Text Study for John 12:20-33 (pt. 1); 5 Lent B 2021

Gospel: John 12:20-33

Part One: The Whole World Has Gone After Him

First, let’s establish the text and the context. We have jumped from one end of the Book of Signs in John to the other. It could be a bit dizzying. Events recorded here come during the third Passover journey to Jerusalem in John’s gospel. It’s not reading in too much to see some significance in the number “three” here. John uses numbers in subtle ways throughout the gospel to communicate meaning. John may be signaling that this third Passover is the final and complete one for Jesus in his mission of abundant life.

We get notice of this third journey in John 11:55. So the larger context really begins there. This section of John (11:55 to 12:50) is the transition from the “Book of Signs” in chapters 2 through 11 to the “Book of Glorification” in chapters 13-21. Our context is bounded on the back end by the Farewell Discourse in chapters thirteen through seventeen. We get notice of one of John’s controlling stories again in 11:55. Many were “going up” to Jerusalem for the festival. “Ascending” in John always means that a big revelation is about to happen.

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This context contains a reminder in John 11:57 that “the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him” (NRSV). In John’s account, Jesus is playing a bit of a hide and seek game with the authorities. He will determine when and how things come to a resolution. No one, as we read later, will take his life from him. Nonetheless, the shadow of the cross grows longer and deeper as we move further into John’s account. That threat perhaps conditions our understanding of what comes next.

In John 12:1-11, we find ourselves at the dinner party at the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, where Mary anoints Jesus’ feet. Jesus describes Mary’s actions as his anointing for burial. Even this action has a double edge in John. After all, Israelite prophets and kings get anointed. The Messiah is, in Hebrew, the “Anointed One.” We see here that in John, Jesus’ death and burial are also part of his enthronement and glorification. Mary has prepared Jesus’ body for all that is to come.

At the dinner party, we get more information about Judas as a thief and the one who will hand Jesus over. We are thus prepared for Judas’ role in the drama to come and can see his actions in the light of his darker intentions. Jesus tells Judas to let Mary be, since she is preparing him for the events to come. He quotes a proverb that takes on different meaning after his glorification. The poor will always be with us in need of our care, so don’t forget that in the future. But soon Jesus will not need such treatment since he will be glorified.

In addition, we hear that crowds are coming not only to see Jesus but also to see Lazarus, the one Jesus raised from the dead. The death threat is extended to Lazarus as well “since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus” (John 12:11, NRSV). This, John indicates, is the potential path for anyone who receives life in Christ. We are the living evidence of the life-giving power of Jesus. The “rulers of this world” will always want to destroy the evidence if the opportunity presents itself.

Jesus’ body is prepared. The villain is identified. The threat is made crystal clear. The action can now proceed. In John 12:12-19, we get John’s account of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. This is another event which did not make sense to the disciples at the time. His disciples did not understand these things “at first,” we read in verse sixteen. Rather, when Jesus was glorified, then they brought to mind that these things had been written concerning him. They couldn’t really process the Messianic references the crowd shouted as Jesus rode into town. It was only later that they remembered “that these things had been written of him and had been done to him” (John 12:18 NRSV).

In John, we see in some detail how the early church saw Jesus as acting “in accordance with the scriptures.” That sense of scriptural fulfillment doesn’t come immediately but rather comes after remembering, studying, and reflecting. “In the Gospel story,” write Malina and Rohrbaugh, “every mention of the new understanding available to the disciples thanks to the Spirit given by Jesus makes members of John’s anti-society further attentive to the spirit in their midst, It further points,” they conclude, “to the increasing understanding of Jesus available to them.”

I want to emphasize this point. Far too many American Christians declare that they “believe in the Bible.” They declare that reflection and revelation must cease with the written word (preferably in the King James version). But Christian scripture itself does not support this understanding of the Word. Instead, the disciples come to deeper understandings as they pray and meditate on and live out the text of scripture. It only comes to them gradually as they remember their experiences through the lens of the crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and expected return of Jesus Christ.

So it is for us. “Scripture is clear that God is not seen by human beings, for divinity is not subject to human perception,” Father John Behr writes in The Mystery of Christ. “In the case of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, what is beheld is the transcendent power of divinity manifested precisely in the things external to the divine nature—in flesh, in darkness, and in death—for here we contemplate the transcendent and transforming power of God” (page 22). As we pray, study, reflect, and live (in our own cross-shaped journeys), we can see more deeply into that transcendent and transforming power of God. That’s why preaching and theologizing are evergreen disciplines.

With the Triumphal Entry, we get another reminder of the problems Jesus creates for the religious authorities. The Pharisees commiserate with one another. Look at that! You (all) can’t do anything of advantage here. Do you see? The whole cosmos has departed with him. (see John 12:19). The verb for “depart” (NRSV translates as “goes after”) seems to mean that the whole world has left the accepted or familiar or known path with Jesus at the head of the parade.

Because of the enthusiastic crowds, “therefore” the Pharisees make this despairing observation to one another. The word for “world” here is “cosmos” – the cosmos which God loves by giving the Only-Begotten One. For the moment we find ourselves back in John 3:16. “Take note,” the Pharisees say to one another. “You can’t gain any advantage here.” When persuasion is no longer seen as an option, then action is all that’s left.

This verse brings us to the text for today, which Malina and Rohrbaugh label as “Jesus’ Final Public Revelation.” They take the text through verse 36 which concludes Jesus’ brief discourse here. “After Jesus had said this,” we read in the final sentence, “he departed and hid from them.” Is the “them” here the crowds? More likely, it is the chief priests and Pharisees who desire to arrest and dispatch with him. The game of hide and seek continues for a bit longer.

Before we move into the Book of Glorification, we get “a sort of epilogue to explain Jesus’ lack of success among the Judeans” (Malina and Rohrbaugh, page 213). This epilogue continues John’s meditation on Caesarea Philippi (see future posts) to its final conclusion. The numerous signs were not enough to bring the authorities to trust in Jesus. John quotes Isaiah 53 and Isaiah 61 to underwrite this as the expected outcome.

John notes that some of the authorities did in fact trust in Jesus (perhaps a reference to Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea). But the risk of public acknowledgment was too great. Even those authorities who believed, “loved the glory of humans more than the glory of God.” Here is another word to the disciples in John’s community. Declaring allegiance to Jesus in public will have a cost. That cost might be expulsion from the Jewish community (which John labels as “the glory of humans”). John wants to prepare his community for that cost. Perhaps it prepares us as well for the cost of lost relationships, position, and community when we cling to the truth of Jesus.

John 12:44-50 offers a review of the theology of John’s gospel up to this point. All has been said and done. Then it’s time to say good-bye. We will return to that Farewell Discourse on Maundy Thursday. In reading the text itself, I would go through verse 36, as Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest. In addition, it is difficult, I think, to make sense of the coming of the Greeks to Jesus without at least referring to the desperate complaint of the Pharisees in verse 19. They symbolize and crystallize that concern.

To read and preach on a text that comes after the Triumphal Entry on the Sunday before the story of that event can make us linear thinkers more than a little disoriented. The purpose of this account on the penultimate Sunday in Lent, however, is to prepare us for what to see and what to expect in the narratives to come. We are like the disciples. We may read the text “forward,” but we can only understand it by looking “backward.” We will be best prepared for Holy week if our memories are refreshed and our vision is clarified ahead of time.

References and Resources

Behr, John. The Mystery of Christ. Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.

Lossky, Vladimir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Crestwood, NY.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1957.

Myers, Alicia D. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-john-1220-33-5

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.

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