John 12 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Jesus' Hour Arrives
Some Greeks now come to see Jesus, signaling to him that his long awaited hour has arrived (vv. 20-23). Jesus speaks of the mystery of life coming through death, applying this to his own death (vv. 24-33). In the midst of this teaching the Father himself bears witness to Jesus from heaven, but the crowd has a mixed response to the Father's voice, just as they have had to Jesus, the Father's Word (vv. 28-30). The section concludes with the crowd's raising further questions about the identity of the Son of Man, but Jesus does not engage them in discussion. His teaching to the world has been completed. He simply exhorts them to receive the light while they still can (vv. 34-36).
John has already called our attention to the crowds gathering for Passover and their interest in whether Jesus would come to the feast (11:55-56). Then the crowd welcomed Jesus with great acclamations (12:12- 18). Now from among this Passover crowd one particular group comes forward to meet Jesus. These Greeks are not Greek-speaking Jews but rather Gentiles, whether from Greece or elsewhere (Barrett 1978:421). The fact that they went up to worship at the Feast (v. 20) suggests they were proselytes. Josephus says there were many such foreigners who would come up to the feast, though they could not actually partake of the sacrifice (Jewish Wars 6.427-28), since they had not fully entered Judaism. These were pious Gentiles who were attracted to Judaism. They had come to the feast to worship God, suggesting an openness of heart to God. Their interest in the things of God leads them to Jesus.
It is not clear why they approach Philip (v. 21). Perhaps they heard someone call Philip by name and thought because he had a Greek name he might be more responsive to them. Perhaps Philip dressed in a Greek style. In any event, they come to Philip and say, Sir, . . . we would like to see Jesus (v. 21). Earlier, Philip had told Nathaniel to come and see Jesus (1:46), and now these Greeks have come and want to see Jesus, thus signaling that a new stage has been reached in Jesus' ministry (see comment on 12:23). When they say they want to see Jesus they are simply asking to meet with him, but the motif of sight is a major expression for revelation in this Gospel. Indeed, their request sums up the right attitude of any disciple and the core focus of any ministry. This request, "Sir, we would see Jesus," has been attached to more than one pulpit as a guideline for the preacher.
Philip does not go straight to Jesus with the Greeks' request, but rather to Andrew, who was from Philip's town (1:44). This may bear witness to Philip's humility, but more likely it shows how unusual the situation was. Jesus has had contact with non-Jews (cf., probably, 4:43-53), but very rarely. He has taught much about the universal scope of God's love, but the full implications of this were not grasped by his followers until later. The nationalism stirred up during Jesus' entry into Jerusalem might make the disciples uncertain about such a request, though these Greeks were proselytes. It seems Philip simply needs some encouragement to approach the Lord when faced with this new and stretching situation. He goes to Andrew, who seems to have been a trusting person who was willing to speak up even when it seemed foolish (6:8-9). If we are stymied by a situation, it helps to have a friend with whom to go to the Lord, not to demand of the Lord but simply to lay before him the situation.
Quite often Jesus has responded to questions and situations with cryptic sayings, and this is no exception. When Andrew and Philip announce the coming of the Greeks something wondrous happens. It triggers the moment the reader has been anticipating since the story began: Jesus replied, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified" (v. 23). As with all his cryptic sayings, this response addresses the issue, but it does so in ways incomprehensible at the time. He does not speak directly to the Greeks, but he speaks of their place in his community in the future. For he reveals that it is time for his death to take place, through which a great crop will be produced (v. 24) as he draws all men to himself (v. 32). Thus, verse 24 answers the Greeks indirectly, for through his death he "will become accessible for them as the exalted Lord" (Bultmann 1971:424).
It may seem strange to refer to Jesus' death as a glorification. But the death is at the heart of the Son's revelation of the Father, for God is love and love is the laying down of one's life (cf. 1 Jn 4:8; 3:16). So in the cross the heart of God is revealed most clearly. Selflessness and humble self-sacrifice are seen to be divine attributes. Throughout his life Jesus has done the Father's will, and such selflessness is a key component in the eternal life he offers. God's own life is a life of love that denies self for the sake of the beloved, and therefore such love is the very nature of life itself, real life. "Sacrifice, self-surrender, death, is the condition of the highest life: selfishness is the destruction of life" (Westcott 1908:2:123). Thus, the cross is not just a one-time event that atones for sin, though it is certainly that. It is the most dramatic case in point of the pattern of divine life that exists for all time.
Jesus proceeds to speak of the mystery of life coming through death. He uses the image of a seed that must fall into the ground and die in order to produce "much fruit" (v. 24, polyn karpon; the NIV many seeds is unjustified). The contrast between remaining "alone" (monos; NIV, only a single seed) and bearing much fruit indicates that the fruit Jesus speaks of are people, the fruit of evangelism. But a second meaning of fruit is also present: through his death fruit will be produced in the lives of his followers, namely, the very quality of life, divine life, revealed in the death (cf. 15:1-8). The next verses spell out this connection between fruit and discipleship.
Jesus begins speaking in general terms: The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life (v. 25). Here is the call to radical discipleship, similar to those found earlier in Jesus' ministry in the Synoptics (Mt 16:24-26 par. Mk 8:34-37 par. Lk 9:23-25; Mt 10:39 par. Lk 17:33; cf. Brown 1966:473-74). The word for life (psyche) does not only refer to physical life; it is more comprehensive than that, taking in one's whole being, one's "self." The self was not created to be an autonomous center of being, but rather to be in union with God and receive life from him. "Psyche is the life which is given to man by God and which through man's attitude toward God receives its character as either mortal or eternal" (Schweizer 1974:644). The love of this self as such is at the heart of all sin, beginning with the rebellion in the Garden of Eden. That rebellion brought death and continues to bring death. When Jesus says the one who loves this self will lose it he does not mean "misplace" it but rather "destroy" it (apollyei).
What is needed is a detachment from this self, and this is what is meant in verse 25 by hates (Michel 1967:690-91). When Jesus says the disciple must hate father and mother (Lk 14:26) he does not mean despise, reject and abominate in an absolute sense. He is speaking about choices and attachments. He means the devotion and obedience to himself must be so thorough that nothing else is distracting. The same language is used when he teaches that one can only serve one master (Mt 6:24 par. Lk 16:13). So Jesus is not speaking of a hatred of the "self" itself but rather of a rejection of the self's claims to autonomy and control. Indeed, rejecting the false claims of the self in this world is actually a way of caring for one's true self, for thereby one will keep it for eternal life (v. 25). Thus, this passage is not referring to self-destruction or masochism; it calls one to reject the way of rebellion and live in the light of eternity. At the heart of discipleship is love, and at the heart of love is sacrifice.
Such denial of self opens one to receive the divine life that never dies (11:25-26), which comes through union with Christ by the Spirit, as Jesus will soon go on to teach his followers privately. Already now, while he is still teaching publicly, he refers to this reality in more general terms: Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me (v. 26). He has been speaking of his death and now says the servant must follow the master. So we continue to hear the Synoptic theme of taking up one's cross and following Jesus.
The reward of such obedience, even through death, is twofold: to be with Jesus and to be honored by the Father. Jesus has been living in the presence of God and is returning to the presence of God, so this is a promise of being with Christ in the presence of God. The honor we receive from the Father comes from our union with Christ, the one whom the Father honors throughout. Such union with God in Christ and such honor from the Father are what we were created for and what we rejected in the rebellion in the Garden of Eden. It is only through a death to the false, rebellious self that we can receive such life and return to our true humanity in union with God. In a sense, then, these two verses contain the core description of discipleship. "Self must be displaced by another; the endless, shameless focus on self must be displaced by focus on Jesus Christ, who is the supreme revelation of God" (Carson 1991:439). This death to the false self is a form of suffering. Christ's call may also include actual physical suffering as well: like master, like disciple (cf. 15:18--16:4). "Christ draws men to fellowship with himself, alike in suffering and in the presence of God" (Beasley-Murray 1987:212).
Jesus is under no delusion that hating yourself is easy. After saying what is necessary for his servants to follow him, he reveals the agony he himself is experiencing: Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? "Father, save me from this hour"? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour (v. 27). In John's Gospel, there is a greater emphasis than in the Synoptics on Jesus' calmness and control as he faces various difficulties. This verse is John's allusion to the agony of Gethsemane, which shows us that John realizes Jesus' death did not cost him nothing. Indeed, the parallel between this verse and the scene in Gethsemane may be closer than the NIV suggests. The statement Father, save me from this hour could be taken as Jesus' actual prayer, rather than as a hypothetical prayer he is considering (cf. Carson 1991:440). In this case, Jesus actually prays to be saved from the hour and then immediately rejects this prayer, as he does in the Synoptics (Mk 14:36, toned down in Mt 26:39 par. Lk 22:42).
When Jesus says my heart is troubled (he psyche mou tetaraktai) he is quoting from Psalm 6, in which David says, "My soul is in anguish" (Ps 6:3; cf. LXX: he psyche mou etarachthe sphodra). But although David then prays for salvation (soson me, Ps 6:4 and Jn 12:27), Jesus does not have that option if he is to fulfill the will of his Father. The majority of Old Testament references in John's account of the Passion, beginning here, are taken from psalms referring to a righteous sufferer.
This verse gives us a glimpse into the reality of the incarnation. John has revealed as clearly as anyone the fullness of Christ's deity, but he has also stated clearly that the Word became flesh (1:14). In becoming flesh, the Word did not empty himself of his divine attributes, as many have wrongly inferred from Philippians 2:7. But in Jesus' becoming fully man, his divine attributes worked within the confines of true humanity, somewhat like a Mozart symphony being played on a kazoo. Human nature in its true, unfallen state is capable of expressing much more of the divine nature than we could have dreamed based on our experience, which is limited to fallen, rebellious, spiritually dead human nature. (This is why, in passing, all attempts to do Christology "from below" are doomed to failure.) But true, sinless humanity is here seen to be tempted with rebellion against God and his will. We are back to the Garden, but this time the one who represents us chooses wisely.
In Jesus' struggle we see that temptation itself is not a sin. We also see the real agony involved in dying to self. But there is a great difference between what we face and what Jesus faced. The actual form this death to self takes for us is the exact opposite from what Jesus faced here. In our case, we must die to our false self, which is in rebellion against God. We must detach from "all the vain things that charm me most." Many of these may even be good in themselves, but they are idols we worship. They are attachments and addictions that give us pleasure; they are centered in self and disruptive of relationship with God and our fellow human beings. In Jesus' case, this dying to self is the reverse: he is living in union with God and must give that up to fulfill the role of Lamb of God, "who takes away the sin of the world" (1:29). He must die by taking upon himself our alienation and the effects of our rebellion. His agony is the agony of a death to self, and so it is like ours, but it is far more profound and painful. Yet it is precisely his union with God as the Son that enables him to go through with it, for in that union he shares in the divine love that leads inexorably to such a sacrifice.
As Son of God in union with the good and loving Father, Jesus responds, Father, glorify your name! (v. 28). The concept of the name is very important (see comment on 1:12; cf. Bietenhard 1967). The name is the person himself or herself as made accessible to others. It is the handle by which one is known. It represents the person and thus their character, their honor or dishonor. To glorify is to turn the spotlight on someone or something and to reveal that which is worthy of praise. In the cross the heart of God is revealed more clearly than anywhere else, and those who grasp what the cross reveals about God cannot help but be awestruck.
In verse 23 Jesus had said it was time for the Son of Man to be glorified, and now he calls upon the Father to glorify his own name. This connection is yet another indication that Jesus' closeness to the Father transcends the association of a mere human agent (see comment on 5:21). These two verses "are perhaps an indication of the equation of Jesus with the name of God" (Bietenhard 1967:272 n. 195; cf. 13:31-32).
Jesus' whole life has been about glorifying the Father's name, as the heavenly voice testifies: I have glorified it, and will glorify it again (v. 28). This confirms Jesus' past revelation of the Father and the revelation that is to come in the future. Throughout the story "the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth," (1:14) has been revealed, and now the Father himself bears witness to this fact. The future glory includes the cross, the scandalous event that seems furthest from God's glory.
When the Father himself speaks from heaven within the crowd's hearing the people are divided over what has happened, with some saying it thundered and others saying an angel spoke with Jesus (v. 29). There is ambiguity to everything divine in this world, and this ambiguity tests hearts. The opponents have never heard God's voice (5:37), and now when God himself speaks it does them no good. The responses to this voice, therefore, are similar to the responses to Jesus' cryptic sayings. Some relate the voice to the divine realm and thus at least put it in the right perspective, even if they do not understand it. The others hear only noise. The voice testifies to the Father and the Son, but to no avail.
They have not understood this voice, but Jesus says this voice is for their benefit (v. 30). In saying this he is giving them the opportunity to realize they are missing something; perhaps they "might be led to inquire what the words meant" (Chrysostom In John 67.2). It is an invitation to become open and receptive to him. Jesus affirms that a message has been transmitted and that if they did not get it then something is wrong with their receivers. Indeed, he goes on to spell out that they are not missing just any message. He indicates that they are in the midst of the most significant events in human history: Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself (vv. 31-32). The cross will look like the defeat and the end of Jesus, but in fact it will be his glorification (v. 23), the defeat of the evil one and the drawing together of Jesus' community from among all humanity. The phrase lifting up echoes the description of the Suffering Servant in the fourth of the Servant Songs in Isaiah (Is 52:13--53:12; cf. Brown 1966:478). The description of the Servant being "raised and lifted up and highly exalted" is followed by a description of people being appalled at him because he was disfigured and marred (Is 52:13-14). This strange combination is seen in the lifting up of Jesus on the cross. The Servant is rejected and despised as he takes on the transgressions of the world (Is 53:3-12). This Servant Song will be directly quoted in John 12:38, but already its imagery is evident.
The judgment is a revelation of the true state of affairs and a division among humanity (cf. Jn 3:19-21; 5:22-30), a work that the Spirit will continue after the departure of Jesus (16:8-11). World here and in the rest of the Gospel refers to that which is in rebellion against God, especially in the religion of God's own people. There may be much talk of God and much activity for him that essentially is motivated by a love of self and has nothing to do with God. The cross exposed this terrifying reality and condemned it. The only true religion is complete submission to God, as we see in Jesus' submission to the Father. The cross exposes and condemns all that does not have the Father as its source.
The reference to the prince of this world being driven out (v. 31) probably does not refer to the devil's being cast out of heaven (Rev 12) or his being cast out from this world, since John is well aware that Satan's influence continues after the cross (1 Jn 5:19). Satan is not yet destroyed (cf. Rev 20), but clearly his power has been broken. It is now possible to live free from his control. Augustine writes,
Where is he cast out from? From heaven and earth? From this created universe? No, he is cast out of the hearts of believers. Since the invader has been cast out, let the Redeemer dwell within, because the same one who created was also the one who redeemed. The devil now assaults from without but does not conquer the Redeemer who now has taken possession within the believer. The devil assaults from without by throwing various temptations into the believer, but the person to whom God speaks within, and who has the anointing of the Spirit, does not consent to these temptations. (Augustine In First John 4.1)
Thus, it is precisely the victory of the cross that enables the believer to hate his life in this world and keep it for eternal life (v. 25). Believers can claim the defeat of Satan at the cross, and they can effectually break his spell through union with Christ (which the Lord will speak of in coming chapters) and, by God's grace, through focusing attention on God and detaching attention from that which is not of God. As one is united to Christ one comes to share in his own life of sacrifice, which includes, as Paul says, the fact that "our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin" (Rom 6:6).
For Jesus' talk about judgment on this world and the driving out of the prince of this world (v. 31) is the language of warfare (cf. Heb 2:14-15). He has come into enemy-occupied territory, defeated the ruler who had usurped the region, revealed the true state of bondage that had existed under this false ruler and reclaimed it for its rightful ruler. As a returning king might set up his flag to rally his subjects to him after defeating the one who had taken over his realm, so Jesus speaks of a rallying point: But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself (v. 32). Here is the banner Isaiah spoke of when he wrote, "In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious" (Is 11:10; cf. Is 11:11-12). Here is the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies that the tribes of the earth will gather on Mt. Zion to worship God (for example, Is 2:1-5; Mic 4:1-5; Zech 14:16-19). But the gathering place is not the temple, for Jesus has replaced the temple. The one sacrifice on the cross will fulfill the function of the sacrifices of the temple, and in Jesus' own person (to myself) is the presence of God, whom they went to the temple to worship. The new community is grounded in the work of the cross (cf. Pryor 1992:172).
The language used (all men) is very sweeping. It could refer to the nations, which fits with the coming of the Greeks in this context (cf. Chrysostom In John 67.3; Barrett 1978:427). B. F. Westcott, however, says the phrase "must not be limited in any way" (1908:2:129), for God's love for the whole world is revealed on the cross. Christ is "the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 Jn 2:2). Indeed, some manuscripts, versions and church fathers (most notably p66, followed by all Latin versions; cf. Irenaeus Against Heresies 4.2.7; Augustine In John 52.11) read not all men (pantas) but "all things" (panta), pointing to the cosmic implications of Christ's death (cf. Rom 8:19-22; Eph 1:10; Col 1:20). John does not suggest, however, that everyone will in fact be drawn to Jesus. The present text shows folk rejecting him or simply being confused, and the next section is a reflection on the mystery of unbelief (12:37-43). Satan, the jailer, has been mortally wounded, and Jesus, the liberator, is standing in the cell, but many prisoners prefer to remain in bondage!
This prediction of his death shows the kind of death he was going to die (v. 33). On one level this reveals Jesus' role as a prophet and how all is working out according to God's sovereign purposes. But more is involved, since in Judaism not knowing the day of one's death was considered part of the human condition (for example, Mekilta on Ex 16:32). Thus, John "is deliberately setting Jesus alongside God when he has Him know the manner of His own death" (Rengstorf 1971:265).
John writes next about the crowd's response to this teaching (v. 34). This is the last time the crowd speaks to Jesus in this Gospel. They were not able to understand the voice of the Father, and now we see they are not able to understand the Son either. They pick up on Jesus' reference to being lifted up and try to make sense of it by fitting it into their own framework derived from the law. This use of the law has been a stumbling block throughout this Gospel, so it is fitting to see one more example of it at the end of Jesus' public ministry.
They say, We have heard from the Law that the Christ will remain forever, so how can you say, "The Son of Man must be lifted up"? (v. 34). Some Jews expected a messiah who would reign for a limited time (2 Esdras 7:28-30; perhaps 2 Apocalypse of Baruch 30:1), but others expected an eternal reign (Testament of Reuben 6:12; Sibylline Oracles 3:48; 1 Enoch 49:2; Psalms of Solomon 17:4; cf. Talbert 1992:187). There is, however, no text in the Old Testament that says the Christ will remain forever. Perhaps the allusion is to the eternal reign itself, which could be derived from some passages (Ps 72:17; 89:35-37; Is 9:7; Ezek 37:25). More likely the crowd is referring to a Targum, a rendition of an Old Testament text in the synagogue. Perhaps the best candidate is Targum of Isaiah 9:5: "The prophet saith to the house of David, A child has been born to us, a son has been given to us; and he has taken the law upon himself to keep it, and his name has been called from of old, Wonderful counselor, Mighty God, He who lives for ever, the Anointed one (or, Messiah), in whose days peace shall increase upon us" (cf. McNeil 1977: 23-24). Here the Messiah is explicitly called "He who lives for ever." Since the peaceful reign of the Messiah is also referred to here, perhaps this passage occurred to some of the people when they saw Jesus riding a donkey, which signaled peace rather than war (Jn 12:14-15). With this text in mind they are then confused by Jesus' statement that he, whom they are taking to be the Messiah, must be lifted up and (apparently) not live for ever.
John's editing of the material here is a bit awkward because he does not report that Jesus used the term Son of Man (v. 32), though the Johannine reader realizes Jesus had used this exact expression earlier (3:14). This awkwardness could be due to the way the sources have been edited (see, for example, Bultmann 1971:354) or simply due to the way John is telling the story--what B. F. Westcott refers to as "the compression of the narrative" (1908:2:130). Bringing in the Son of Man at this point juxtaposes the term Christ with the term Son of Man. In this way the messianic expectations of the crowds, as seen in the triumphal entry, are confounded by Jesus' more distinctive language for himself, which refers to the Messiah from heaven who brings God's life and judgment, especially through the cross (cf. comments on 3:13-14 and 5:27). Messiahship must be understood in terms of the cross, and this confuses the crowd.
They ask the right question--Who is this "Son of Man"?--for the key to all their questions is Jesus' identity. Jesus appears to avoid their question, instead issuing an admonition for them to pay attention to what they have already seen and heard. But in fact he answers them in a profound way, for he implies that he is the light (v. 35). The fact that this light will be with them only a short time longer corresponds to his earlier reference to being lifted up. In calling upon them to walk while you have the light he is calling upon them to become his disciples and follow him (cf. v. 26). If they do not walk while they have the light then the darkness will overtake them. The image may be of sunset: if they do not keep moving with the sun they will end up in the darkness, and one who walks in the dark does not know where he is going. In other words, they will only become more confused if they do not put their faith in Jesus and become his disciples.
If they do put their trust in the light they themselves will become sons of light (v. 36). The expression "son of" is a Hebrew expression that points to an important characteristic of the one described. For example, Judas is called a "son of perdition" (17:12, RSV). The expression "sons of light" was used by the Qumran community of themselves (for example, Rule of the Community 1.9; War Scroll 1.1) and is found in Paul's writings (1 Thess 5:5; Eph 5:8). In the Christian context, however, especially in this passage in John, more is involved than just the description of a characteristic of the believer. The term son must be viewed in light of the teaching regarding the filial relationship with God that is offered in Jesus. For faith in Christ gives believers "the right to become children of God" (Jn 1:12). Jesus' followers share in his own life through their faith in him, and because Jesus himself is the light, they are sons of light as they share in his light. Just as believers need not fear death because they have life itself in their relation with the one who is himself resurrection and life (11:25-26), so also they need not fear the darkness because they have light through their relationship with him who is the light. "Those who believe in Jesus themselves take on the quality of light and so never walk in darkness" (Barrett 1978:429).
Jesus is inviting this crowd to become his disciples. This teaching is an example of the judgment of the world and the shining of the light because it contains both revelation and judgment. Jesus' very admonition and warning are also an invitation. He did not come to condemn but to save, so even his condemnations have the potential for leading to salvation. This is a consistent theme in Scripture--one must take advantage of the opportunity to repent because there will come a time when it will not be possible to do so.
When he had finished speaking, Jesus left and hid himself from them (v. 36). He had hidden himself before (8:59), signaling a departure from the temple. Now he departs from the people themselves. This is a further development of the theme of judgment, and it leads to John's own reflections on the rejection the Son of God encountered when he entered the world.