Connections 03.18.2018: Practice Means Progress

John 12:20-36

I made my annual pilgrimage to Florida to watch some Atlanta Braves Spring Training games last week. I’ve been making that trek for over twenty years. I’ve also been watching the Braves play baseball ever since they moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966. I also played baseball; my career started with t-ball at age seven, continued through Little League, and concluded with Babe Ruth baseball at age thirteen. On top of all that, I subscribe to the excellent publication Baseball Digest (it’s a magazine that’s printed on paper and delivered by the U.S. Postal Service. I’m old-fashioned like that).

My fifty-two years of watching major league baseball added to my seven years of playing baseball added to my regular reading about baseball have made me an expert.

“Sure you are,” some of you are thinking. To which I say, “I really do know a lot about baseball, considering that I know most of what I know from watching, listening, and reading.”

But I don’t know what a major league player or coach knows. I don’t know nearly as much as those do who have dedicated their lives to the game.

In a 2013 TED Talk, Josh Kaufmann says we can learn the basics of anything in twenty hours. He offers several helpful steps, but his guidance boils down to purposeful, focused practice. Lawrence talks about gaining basic skills, not expertise.

On the other hand, Malcolm Gladwell, in his 2008 book Outliers, says that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a subject. Anders Ericsson, on whose 1993 work Gladwell depends, and his co-author Robert Pool say in their 2016 book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise that Gladwell misunderstood the conclusions drawn from Ericsson’s study of violin students at a Berlin music academy. In particular, they say that Gladwell failed to recognize that mastery comes from “a very specific sort of practice referred to as ‘deliberate practice’ which involves constantly pushing oneself beyond one’s comfort zone, following training activities designed by an expert to develop specific abilities, and using feedback to identify weaknesses and work on them.” They also say that Gladwell did get one thing right: “becoming accomplished in any field in which there is a well-established history of people working to become experts requires a tremendous amount of effort exerted over many years. It may not require exactly ten thousand hours, but it will take a lot.”

Jesus said, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (v. 25). Maybe we can learn the basics of living that way if we practice twenty hours. Maybe we can become proficient at it if we practice ten thousand hours. But really learning to live this way takes our entire lives. Ericsson and Pool also say that ”to date, we have found no limitations to the improvements that can be made with particular types of practice.”

But we need training that constantly moves us beyond our comfort zone, that learns from the practices of our Lord, and that seeks feedback from the Spirit, from our spirits, and from those who follow Jesus well.

Jesus said, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor” (v. 26). If we practice the ways of Jesus for as long as we live, we may be surprised at how far along toward real discipleship we will go.


1. Why do you think the desire of some Greek people to see Jesus prompted him to say what he said (vv. 20-21)?
2. What does it mean “for the Son of Man to be glorified” (v. 23)?
3. Why do those who love their lives lose them? Why do those who hate their lives “keep [them] for eternal life”? What does it mean to “love” or “hate” our lives? (v. 25)?
4. How does Jesus’ being lifted up draw people to him (vv. 32-33)?
5. What does it mean to walk in the light? To walk in the darkness (vv. 35-36)?

Reference Shelf

Verses 31-36a offer yet another variation on the theme that Jesus must die if the universal mission is to be accomplished: “Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world [14:30; 16:11] be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up [3:14; 8:28; cf. Isa 52:13; for “lifted up” with the meaning of both exaltation and execution, cf. Gen 40:13, 19] from the earth, will draw all people unto myself ” (vv. 31-32). Two dimensions of the benefits of Jesus’ glorification are given: first, the Christus Victor motif (the ruler of this world is cast out; cf. Col 2:15); second, the releasing of the magnetic power of divine love that pulls people to Jesus (“I will draw all people unto myself ”; cf. Rom 5:8). Jesus’ divine knowledge is again demon- strated: “this he said to show by what death he was to die”: not stoning (cf. 8:59; 10:31) but crucifixion (v. 33).

The crowd, perplexed by Jesus’ reference to his departure, speaks: “We have heard from the law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up?” (v. 34). Jewish eschatological expectation included various notions of the duration of the Messiah’s reign. Some thought in terms of a reign of limited duration (he is to die, so 2 Esdras 7:28-30; he is to be taken into heaven, so 2 Baruch 30:1). Others thought in terms of an eternal reign (T. Reuben 6:12; Sibylline Oracles 3:48; 1 Enoch 49:2; Psalms of Solomon 17:4). If the appeal for permanence is to the law (Scripture), perhaps Isaiah 9:7 is the basis (“Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore”; cf. Ezek 37:25; Pss 72:17; 89:35-37). Of course, the Johannine community not only knows his king- ship is eternal but also that it is not of this world (18:36).

Just as the conclusion to the signs material ended with an emphasis on the light (v. 46), so the part of the conclusion to the sayings material that constitutes Jesus’ verbal response to the initiative of the Greeks concludes with a warning that employs the motif of light: “The light is with you a little longer. Walk while you have the light, lest the darkness overtake you; the one who walks in darkness does not know where he goes. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become children of light” (vv. 35-36; cf.1 QS 1.9; 2.16; 3.13, etc.). In this little parable of the traveler at sunset, Jesus urges his hearers to avail themselves of the light before darkness falls (9:4). Jesus’ reaction in deed to the initiative of the Greeks is to depart and hide himself from the crowd (v. 36b).

Charles H. Talbert, Reading John: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Fourth Gospel and the Johannine Epistles, rev. ed., Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005), 194.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.


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