John 12:37-50

May 20, 2001


Robert B. Ives, Ph.D., Pastor

The Grantham Church
John 12:37-50

I was reading this week the record of a discussion from a book titled, Socrates’ Café.

“I agree with Socrates that ’the unexamined life is not worth living’.”

A wide-eyed and winsome woman, clutching a cell phone in one hand asks, “What does he mean, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’?”

“What do you think he means?”

“I have no idea. I’ve spent years overexamining my life, going to one psychotherapist after another. I think it might’ve been better if I’d never started examining my life in the first place. All the years in psychotherapy have not helped me live a better life today.”

A dour, burly man says, “I think Socrates was talking specifically about the philosophically examined life.”

“What is the philosophically examined life?”

A soft-spoken man with tired brown eyes and long, white hair tied in a ponytail says, “It’s a life where you are always trying to answer the question, ‘Who am I’?”

“Well,” says Christopher Phillips, the organizer of the discussion, “I for one can say that examining your life does not necessarily make for a more meaningful life today. After examining my life, I decided it was not worth living.”

That discussion went on for a couple of hours in the coffee shop of a Borders bookstore in Wayne, New Jersey.

Do you know that around Jesus discussions like that went on all the time. In fact, though Socrates is reputed to have lived in the 5th century BC, his thought was still influential in the Mediterranean world of Jesus’ day, and his method, in those days before television and computers, of having a group of learners around a teacher, was also Jesus’ method. This is a method which still works today. Socrates had a group of friends around him who looked up to him as a teacher, who asked him questions, whose minds grew as they learned to think.

But Jesus had clustered about him not only a group of disciples, but also crowds of people, learned and unlearned, women and men. Jesus’ own, close disciples were not particularly scholarly people, with the exception of Judas and John. The crowds did not always treat Jesus with the respect Socrates had as a teacher. In fact, they were downright hostile at times. And further, Jesus’ goal was not like that of Socrates, to help people think about the questions which govern life. Jesus’ goal was to change the level at which people lived life by bringing people in the here and now into God’s kingdom.

At this point in Jesus’ life that is recorded at the end of John 12, Jesus has been teaching and healing and startling people for nearly three years. When in verse 36 Jesus leaves the crowd, he won’t have any more Jesus’ cafés with them. Beginning in chapter 13, he, like Socrates, will have around him only his close disciples. But in the last paragraphs of chapter 12 John gives us a summary of Jesus’ life and teaching to this point.

In verses 37- 41 John explains why there was so much antipathy toward Jesus by drawing parallels between Jesus’ life and the life of a prophet named Isaiah.

Then in verses 44-50 John cites Jesus’ own summary of what he taught about faith, judgment and eternal life.

Perhaps it puzzles you that when God himself comes to earth as a man, and lived and taught and healed and fed people as Jesus did, there would be so much resentment and opposition to him. John himself is rather blunt about the reasons in 3:20, “they refused to come to the light for fear their evil deeds would be exposed.” Why did some find it so hard to believe that what Jesus was saying and doing was good stuff? Because something was wrong in them that they didn’t want to deal with. Of course, there were those who became followers of Jesus. In the first century the church grew at exponential rates. So why did Jesus stir up so much opposition? Here is how John answers that question.

1. John draws some parallels between the life of the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, and the life of Jesus. Both of their lives seem fruitless because both are rejected and killed and their teaching ignored by the national leaders and many of the people. Jesus repeats the life described in Isaiah 52:13-53:12. And that is part of the problem. To find God in one who has no beauty or majesty, who is despised and rejected, that strains the imagination of people. And just as the revelation of the arm of the Lord in Isaiah 52:15- 53:1 produces incredulity in people, so the glory of the Lord revealed in Jesus produced unbelief.

2. The second parallel John draws between Isaiah and Jesus in verse 40 is harder. In Isaiah 6:10 God gives Isaiah a charge to speak to people who won’t listen. They won’t listen. Isaiah says, because God has made them deaf. Why does God give such a charge - the same one he gives his Son? God has a purpose that is being worked out in how people respond to a) the teaching of Isaiah and b) the teaching of Jesus. God does two things: a) In grace God supports the faith of those who believe Jesus and b) In justice God condemns those who choose not to believe Jesus. Theologically God blinds people who have refused to see. And that’s the hard point. But my reading of it is that God’s blinding follows, it does not precede, people’s own unwillingness to see.

John 12:42 adds another kink to the story. Many among the Jewish leaders believed in Jesus but since that belief would have meant expulsion from the synagogue and thus from the religious and cultural life of the nation, they do not confess their faith. So what do they believe about Jesus that they would be caught in the quandary of doing nothing public about it? The answer is what would have commended them to Socrates. They see the justice and rightness in what Jesus taught. But what Jesus taught demands something Socrates did not always insist upon, that people needed to live the moral implications of that teaching. And these Jewish leaders were unwilling to do that.

I read an article in Monday’s New York Times about Egypt. If in Egypt an Egyptian man marries a woman from some other country, Syria, for example, their children lose the right to attend Egyptian schools. They cannot obtain passports and they are unable to get a job in Egypt. If one is a Christian in Egypt, all of this is true and your children and you are persecuted, perhaps enslaved.

You might imagine that middle eastern Christians would be careful about openly practicing their faith. I met a woman this spring who described how Greek children on Crete, during the Ottoman Turkish rule, at risk to their lives, would go under cover of darkness to the crypt in the basement of an abandoned Greek Orthodox Church to be taught about Christianity. It is hard in the middle East to be a believer in Jesus and the human tendency in those circumstances is to be cautious. That’s what I would do.

This is a difficult issue. Because we live in the relative security of America, it is hard to feel how difficult is the choice of a Jewish leader to publically confess his faith. But two things come into play as I read the Gospels. 1. We are saved by grace, not works. 2. But we are not saved without works because salvation is a matter of life and relationships which means salvation is more than intellectual assent and more than an emotional experience. Salvation is, to use the technical theological term, aretological, that is, salvation has moral implications.

I was walking with a friend one day this week. We talked about how some people call themselves Christians, but don’t live like it. We both know people like that. And I referred to verses 42 and 43 because I’d been working on them for the sermon. He said, the thing that turned me around in my life was the verse (it’s in Mark 8:38) “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his father’s glory.” And I knew I wasn’t willing to speak about Jesus to people I worked with.

So it is that when we come to verse 44 where Jesus gives his own summary of his Gospel. He speaks of three matters:

1. Jesus speaks of his oneness with the Father, verse 44.

2. Jesus speaks of the salvation he brought, and he uses light as the image of this, verse 46. The darkness of the world is a moral darkness and is the result of its alienation from God. I remember a comment Ted Turner made a couple of months ago, “If there were only 10 commandments, why does the one about adultery have to be one of them? And the answer is, I suppose, “because, Mr. Turner, that’s the one you need in your life.”

3. Jesus speaks of two kinds of lack of response to him and what he teaches. First, in verses 42 and 43, he speaks about those who hear and respond to what he teaches, but for whom what he says makes no difference in their lives. Secondly, in verse 48, Jesus speaks about those who bluntly dismiss what he says. Their condemnation on the day of judgment begins with their rejection of what Jesus says.

Now as you can see, all this puts matters in quite a different category from the intellectual discussion with Socrates. There are far greater implications, and that is because of who Jesus is, as compared with Socrates. Jesus is God and God stands on one side of moral battles of this world.

Here is a summary now of these paragraphs. Verses 37-41 emphasize what Jesus did -“Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence....” Then, verses 44-50 emphasize what Jesus said. He said what is consistent with the old prophetic message from God to the prophet Isaiah. Jesus spoke God’s words as had Isaiah before him.

To show how ancient this problem of rejecting God’s actions and words is, let us look briefly what Moses said to Israel in Deuteronomy 29 700 years before Isaiah. Moses speaks there of how God delivered Israel from Egypt after all the plagues and how he took them through the Red Sea and then in verses 3 and 4 Moses says to the Israelites, “With your own eyes you saw those great trials, those miraculous signs and great wonders. But to this day the Lord has not given you a mind that understands or eyes that see or ears that hear.”

If you want a question to ask yourself and test yourself in this matter, it is this. With all that you have seen about Christianity and with all that you have heard of Jesus, what have you done about Jesus?

Then in Deuteronomy 18 there is a prophesy which has long been believed to point to Jesus. They are words the Lord spoke to Moses, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. If anyone does not listen to my words that this prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account.”

And that’s it, that’s the end of what Jesus taught openly. I suppose it was daring that Jesus allowed so many outsiders into that circle around him. They listened with frowns on their faces and they did not want to be counted as his disciples. It is from them that all the problems come. If Jesus had simply taught 12 men in a quiet academy in Galilee, he may have lived a long and fruitful life. But it would have been another Satanic temptation, because it would have been something different from what the Father wanted. Moses and Isaiah show us the same situation. They were obedient to speak God’s words, unpopular though they were. And they suffered for their faith. Not a lot changes over hundreds and thousands of years of time. Isn’t the same thing true today?

What are you doing about Jesus in your life?