What costly devotion does Jesus call us to (John 12)?

The new edition of Scripture Union’s Encounter with God has just been published, and this is the second part of my contribution reflection on John 11–13.

True Charity? (John 12:1–11)

John did not tell us anything about the timing of the raising of Lazarus. But he now returns to his usual practice, and links the anointing at Bethany in time forwards with the coming Passover (agreeing with the accounts in Matthew and Mark), and backwards with both place and person. The connection with Lazarus is not mentioned in the other gospels; the fact that he himself was in danger of betrayal (v 10) might have led them to omit mention of him.

John’s gospel is full of conflict, and this story crackles with tension. As in Luke 10, Martha is busy with serving, as she no doubt thinks fit. How does she view Mary’s action? Extravagant? Unnecessary? Improper? Attention-seeking? Why can’t Mary show her love in unobtrusive practical action as she is doing? What about the men there; how do they view Mary? As profligate? And provocative? To let down one’s hair in that culture could easily be seen as flaunting your sexuality. The disciples (in Matthew and Mark, personified in John by Judas) see another problem. The have a common purse, and relied on the generosity of others (Luke 8.3), and if Mary really wanted to support Jesus, she should have donated the money. After all, Beth-any means ‘House of the Poor’, so she could hardly have missed the point.

Jesus’ comment is difficult to translate, but points yet again to a deeper meaning of her action. She has made this sacrifice out of her love and devotion to Jesus. And her action points beyond this, to Jesus’ own sacrifice out of his love and devotion to the world. Her sacrifice is not an alternative to care for the poor; Jesus quotes Deut 15.11 as a reminder that we must always care for them. But such care must testify to our devotion to Jesus and his love for the world.

What costly act of devotion is Jesus calling you to today? To what outward act of caring for others is he calling you, as expression both of your devotion and of his love for the world?

Donkey Business (John 12:12–19)

It would seem a little odd if, at Christmas, you went to the tree and unwrapped your presents, and the first thing you unwrapped was an Easter egg! The symbolism would jar with the symbols of Christmas, and it would feel very odd. But that is what John is doing for us here. Jesus has just told us about his coming death, and John has told us about the leaders’ plotting. Yet now he comes into Jerusalem in apparent triumph.

It is not clear here whether the pilgrim crowd has from Galilee in the north, or Judea in the south, or is a mixture of the two. But the language the people use is unmistakeable. Although they have come to celebrate Passover, the time of liberation of God’s people from slavery and the beginning of the journey into the promised land, they take up the symbolism of the winter festival Hannukah. This celebrated the coming of Judas Maccabeus, who defeated the pagan rulers in 164 BC, cleansed the temple, and for a time restored Jewish freedom. This is how the people welcome Jesus, and John is the most explicit of the gospel accounts in recording their recognition of Jesus as ‘the king of Israel!’

Jesus’ rule as king; Jesus’ suffering and death for the people. These are puzzling things to hold together, so perhaps it is not surprising that the disciples only understood this after Jesus’ death and resurrection (v 16). Yet the hints are already there in the prophecy from Zechariah: this king comes, not on a warhorse as a conquering hero, but on a donkey, as a humble servant. The crowd are drawn to him through hearing the testimony of those who witnesses his love and power at work in Lazarus; it seems for a moment if the whole world that he created (1.10) and which he loved (3.16) is recognising him.

In what areas of your life do you need to allow Jesus to reign more fully as king? In what areas do you need to allow Jesus to serve you more?

Seeing is Doing (John 12:20–26)

Philip and Andrew are the two apostles with Greek (rather than Jewish) names, and come from the Gentile region of Bethsaida. (Philip was asked to use his local knowledge at the feeding of the 5000 in John 6:5, because the miracle took place near there, Mark 6:45.) It is no surprise, then, that Greeks wanting to see Jesus sought out their own kind to act as intermediaries.  Both Philip and Andrew have form in bringing people to Jesus; in chapter 1 their introductions help to form the nucleus of the twelve disciples. And given all the earlier hints about ‘other sheep’ and ‘scattered children’, you would think that Jesus would have been glad to see this start to the Gentile mission. But he appears to avoid the question—and for two reasons.

First, simply meeting Jesus in the flesh, hearing his teaching and observing his actions, does not constitute true ‘seeing.’ Plenty of people have seen his miracles, including the raising of Lazarus, but it has not led them to ‘see’ Jesus. These wonders are not ends in themselves, but ‘signs’ pointing to a greater reality—who Jesus is, and what he has come to do. Even the disciples do not understand the real significance of what he says and does until after he has been ‘glorified’—and that ‘hour’, postponed until now, has finally arrived. The true purpose of fruit and the seeds they contain is not to be enjoyed now—but for the seed to ‘die’ in the earth, so that it might produce so much more. The purpose of Jesus’ ministry is to take him to death and resurrection, to pour out to many the gift of eternal life.

But Jesus goes on to a second reason. To really ‘see’ Jesus we need to change from passive observers into active followers. As Jesus loses his own life for us, so we must follow his example and lose our life for others; only then will we ‘see’ Jesus’ life made real. His real word to the Greeks who would see him would perhaps be the very last words his speaks to his very first disciple, Peter (21.22): ‘As for you—follow me.’

‘If you want God to guide your footsteps, you need to start moving’ (anon). In what way is Jesus calling you to step out, following his example of life?

Keeping on Keeping on (John 12:27–36)

There is a sharp paradox in John in the way it portrays Jesus. On the one hand, Jesus appears to be more clearly ‘divine’. He knows the hearts of those around him, and so does not trust himself to them (2.24). He has supernatural insight into the lives of those with whom he speaks (4.16). Along with the seven ‘signs’, he makes seven claims using the divine name ‘I am…’ And all this is introduced by the loftiest description of his origins within God in the prologue. No wonder John’s gospel became the most important early reflection on how we talk about Jesus in relation to God.

And yet John also portrays Jesus as clearly human. He hungers and thirsts, he is weary from long travelling (4.6), he is abandoned and alone when followers desert him (6.66), he is moved to tears by the death of a friend (11.35). And where the other gospels find him quaking in the Garden of Gethsemane, confronted immediately with the cross, here we see him ‘deeply troubled’ even some way off, knowing what is to come. Yet, despite this real, human frailty in the face of suffering, he still commits himself to glorifying his Father by faithful obedience to the path before him. The Father’s voice, thundering from heaven, gives testimony to Jesus’ faithfulness—to those who will listen.

But there’s a second paradox, found in John’s description of ‘the world.’ Insofar as this is the world that God created and loved, he gives his only Son, so that those who believe might have eternal life (John 3.16). But insofar as this is the world that did not receive him (John 1.10), then Jesus’ death means judgement for those who refuse to believe. The real problem here is not the Romans, but another Ruler who holds sway over the lives of those who will not respond.

Where are you currently experiencing a sense of human frailty and vulnerability? How might the example of Jesus enable you to face this with courage and hope?

Seeing in the Dark (John 12:37–50)

The constant puzzle throughout the gospel is expressed in the first verse of today’s reading. Jesus has done so many ‘signs’ that demonstrate clearly who he is—and yet still there are many who do not believe in him. How is it that, when we have explained our faith to our friends, when our church seems to be doing all the right things, people remain indifferent?

John provides two quite different answers. The first comes from a quotation from Isaiah 53, that series of ‘servant songs’ which portray the suffering of God’s chosen one on behalf of his people. The challenge is that God’s ways of making himself known are quite surprising, and do not meet our expectations in the way we would like. Each gospel expresses this in its own way; in John it is through the presentation of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross as the moment of his ‘glory’. The people did not expect God’s anointed king to come in humility, giving himself for us—and we can so often miss the ways God is present in our world.

But the other answer relates to us; as the saying goes, ‘there are none so blind as those who will not see.’ John and Isaiah see God as sovereign, and so attribute all things to God in a way we might find difficult—but it is clear that God’s desire is that people will respond. John portrays Jesus in the same way that the writer of Proverbs portrays wisdom—as ‘crying out’ in the streets (Prov 1.20, 8.1). Yet the writer of Proverbs still appeals to his reader to respond, to take notice, to fashion his life in response. Jesus does the same here; although his voice can be heard clearly, we need to make a response if we are to ‘walk in the light.’

What are the things in my life and the life of my church which obscure the message of Jesus? How can I and we communicate more clearly?

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2 thoughts on “What costly devotion does Jesus call us to (John 12)?”

  1. It must be a tad disheartening when your latest blog posts, which cover some of the most important turning-points in John’s gospel, can barely muster a few comments.

    Especially, since, by comparison, we know that had you entitled exactly the same piece: What costly devotion does Jesus call LGBT people to (John 12), the comments would, at least, reached double figures by now!

    Either way, there’s good cause to reflect on which disciple’s behaviour is more characteristic of our own. Are our insights into Christ’s immense sacrifice prompting us to mirror Mary’s unabashed generosity and lavish carefree extravagance towards the Messiah?

    Or when confronted with that kind of boundless devotion among laity, are we joining in Judas’ supercilious disdain by rejecting such zeal as misplaced in the light of the Church’s consensus on the authentic marks of mission?

    • “It must be a tad disheartening when your latest blog posts, which cover some of the most important turning-points in John’s gospel, can barely muster a few comments.”

      I’d like to echo that, I’m just catching up as I’ve been an inconsistent reader lately, but these are great posts.

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