The raising of Lazarus is the climax of the ministry of Jesus in John's mind. Scarcely has Lazarus come out of the tomb and John changes scenes to place us at a meeting of the Sanhedrin. The council approves the death sentence against Jesus, and the final Passover journey to Jerusalem occurs. Chapter 12 has a series of paragraphs that set the stage for that final Passover. Lindars notes, "Chapter 12 gives an untidy impression." As has often been the case in the fourth gospel this chapter has a better theological logic than historical flow.
John 11:45-54 unfolds the plot to kill Jesus. John 11:55-12:11 contain pre-Passover material, highlighting Mary's anointing of Jesus and a plot against Lazarus. John presents his account of the Triumphal Entry in 12:12-19. The appearance of Greeks seeking Jesus sets a discourse on sacrifice in motion in 12:20-36. 12:37-50 closes out Jesus' public ministry with another condemnation of the Jewish rejection of Jesus and a final statement of his teaching.
John 11:45-54 - The Plot to Kill Jesus
The transition from the raising of Lazarus to the Sanhedrin plot to kill Jesus is fairly abrupt. John seems to want us to understand that Jesus' gift of life to Lazarus leads to his own death. To put it another way, Jesus' proclamation that he is the resurrection and the life will now be tested by his own death. The fact that John places this decision to execute Jesus a few weeks before the Passover has caused some scholars to doubt its historical accuracy. No meeting of the Sanhedrin is described in the Synoptic gospels until two days before Passover, and the decision for the death sentence does not appear until the night of Jesus' arrest.
While it is clear that John is more interested in faith than fact his order does make sense. First of all, the Synoptic Gospels do not describe any ministry of Jesus in Judea or Jerusalem prior to his Triumphal Entry. Because of their outline they must compress all the events in Jerusalem into the final week regardless of when they happened. It is more likely that the charges and verdicts against Jesus were made over the course of several weeks and several meetings. While we cannot prove that John is completely accurate, the fact that his presentation is different than the Synoptics does not mean he is wrong. There is theological motivation for John's placement of this scene on the heels of the raising of Lazarus.
Like so many other aspects of Jesus' ministry in John's gospel the raising of Lazarus causes a debate about Jesus. Many of the Jews . . . believed in Jesus as a result of the Lazarus miracle. Others did not and began the process leading to Jesus' death. John must have had 3:18 in mind as he wrote this section: "The one who believes in him is not judged, but the one who does not believe in him has been judged already because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God." The Sanhedrin thought that they were judging and condemning Jesus. In fact, they were pronouncing judgment upon themselves.
No critic, author, or movie has the ability to actually defame Jesus. They are the ones under judgment; we can rest assured of that. Neither can we successfully reject him; we may place ourselves under judgment but we will not harm Jesus' reputation. The devastating blasphemy does not come from Jesus' opponents, but from his friends who fail to live and love from the heart of the Father.
John typically would describe the faith of some of the Jews in response to the raising of Lazarus. However, several points are significant here. The belief mentioned in verse 45 is especially important in light of verse 40. There believing holds promise of seeing the glory of God. Verse 42 makes the prayer of Jesus designed to lead to belief. And verse 25 promises that those who believe will live even if they die. The Greek construction in verse 45 literally suggests that the many Jews who had came to comfort Mary all believed.
However, verse 46 is quite clear that those Jews reporting to the Pharisees were also among the ones who had come to comfort Mary and Martha. Still, verse 48 makes it clear that the number of Jews who believed in Jesus because of the raising of Lazarus was large enough to worry the Pharisees. It seems that the large response of faith was the final trigger in the decision to kill Jesus. Church history shows a similar pattern for Jesus' followers. Persecution has only arisen when the church was growing rapidly and threatening the status quo of the governing powers. It may be that our lack of persecution is because no one in the world perceives us as any threat to a worldly perspective and life.
Verse 48 is another example of John's irony. If we leave him like this . . . the Romans will come. The Jews did not leave Jesus alone, but crucified him. In less than forty years the very thing they had feared had taken place. The Romans invaded Jerusalem and destroyed the city in AD 70. We are not quite sure that what the Sanhedrin feared is the Roman invasion. The Romans were already present in Jerusalem. The Greek literally says, "They will take away both our place and our nation." The word "place" was often used to the mean the temple. After the desecration of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanes in 168 BC the Jews were almost paranoid about losing the temple again. However, it is also possible that the Sanhedrin was concerned about losing their place of influence, leadership, and prosperity that resulted from the agreement they had with the Romans.
Verse 49 describes Caiaphas as the high priest that year. One can take these words to imply that the high priest served only one-year terms. That was not so. Caiaphas was the high priest from about A.D. 18-36. He was the son-in-law of Annas who is mentioned in John 18:13. Annas had been the high priest previously but was deposed by the Roman procurator in A.D. 15. Perhaps because of his ouster at the hands of the Romans, Annas remained very influential and was called the high priest in Acts 4:6. Most modern scholars think that John means something like, "Caiaphas was high priest in that memorable year."
Verse 50 provides another example of John's irony. Caiaphas urges that Jesus be killed rather than have the Romans destroy the nation. In historical fact, Jesus was killed, but the Romans still destroyed the Jewish state in A.D. 70. However, Caiaphas uttered a truth far more profound than he had intended. From the Christian perspective Jesus did, in fact, die for the sake of providing salvation for the people. In that sense Caiaphas prophesied - he proclaimed the truth of God.
Judaism was very accustomed to the idea of unwitting prophecy. Judaism also believed that the high priest occasionally had prophetic abilities. John carefully points out that Caiaphas did not proclaim this truth on his own; unwitting as it may have been, it came about because he was the high priest at that time. God was at work proclaiming his truth through an instrument that would have been most unlikely in the mind of John. God still is quite capable of using people we deem most unlikely to make the truth known.
John then extends the prophecy of Caiaphas about Jesus dying for the nation to include all the children of God scattered abroad. The hints of the Gentile mission were begun with the other sheep reference in John 10:16. They will become increasingly frequent in John's gospel. However, before that could happen the death of Jesus was necessary. Therefore John quickly returns to that issue.
John 11:55-12:11 - Anticipating the Passover
John has connected all of Jesus' trips to Jerusalem with major Jewish religious festivals. Passover, Tabernacles, and the Feast of Dedication all were contexts in which Jesus ministered in Jerusalem. But John 11:55-12:1 places an extraordinary emphasis on the Passover. Three times within these four verses John mentions the Passover. The result of this emphasis is to alert us that the most important visit of Jesus to Jerusalem is about to take place. The Passover originated in Israel's experience in Egypt the night before the Exodus. The first Passover was a prelude to freedom. Likewise, this Passover is a prelude to the freedom that God has appointed Jesus to bring.
The mention of purification in verse 55 serves two functions. It is an innocent historical statement. The Jews underwent a process of purification prior to the Passover. It is sometimes described as consecration; sometimes as sanctification. Exodus 19:10 describes the rationale of the process. Number 9:10 indicates that special purification was necessary for the Passover for anyone who had been on a long journey. Josephus indicates that pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for the Passover tried to arrive a week early in order to meet the need for special consecration following a long journey.
Second, the purification of Jews for the Passover is an inadequate pointer to the consecration of Jesus the night before his crucifixion. Especially John 17:19 of the high priestly prayer of Jesus shows us the consecration/sanctification of himself that Jesus underwent prior to dying as the Passover lamb that takes away the sin of the world.
The consecration of Jesus for his redemptive work is part of the role that the story of Mary anointing Jesus plays (12:1-8; see Lectionary Commentary on John 12:1-8). The placement of this story has caused much debate among critical scholars. One of the issues is the relationship of this story to somewhat similar stories in Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, and Luke 7:36-38. The stories in Matthew and Mark clearly seem to be the same incident in Jesus' life. There are several similarities between the Matthew/Mark story and John 12:1-8. Both are before the Passover, both are in Bethany, both describe the perfume as coming from pure nard, both mention a value of the perfume at three hundred denarii, and both conclude with Jesus' defense of the woman mentioning the poor being always present, leaving the woman alone, and burial.
On the basis of these similarities some argue that Matthew/Mark and John 12:1-8 are different versions of the same event. There are also some important differences. The story narrated in Matthew/Mark took place two days before the Passover, after the Triumphal Entry; John 12:1-8 took place six days before the Passover and before the Triumphal Entry. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus figure prominently in John's story and it seems that the event takes place at their house. They are not mentioned at all in the Matthew/Mark story and the house where the event occurred belongs to Simon the leper. In Matthew/Mark Jesus' head is anointed; in John Jesus' feet are anointed. The story in Luke is also at the house of a Simon, but he is a Pharisee and the event occurs during Jesus' Galilean ministry much earlier. When we remember that John 11:2 had already mentioned the anointing described in John 12:1-8 we can easily become frustrated. There are too many details that don't fit our sense of the right way to write historical records.
It is not likely that we will ever be able to solve all the complicated details of this story of Jesus' anointing. However, in the gospel of John it plays an important role. First, it is part of the consecration of Jesus for his death. In that, it contrasts with the purification that the Jews were undergoing in John 11:55. Second, it is a preparation for burial - an important aspect of Jewish culture. John especially emphasizes that the anointing points to Jesus' burial in John 12:7. Finally, it is possible that the anointing represented the anointing of Jesus as king. The very next event to be narrated in John is Jesus' Triumphal Entry as the King. These theological reasons are important motivations for the story to be placed here before the Triumphal Entry and at the beginning of John's Passion story.
John 12:12-19 - The Triumphal Entry
The Triumphal Entry story appears in all four gospels. John's account is shorter than those of the Synoptic gospels. John's account seems very much motivated by theological purposes. The Old Testament quotations in John are very important. The Synoptic accounts all lead into the cleansing of the Temple. John has already described the cleansing of the temple in chapter 2 and he does not mention it here. This heightens the theological thrust of John's account.
John's first emphasis in the Triumphal Entry is on Jesus' kingship. The Synoptic Gospels begin the story by describing Jesus' instructions to the disciples to go get the donkey. Then he rides toward Jerusalem and the crowds respond with their words of praise. John begins with the great crowd that had come to the festival. They go out from Jerusalem to meet Jesus and sing their song of praise. The opening words of their song comes from Psalm 118:25-26: Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel!
There are several fascinating aspects to John's account. First, John is the only gospel to mention the palm branches from which we get the title, Palm Sunday,' for the day of the Triumphal Entry. As nearly as scholars can tell palm trees did not grow in the mountainous region of Jerusalem. They grew in the lower elevations such as Jericho and the Jordan Valley. However, palm branches were imported to Jerusalem for the great religious festivals such as Passover and Tabernacles. Thus, John's mentioning of palm branches makes the Triumphal Entry a significant part of the Jewish festival of liberation.
Second, Psalm 118 was regularly associated with the religious festivals, especially Passover. Psalm 118 was the last part of the Passover liturgy to be sung. It was also sung every morning during the Feast of Tabernacles. Certainly in New Testament times the expression in Psalm 118:26, "he who comes in the name of the Lord," was a messianic title. Intertestamental literature connected the waving of palm branching with the coming of the Messiah. Thus it is clear that John wanted, first of all, to proclaim that Jesus was Messiah by the order in which he narrated the Triumphal Entry.
This messianic purpose is both clarified and enlarged upon by the final phrase of verse 13, even the King of Israel. At one level of meaning this simply affirms the messianic character of Jesus. After all the Messiah was to be a King. A second aspect is that John wants to emphasize the kingship of Jesus. This is clear from John 1:49 where Nathanael declares Jesus' kingship before his ministry had even begun. The turning point of Jesus' ministry is described in John 6:15 when the crowd wants to seize Jesus and make him king. The change of order of Triumphal Entry material to make Jesus' kingship the first highlight of the Triumphal Entry also shows how important that theme is to John. John's gospel deals with the title king in chapters 18 and 19 during Jesus' trials and crucifixion much more than the other gospels.
The opening word, hosanna, is also significant. Our English word is a transliteration (using English letters) of a Hebrew one-word sentence meaning, "Save us, please!" John's Greek text also transliterated hosanna from Hebrew to Greek. The word is part of Psalm 118:25a where it is part of a prayer addressed to the Lord. It is not likely that John failed to appreciate the meaning of the crowd meeting Jesus with the words of a prayer the Old Testament addressed to God. In the course of time the Hebrew meaning of hosanna was forgotten and the word simply became a Christian exclamation of praise. This is the way most of us have heard hosanna; it may be that its use in the very celebrative Triumphal Entry led to this later praise use.
John does not mention the donkey until this point, verse 14. His point in mentioning it seems to be to introduce the paraphrased scripture quotation from Zechariah 9:9, Fear not, daughter of Zion, Behold your king comes sitting on a colt of a donkey. Only John and Matthew make direct quotation from the passage in Zechariah 9:9. However, the Hebrew text does not say, "fear not." It is a call for rejoicing. Lindars argues that John has drawn the "fear not" reference from Zephaniah 3:16 and notes that Zephaniah 3:14-20 makes an excellent commentary on Zechariah 9:9 and, therefore, on John's account of the Triumphal Entry. Not only does the theme of rejoicing appear in Zephaniah 3 but also themes of salvation, restoration, the love of God, and gathering the scattered and delivering the lame appear. John's explicit quotation of Zechariah 9:9 affirms the kingship of Jesus already acknowledged in verse 13, and it brings in the additional salvation themes.
John's comment in verse 16 that the disciples did not understand these things at first, but remembered and understood after Jesus was glorified is very similar to the John 2:22. It may also indicate that it was only later that the disciples recognized the many ways Jesus "fit" the more extended themes in the context of Zechariah 9:9 and Zephaniah 3:14-20.
John draws his account of the Triumphal Entry to a close in a way unique to his gospel also. The multitude traveling with Jesus according to verse 17 bear witness to him. This is apparently a different crowd from that of verse 12 that came out to meet him. Presumably the multitude with Jesus was bearing witness to the raising of Lazarus, but it is John who emphasizes that theme of bearing witness. Verse 18 declares that it was the news of Lazarus' raising that caused the crowd of verse 12 to come out to meet him. Significantly, John calls the raising a sign.
The paragraph ends with another example of John's irony. The Pharisees are so frustrated at Jesus' popularity that they claim the world has gone after him! In terms of historical fact at that time it was a great exaggeration. But, as has often been the case, it spoke prophetically of the successful worldwide mission of Christ's church.
John 12:20-36 - The Greeks and the Coming of the Hour
The raising of Lazarus and the entry into Jerusalem clearly signal the coming climax of John's gospel. There have been abundant hints of Jesus' death. Lindars' introduction to this section clearly lays out John's purpose for these verses.
The approach of the Greeks to Jesus in verse 20 is an immediate fulfillment of the final phrase of verse 19, "the whole world has gone after him." The (Greek) word used for Greeks does not mean Greek speaking Jews, but Gentiles of Greek culture. It is possible that they were proselytes to Judaism since verse 20 indicates they were in Jerusalem for the purpose of worshipping at the feast of Passover. It is interesting that they approach Philip according to verse 21. Philip is a Greek name (meaning horse lover) and John presumes that he can speak Greek and thus present Christ to these Greek seekers. Philip had performed a similar "missionary role" in John 1:43-45. It seems as if the Greek's desire to see Jesus is ignored for when Philip (and Andrew) report the Greek request for an audience, Jesus launched into a discourse about his coming death in verses 23-28. With brief narrative interruptions the discourse continues through verse 36.
Jesus' opening statement, The hour has come, is important for several reasons. "The hour" has been an important theme throughout John (2:4; 4:21, 23; 7:30; 8:20; 12:27; 13:1; 17:1). For the first time in the gospel the hour has come. The Greek construction of the verb indicates that the critical moment has already arrived and we are continuing to live in the significance and results of that moment. It is John's clearest signal that his narrative is now moving into Jesus' death.
Verse 27 indicates both Jesus' very human fear and very strong commitment to accomplish the Father's will through his death. The word "troubled" is the same that is used in John 14:1 and 27 where the disciples are told not to be troubled.
The parable of verse 24 explains the purpose of Jesus' death. A seed that does not die cannot accomplish anything. But by its death a seed multiplies its purpose. This is a clear indication that Jesus saw his death not just to save individual souls, but also to form a community of obedient children of God. Verses 25-26 challenge would-be disciples to join Jesus in total obedience to the Father.
It is also important that the purpose of the hour is the glorifying of the Son of Man. Again, this is the clearest direct example of John associating Jesus' death with the idea of glorifying. Verse 28 reminds us of that for John glorifying the Father ['s name] and glorifying Jesus are virtually the same thing.
It is also significant that these are Jesus' first words in response to the seeking Greeks. Not only has the hour of his death come; the time for the gospel to go to the world is beginning. Jesus' Incarnation is the point in history in which God has opened the fellowship of the people of faith to all peoples. Simply by his placement John is communicating that Jesus' death will provide atonement for the Gentiles as well as for the Jews.
The final words of Jesus in this section return to some well-known themes of John. Judgment (verse 31), being lifted up (verse 32), light and darkness (verses 35-36), and believing (verse 36) all have been important in the unfolding of this gospel. Verse 32 joins the themes of being lifted up found earlier in John 3:14 and drawing men to himself found in John 6:44. The fact that Jesus speaks of drawing all persons to himself is another indication that the hour has come for the Gentiles.
The crucifixion is not just Jesus' death for our sins; it is also the end of God's focus only on the Jews and the birth of free grace for all. Thus the "you" (which is a plural - you all) of verses 35 and 36 is not just addressed to Jesus' original audience. It addressed John's readers and it addresses us today. The light is among us only a little while. There will be a time when we no longer have the opportunity to turn from our darkness to His light. We must live in the light while we can. Believe in the light, so that you might become children of the Light. The light of the world is Jesus.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you study each day ask the Lord to speak to you through His Word and for the Holy Spirit to make the Scripture alive and meaningful to you that day.
First Day: Read the notes on John 11:45-12:36. Look up the Scripture references given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that caught your attention.
2. Select a truth for which you see a specific and personal application for your own life. Describe how it would apply to you.
3. Are you walking in the light that God has provided through Christ? Ask the Lord to help you believe in him and to become a child of light.
Second Day: Read John 12:37-50. Now focus in on John 12:37-43.
1. How does John explain the fact that the Jews did not believe in Jesus?
2. Verse 38 quotes Isaiah 53:1. Read all of Isaiah 53 and jot down phrases that apply to Christ.
3. Why did many Jewish leaders not confess Jesus though they believed in him? What other spiritual failures does loving the approval of men more than the approval of God cause?
Third Day: Read John 12:37-50. Focus on John 12:44-50.
1. What common themes of the Gospel of John appear in these focus verses?
2. List the verses or phrases that show the importance of the Father in this section.
3. What benefits of accepting Christ are mentioned in these verses? Are you enjoying these benefits now? If not, what do you need to do?
Fourth Day: Read John 13:1-30. Focus in on John 13:1-11.
1. Based on your reading the context why do you think Jesus washed the disciples' feet?
2. Why do you suppose Peter did not want his feet washed? What did Peter then mean in verse 9?
3. What do you think Jesus meant in verse 10? What does it mean to be clean? Are you clean in that sense of the word?
Fifth Day: Read John 13:1-30. Now focus in on John 13:12-20.
1. What word does Jesus use to describe his washing of the disciples' feet?
2. What do you think is the significance of the titles, "Teacher" and "Lord," in verses 13-14? Why these titles instead of some others - "Prophet" and "Son of Man," for example?
3. Verse 18 quotes from Psalm 41:9. Read Psalm 41. What other phrases or verses in the Psalm apply to Jesus? Are there any verses in the Psalm that especially speak to you?
Sixth Day: Read John 13:1-30. Focus on John 13:21-30.
1. What role does the fact that Judas carried the moneybox play in the story told in these verses?
2. How do you think the disciples felt when Jesus announced that one of them would betray him? How do you feel when you fail Christ?
3. What is the significance of the phrase, "it was night," in verse 30? What are some of the "nights" you have walked into when you walked away from Christ? Have you come back to the Light?