"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 11. Jesus begins to move from death to new life (Jn 12.1-50)
11.3 The Greeks Seek to See Jesus and His Reaction (Jn 12.20-36)
This section takes up the Pharisees' ironic comment at the end of the last section and makes it not just true but the central pivot around which this gospel turns. Section 11.2 ends with a group of onlooking Pharisees commenting on Jesus' entry into Jerusalem for Passover by saying that the whole world has run after him. This is of course absurd, at least on its face. As I have pointed out earlier, any large-scale demonstration of popular enthusiasm for Jesus by the festival crowds would have led to his being identified as a revolutionary danger by the Romans sooner than in fact he was. But among those who have come to Jerusalem are Greeks, and their desire to see Jesus is what drives the present section.
Return to the opening menu.
Comments on Selected Verses
These are not necessarily people from Greece, nor are they likely to be Greek-speaking Jews from the Diaspora. Given the intensity of Jesus' reaction to their coming and the position of this section immediately after the Pharisees' remark, the most probable interpretation is that these are Gentile Greek speakers. If a group of Gentiles (who can be regarded as representative of the whole) seeks Jesus out, then the whole world, made up of Jews, Samaritans, and Gentile, has indeed gone after him.
It does not pose a problem that John supposed that Gentiles may have wanted to come to the Passover festival; such persons would be God-fearers, Gentiles who were attracted to Judaism but not willing to take the final step of conversion. Some commentators have speculated that these Greeks may be Greek-speaking Gentiles from the region of Galilee, for example, from the Decapolis. If so they would likely have been familiar with Jesus' name and even his ministry, and might even have been aware that some of his disciples were from Bethsaida, in their district. In any case, they seek out one of the disciples with a Greek name to make their request. See Carson 1991 pp 436-7 for a full discussion of these possibilities.
Philip apparently did not know how to respond to the Greeks' request, so he discussed it with Andrew, another disciple with a Greek name from Bethsaida, and eventually they both went to Jesus. We don't know what happened next as far as the Greeks were concerned. Their actual meeting with Jesus was not important to John and so he does not narrate the outcome of their request. The fact that they made it is what mattered in John's eyes. So we cannot say what in the end happened to these Greeks. I would like to think that during this Passover week Jesus made time to talk with them, but we just do not have any information.
Over the course of the gospel John refers, or shows Jesus referring to, the concept of "the hour" eight times: Jn 2.4 ("my hour"); Jn 7.30, Jn 8.20, 13.1 ("his hour"); Jn 12.27, 12.28 ("this hour"); 12.23, 17.1 ("the hour"). Always before this verse, that hour has been something still in the future, a time that had not yet come. But here all that changes -- instead of Jesus saying to his mother at Cana that he cannot solve their host's problem with the wine because his hour is not yet here or the narrator telling us that Jesus was not arrested in Jerusalem because his hour had not come, now Jesus proclaims in response to the report of the Gentiles' request, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified".
Look back over the previous eleven and half chapters: he has preached and taught in Galilee and Jerusalem, he has brought good news to the Samaritans, he has healed the sick and raised the dead just like the prophets of old. And now, in Jerusalem at the Passover, a group of Gentiles want to see him. Jesus' reaction seems extraordinary until we remember his interest in and identification with the teachings of Isaiah, who not only taught about the figure of the Suffering Servant but also about the day in which the nations would join God's people to worship on God's holy mountain, that is, Zion, Jerusalem itself. Earlier Jesus had told the Samaritan woman, 'the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth', marking the tension between 'now' and 'not yet' that is often present when he speaks of the reign of God during his earthly life and speaking to one poised somewhere between the Jews and the Gentiles. But now, hearing from Andrew and Philip about the Greeks, Jesus is waiting no longer: "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified."
Yet "this hour" is clearly the hour of his death, a death that troubles him to his very soul. But it is an hour he accepts as the result and fruition of everything he has done to that point. It was for this hour, Jesus says, that I came. It is this acceptance, which in the evangelist's account seems to be the result of a long process of thought and prayer, that makes him able to face what he knows is coming with the equanimity we see in the Farewell Discourses that make up so much of John's account of the last supper. Jesus is at the beginning of a terrible and painful ordeal, but it is an ordeal that ends in glory at the Father's side. And it is an ordeal that will enable Jesus to complete the task of which the prologue also speaks -- when I am lifted up from the earth, he says to Andrew and Philip and the crowd of bystanders, I will draw all people to myself.
We must not forget that there also still remains an hour to come. "This hour" (representing the fulfilment of Jesus' sending by the Father) is closely related to another hour, to which Jesus refers in Jn 4.21, 4.23, 5.25, 5.28, 16.2, 16.4, 16.25, 16.23. This is a final hour, an eschatological one, that is, one that is part of the end times that will follow Jesus' glorification at some unknown time. Yet in John's vision this hour simultaneously exists and yet is still to come: 'the hour is coming and is now here' he says to the Samaritan woman in Jn 4.23. This quality of 'now' and 'not yet' is also evident when Jesus speaks of the reign of God in the other Gospels: the reign of God is near and yet here. We are familiar with those end times from the other three gospels, which recorded Jesus' words about them in what is called the "Olivet discourse" in Mark 13.1-37, Matthew 21.1-44, and Luke 21.5-26. John discusses this hour in more detail in the discussion of judgement in Jn 5.19-30, especially vv24-9.
Jesus confirms the transformative nature of his hour and all that it entails with an organic parable, that of the seed that dies so as to sprout into new life. This parable is juxtaposed with two other parables (or proverbs), the sayings in v25 and v 26 which are clearly supposed to illuminate it. Parables involving seeds are common among those in the synoptic gospels - for example, the Parable of the Sower and the Seed (Mark 4.1-9 || Matthew 13.1-9, Luke 8.4-8), the Parable of the Seed Growing By Itself (Mark 4.26-9), and the Parable of the Mustard Seed (Mark 4.30-2 || Matthew 13.31-2, Luke 13.18-19). But as Brown pointed out (Brown 1966 pp 471-3) none is quite like this Parable of the Seed that Dies. The idea of a seed growing and bearing much fruit is common to all three of those parables as well as to this Parable of the Seed that Dies. However the emphasis on the death of the seed is unique to John's parable.
It is unusual for John to report a parable of Jesus, especially one that is so agricultural as this one; as we have observed before, John prefers sayings that use even more basic images, such as light and darkness or water. Clearly John thinks this idea of the death of the seed is of prime importance both to have remembered it and to have put it here at the turning point of his gospel. For this parable answers the question, Why must Jesus, the Messiah and Son of God, die to complete his work on earth? The death of the seed is required if it is to bear much fruit, if it is to yield growth. So, according to the logic of this parable, Jesus must die in order to bear much fruit, that is, to bring it about that those who put their trust in him have everlasting life (Jn 3.14-15) and to give them the ability of become children of God (John 1.12-13)
The two following sayings shed further light on this idea of bearing fruit through sacrifice and death. In v25 Jesus speaks a parable with many parallels in other gospels. "Anyone that loves their life destroys (or loses) it and anyone that hates their life in this world keeps it for eternal life." Here the paradox of the Parable of the Seed that Dies is looked at from another angle. The person who hangs onto earthly life is the one who is deprived of life; the one who rejects this earthly life keeps hold of eternal life. Or to put it another way, to have eternal life (such as Jesus had already talked about with Nicodemos and the Samaraitan woman and elsewhere), it is important not to cling to earthly life. The one who lives eternally is averse to this life. The seed must die but in light of this saying we could say that the seed must be willing to die.
The seed, of course, is Jesus. But what about the one who hates his life on earth and keeps possession of eternal life? We have changed focus to include those who trust in Jesus and follow him. In v26 there is an even greater emphasis on those who serve the Son: "If anyone would serve me, let them follow me, and wherever I am, there also shall my servant be. If anyone should serve me, the Father will honour them." We have learned from the previous two parables that the one who trusts in the Son and Messiah must be willing to lose their life in order to gain a better one, an eternal one. Here we learn another dimension of this trust: the one who trusts in Jesus must become a servant and a follower, that is, an imitator of Jesus. Thus it is that the servant of Jesus will follow to wherever Jesus himself, the Son, is, sharing if need be in his death. In this way, and only in this way, Jesus' followers will also bear much fruit and be honoured by the Father.
This is reminiscent of the injunction in Mark 8.34 to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him: the one who follows Jesus must of necessity be ready to take up their own cross, as Jesus took up his.1 Shortly, at the last supper, the disciples will learn just what this serving and following will be like. Here they learn that, just as the Father will glorify the Son now that his hour has come, so the Father will honour a true follower of the Son. The Farewell Discourse at the last supper will clarify this too. For now what Jesus has made clear that his hour is at hand and that an integral part of his glorification is his earthly death which, like that of the seed, will result in much fruit.
Instead of the usual interpretation of these words as part of a series of rhetorical questions, 'Now my soul is troubled and what shall I say? Shall I say, "Father, save me from this hour"? No! It was because of this that I came to this hour.', Carson takes them as a true prayer for deliverance, like Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane (see Carson 1991 p 440). If, Carson argues, the question is rhetorical, purely hypothetical, that fatally detracts from the reality of Jesus' trouble: if he can so readily dismiss the question, how is that his soul is troubled? "After the deliberative question what shall I say? it seems better to take the next words as a positive prayer: Father, save me from this hour! Now Jesus' agony is fully revealed. This prayer is entirely analogous to Gethsemane's 'Take this cup from me' (Mk 14.36)." In fact, I think, it could be argued that these verses are only analogous to Gethsemane if the words are a positive prayer.
To me his argument is convincing, and shows John once again firmly centring Jesus' humanity before our sight. Just as this Messiah is also a man who gets hot and thirsty on the road, or becomes angry in the face of ad hominem attacks, so he is a man who sees clearly what he must do and yet also wants to be delivered by the Father who sent him. As in the Garden, however, Jesus accepts his mission anew and prays instead for the Father to glorify his name.
How is the Father to glorify his name? We know that the glorification of the Son is connected with his being lifted up, that is, with his crucifixion and the effects that it will have. The context of this verse, especially vv31-2, suggests that glorifying the Father's name is also connected with the lifting up of the Son. If it is correct that glorifying the Father and his name and glorifying the Son are closely connected, then the voice from heaven may perhaps refer to the birth of the Word into the world as a human being when it speaks of glorifying the Father's name in the past and look ahead to the Resurrection when it speaks of glorifying the Father's name in the future. Brown 1966 pp 475-6 argues that Jesus' petition is a prayer for the Father to carry out his plan, "for the name that the Father has entrusted to Jesus (xvii 11, 12) can only be glorified when its bearer is glorified through death, resurrection, and ascension".
This is the only occasion in the gospel where a heavenly voice speaks in affirmation of Jesus. John does not narrate either the baptism of Jesus or the transfiguration, occasions of such voices in the synoptic gospels. The crowd do not understand the words but take it as a miraculous answer to Jesus' petition, either in the form of a thunderclap or of an angelic voice. So Jesus tells them that the affirmation is for their benefit and not for his own: Jesus knows the Father will glorify his name in him: it is the crowd that needs assurance.
Jesus here returns to exactly what this moment, this hour in the terminology of the evangelist, means: the hour of judgment has arrived. Jesus had earlier rejected the role of judge for himself, at least in this world, saying only that his coming meant a moment of decision, in which people had to chose either the dark of night or the light of day (see Jn 3.18-21 and the relevant discussion). The Son will act as judge at the final judgment as the Father's designated authority (Jn 5.24-30), but that hour has not yet come. So we are not told who provides the judgment of the world here, although one might guess it is either the Father, or the Son by virtue of his coming to this point of fulfilment, when the Gentiles seek him out. Part of that judgment is that the ruler of this world (that is, Satan) will be driven out.
This mention of the ruler of this world is important in another way. The two occurrences of "kosmos" ("world") in this verse reflect the tension between the word as a reference to the created order pure and simple and as a reference to an order that is opposed to the Father (and hence the Son) because its ruler is Satan, the Adversary. If it is true that John the evangelist was interested in the effect of his gospel on readers of Mark, then this makes an interesting comparison between the two gospels: Mark shows a ministry focussing on exorcism, in which demons are cast out of the sick and the suffering, and John shows a ministry whose culmination is the casting out of Satan from the whole world. (See Appendix 4 for a discussion of this passage in the context of the other "Satan" references
Jesus' next words contain the final reference to his being lifted up, ie, on the Cross, where he can draw all people to himself - in addition to these verses, the references to being lifted up come in Jn 3.14-15 and Jn 8.28. The first of these predictions of the passion (in Jn 3.14-15) is the only one to refer explicitly to the story of the brazen serpent in Numbers 21, but that allusion would no doubt be recalled by the careful reader of Jn 8.28 and these verses as well. This prediction likely also contains a reference to Isaiah 52.12: "See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high." The Servant Songs, and this fourth Song in particular, appear to have been an important part of Jesus' self-understanding, and the early Christian community looked to them (among other passages from the First Testment) to inform their understanding of Jesus' saving work:
Though quotations from Isaiah 53 are not numerous in the NT, allusions to the passage are deeply embedded in the work of all the principal NT writers as well as the early fathers, particularly 1 Clement and Barbabas. From this fact it is certain that the interpretation of Isaiah 53 as referring to Jesus belongs to the earliest thought of the primitive Church. It is highly probable, in fact, that this conception was inherited from Jesus himself. (Litwak 1983 p 387)
The bystanders who speak here are not just an anonymous crowd of festival-goers, in Jerusalem for Passover. Rather they show familiarity with and knowledge of Jesus' teachings. They recognise the parallels between his previous sayings about the Son of Man being lifted up in chapters 3 and 8 and his saying here in 12.32 that he will be lifted up. But they also make a connection between Jesus, the Messiah, and this suffering Son of Man. Exactly how is unclear: had they first realised that if Jesus was both Messiah and Son of Man, those two figures must be connected? Or did they first make a connection between the suffering Servant-Son of Man figure and the Messiah, and then try to connect Jesus with them in turn?
In any case they are confused by what they have heard and understood from Jesus and what they already know or have heard about the Messiah: if the Messiah is to remain forever (a teaching derived from Scripture, likely especially Ps 89.36), then how can Jesus say that the Son of Man must be lifted up (that is, die, and in a particularly shameful way, as the Servant did)? They must have misunderstood who or what the Son of Man is, and so they ask Jesus for clarification: "Just who is this 'Son of Man'?"
Jesus doesn't answer the question the crowd poses to him. Why does he not answer? We can’t be sure but he leaves them to work it out for themselves. What they seem not to have understood in his sayings about being lifted up is that the "lifting up" does not just encompass his death on a cross. It also includes his return to the Father who sent him. The Son of Man came down from heaven and will go up into heaven again, in his Resurrection. It is because of this that the Messiah/Son of Man can remain forever and also be lifted up.
But he does not spell out that connection for them. Instead he leaves them with a parable about the light, similar to his words to his disciples in Jn 11.9-10 (see the discussion here. Clearly here as often in this gospel the light represents Jesus: it will be in them for a short time, just as he will be lifted up soon. And during that time they should walk as though they have the light, so that the darkness won't take hold of them, won't get them. The person walking in darkness doesn't know where they are going, so while you have light to walk in, trust in it, so that you may become children of light. This may not be an explicit answer to the question they have asked, but it is an explicit invitation to a relationship with the light and to reject the darkness. Putting one's trust in light seems to be more important than understanding all the details of the Father's plan.
Jesus ends this extended teaching by withdrawing and hiding from the crowd - prossibly in Bethany. But it is not his final public teaching - that is to come shortly after.
Return to the opening menu.
1 It is surely no coincidence that in Mark this saying about taking up one's cross is closely followed by Mark's version of the saying about losing one's life to save it in Mark 8.35.