Text Study on John 12:20-33 (Pt. 3); 5 Lent B 2021

Part Three: Lifted Up

I must confess that for most of my adult life, I didn’t care much for John’s gospel. All of that “you in me and me in you” stuff in the High Priestly Prayer. Doubting Thomas and “the truth shall make you free” every blessed year. Six long, dull weeks of the Bread of Life discourse every three years when there was plenty of Mark on which to drill down in detail. No parables to speak of. Long, long discourses in which you couldn’t even tell where to put the quotation marks. Preaching on John was like preaching on another’s sermons – a redundant exercise in mostly missing the point.

Give me Mark and his “immediately” any day of the week and twice on Sundays, thank you very much. I tried to schedule vacation and continuing education times during the Bread of Life discourse to decrease my frustration.

In these last days, I have had a change of heart. I have come to see John’s Gospel as the inexhaustible treasure and indispensable companion to the Synoptics that it is. So, what changed? Well, me, of course.

Photo by Akil Mazumder on Pexels.com

First, when I heard Father John Behr note that John’s gospel begins where the Synoptics end, something clicked in my theological brain. I could see John as a deep commentary and reflection on the Jesus story as told in the Synoptics rather than an idiosyncratic competitor with them. As I began to experience John’s gospel as a subtle and sophisticated meditation on Holy Week as the lens through which to view all of Jesus’ ministry, the power of the gospel began to take hold of me.

Second, when I came to a deeper understanding of the doctrine of theosis, as taught in the Eastern church, John’s gospel made even more sense to me. St. Athanasius suggests that the goal of the Incarnation is our divinization. The Word became human so that humans might become divine. For now, let me say that reading John through the lens of that doctrine and letting John explicate that doctrine has made a profound difference in my reading of John’s gospel and my articulation of the Christian journey. Learning that this doctrine is found embedded in Luther’s theology has been icing on the interpretive cake (more on that in the next post).

Third, and building on the previous two notions, is the understanding in John of the nature of Incarnation as Glorification. “The hour has come,” Jesus solemnly declares in John 12:23, “in order that the Son of Man shall be glorified.” In John, as Karoline Lewis reminds us rightly and repeatedly, Jesus’ “glorification” runs from the Crucifixion through the Resurrection and into the Ascension. Separating these three elements into distinct “stages” can produce a misreading of John’s intended message. I am grateful for this regular reminder from Dr. Lewis as a key not only to John’s gospel but to Christian theology as a whole.

Jesus’ “glorification” runs from the Crucifixion through the Resurrection and into the Ascension. This is particularly true, I think, when we reflect on John 12:32. “And I,” Jesus promises, “when I am lifted up from the earth, shall draw all people to myself” (NRSV). We should note the immediate ambiguity in this description. Jesus is “lifted up” from the ground when he is suspended on the cross to die. He is “lifted up” from the tomb at his resurrection. He is “lifted up” from the earth as he ascends to heaven.

All three “elevations” are parts of the one process of the glorification of the Son of Man. John is the master of metaphor and a shameless punster. The writer of John exploits the double meanings of the term to the fullest. Those who lift Jesus up on the cross think they are hoisting him on the executioner’s pole. In fact, John wants us to see, they are exalting him to his heavenly throne.

The “ruler of this world” has occupied a throne that must now be vacated, since Jesus is taking his rightful place on the real throne. The “ruler of this world” is therefore “driven out” by the very means that worldly powers use to drive Jesus out of the world. They think they have brought an end to his disruptive presence. Instead, they have put him in the place where he will now draw all people to himself.

We who stand on the far side of this process can see the various elements of John’s account if we are looking. This is in contrast to the response of the crowd in verse 34 who understand “lifted up” as referring to solely to death by crucifixion. In order to get the full picture, we must conduct ourselves in the light which produces understanding.

John’s gospel does not have three “passion predictions,” in the way the Synoptics do. Three times, however, Jesus declares that the Son of Man will be “lifted up.” Those declarations are in John 3:14, 8:28, and 12:32. Whether these are John’s answers to the Synoptic passion predictions is not clear or all that important. More to the point is what Jesus means by “lifting up” and what it takes to see that elevation as glorification.

In each of the three cases, what is required is the light of the world that Jesus embodies. In John 3, Nicodemus comes by night and seeks enlightenment. In John 8, we have the central affirmation of Jesus as the light of the world. And in John 12, that theme is completed with the necessity for us to walk as children of the light if we are to come to that enlightenment.

When Jesus is exalted, he declares, he will “draw” all people to himself. The verb is used in John 6:44 as well. The Judean authorities complain that Jesus is “getting above his raising” (I love puns too, by the way) by describing himself as “the bread that came down from heaven.” In response to their skepticism, Jesus urges them to stop murmuring. “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me,” he declares, “and I will raise that person up on the last day.” God draws people from the cross through the Resurrection and into the Ascension in glory.

Jesus makes it clear that we who follow him must take the path from cross to resurrection to ascension in glory as well. “When someone serves me,” Jesus declares in John 12:26, “let that one follow me, and where I am, there my servant shall be” (my translation). The scriptural vibrations in this sentence are nearly unmanageable. We who follow Jesus take on the role of “servant,” and we too come not to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45).

As we serve, we find ourselves in the place where Jesus is the “I am” – an allusion to the name God gives to Moses in Exodus – and which John uses repeatedly in the gospel to identify Jesus with God. It is in the suffering service of the cross that we will lose our life in order to sustain it for all the ages (see John 12:25). Clinging to merely human life is the path toward losing real life. It is the path away from full humanity.

In verses 27-30, we get John’s version of the Transfiguration. In John, the Transfiguration affirms Jesus’ testimony to this point and promises to carry through to the end. John’s account of the Transfiguration is changed from the Synoptic reports in much the same way as John’s account of Jesus’ baptism is developed.

Here in John 12, Jesus prays for God’s name to be glorified. The prayer is answered by the voice from heaven. John notes that the voice was not given to benefit or reassure Jesus. In John, Jesus needs no such reassurance, since he knows how all things will turn out. Instead, the response is given for the sake of the crowd.

People, however, don’t understand what they heard. Apart from a living trust in Jesus, the voice of God sounds like the thunder of doom or the whispering of angels. Jesus is the Word made flesh, and it is only through him that God’s voice becomes intelligible. The Johannine transfiguration presents the “crisis” of his coming to the this “cosmos,” as noted in verse 31. The rulers of this world “go down” as Jesus is lifted up. We should not miss those contrasting directions.

And in verses 31-36, we get the final commentary on the “lifting up” of the Son of Man. The coming of the Greeks who wish to see Jesus is a sign that in this lifting up, Jesus will draw all people to himself. Jesus concludes by taking us back to the Prologue in John 1 and some final words about the presence of the Light in the world.  In verse 35, we have direct reference to John 1:5 and the danger that the darkness might “overtake” us.

Why do the crowds now ask who the Son of Man is? We can hear echoes of Caesarea Philippi once again. When Jesus talks about being “lifted up,” the crowds are clear about his meaning. John keeps the reader up to speed by reminding us in verse 33 that “he said this to signify by what sort of death he was destined to die” (my translation).

The NRSV omits some of the teeth in this verse. The “lifting up” metaphor is a sign, and the death is not accidental but part of the path. Just as in Mark 8, the cross is “necessary.” And the grammar in John puts the emphasis on “who” does the dying rather than the way in which he dies (see Wallace, page 636-637). So, the crowd hears what Jesus says. The Son of Man is going to die, and that’s not an accident or mistake.

Here in John 12, it is not Peter who rebukes Jesus this time but rather the crowds. If Jesus is to be lifted up on the cross, then in the minds of the crowd, he cannot be the Messiah. They are also thinking in human rather than divine terms. They quote some unknown proverb about how the Messiah cannot and shall not die. Perhaps this is a connection to Elijah as a Messianic figure, but we can’t be certain of that. In any event, a crucified Messiah is not part of the understanding the crowds have of what God intends.

Myers writes in conclusion, “For John’s Gospel, therefore, it’s not enough just to come to Jesus or “want to see” him; we must have our ears unclogged and our vision corrected by the trauma that is Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. As Jesus explains, we cannot avoid darkness and death, but instead, must trust that God will bring about life. This message is perhaps even more important this year, as we’ve all endured a time of pandemic and seemingly endless death. We may not be able to avoid the darkness, but we can, like those foretold in Isaiah 56, cling to Jesus’ promise that he will light our paths toward life.”

Following Jesus means being drawn up to the cross. It means descending into the tomb. It means being drawn up toward life in the Resurrection and knowing the abundance of that life in our ongoing Ascension into glory. More on that from an interesting Lutheran perspective in the next 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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