Exploring the Gospel of John: 12

EXPLORING THE GOSPEL OF JOHN

By the Rev. Dr. Michael Petty [Fr. Michael Petty]

St. Peter’s Anglican Church [2006]

New word:  Click here for definitions:  prolepsisforeshadowingprolepsis

The Last Events of Jesus’ Public Ministry

John 12:1-50

I. The Proleptic Anointing of Jesus for Burial: 12:1-11

1. Six days before the Passover, Jesus returns to Bethany, the scene of the resurrection of Lazarus.  As we have learned (11:53), the latter event has sealed Jesus’ fate and this will be his final Passover.

2.  Mary’s action of anointing Jesus both foreshadows his death and displays the extravagant response that his self-offering calls forth.  Mary uses a huge quantity (almost a pound) of an expensive perfume to anoint Jesus.  The estimated value of this perfume is (12:5) about what an average person might earn in a year and Judas can, thus, denounce Mary’s action as a scandalous waste.  Underlining the extravagance of the act is the fact that Mary wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair.  Since Jews did not embalm their dead but rather anointed corpses with perfumes and spices, Mary effects a proleptic anointing of Jesus for burial (cf. John 19:38-42).  Mary has also proleptically kept Jesus’ final commandment that “you love one another as I have loved you” (15:12).

3.  While the text clearly labels Judas’ response to Mary’s action as hypocritical (12:6), the chief failure here is not mere dishonesty but a failure to understand the significance of what has just happened.  The devotion of Mary reflects an insight into the nature of Jesus’ departure — a departure for which Jesus will begin to prepare the disciples, in chapters 13-17.

4.  In 12:7, Jesus explicitly interprets Mary’s actions with reference to his burial. 12:8 has often been misinterpreted and taken to mean that care for the poor is not important. Actually, Jesus’ remark presupposes the continuing validity of Deuteronomy 15:11, which says that “there will never cease to be poor in the land,” which means that “you shall open wide your hand to . . . the needy and to the poor.”

5.  Jesus is under a sentence of death and now (12:10) Lazarus [also] comes under one, as well.  Ironically, it is his being brought back to life that is the cause of his death, since “on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus” (12:10). The possibility of Lazarus dying again serves to remind us that, while raised from the dead, he does not yet participate in the resurrection in its fullness, which is a resurrection to a life beyond death (cf. Romans 6:9).

II. Jesus’ Final Entry into Jerusalem: 12:12-19

1.  This scene confirms the decision of the Jewish leaders, in 11:53, and their decision to get rid of Lazarus, in 12:10-11.  In John, it is the raising of Lazarus that is the primary cause of Palm Sunday (though the actual day of Jesus’ arrival was probably Monday or Tuesday).

2.  John is the only gospel that mentions the use of palms to mark Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.  Since the time of the Maccabees (who forced the Greeks out of the Temple and began the celebration of Hanukkah or the Feast of the Dedication), palms signified victory (cf. I Maccabees 13:51).  The welcome that Jesus receives is that of a national hero.  Psalm 118:6 provides the first part of the crowd’s acclamation:  “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  “Hosanna!” (12:13 is simply a transliteration of the Hebrew: “Save us!”

3.  Jesus’ own actions make clear how he understands himself to be king.  Zechariah 9:9 provides the [slightly-altered] text for the citation, in 12:15.   In the larger context, the king mentioned here will not only restore Israel from exile but will also bring a reign of peace and justice to the whole world.

4.  12:6 makes it clear that the disciples did not understand the significance of this act, until after the resurrection.  That is to say, the disciples did not understand the nature of Jesus’ kingship, until after his death and resurrection, after which it was possible to see that the cross defined the kingship of Jesus.  This comment is an indication that John’s gospel is written [in a manner that] looks back at the events of Jesus’ life, as seen in the light of his glorification.

5.  In the other gospels, the cleansing of the Temple follows Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.  In John, however, this has already happened (2:13-22).  Uniquely, John connects the entry into Jerusalem with the raising of Lazarus in that, apparently, some of those who witnessed the event were in Jerusalem, giving testimony, and this accounts for the presence of a crowd (2:18).

III. The Hour Has Come: 12:20-36

1.  In this section, Jesus announces, for the first time, that his hour has now come.  The moment to which his life has been directed is now here. Three important things about this moment are made clear:

2. 12:23-26:  The necessity of Jesus’ death:  Just as a grain of wheat must disintegrate (“die”) into the ground, in order to bear fruit, so Jesus’ own death is necessary in order to produce “much fruit” (12:24).  In Jesus’ case, to reject death is to reject the fruitful consequences of death.  The saying in 12:25 has parallels in Mark 8:35; Matthew 16:25, 10:39; Luke 9:4, 17:33.  To “hate one’s life” is a Semitic expression for having no higher loyalty than preserving one’s life, all the time failing to realize that life is a gift from God.  Jesus’ action of laying down his life is a pattern that the disciples will follow:  God calls them to trust him in such a way that they are willing to surrender life, in the hope of receiving it back again.

3.  12:27-30:  Jesus’ struggle in the face of death:  This is John’s equivalent of Jesus’ Garden of Gethsemane experience.  What Jesus says here echoes Mark 14:34 (“My soul is sorrowful, even to death”), which echoes Psalm, 42:5-6:  [“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?”]  

While in Mark’s account, Jesus prays that this hour might pass from him and then resigns himself to God’s will (Mark 14:36), in John, Jesus makes no such request but makes it clear that “for this purpose I have come to this hour” (12:27).  Instead of a prayer for deliverance, Jesus asks that God’s name be glorified.  God’s name has been glorified, in Jesus’ signs, and it will be glorified again, in his death and resurrection.  It is important to notice that the divine voice, responding to Jesus, is not for his benefit but for that of the crowd.   Jesus does not need a response from the Father because he already knows the Father’s response.

4.  12:31-36:   The consequence of Jesus’ death:  Jesus’ death is full of irony in that, seen from a merely worldly point of view, it appears to be a defeat for him but a victory for “the ruler of this world” (12:31).  Seen from a cosmic point of view, however, things are very different, in that Jesus’ death functions like a cosmic exorcism, through which “the ruler of this world [is] cast out” (12:31) and the world is judged.  But the action of Jesus’ death is two-fold, in that Satan is driven out while people are drawn to Jesus (12:32).  This, in short, describes God’s reclamation of his creation.  12:33 makes it clear that the crucifixion is what is being designated by the metaphor of “lifted up” (12:32).  In response to the crowd’s question, “Who is this Son of Man?” (12:34), Jesus replies, in effect, “It is I.”

IV. Jesus’ Summary of His Ministry: 12: 37-50

1.  With this section, Jesus’ public work comes to a conclusion and chapters 13-17 will involve only Jesus and his disciples.

2.  It is now clear that Israel’s response to Jesus is quite mixed, since “though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him” (12:37).  But we are not to understand this reaction, the narrator says, as rendering Jesus’ claim false. Two passages from Isaiah are cited to show that Israel’s response to God’s servant, promised by Isaiah, is precisely the response given to Jesus:  12:38 cites Isaiah 53:1 and 12:40 cites Isaiah 6:10 (in a modified form).  Isaiah 6:10 makes two things clear: that Israel’s disobedience is not beyond God’s sovereignty and that there is still hope for repentance, since the hardening of hearts is not final.   Isaiah was able to see this, since he beheld God’s glory (12:41; cf. Isaiah 6:1-5).

3.  The comment in 12:42 seems to contradict 12:37 but we soon discover that this is not the case — for the belief of the “authorities” is actually a “pseudo” belief, since they do not openly confess their belief because fear hinders them. (12:42-43).

4.  Jesus’ testimony concludes with two summary statements:  First, Jesus says that judgment is a secondary consequence of his work but that the word he has spoken is the same word that God will speak at the last judgment (12:47-49).

Second, Jesus’ testimony is in complete agreement with the Father’s will and word (12:50).

Questions for Reflection

(1) The Gospels tell us about events in the life of Jesus, not merely to offer us information, but to answer two major theological questions:

(a) Who is God (God’s nature and character)? and

(b) What does it mean to follow Jesus (the nature and character of discipleship)?

What answers does this chapter offer to these questions?

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Filed under discipleship, Interpretation of Scripture, The Gospel of John, theology and doxology

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