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John 12:20-33 Biblical Commentary:
JOHN 11-12. THE CONTEXT
Chapter 11 told the story of the raising of Lazarus (11:1-44), which caused the council (also known as the Sanhedrin) and the high priest to plot Jesus’ death (11:45-54).
Chapter 12 opened with the story of Mary anointing Jesus at Lazarus’ home, an anointing which Jesus said was “for the day of my burial” (vv. 1-8). The chief priests are plotting to kill Lazarus as well as Jesus, because “it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus” (vv. 9-11).
This was followed by the Palm Sunday story (vv. 12-19), which concluded with these words:
“The multitude therefore that was with (Jesus) when he called Lazarus out of the tomb, and raised him from the dead, was testifying about it. For this cause also the multitude went and met him, because they heard that he had done this sign. The Pharisees therefore said among themselves, ‘See how you accomplish nothing. Behold, the world has gone after him'” (vv. 17-19).
It is this feeling of powerlessness in the face of a charismatic, potentially dangerous, figure that impels the Pharisees to seek Jesus’ death. Ironically, Lazarus’ resurrection will lead to Jesus’ death.
“Behold, the world has gone after him!” (v. 19) leads directly into the next verse, where some Greeks come to see Jesus.
JOHN 12:20-22. SIR, WE WANT TO SEE JESUS
20Now there were certain Greeks among those that went up to worship at the feast. 21These, therefore, came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida of Galilee, and asked him, saying, “Sir, we want to see Jesus.” 22Philip came and told Andrew, and in turn, Andrew came with Philip, and they told Jesus.
“Now there were certain Greeks among those who went up to worship at the feast” (v. 20). These Greeks could be from Greece or the Decapolis (a group of ten cities near Galilee with large Greek populations). Given the Passover setting, it is likely that they are Jewish proselytes (circumcised converts to the Jewish faith) who are permitted to participate in Jewish festivals (Exodus 12:45, 48). However, it is possible that they are “God-fearers”—uncircumcised Gentiles who worship the God of Israel. In either case, their appearance here hints at the openness that Jesus will have for Gentiles.
“These, therefore, came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida of Galilee” (v. 21a). They are probably drawn to Philip because he has a Greek name (named after the founder of the city of Philippi) and is from Bethsaida, near the Decapolis.
“and asked him, saying, ‘Sir, we want to see Jesus’ “ (v. 21b). Jesus has become quite popular—the Pharisees, after all, are complaining that the whole world is following after him (v. 19). These Greeks are outsiders, so they are looking for an introduction.
“Philip came and told Andrew, and in turn, Andrew came with Philip, and they told Jesus” (v. 22). This Gospel earlier identified Bethsaida as the city of the brothers, Simon and Andrew (1:44). Andrew is also a Greek name (from the Greek, andros, which means man). Philip and Andrew go together to tell Jesus of the Greek’s request.
This is the last that we hear of the Greeks. They are important to the story, because:
• Their visit illustrates the truth of the Pharisees’ statement, “Look, the world has gone after him” (v. 19).
• Their visit prompts Jesus to acknowledge that his hour has come.
• Their visit prompts Jesus to announce that, when he is lifted up, he will draw “all people” to himself, an obvious reference to Gentiles (including Greeks) (v. 32).
However, John obviously considers the continued presence of the Greeks unnecessary, so they immediately disappear from view. John does not tell us whether they ever got to see Jesus.
JOHN 12:23-26. THE TIME HAS COME
23Jesus answered them, “The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.24Most certainly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25He who loves his life will lose it. He who hates his life in this world will keep it to eternal life. 26If anyone serves me, let him follow me. Where I am, there will my servant also be. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.“
“The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (v. 23). There are three earlier references in this Gospel to Jesus’ hour:
• At Cana, Jesus said to his mother, “My hour has not yet come” (2:4).
• In Jerusalem, “They sought therefore to take him; but no one laid a hand on him, because his hour had not yet come.” (7:30).
• In the temple, “no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come” (8:20).
Now, finally, Jesus announces that his hour has come. The turning point was the raising of Lazarus, in response to which the world (including these Greeks) comes seeking Jesus, causing the opposition to Jesus to harden (v. 19).
“the Son of Man” (v. 23). The title, Son of Man, comes from Daniel 7:13-14, where the Ancient of Days (God) gave to the one like a Son of Man “dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.” Scholars agree that Jesus intended it as a messianic title.
The NRSV translates the phrase in Daniel 7:13 as “human being” rather than “Son of Man.” That is unfortunate, given the significance of the title, Son of Man. The phrase in Daniel 7:13 is bar enas. The word bar means son, and enas means man.
The title, Son of Man, has the advantage of having none of the militaristic connotations associated with the title, Messiah. People expect the Messiah to raise an army, to drive out the Romans, and to re-establish the great Davidic kingdom. They have no such expectations regarding the Son of Man.
Jesus’ frequent use of the title in connection with his passion suggests a veiled messianic title. The title obviously has meaning to Jesus, but the meaning will not be clear to the disciples until after the resurrection.
“to be glorified” (doxazo, from doxa) (v. 23). Glory is characteristic of God, and refers to God’s awe-inspiring majesty. God shared this glory with Jesus.
• We saw Jesus’ glory revealed at the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36) and through his death and resurrection (John 12:23; 13:31-32).
• He has given his glory to his disciples (John 17:22), and has been glorified in them (John 17:10).
• The Spirit of truth will glorify Jesus (John 16:13-14).
• Jesus prays, “Father, I desire that they also whom you have given me be with me where I am, that they may see my glory, which you have given me, for you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24).
• At the parousia (the Second Coming), Jesus will return “in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27). Then “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11).
• There is an allusion here to Isaiah’s suffering servant, “Behold, my servant shall deal wisely, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high” (Isaiah 52:13).
We will soon see a paradox at work, because the world is fickle. Those who shouted “Hosanna” on Sunday will shout “Crucify him” on Friday. We can trust neither the world’s opinions nor the popularity that it might bestow, because the world’s opinions are not anchored in truth. Our best defense is a deep and well-informed faith.
Jesus’ opponents will succeed in killing him, but their apparent victory will turn to dust as Jesus emerges from the tomb and begins to draw all people to himself (v. 32).
“Most certainly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit” (v. 24). Jesus introduces the divine paradox (a paradox is a statement that seems to contradict itself). The seed must die if it is to bear fruit.
“He who loves his life will lose it. He who hates his life in this world will keep it to eternal life” (v. 25). This is a second expression of the divine paradox. Those who love their life will lose it, but those who hate their life will keep it (see also Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24; 17:33; Matthew 10:39).
This is an example of hyperbole—exaggeration for effect. Jesus is not saying that happy people will lose their lives and depressed people will keep them. He is saying that people whose lives are centered on self will lose them, because the Father will not honor them (see v. 26). People whose lives are centered on service even at the cost of sacrifice will keep them, because the Father will bless them with eternal life.
The road to glory is servanthood. That was true for Jesus, and it is true for all who would follow him. Like Jesus, we are expected to be faithful even unto death and to trust that God will vindicate us.
“If anyone serves me, let him follow me” (v. 26a). The Synoptic expression of this idea is found in Jesus’ challenge to take up the cross and follow him (Mark 8:34; Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23). To be Jesus’ disciple is to follow him and to become a servant even as he became a servant.
“Where I am, there will my servant also be” (v. 26b). Jesus’ ultimate destiny is to return to the Father, so this constitutes Jesus’ promise that his servant-disciple will join him in that glorious setting. However, the process by which Jesus will be glorified will begin with the cross, so Jesus is also saying that the servant-disciple can expect to experience suffering along the way.
“If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him” (v. 26c). This is a third expression of the divine paradox. God will honor the servant rather than the ruler.
JOHN 12:27-30. FOR THIS CAUSE I CAME TO THIS TIME
27“Now my soul is troubled (Greek: tetaraktai—from tarasso). What shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this time?’ But for this cause I came to this time. 28Father, glorify your name!” Then there came a voice out of the sky, saying, “I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.” 29The multitude therefore, who stood by and heard it, said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30Jesus answered, “This voice hasn’t come for my sake, but for your sakes.”
“Now my soul is troubled” (tarasso) (v. 27a). Jesus’ echoes the Septuagint (Greek translation) of Psalm 42:6, where the Psalmist says, “My soul is cast down within me.” This Greek word, tarasso, was used earlier at 11:33 to tell of Jesus’ troubled soul at Lazarus’ tomb.
“What should I say—’Father save me from this time'” (v. 27b). This Gospel includes no account of the Gethsemane story with Jesus’ prayer, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass away from me” (Matthew 26:39). Jesus’ question here is the closest that this Gospel comes to that experience.
Jesus’ answers his rhetorical question with a resounding, “No!” adding, “But for this cause I came to this time” (v. 27c). Instead of offering a prayer for his own safety or glorification, Jesus prays, “Father, glorify your name” (v. 28a).
“Then there came a voice out of the sky” (v. 28b). In this Gospel, there is no account of the Transfiguration, with its voice from heaven. We might think of this incident as the Johannine equivalent.
“I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again” (v. 28c). The Father responds audibly to the Son’s request, assuring the Son that he has glorified the Son and will do so again.
The Father glorified the Son in the Incarnation. The opening verses of this Gospel say, “The Word became flesh, and lived among us. We saw his glory, such glory as of the one and only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14). The Father also glorified the Son at the Transfiguration (9:28-36).
The Father will glorify the Son again at the cross and the open tomb—and at the day of his return (Luke 9:26).
“The multitude, therefore, who stood by and heard it (the voice from heaven), said that it had thundered. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him'” (v. 29). The crowd does not know what to make of the voice. In their speculation, they do not include the possibility that this might be God’s voice. It has been so long since Israel has heard a prophetic voice (except for the recent voice of John the Baptist) that rabbis teach that the best that they can expect until the coming of the messiah is a bath qol (literally, “daughter of a voice”)—a mere echo of the divine voice (Kostenberger, 382).
Jesus responds, “This voice hasn’t come for my sake, but for your sakes” (v. 30). How can the voice be for the crowd’s sake unless they understand it?
• For one thing, the rumble in the sky signals that something significant is happening. While the crowd does not understand the voice, they interpret it as an angel’s voice or thunder (which in scripture is often associated with God’s voice—Exodus 9:23-33; 19:19; 1 Samuel 2:10; Psalm 18:13, etc.). In other words, for these people, both thunder and an angel’s voice are Godly sounds.
• Second, the disciples will remember the voice. While they do not understand it at the moment, after Jesus’ death and resurrection this voice will take on new meaning. Often, in our Christian walk, we understand only after time passes. Some things become clear as we mature spiritually. Others will become clear only when we see God face to face.
JOHN 12:31-33. IF I AM LIFTED UP FROM THE EARTH
31“Now is the judgment of this world. Now the prince (Greek: archon) of this world will be cast out (Greek: ekblethesetai—from ekballo). 32And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33But he said this, signifying by what kind of death he should die.
“Now is the judgment of this world. Now the prince of this world will be cast out” (v. 31). The twofold “now” ties in with Jesus’ announcement, “the time has come” (v. 23).
We think of God rendering judgment on the world at Jesus’ second coming, but Jesus says that the judgment has already begun.
In this verse, he speaks twice of “this world,” and we are reminded that he earlier said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (3:16). While we are tempted to treat verse 3:16 as a promise of universal salvation, Jesus continued:
“He who believes in him is not judged. He who doesn’t believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God. This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and doesn’t come to the light, lest his works would be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his works may be revealed, that they have been done in God” (3:18-21).
Now that “the time has come” (v. 23), Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross makes clear the presence of evil in our midst. The people of this world will be judged based on their decision to come or not to come to the light.
“now the prince (Greek: archon) of this world will be cast out” (ekblethesetai—from ekballo) (v. 31). The Greek word archon means ruler, and is used for people in positions of authority, whether civil or religious. However, in this verse, it is clear that Jesus is speaking of a demonic power that has been condemned (16:11) and will be cast out by the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection (see also 14:30). Until now, John used the word archon to refer to Jewish authorities who, with the exception of Nicodemus, were hostile to Jesus (3:1; 7:26, 48).
At Jesus’ glorification, he will assume power over the kosmos-world—the world that stands against God (Ridderbos, 438).
The last time that we heard the word, ekballo, “the Jews”—meaning the Jewish leaders—were responding to the blind man who dared to answer their hostile interrogation by testifying of Jesus, “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (9:33)—so they drove him out (exebalon—from ekballo) (9:34). But now Jesus says that it will be the ruler of this world—presumably including the religious rulers who rejected Jesus—who will be ekballo (cast out).
“And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (v. 32). This is the third time that Jesus speaks of being lifted up (3:14; 8:28). It is clear that he is speaking of the cross, because in 3:14 he draws a parallel between his being lifted up and Moses lifting the serpent up on a pole. For anyone who misses the point, John appends the explanation that “He said this, signifying by what death he should die” (v. 33).
However, in being lifted up, Jesus will also experience exaltation. His being lifted up on the cross will constitute an act of obedience to the Father’s will—a carrying out of the mission for which Jesus has come to the earth (v. 27). By his death, Jesus will “draw all people to myself” (v. 32).
“All people” includes us. “We are not second-class disciples at a distance, born at the wrong time in the wrong place” (Craddock, 164).
The phrase, “all people,” does not suggest universal salvation any more than do Jesus’ words in 3:16. Instead, it testifies to the fact that Jesus has opened the door to God’s kingdom to all people. Whether that will be effective for a particular person depends on that person’s response.
“But he said this, signifying by what kind of death he should die” (v. 33). While the rest of the world was able to see power only in its traditional forms (money, military might, political influence, etc.), Jesus saw power in the cross. History has shown that his vision was true. His suffering and sacrifice have indeed drawn people to him—people of every race, nation, and gender.
The Jewish authorities who called for Jesus’ death will soon see their temple leveled and their nation in ruins. Rome, the personification of worldly power, will fall to barbarians soon enough. But Jesus, who chose the path of suffering and servanthood, called into being a kingdom that has survived where everything else has fallen. Sophisticates scorn Christ and tyrants kill his disciples, but the church has weathered every criticism and outlived every tyrant.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible, “The Gospel of John,” Vol. 2 (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1955)
Beasley-Murray, George R., Word Biblical Commentary: John (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999)
Borchert, Gerald L., New American Commentary: John 12-21, Vol. 25B (Nashville: Broadman Press, 2002)
Brown, Raymond, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John I-XII (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966)
Bruce, F. F., The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983).
Bruner, Frederick Dale, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012)
Burridge, Richard A. in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The Third Readings: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001)
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Craddock, Fred R.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Gaventa, Beverly R., in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R. and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
Gossip, Arthur John and Howard, Wilbert F., The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 8 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1952)
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Howard-Brook, Wes, Becoming the Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship (New York: Maryknoll, 1994).
Keener, Craig S., The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume I (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003)
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Marcus, Joel, The Anchor Bible: Mark 1-8 (New York: Doubleday, 1999)
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O’Day, Gail R., The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
Palmer, Earl F., The Book That John Wrote (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1975)
Ridderbos, Herman (translated by John Vriend), The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997)
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