The lectionary gospel reading for the fifth Sunday in Lent in Year B is John 12.20–33, and here we are reading the text in a strange order! There are clear indications that this passage follows on, in terms of both contexts and themes, from the first part of John 12, which describes the so-called ‘triumphal entry’ into Jerusalem—but we don’t read about that until next week (either from Mark 11 or John 12)! And the passage itself is full of apparent non-sequiturs, and several theologically-dense aphorisms or proverbial sayings of Jesus—so we have our work cut out to immerse ourselves in the text!
Both the previous passage and this one are marked by the later ‘re-membering’ of these events from a time after Jesus’ resurrection, something we have seen repeatedly in previous passages in the Fourth gospel. The disciples did not understand the events around Palm Sunday at first, but only with benefit of hindsight and reading the scriptures again (John 12.16). And Jesus’ final saying in today’s passage only makes sense by looking back from the end of the story (‘what kind of death he was going to die’ John 12.33).
The intense conflict that Jesus is facing on a human level in Jerusalem is traced by this gospel back to the raising of Lazarus in chapter 11; this is why the crowd are so intensely interested in him, and why his opponents are (temporarily) despairing. But their ironic comment sets up the opening of our passage: ‘See, the whole world has gone after him’ (John 12.19). This is the ‘world’ that was made through him, but, on the whole, did not recognise him (John 1.10); the Pharisees represent ‘his own’ who did not receive him (John 1.11). (It is worth noting two things about language in passing. The first is that kosmos here means the world of humanity, not the whole created order; this is not the place to go for arguments about the environment. Secondly, this gospel at times paints with a broad brush: it seems that ‘the Pharisees’ are bitterly opposed to Jesus as a group, but this must mean ‘some Pharisees’ or ‘many Pharisees’ since we know that Nicodemus, a ‘ruler’ of the group (John 3.1) came to be a supporter of Jesus, and we know that other Pharisees also became disciples.)
The passage itself appears to fall into three parts: the approach of the Greeks; Jesus’ response in a series of aphorisms; and the ‘voice from heaven’.
In order to demonstrate the ironic truth of the Pharisees’ observation, we now see that ‘some Greeks’ were in Jerusalem for this third Passover in the gospel narrative. The term Hellen used here doesn’t need to mean Greek nationals, nor is it the same as the Greek-speaking (ie Diaspora) Jews (Hellenistai) of Acts 6.1, but is another way of talking about gentiles. Since they have come for the Jewish feast, we should assume that they are God-fearers—those gentiles who associate themselves with Jewish belief, without actually converting as proselytes.
We were already told in John 1.44 that Philip was from Bethsaida, across the territorial border formed by the Jordan and culturally Greek, as were Andrew and Peter. Philip (‘lover of horses’) and Andrew (‘manly’) are the only ones of the Twelve with Greek names; Philip characteristically goes to others for support, Nathanael in John 1.45 and Andrew here. Philip is the one consulted by Jesus about sources of food in John 6.5, since Luke 9.10 tells us that the feeding of the 5,000 took place near Bethsaida.
The request of the Greeks is that they might ‘see Jesus’. At a practical level, this is perhaps not surprising, since he has become the sensation of the moment after the raising of Lazarus, and visitors to the city will have heard the rumours without having witnessed the events themselves. Yet we have already explored how the language of seeing is transformed into the language of ‘believing’; where Israel looked at the lifted-up serpent in Numbers 21, those who ‘believe in’ the lifted-up Jesus will be healed, forgiven and live. And yet belief then eclipses actual seeing by the end of the narrative in John 20.29; those who believe having not seen actually see more truly than those who have seen and not believed (John 9.41). And so the phrase ‘Sir, we would see Jesus’ becomes for us a desire to grow in our understanding and our trust.
What is fascinating here is the interaction between the literal/historical, and the symbolic. On the one hand, the gospel narrative is constrained by the realism of the events. There would indeed have been gentiles in Jerusalem; they would naturally have identified with the Greek-named disciples; Philip might well have asked his compatriot Andrew for assistance; and their request to see Jesus is an understandable one. Yet these visitors symbolise the truth that the news of this Jewish messiah offering salvation from the Jews will spread to all the world. Their desire to ‘see’ Jesus becomes an evocation of the desire to believe. And the fact that they seek Jesus, not the other way around, illustrates the truth that Jesus ends this passage with: that he will draw all kinds of people to himself. In this gospel, Jesus never calls people, they are always drawn to him, symbolically expressing the attractiveness of both his person and his teaching.
(The illustration here is ‘The gentiles ask to see Jesus’ by James Tissot, from his collection of paintings illustrating the life of Jesus.)
It is rather striking that Jesus neither accedes to the request, nor appears to actually meet those wishing to see him, but instead replies in the most oblique of terms—once more characteristic of the ‘elusive Jesus’ of this gospel. His response consists of a declaration about ‘the hour’, followed by three separate but linked sayings, two of which have exact or close parallels in the Synoptics.
Jesus’ rebuttal to his mother Mary at the wedding in Cana in John 2.4 was that his ‘hour’ had not come—though this first ‘sign’ pointed towards it—the first of seven mentions of ‘the hour’. In this fourth mention, that ‘hour’ has now come, and the ‘lifting up’ or exaltation of the Son of Man promised in John 3.14 is at hand, expressed in the language of ‘glory’ which will be characteristic of this second half of the narrative. Where the Synoptic gospels make this final Passover week the climax of their narratives by omitting mention of earlier visits, the Fourth Gospel does it by means of narrative time (‘the hour’) within Jesus’ discourse.
The first of the three sayings is one of the 25 ‘Amen, amen I say to you…’ (John 1.51, 3.3, 3.5, 3.11, 5.19, 5.24, 5.25, 6.26, 6.32, 6.47, 6.53, 8.34, 8.51, 8.58, 10.1, 10.7, 12.24, 13.16, 13.20, 13.21, 13.38, 14.12, 16.20, 16.23, 21.18) sayings of Jesus. The occurrence of the singular form ‘Amen, I say to you…’ in the Synoptics (50 times), and the inclusion of the Aramaic term ‘amen’ within the Greek text both point to the historic authenticity of this form of speech by Jesus. But the frequency of this phrase, its use at moments of conflict, and its increased occurrence in the Last Supper discourse, highlight the importance of truth as a developing theme of the gospel.
The content of this saying is an example of rabbinical argumentation ‘from the lesser to the greater’ (kal vahomer) in which the second half of the argument is left for the reader to deduce. The talmudic version of this applies it to the hope of resurrection more generally:
If the grain of wheat, which is buried naked, sprouts forth in many robes, how much more so the righteous, who are buried in their raiment (b Sanh 90b)
This is the same kind of argument Paul uses in his discussion about the resurrection body in 1 Cor 15.36–44; for Paul, the eschatological framework is explicit, whereas here in the Fourth gospel it is either implicit or assumed.
The second, ‘greater’ half of the saying (‘Unless I die, the gospel will not bear fruit in the whole world as God intends’) is not spelled out, but belongs to the symbolic meaning of the literal saying. Again, we appear to have a hint of the later reality of the gentile mission, but expressed in terms constrained by the words of Jesus in context. We are perhaps accustomed from Gal 5.22 to think about ‘fruit’ in terms of character. But the much more basic sense is that fruit means growth and multiplication; a tree that bears fruit leads to the growth of more trees as the seeds of the fruit germinate and grow themselves. There is another implicit eschatological motif here as well: the wheat harvest is a consistent positive image for the end-times salvation of the righteous, those who have been drawn to Jesus, as already deployed earlier in the gospel narrative at John 4.35.
The second aphorism of Jesus extends the particular example of his coming death and resurrection to the general pattern of discipleship for all who follow him. It has an almost exact parallel in the Synoptics, though here has a distinctive Johannine twist:
For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matt 16.25).
For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it (Mark 8.35).
For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it (Luke 9.24).
Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12.25).
All three Synoptic sayings follow immediately after Jesus’ prediction of his death, and rebuke of Peter’s rebuke. Mark’s version includes his characteristic term ‘the gospel’ which he introduced at Mark 1.1. The saying here in the Fourth Gospel makes a slight grammatical change; it drops the ‘save/lose/lose/save’ parallelism and instead talks of ‘loving’ and ‘hating’ one’s life, language that Jesus will use again in chapter 14; and once more we have the ever-sharpening contrast between the life of discipleship and the life of ‘the world’; and the final reward is not ‘being saved’ but ‘eternal life’, the life of the age to come.
The third of these three aphorisms again picks up language from the context of the previous sayings in the Synoptics, and in fact provides the logical connection between the first and the second. If Jesus will lose his life in order to gain it and be fruitful (saying 1), and if to be a disciple of Jesus means following after him and going where he goes (saying 3), then it follows that every disciple of Jesus will also lose their own life, and by losing it will keep it (saying 2). The closeness of servant and master is an expectation of any such relationship in the ancient world between disciple and rabbi, and is expressed in slightly different terms in the later saying found in all Matthew, Luke and John:
Truly, truly I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, and a messenger is not greater than the one who sent him (John 13.16; compare Matthew 10:24; Luke 6:40; John 15:20).
There is a challenge to this—following Jesus will mean dying to self and giving up our lives to God and to others. But, as Jesus unfolds it in the following chapter, there is comfort too: as we abide in Jesus, then we find our home in the Father’s love.
Perhaps this brings us to the end of the implicit and oblique answer to the request of the Greeks who would ‘see Jesus’: if you want to see me, to believe in me, to follow me, then this is what it will mean.
In the final section of our reading, Jesus returns to the theme of ‘the hour’. His expression of his soul ‘being troubled’ has some loose parallels with the scene in Gethsemane in the Synoptics, especially Matt 26.38. The word he uses also described him at the tomb of Lazarus in John 11.33, reinforcing the connection with that preceding event, and the overall tenor is much more positive, as he answers his own question about why he should go through with the ordeal that awaits him—once more, glorification, not just for him but for his Father’s name.
A voice from heaven has been heard at Jesus’ baptism, at the transfiguration, and now here for a third time. Voices from heaven feature in Jewish Second Temple apocalyptic, and of course in the Book of Revelation. But the rabbis believed that, since the death of the last prophets (Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi) Israel could no longer hear the voice of God, but only the bat qol, literally, ‘the daughter of the voice’, a mere echo of what God might say—until Messiah came (b Sanh 11a).
The sound of heavenly thunder was usually thought to signify judgement—but the judgement would not be on Jesus, but on ‘this world’ and the ‘ruler of this world’, the accuser of the brethren who was cast down from his position of power by the death of Jesus (compare Rev 12.10).
And so we end where we began: when Jesus is lifted up = glorified, death for him will mean life for all who look to him. He will draw all kinds of people to himself, including these Greeks who have been seeking him. Lifted up in death, he will bear fruit in the whole world, and the ironic fear of the Pharisees will become a reality—the whole world, from every tribe, language, people and nation, will follow him (Rev 7.9).
To be fruitful a seed must die. But it does so by finding its home in the warm soil, and the result is that it bears much fruit. This has been true for Lazarus; it was true for Jesus; and it can be true for us too.