We need to place this verse into its proper context rather than simply trying to answer it as it stands. Let’s read:
John 12:20-23 (NET) - Now some Greeks were among those who had
gone up to worship at the feast. 12:21 So these approached Philip, who
was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and requested, “Sir, we would like to
see Jesus.” 12:22 Philip went and told Andrew, and they both went and
told Jesus. 12:23 Jesus replied, “The time has come for the Son of Man
to be glorified.
Before we can really understand what is going on, we need one more verse from scripture:
Matthew 15:24 - So he answered, “I was sent only to the lost
sheep of the house of Israel.”
So what is going on? Jesus was sent to the lost sheep of Israel and that is who He ministered to. This included, but was not totally made up of, the Jews. What we see in these verses are people from a nationality different than the Israelites, or the Jews, coming to worship Him. How could that possible be? Romans 3:9-18 says no one seeks God.
The only explanation is that the Holy Spirit was leading all sorts of people to worship Jesus. It should be noted, this is the same work the Holy Spirit is still doing in our day and age. Jesus was able to recognize this and realized the time had come for him to be gloried, which is a reference to His death on the cross. Let’s keep reading:
John 12:24-26 - I tell you the solemn truth, unless a kernel of
wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains by itself alone. But
if it dies, it produces much grain. 12:25 The one who loves his life
destroys it, and the one who hates his life in this world guards it
for eternal life. 12:26 If anyone wants to serve me, he must follow
me, and where I am, my servant will be too. If anyone serves me, the
Father will honor him.
Here we have the verse in question. But one thing we realize is, it is being spoken by Jesus! Further, before the verse we see Jesus giving a parable about a kernel of wheat “giving up its life” (my paraphrase) in order to produce much grain. Armed with this, and the preceding context, we come to understand the verse in question is Jesus saying it is His desire obey the will of God and give up his life so many more, from all nationalities, might live.
So that is the answer to your question. But is there some application for us in our own lives?
First off, let me say it DOES NOT suggest we should somehow seek to destroy our life! John 12:25 is not saying to destroy the physical life we have but to destroy those things in our life that keep us away from God. See Galatians 5:19-21 for an idea of what to destroy that keeps us away from God. Ok, then, what DOES it say?
Look into your own life. What do you really want from life? I did a quick Google for “what do people desire”. The following is a summary (minus bazaar ones like: why do people want to eat babies? (Who writes this stuff?????)):
- Material Things
- Self-Confidence Things
- Adventurous Things
- Spiritual/Emotional Things
- Career-Related Things
- Lifestyle Things
- Health Things
To apply this verse to ourselves, then, is to realize it is so very easy to desire things that are, pretty much, only on a physical level. It would seem that is, “only natural”! But let’s read Galatians 5:22-25:
Galatians 5:22-25 - But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy,
peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 5:23 gentleness,
and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 5:24 Now those
who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and
desires. 5:25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also behave in
accordance with the Spirit.
It is our human nature that desires only the things provided in this life. ALL this life can offer is death. It is Jesus Christ who has freed us from this simplistic mindset making possible a truly abundant life. It is THIS life we want to loose and it is the life of practicing the will of God, of Jesus Christ, of building up our neighbor, that results in living with God for eternity. And note, such a blessing only comes from the salvation Jesus Christ has provided for us.
Now if you would like more in-depth information about this verse, you can always read Dr. Deffinbaugh’s article titled “The Greeks Seek Jesus (John 12:20-50)”.
Now, about your confusion where you see many good people dying and lots of bad people living what appears to be the good life. This is exactly what Psalm 73 is talking about. And this was written by King David well over 2000 years ago. So your confusion has been felt by many for quite some time.
The conclusion of that Psalm gives perhaps the best way to clear up such confusion. But Dr. Deffinbaugh also has a fine article titled “Psalm 73: The Suffering of the Righteous and the Success of Sinners”.
Psalm 73:27-28 - Yes, look! Those far from you die; you destroy
everyone who is unfaithful to you. 73:28 But as for me, God’s presence
is all I need. I have made the sovereign LORD my shelter, as I declare
all the things you have done.