,” (John 12:26).
The person who “hates his life [psyche]” is one who is living for the life to come. He is obeying Jesus’ command, “Lay up treasure in heaven” (Matt 6:20). He is following Jesus and serving Him and will one day be honored by God (John 12:26).
Jesus is clearly not suggesting that His followers should abuse their bodies! He isn’t calling for self flagellation, self mutilation, sleep deprivation, or anything of the sort. After all, our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit. To abuse our bodies is sin.
What He is calling for is self denial. Followers of Jesus are to deny themselves any pleasures that stand in the path of glorifying and obeying God.
In context Jesus began by speaking of His own impending death. “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified” (John 12:23).
He then moves from talking about His death to discussing the need for all of us to die in our service for Him: “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” (John 12:24).
This call to self denial and laying down our lives for Christ is also seen in a parallel passage where the Lord explained this seeming paradox further.
Only by Losing Our Lives Can We Truly Gain Them
After Peter’s great confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, Jesus blessed him (Matt 16:16-17). Immediately after that, Jesus told Peter and the other disciples that He was going to Jerusalem and would soon be killed (Matt 16:21).
Peter then made a great blunder. “Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!” (Matt 16:22).
That led Jesus to set Peter and all followers of Jesus straight on the issue of suffering and self denial.
But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life [psyche] will lose it, but whoever loses his life [psyche] for My sake will find it.”
Peter and the other disciples, excluding Judas, were already born again. After all, Peter had just made the great confession of his faith in Jesus.
But the disciples needed to know that Jesus’ kingdom and glory would not come immediately. Sacrifice would precede glory, both for Jesus and for those who followed Him.
Saving the life and losing the life are figures of speech. In context it is clear that losing one’s life means denying oneself, taking up one’s cross, and following Jesus on the path of suffering. When Peter told Jesus that He would never go to Calvary, Peter had his mind set on worldly pleasures. When the Messiah tells you He is going to be persecuted and killed, that is what is going to happen.
Saving the life is not a reference to salvation from hell. Instead, it is a reference to having fullness of life, especially in the life to come. In v 27 Jesus said, “For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works.”
Even if a person could have all the wealth of this world, it would be a poor exchange if it meant he would be a pauper in the life to come. Jesus said in v 26, “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul [psyche, the same word translated as life twice in the previous verse]? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul [psyche = life]?” The answer is obvious. It is not profitable to gain the entire world and lose your psyche, your inner life.
President Richard Nixon had it all. Yet he lost nearly everything because he forgot the need to give up his life. President Bill Clinton had a similar experience. Failing to practice self denial cost these men their legacies, hurt their present lives, and, if they are believers, lessened the quality of their lives to come.
Having eternal life is not the end. It is the beginning. Now the question is, do we grow and gain life that is more abundant (John 10:10)?
Why Did Jesus Speak of Keeping One’s Life for Eternal Life?
The Pastor in Switzerland was puzzled over the reference to eternal life in a context that clearly concerns discipleship, not justification. “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25, emphasis added).
The fact that the abundance of our eternal life in the life to come is directly related to how we live now should come as no surprise. Jesus spoke of this often.
In John 4:35-36 Jesus said, “Lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already ripe for harvest! And he who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, that both he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together.” Note that here too we find the phrase for eternal life used in a discipleship context. The reference to wages clearly shows we are in a context dealing with rewards. Those who share their faith now (both the ones who sow the seed and those who actually lead people to faith in Christ) will have heightened joy in the life to come.
In Matthew 19:29 Jesus promised the disciples that “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother…for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold [now], and inherit eternal life.” Inheriting eternal life is more than having eternal life. Jesus said that eternal life is a present possession of all who simply believe in Him (e.g., John 3:16; 5:24; 6:47). This future inheritance of eternal life refers to ruling with Him in the life to come (cf. Matt 19:28) and having a full-orbed experience of eternal life.
We find this same truth throughout the NT. See, for example, Matt 6:19-21; 10:32-33, 40-42; John 10:10; 1 Cor 9:24-27; Gal 5:19-21; 6:7-9; Col 1:21-23; 2 Tim 2:12; 1 John 2:28; and Revelation 2-3.
Keeping Your Life for Eternal Life Is Key
“If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor” (John 12:26). Jesus here explains what He meant when he spoke of keeping one’s life for eternal life. It means the person will be honored by God. Of course with this honor will come tangible rewards like ruling with Jesus, special white garments, and a white stone which is engraved with a special term of endearment that Jesus has for you alone (see Rev 2:17, 26; 3:4-5).
John 12:25 does not contradict justification by faith alone. It isn’t talking about justification. It is talking about following the Lord Jesus on the path of sacrifice through self denial and laying down one’s life. If we do that, our lives to come will be fuller than they would otherwise be.