Text Study for John 12:20-33 (Pt. 2); 5 Lent B 2021

Part Two: There Were These Greeks, You See

The text has three parts. In verses 20-26, we hear about some Greek-speaking visitors who have come to Jerusalem for the Passover pilgrimage. In traditional language, pilgrims “go up” to Jerusalem. That is, they “ascend.” We have another example of the ascending/descending motif in John that we discussed last week.

Instead of heading directly for the Temple, these Greeks seek out an interview with Jesus. This is another way John has to say that Jesus is the fulfillment of and replacement for the Temple. Jesus has achieved notoriety through his Triumphal Entry, which perhaps set all the pilgrims buzzing with expectation. There was no longer any secret about his presence in Jerusalem, and these seekers sought him.

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Who were these “Greeks”? They are not identified as “Gentiles” in the text. That would be the Greek word, “ethne.” Instead, they are referred to as “Hellenes,” part of the pan-Grecian culture that united the eastern Mediterranean world after the conquests of Alexander the Great three centuries before. Jeremias suggests that they were not Greek-speaking Jews but were, rather, “God-fearers.” In any case, their first language would have been Greek as would their predominant culture and worldview.

God-fearers were Gentiles who had an active interest and involvement in the life of a local synagogue but hadn’t taken the steps to become Jewish proselytes. Jeremias notes that at festival times, Jerusalem was filled not only with Jews but with these God-fearers. They may have come with one of the many pilgrim caravans that travelled to Jerusalem for the festivals.

Later, God-fearers were among the most likely adherents to Christianity from synagogue communities. They were on the margins of such communities and probably were most open to new and interesting perspectives on Judaism. They were attracted as well by the loosening of ritual requirements, perhaps, and by the witness to Jesus as a wonder-worker and demon-conqueror. Perhaps John is reflecting on that reality in the local synagogues where his readers are members.

In spite of the fact of his triumphal entry, Jesus was not making himself highly visible during this Passover feast – at least not to the authorities. His presence must have become known rather quickly, however, and these pilgrims sought him out. That would have been no small task in simpler times, since Jerusalem was overrun with people during all the festivals and especially during Passover. Jeremias estimates the typical number of Passover pilgrims in Jerusalem at this time as somewhere between 125,000 and 200,000 in addition to the 50,000 or so residents of Jerusalem.

Whether the Greeks were full proselytes or God-fearers doesn’t make a great deal of difference to John’s narrative. If they are God-fearers, it perhaps strengthens the impact of the notion that the “whole world was taking out after Jesus.” On the other hand, such spiritual tourists might not have raised the alarm with the Jerusalem authorities in the same way that a possible defection of full proselytes would. It’s really more a matter of curiosity than of substance for interpretation of the text.

The Greeks approach Philip, the first one to follow Jesus in John 1. He has a Greek-sounding name and perhaps is a more fluent Greek-speaker. He goes to Andrew, his brother, for backup. Philip has this sort of “gatekeeper” role in John’s gospel. He was also the one to bring Nathanael to an encounter with Jesus – and encounter that leads to Nathanael declaring Jesus to be the Son of God and the King of Israel.

When the Greeks come, seeking Jesus, a corner is turned in John’s gospel. “The larger context and Old Testament imagery used in John,” writes Alicia Myers in her workingpreacher.org commentary, “suggests our passage reflects the eschatological scene of the nations coming to the Jerusalem temple to worship found in many prophetic works, including Isaiah 56, which describes the arrival of foreigners, diaspora Israelites, and eunuchs to worship at the “holy mountain” (56:3-8). In true Johannine fashion, however, the Gentiles in John 12 are drawn to Jesus rather than the temple.”

The Isaiah passage addresses those who are by ritual definition excluded from Temple worship – the eunuchs and the foreigners. In the fulfillment of Israel, the eunuchs will not longer be “dry trees.” Instead, they will receive honor that exceeds that of having offspring. The foreigners will not be separated from God’s people, as they were by the wall between the Court of the Gentiles and the interior precincts of the Jerusalem Temple. Instead, the Lord will bring them [up] to God’s holy mountain.

Here we come back to the Temple Incident in John 2. We noticed that John had omitted the mention that the Temple would be “called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7). It’s not that John ignored this function of the Temple. Instead, this image is reserved for the finale of the Book of Signs. Jesus is the house of prayer for all peoples, and the coming of the Greeks finalizes that awareness for Jesus and for John’s community, so the Temple can no longer be identified as that “house.” This is also yet another reason why I think that John’s gospel is really an extended meditation on the events of Holy Week interspersed with strategic flashbacks into Jesus’ earlier ministry.

Jesus will draw all people to himself – especially the outcasts of Israel (see Isaiah 56:8). “For John, therefore,” Myers writes, “Jesus fulfills God’s promises from Isaiah 56 by gathering not only Israelites in the land, but those in the diaspora as well as gentiles; he is, indeed, bringing together the whole world (John 19).”

Myers is referring to the sign above Jesus’ cross in John, the titulus. It is only in John that the sign is written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek (John 19:20). The whole known world of the time, “all people” (John 12:32), is represented in those language groups and has been “lifted up” with him on the cross. The sign announces Jesus as “the Nazorean,” as the NRSV notes in a footnote to the verse. This designation does not mean literally, “one from Nazareth,” but rather “one set apart” or “one separated.” John does love a good pun.

The whole world has been coming to Jesus throughout John’s account. That begins with Nicodemus seeking him out at night. We see this in how Jesus describes his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. He uses images of sowing and reaping in John 4:31-38 to commend the response of the woman and her village. People flock to him for the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Now that circle of seeker has moved beyond the geographical bounds of biblical Israel and into the Diaspora.

In response to this request, Jesus declares that the time has come. “The coming of the Israelites from abroad to see Jesus,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “triggers Jesus’ certainty that the time for him to do what he was always meant to do, the activity marking the culmination of his life’s significance, has finally come” (page 212). There is, they note, a foreshadowing of this event in John 7:32-36. The religious authorities seek to arrest Jesus at that point, but it wasn’t yet time at that moment. They wonder if he will head off into the Dispersion to teach the Greeks. Instead, the Dispersion comes to him.

Here in John 12, we get John’s meditation on the revelation at Caesarea Philippi in Mark 8. In John, however, no one gets to tell Jesus who he is. Instead, Jesus is the one who tells us how it all works. In verses 23-26 we have, as N. T. Wright puts it, “a saying which resonates both with the synoptic challenges to a discipleship in which life itself is put at risk and with the Pauline analysis of the resurrection body” (Resurrection of the Son of God, page 444).

Jesus’ use of the seed metaphor here offers some prefiguring of the mechanism and meaning of the Resurrection of the body. “First,” Wright notes, “it will mean a transformation, as the seed into the plant. Second,” he continues, it is something which Jesus must undergo first, and his followers later, Third,” Wright concludes, “through this process not only will the person or people concerned be rescued from death into new life, but they will ‘bear much fruit’” (page 445).

There is an additional dimension we can note here. The NRSV translates the last part of John 12:24 as “it remains just a single grain…” The old proverb is that translators always lie. That’s a bit harsh, but it’s worth remembering. The Greek is “it remains alone.” The pronoun is an intensifier that puts the emphasis on the “seed” in the phrase. The seed is clearly Jesus, the Son of Man, who is to be glorified in his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. Bearing much fruit means producing a community of fruit-bearers. And those fruit-bearers will also not remain alone since they must follow Jesus on the path to glorification.

In a further post, we will explore what it means for Jesus to be “lifted up.” But first he must descend into the earth and die like the single grain of wheat. His life is fulfilled, glorified, in the production of the faith community. No one, therefore, can be a Christian alone. Moreover, as we may see below, no one can be fully human alone. Remaining alone, remaining self-sufficient and self-enclosed, is a kind of living death – not the abundant life Jesus promises.

This is a way to understand Jesus’ words in verse 25 – words we get in the Synoptics as well. Clinging to that self-sufficient, self-enclosed, self-absorbed life is how we in fact “lose” that life. There is no real life apart from the self-giving love we see in and receive from Jesus. Any other way of living is not abundant but rather “scarce” – a zero sum approach to the world we will examine further in a future post.

References and Resources

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

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press, 1969. See especially pages 73-86.

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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