John 12:12-36

May 13, 2001
Robert B. Ives, Ph.D., Pastor

The Grantham Church

John 12:12-36

There are two incidents in these paragraphs we are looking at today: there is the time Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey at Passover, about 30 AD, and there is the discussion with the crowds that followed his ride. That discussion was about his impending death but also about the new principle by which God’s kingdom works.

The unanswered question which hangs in the air over both of these incidents is, who is Jesus? There have been people like Bob Dylan who tried to hide his private life, or like Alan Ginsburg, who lied about it, or like Woody Allen who periodically reinvents it.

Jesus told people who He was, but what He said was so different from what people expected or from what they could grasp, that many never understood who He was. The ones who did understand turned the world upside down.

Jesus rides into Jerusalem. Here’s the king of Israel, the crowd says. He’s riding on a donkey, whoops, maybe he’s not the king of Israel. Isn’t he supposed to be riding on a war horse? In spite of that little detail, all the nationalistic fervor of the Jews is roused by Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem this Passover. Sure there is a death plan against him. (11:53) But if people had to vote, all those who had been healed by Him, or seen Him heal others; all those who had heard Him teach about God; all those who had been fed by Him would have voted for Jesus as the mostly likely of all the choices to be the Messiah. There were tens of thousands of these people.

The disciples themselves were the people closest to Jesus and the most likely to understand what is going on, but they do not understand. They do not make a connection to the Old Testament passages from Zechariah about the Messiah coming on a donkey. The Greek word in verse 16 doesn’t really mean “realize”, it means “remember”. The disciples didn’t remember. One reason is they shared the nationalistic fervor about Jesus, and that fervor got in the way of their seeing what the Old Testament said. What they should have been doing is acclaiming Jesus as the Lord their God come among them like Zechariah 9:16 prophecies. In the Old Testament even kings rode donkeys. When Solomon was taken to Gihon and proclaimed king, he rode on a donkey. (Specifically, the passage says, a mule.)

When the Pharisees see what is happening, they criticize other members of the group, the way members of congress will say, well, your Republican law doesn’t work, or your Democratic legislation is not solving the problem. “See,” the Pharisees say in verse 19, “what you are doing is not helping.”

In verse 20 the scene shifts. Now remember, all this time, Jesus is under a death threat. The Pharisees are trying to decide the best time to arrest and try Him. In verse 20, some of the non-Jews who came up to Jerusalem for Passover ask to see Jesus.

In the first century numbers of non-Jews were attracted to Judaism. Why? Well, Judaism had high moral standards, in marked contrast to Greek and Roman morals. Some were attracted to the simplicity of its theology - one God - compared with the multiple deities of the Greeks and Romans. Some of these non-Jews knew about Jesus’ miracles. Others would have heard Him teach. They want to see Jesus for themselves. John doesn’t tell us whether Jesus talked with them or not. What we are told is that this was a time of change. Jesus’ hour has come.

Jesus says in verse 23, “the hour has come.” Throughout John’s Gospel we get explanations like, “but they did not seize him, for his time had not yet come.” Or, that Jesus did not want to do anything about the wine shortage in Cana because His time had not yet come. But now His time has come. It may be related to the request of the Greeks, here are Gentiles coming to the kingdom, or it may simply be the whole timing of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem for the Passover and his death. That is what Jesus’ words make me think. He may not talk with the Greeks. He may ignore them, but He talks about His approaching death on the cross.

When Jesus talks about His death, He talks about a principle of the kingdom of God that affects you and me in our lives. In this world we need to hate our lives. What it means to hate your life is not that you despise life, but that you are careful about what you are attached to. Jesus means that His followers must be so devoted to Him that nothing else, even their lives, can distract them from it. Jesus Himself will face the test of this principle of His kingdom in a couple of days, for He will be given a choice about autonomy or submission, the same choice Adam and Eve had. The same we have.

When Frodo, hobbit from the Shire, comes through many dangers to Mt. Doom in Mordor where he is to destroy the Ring of Power made by Sauron the Great, he puts the ring on and says, “I choose not to do the thing for which I came.” Why does Frodo do this? Because the evil desire of the power of the ring is so strong.

When Robert Mugabe came to the end of his legal terms as president of Zimbabwe, why does he want to change the constitution and remain president? Because there is power when you are president, and when a person leaves the presidency, he becomes nothing. Jesus calls people to reject the way of power and live in light of a new principle, the principle of God’s kingdom. That principle is to give your life for others. In verse 27 Jesus Himself is troubled by the implications of living that way. How can that be?

Because when Jesus became flesh, He did not empty Himself of His divine attributes. We need to understand what Philippians 2 means. As a man Jesus’ divine attributes work within the confines of a true humanity. This is like playing a Mozart symphony on a kazoo.

What we see in Jesus at this very point is something we might take heart from. Temptation itself is not a sin. Jesus is tempted but he does not sin because He doesn’t give in to temptation.

What human death says is that there is nothing in our lives which finally is fit to endure to eternity. When we die, we die to a false self, one that has betrayed us many times. But it is hard to admit that. By contrast, when Jesus died, He had to give up living in union with God and He had to take on our alienation and the consequences of our rebellion. What Jesus says about this in verse 28 is - “Father, glorify your name.” He’s willing to do it.

And in response to what Jesus says, verse 28, there is a voice from heaven.
Notice that there is a division over what happens at this point. John tells us that the voice, which he himself hears, says, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” But among people in the crowd, some said there was thunder and others said an angel spoke, but no one else understood what God said.

The crowds and the religious leaders had never heard God speak, according to John 5:37b. But God spoke to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to David and to the prophets, but in the first century no one had heard Him speak. And when God does speak here, some heard noise, others heard something mysterious, even spiritual, but they couldn’t understand what the words were. Now what is going on?

Remember when Jesus told the crowd the story about the rich man and Dives, the beggar at his gate? Dives dies and goes to heaven and the rich man dies and goes to hell and from hell he cries out to God to send an angel to speak to his family so they don’t come down to this torment. And God answers, if they don’t listen to the Scriptures, they won’t listen to an angel, or to God. That’s exactly what happens here. Jesus was God and He had spoken to the people for years and many of them hadn’t listened. If they didn’t listen to Jesus, they aren’t going to hear a voice from heaven. Any more than we will.

Well, what does Jesus mean when He says, this voice is for your benefit? Verse 30. They don’t understand it, how can it be for their benefit? Ah, what Jesus wants them to realize is that something is missing in their lives and that is the reason they don’t understand the voice. Perhaps they will ask, what does this mean? But they aren’t merely missing the meaning of the heavenly words, they are also missing the meaning of one of the most important events in world history that they are involved in. Jesus is about to redeem the world, and they don’t understand at all. Have you ever been in that situation? Something that is changing life is going on around you and you don’t recognize it.

There is an ambiguity to everything God does in this world and that ambiguity tests our hearts.

Now let me review what Jesus says as He speaks to the crowds right after the entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He speaks about a kernel of wheat falling into the ground and dying. In fact, if it doesn’t die, there is no yield. Then He talks about how when a man does not give priority to his own life in this world, he will have eternal life. And now here in verse 32, He speaks about how He Himself will be lifted up.

The crowd tries to make sense of all this by connecting it to what they know. That is usually a good learning procedure. Here they connect what Jesus says to the law. Throughout Jesus’ life the law has been a stumbling block for those who meet Jesus. The Pharisees tried to use it against Jesus. The crowds can’t make a distinction between what the law actually says and what the Jewish targums teach.

Their question really is, how can people believe in a dead Messiah? And frankly, they don’t know. Kids, when they have their hearts set on eating at McDonalds, are not likely to think that the circular dining room at the Hershey Hotel is a better deal. That’s the problem the crowd around Jesus has.

How does Jesus respond to that? Jesus responds in a way that is not likely to make things more understandable. Beginning in verse 30 Jesus talks about what His death will do for them.

1. Jesus’s death will bring judgment on them. Here were people who claim to be religious, but when God Himself comes among them, they kill Him.

2. Jesus is the representative of God’s rebellious people. Let me ask a question. How do you feel about Nathan Chambers? Nathan Chambers is the primary defense lawyer for Timothy McVeigh. Jesus represents you like Nathan Chambers represents Timothy McVeigh. You say, but I’m not like Timothy McVeigh. Oh, is that so? How can you possibly like someone who defends what McVeigh did? But what Jesus does is He defends us who are filled with sin and who despise God. The Bible tells us that God is love. Love is laying down your life for someone, so on the cross, as His Son dies for us, God’s heart is revealed.

3. Jesus’ death drives out the prince of this world. To the hour of Jesus’ death the whole world is under the control of the evil one. (1 John 5:19) But in Revelation 11:15 the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ and that change begins at the cross.

4. Jesus’ death lifts Him up, an expression with a double meaning. It refers to being lifted up on the cross, as verse 33; and it means being lifted up in exaltation. To die for us is the glory of Jesus. How strange that should be so.

5. Jesus’ death will draw people to Him. And from all over the world people have come to Jesus. They come believing. They come to turn their lives over to Him. They come knowing He had to die for them or they were lost.

The discussion with the crowd ends with their asking once again, who is Jesus? (verse 34) And Jesus, who has answered that question in many ways, does not answer it here. The explanation of His death is the last thing Jesus will say to the crowds. For the rest of the Gospel, Jesus speaks to His disciples or He remains without speaking.

What a short-lived triumph that donkey ride was. But Jesus, not overwhelmed by the temporary cheers of people, talks to people about His death, not His kingship. Only they are related, for when Jesus is lifted up He comes to the hour of His glory, and our salvation.