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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
John 12

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-50

Chapter 12

LOVE'S EXTRAVAGANCE (John 12:1-8)

12:1-8 Now six days before the Passover Jesus went to Bethany, where Lazarus was whom he raised from the dead. So they made him a meal there, and Martha was serving while Lazarus was one of those who reclined at table with him. Now Mary took a pound of very precious genuine spikenard ointment, and anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the perfume of the ointment. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples, the one who was going to betray him, said: "Why was this ointment not sold for ten pounds, and the proceeds given to the poor?" He said this, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief and had charge of the money-box, and pilfered from what was put into it. So Jesus said: "Let her observe it now against the day of my burial. The poor you have always with you, but me you have not always."

We have seen on other occasions that many scholars believe that certain parts of John's gospel have become displaced. Some suspect a dislocation here. Moffatt, for instance, prints it in the order John 12:19-29; John 12:1-18 and John 12:30; John 12:31-42. We have retained the order of the King James Version (and the Revised Standard Version) for our studies, but if the reader will read the chapter in the rearranged order he will see the connection of events and thought more clearly.

It was coming very near the end for Jesus. To come to Jerusalem for the Passover was an act of the highest courage, for the authorities had made him in effect an outlaw (John 11:57). So great were the crowds who came to the Passover that they could not all possibly obtain lodging within the city itself, and Bethany was one of the places outside the city boundaries which the law laid down as a place for the overflow of the pilgrims to stay.

When Jesus came to Bethany they made him a meal. It must have been in the house of Martha and Mary and Lazarus, for where else would Martha be serving but in her own house? It was then that Mary's heart ran over in love. She had a pound of very precious spikenard ointment. Both John and Mark describe it by the adjective pistikos (Greek #4101) (Mark 14:3). Oddly enough, no one really knows what that word means. There are four possibilities. It may come from the adjective pistos (Greek #4103) which means faithful or reliable, and so may mean genuine. It may come from the verb pinein (Greek #4095) which means to drink, and so may mean liquid. It may be a kind of trade name, and may have to be translated simply pistic nard (Greek #3487). It may come from a word meaning the pistachio nut, and be a special kind of essence extracted from it. In any event it was a specially valuable kind of perfume. With this perfume Mary anointed Jesus' feet. Judas ungraciously questioned her action as sheer waste. Jesus silenced him by saying that money could be given to the poor at any time, but a kindness done to him must be done now, for soon the chance would be gone for ever.

There is a whole series of little character sketches here.

(i) There is the character of Martha. She was serving at table. She loved Jesus; she was a practical woman; and the only way in which she could show her love was by the work of her hands. Martha always gave what she could. Many and many a great man has been what he was only because of someone's loving care for his creature comforts in his home. It is just as possible to serve Jesus in the kitchen as on the public platform or in a career lived in the eyes of men.

(ii) There is the character of Mary. Mary was the one who above all loved Jesus; and here in her action we see three things about love.

(a) We see love's extravagance. Mary took the most precious thing she possessed and spent it all on Jesus. Love is not love if it nicely calculates the cost. It gives its all and its only regret is that it has not still more to give. O. Henry, the master of the short story, has a moving story called The Gift of the Magi. A young American couple, Della and Jim, were very poor but very much in love. Each had one unique possession. Della's hair was her glory. When she let it down it almost served as a robe. Jim bad a gold watch which had come to him from his father and was his pride. It was the day before Christmas, and Della had exactly one dollar eighty-seven cents to buy Jim a present. She went out and sold her hair for twenty dollars; and with the proceeds bought a platinum fob for Jim's precious watch. When Jim came home at night and saw Della's shorn head, he stopped as if stupefied. It was not that he did not like it or love her any less; for she was lovelier than ever. Slowly he handed her his gift; it was a set of expensive tortoise-shell combs with jewelled edges for her lovely hair--and he had sold his gold watch to buy them. Each had given the other all there was to give. Real love cannot think of any other way to give.

(b) We see love's humility. It was a sign of honour to anoint a person's head. "Thou anointest my head with oil," says the psalmist (Psalms 23:5). But Mary would not look so high as the head of Jesus; she anointed his feet. The last thing Mary thought of was to confer an honour upon Jesus; she never dreamed she was good enough for that.

(c) We see love's unselfconsciousness. Mary wiped Jesus' feet with the hair of her head. In Palestine no respectable woman would ever appear in public with her hair unbound. On the day a girl was married her hair was bound up, and never again would she be seen in public with her long tresses flowing loose. That was the sign of an immoral woman. But Mary never even thought of that. When two people really love each other they live in a world of their own. They will wander slowly down a crowded street hand in hand heedless of what other people think. Many are self-conscious about showing their Christianity, concerned always about what others are thinking about them. Mary loved Jesus so much that it was nothing to her what others thought.

But there is something else about love here. John has the sentence: "The house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment." We have seen that so many of John's statements have two meanings, one which lies on the surface and one which is underneath. Many fathers of the Church and many scholars have seen a double meaning here. They have taken it to mean that the whole Church was filled with the sweet memory of Mary's action. A lovely deed becomes the possession of the whole world and adds to the beauty of life in general, something which time cannot ever take away.

LOVE'S EXTRAVAGANCE (John 12:1-8 continued)

(iii) There is the character of Judas. There are three things here about him.

(a) We see Jesus' trust in Judas. As far back as John 6:70-71, John shows us Jesus well aware that there was a traitor within the ranks. It may well be that he tried to touch Judas' heart by making him the treasurer of the apostolic company. It may well be that he tried to appeal to his sense of honour. It may well be that he was saying in effect to him: "Judas, here's something that you can do for me. Here is proof that I need you and want you." That appeal failed with Judas, but the fact remains that often the best way to reclaim someone who is on the wrong path is to treat him not with suspicion but with trust; not as if we expected the worst, but as if we expected the best.

(b) We see one of the laws of temptation. Jesus would not have put Judas in charge of the money-box unless he had some capabilities in that direction. Westcott in his commentary said: "Temptation commonly comes through that for which we are naturally fitted." If a man is fitted to handle money, his temptation may be to regard money as the most important thing in the world. If a man is fitted to occupy a place of prominence, his temptation may be to think first and foremost of reputation. If a man has a particular gift, his temptation may be to become conceited about that gift. Judas had a gift for handling money and became so fond of it that he became first a thief and then a traitor for its sake. The King James Version says that he bare the bag. The verb is bastazein (Greek #941); bastazein does not mean to bear, or carry, or lift. But in colloquial English to lift a thing can also mean to steal it. We talk, for instance, of a shop-lifter. And Judas did not only carry the bag; he pilfered from it. Temptation struck him at the point of his special gift.

(c) We see how a man's view can be warped. Judas had just seen an action of surpassing loveliness; and he called it extravagant waste. He was an embittered man and he took an embittered view of things. A man's sight depends on what is inside him. He sees only what he is fit and able to see. If we like a person, he can do little wrong. If we dislike him, we may misinterpret his finest action. A warped mind brings a warped view of things; and, if we find ourselves becoming very critical of others and imputing unworthy motives to them, we should, for a moment, stop examining them and start examining ourselves.

Lastly, there is here one great truth about life. Some things we can do almost any time, but some things we will never do, unless we grasp the chance when it comes. We are seized with the desire to do something fine and generous arid big-hearted. But we put it off--we will do it tomorrow; and the fine impulse goes, and the thing is never done. Life is an uncertain thing. We think to utter some word of thanks or praise or love but we put it off; and often the word is never spoken.

Here is one tragic instance of how a man realized too late the things he had never said and done. Thomas Carlyle loved Jane Welsh Carlyle, but he was a cross-grained, irritable creature and he never made life happy for her. Unexpectedly she died. J. A. Froude tells us of Carlyle's feelings when he lost her. "He was looking through her papers, her notebooks and journals; and old scenes came mercilessly back to him in the vistas of mournful memory. In his long sleepless nights, he recognized too late what she had felt and suffered under his childish irritabilities. His faults rose up in remorseless judgment, and as he had thought too little of them before, so now he exaggerated them to himself in his helpless repentance . . . 'Oh!' he cried again and again, 'if I could see her but once more, were it but for five minutes, to let her know that I always loved her through all that. She never did know it, never.'" There is a time for doing and for saying things; and, when it is past, they may never be said and never be done.

It was Judas' ill-natured complaint that the money which that ointment could have raised should have been given to the poor. But as scripture said: "The poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command thee saying, You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land" (Deuteronomy 15:11). To help the poor was something that could be done any time. To show the heart's devotion to Jesus had to be done before the Cross on Calvary took him to its cruel arms. Let us remember to do things now, for the chance so often never comes again, and the failure to do them, especially the failure to express love brings bitter remorse.

A PLAN TO DESTROY THE EVIDENCE (John 12:9-11)

12:9-11 The mob of the Jews knew that Jesus was there; and they came, not only because of Jesus, but to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. The chief priests plotted to kill Lazarus too, because many of the Jews were withdrawing from them because of him and were coming to believe in Jesus.

For the leaders of the Jews things were getting into an impossible position. This was specially the case for the Sadducees, to which party belonged all the priests, for them the position was doubly threatening.

First, it was threatening from the political point of view. The Sadducees were the wealthy aristocratic class and they worked in close collaboration with the Roman government. Their aim was to ensure their own wealth and ease and comfort. So long as they were allowed to retain the ruling places in the government they were quite prepared to collaborate. The Romans allowed their subject kingdoms a large amount of freedom. Broadly speaking, under a Roman governor, they allowed them to govern themselves, but at the slightest outbreak of civil disorder Rome's hand came down heavily, and those who were responsible for good government and had failed to produce it were summarily dismissed. The Sadducees saw Jesus as the possible leader of a rebellion. He was stealing away the hearts of the people. The atmosphere was electric; and the Sadducees were determined to get rid of him in case there should be an uprising of the people and their own case and comfort and authority be threatened.

Second, they regarded it as theologically intolerable. Unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead; and, here they were confronted with Lazarus who had been raised from the grave. Unless they could do something about it, the foundations of their power, their influence and their teaching, were slipping from beneath their feet.

So they proposed to destroy the evidence by doing away with Lazarus. H. G. Wood tells of a remark of two old ladies in the days when Charles Darwin had made public the conception of evolution and when it was thought that that meant that man was sprung from and akin to the beasts. They were heard to say: "Let's hope it's not true, and, if it is, let's hush it up!" When a man has to support a position by destroying the evidence which threatens it, it means that he is using dishonest methods to support a lie--and knows it.

The Sadducees were prepared to suppress the truth to further their own self-interest. For many people self-interest is the most powerful motive in life. Many discoveries which might produce cheaper goods never see the light of day because the patents are bought up and rendered inoperative by those whose products they threaten. Self-interest dictates policy and action.

In order to maintain their own place and their own influence the priests and the Sadducees were prepared to destroy the evidence for the truth. A man has come to a sorry pass when he is afraid of the truth and sets his personal prestige and profit before it.

A KING'S WELCOME (John 12:12-19)

12:12-19 On the next day the great crowd that was coming to the Feast heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took the branches of palm trees and went out to meet him. They kept up a shout: "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, he who is the King of Israel!" Jesus found a young ass and sat on it, as it stands written: "Fear not, daughter of Zion. Look! Your King is coming sitting upon an ass' colt." At first the disciples did not realize the significance of these things; but when Jesus was glorified then they remembered that these things were written about him, and that they had done these things to him. The crowd who were with him testified that he had called Lazarus from the tomb, and had raised him from among the dead. It was because they had heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went out to meet him. So the Pharisees said to each other: "You can see that all the steps you have taken have been completely ineffective. See! The whole world has gone off after him!"

Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles were the three compulsory festivals of the Jews. To the Passover in Jerusalem Jews came from the ends of the earth. Wherever a Jew might live it was his ambition to observe one such Passover. To this day, when Jews in foreign lands observe the Passover, they say: "This year here; next year in Jerusalem."

At such a time Jerusalem and the villages round about were crowded. On one occasion a census was taken of the lambs slain at the Passover Feast. The number was given as 256,000. There had to be a minimum of ten people per lamb; and if that estimate is correct it means that there must have been as many as 2,700,000 people at that Passover Feast. Even if that figure is exaggerated, it remains true that the numbers must have been immense.

News and rumour had gone out that Jesus the man who had raised Lazarus from the dead was on his way to Jerusalem. There were two crowds, the crowd which was accompanying Jesus from Bethany, and the crowd which surged out from Jerusalem to see him; and they must have flowed together in a surging mass like two tides of the sea. Jesus came riding on a ass' colt. As the crowds met him they received him like a conqueror. And the sight of this tumultuous welcome sent the Jewish authorities into the depths of despair, for it seemed that nothing they could do could stop the tide of the people who had gone after Jesus. This is an incident so important that we must try to understand just what was happening.

(i) Certain among the crowds were simply sightseeing. Here was a man who, as rumour had it, had raised a man from the dead; and many had simply gone out to gaze on a sensational figure. It is always possible to attract people for a time by sensationalism and shrewd publicity; but it never lasts. Those who were that day regarding Jesus as a sensation were within a week shouting for his death.

(ii) Many among these crowds were greeting Jesus as a conqueror. That, in fact, is the predominant atmosphere of the whole scene. They greeted him with the words: "Hosanna! Blessed is he who is coming in the name of the Lord!" The word Hosanna (Greek, Greek #5614) is the Hebrew (Hebrew #3467 and Hebrew #4994) for "Save now!" And the shout of the people was almost precisely like that of the British people: "God save the King!"

The words with which the people greeted Jesus are illuminating. They are a quotation from Psalms 118:25-26. That psalm had many connections, which were bound to be in the minds of the people. It was the last psalm of the group (Psalms 113:1-9; Psalms 114:1-8; Psalms 115:1-18; Psalms 116:1-19; Psalms 117:1-2; Psalms 118:1-29) known as the Hallel. The word Hallel (Hebrew #1984) means Praise God! and these are all praising psalms. They were part of the first memory work every Jewish boy had to do; they were sung often at great acts of praise and thanksgiving in the Temple; they were an integral part of the Passover ritual. Further, this particular psalm was intimately connected with the ritual of the Feast of Tabernacles. At that feast worshippers carried bundles made up of palm, myrtle and willow branches called lulabs. Daily they went with them to the Temple. On every day of the feast they marched round the great altar of the burnt offering--once on each of the first six days, seven times on the seventh--and as they marched they triumphantly sang verses from this psalm and especially these very ones. In fact it may well be that this psalm was written for the first celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles when Nehemiah had rebuilt the shattered walls and city and the Jews came home from Babylon and could worship again (Nehemiah 8:14-18). This was indeed the psalm of the great occasion--and the people knew it.

Further, this was characteristically the conqueror's psalm. To take but one instance, these very verses were sung and shouted by the Jerusalem crowd when they welcomed back Simon Maccabaeus after he had conquered Acra and wrested it from Syrian dominion more than a hundred years before. There is no doubt that when the people sang this psalm they were looking on Jesus as God's Anointed One, the Messiah, the Deliverer, the One who was to come. And there is no doubt that they were looking on him as the Conqueror. To them it must have been only a matter of time until the trumpets rang out and the call to arms sounded and the Jewish nation swept to its long delayed victory over Rome and the world. Jesus approached Jerusalem with the shout of the mob hailing a conqueror in his ears--and it must have hurt him, for they were looking in him for that very thing which he refused to be.

A KING'S WELCOME (John 12:12-19 continued)

(iii) In such a situation it was obviously impossible for Jesus to speak to the crowd. His voice could not have reached that vast assembly of people. So he did something that all could see; he came riding upon an ass' colt. Now that was two things. First, it was a deliberate claim to be the Messiah. It was a dramatic enactment of the words of Zechariah the prophet (Zechariah 9:9). John does not quote accurately because obviously he is quoting from memory. Zechariah had said: "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem, Lo your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass." There is no doubt at all that Jesus' claim was a messianic claim.

But, second, it was a claim to be a particular kind of Messiah. We must not misunderstand this picture. With us the ass is lowly and despised; but in the East it was a noble animal. Jair, the Judge, had thirty sons who rode on asses' colts ( 10:4). Ahithopel rode upon an ass (2 Samuel 17:23). Mephibosheth, the royal prince, the son of Saul, came to David riding upon an ass (2 Samuel 19:26). The point is that a king came riding upon a horse when he was bent on war; he came riding upon an ass when he was coming in peace. This action of Jesus is a sign that he was not the warrior figure men dreamed of, but the Prince of Peace. No one saw it that way at that time, not even the disciples, who should have known so much better. The minds of all were filled with a kind of mob hysteria. Here was the one who was to come. But they looked for the Messiah of their own dreams and their own wishful thinking; they did not look for the Messiah whom God had sent. Jesus drew a dramatic picture of what he claimed to be, but none understood the claim.

(iv) In the background there were the Jewish authorities. They felt frustrated and helpless; nothing they could do seemed able to stop the attraction of this Jesus. "The whole world," they said, "is gone off after him!" In this saying of the authorities there is a magnificent example of that irony in which John is so skilled. No writer in the New Testament can say so much with such amazing reticence. It was because God so loved the world that Jesus came into the world; and here, all unwittingly, his enemies are saying that the world has gone after him. In the very next section John is going to tell of the coming of the Greeks to Jesus. The first representatives of that wider world, the first seekers from outside, are about to come. The Jewish authorities were speaking truer than they knew.

We cannot leave this passage without noticing the simplest thing of all. Seldom in the world's history has there been such a display of magnificently deliberate courage as the Triumphal Entry. We must remember that Jesus was an outlaw and that the authorities were determined to kill him. All prudence would have warned him to turn back and make for Galilee or the desert places. If he was to enter Jerusalem at all, all caution would have demanded that he enter secretly and go into hiding; but he came in such a way as to focus every eye upon himself. It was an act of the most superlative courage, for it was the defiance of all that man could do; and it was an act of the most superlative love, for it was love's last appeal before the end.

THE SEEKING GREEKS (John 12:20-22)

12:20-22 There were some Greeks among those whose practice it was to come up to the feast. Now these came to Philip, who came from Bethsaida in Galilee, and made a request to him. "Sir," they said, "we wish to see Jesus." Philip went and told Andrew, and Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.

None of the other gospels tells of this incident, but it is very fitting to find it in the Fourth. The Fourth Gospel was the one written to present the truth of Christianity in a way that the Greeks could appreciate and understand; and it is natural that in it the first Greeks to come to Jesus should find a place.

It need not seem strange to find Greeks in Jerusalem at the Passover time. They need not even have been proselytes. The Greek was an inveterate wanderer, driven by wanderlust and by the desire to find out new things. "You Athenians," said one of the ancients, "will never rest yourselves, nor will you ever let anyone else rest." "You Greeks," said another, "are like children, always young in your souls." More than five hundred years before this Herodotus had travelled the world, as he said himself, to find things out. Far up the Nile to this day there stands a great Egyptian statue on which a Greek tourist, even as modern tourists do, had scratched his name. The Greek voyaged for trade and for commerce of course; but he was the first man to wander for the sake of wandering in the ancient world. There is no need to be surprised to find a detachment of sightseeing Greeks even in Jerusalem.

But the Greek was more than that. He was characteristically a seeker after truth. It was no unusual thing to find a Greek who had passed through philosophy after philosophy, and religion after religion, and gone from teacher to teacher in the search for truth. The Greek was the man with the seeking mind.

How had these Greeks come to hear of Jesus and to be interested in him? J. H. Bernard throws out a most interesting suggestion. It was in the last week of his ministry that Jesus cleansed the Temple and swept the money-changers and the sellers of doves from the Temple court. Now these traders had their stance in the Court of the Gentiles, that great court which was the first of the Temple courts and where Gentiles were allowed to come but no further. If these Greeks were in Jerusalem at all they would be certain to visit the Temple and to stand in the Court of the Gentiles. Perhaps they had actually witnessed that tremendous scene when Jesus had driven the traders from the Temple court; and perhaps they wished to know more of a man who could do things like that.

However that may be, this is one of the great moments of the story, for here is the first faint hint of a gospel which is to go out to all the world.

The Greeks came with their request to Philip. Why Philip? No one can say for certain, but Philip is a Greek name and perhaps they thought that a man with a Greek name would treat them sympathetically. But Philip did not know what to do, and he went to Andrew. Andrew was in no doubt and he led them to Jesus.

Andrew had discovered that no one could ever be a nuisance to Jesus. He knew that Jesus would never turn any seeking soul away.

THE AMAZING PARADOX (John 12:23-26)

12:23-26 Jesus answered them: "The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified. This is the truth I tell you--unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains all by itself alone; but, if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life is losing it; and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal. If anyone will serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there will my servants also be."

Hardly any passage in the New Testament would come with such a shock to those who heard it for the first time as this. It begins with a saying which everyone would expect; and it finishes with a series of sayings which were the last things anyone would expect.

"The hour has come," began Jesus. "when the Son of Man should be glorified." It was clear that things had been budding up to a crisis and that crisis had now come. But Jesus' idea of what that crisis involved was quite different from anyone else's. When he talked about the Son of man, he did not mean what other people meant. To understand the shocking nature of this short paragraph we must grasp something of what the Jews understood by Son of Man. That term took its origin in Daniel 7:13. In that passage the King James Version mistranslates. It has it that one like unto the Son of Man came to the Ancient of Days, and received a kingdom, a glory and a dominion that were to be universal and for ever. The correct translation is not the Son of Man, but a son of man as the Revised Standard Version has it.

The point of the passage is this. In Daniel 7:1-8 the writer has been describing the world powers which have held sway, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Medes and the Persians. They were so cruel, so savage, so sadistic that they could be described only under the imagery of wild beasts--the lion with the eagle's wings, the bear with the three ribs between its teeth, the leopard with the four wings and the four heads, and the terrible beast with iron teeth and ten horns. These were the symbols of the powers which had hitherto held sway. But it was the dream of the seer that into the world there was going to come a new power, and that power was to be gentle and humane and gracious, so that it could be depicted under the symbol, not of a savage beast, but of a man. This passage means that the day of savagery would pass and the day of humanity was coming.

That was the dream of the Jews, the golden age, when life would be sweet and they would be masters of the world. But how was that age to come? It became clearer and clearer to them that their nation was so small and their power so weak, that the golden age could never come by human means and human power; it must come by the direct intervention of God. He would send his champion to bring it in. So they thought back to the picture in the book of Daniel, and what more natural than that they should call the champion the Son of Man? The phrase which had once been merely a symbol came to describe a person. Between the Old and the New Testament there arose a whole series of books about the golden age and how it was to come. Amidst their troubles and their sufferings, in their subjections and their slaveries, the Jews never forgot and never gave up their dream. One of these books was specially influential--the Book of Enoch and it repeatedly speaks about that Son of Man. In Enoch the Son of Man is a tremendous figure who, as it were, is being held in leash by God. But the day will come when God will release him and he will come with a divine power against which no man and no kingdom will be able to stand, and smash the way to world empire for the Jews.

To the Jews the Son of Man stood for the undefeatable world conqueror sent by God. So Jesus says: "The hour has come when the Son of Man must be glorified." When he said that, the listeners would catch their breath. They would believe that the trumpet call of eternity had sounded, that the might of heaven was on the march, and that the campaign of victory was on the move. But Jesus did not mean by glorified what they understood. They meant that the subjected kingdoms of the earth would grovel before the conqueror's feet; by glorified he meant crucified. When the Son of Man was mentioned they thought of the conquest of the armies of God; he meant the conquest of the Cross.

The first sentence which Jesus spoke would excite the hearts of those who heard it; then began a succession of sayings which must have left them staggered and bewildered by their sheer incredibility, for they spoke. not in terms of conquest, but in terms of sacrifice and death. We will never understand Jesus nor the attitude of the Jews to him, until we understand how he turned their ideas upside down, replacing a dream of conquest with a vision of a Cross. No wonder they did not understand him; the tragedy is that they refused to try.

THE AMAZING PARADOX (John 12:23-26 continued)

What was this amazing paradox which Jesus was teaching? He was saying three things, which are all variations of one central truth and all at the heart of the Christian faith and life.

(i) He was saying that only by death comes life. The grain of wheat was ineffective and unfruitful so long as it was preserved, as it were, in safety and security. It was when it was thrown into the cold ground, and buried there as if in a tomb, that it bore fruit. It was by the death of the martyrs that the Church grew. In the famous phrase: "The blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church."

It is always because men have been prepared to die that the great things have lived. But it becomes more personal than that. It is sometimes only when a man buries his personal aims and ambitions that he begins to be of real use to God. Cosmo Lang became Archbishop of Canterbury. At one time he had had great worldly ambitions. A godly friend's influence led him to abandon these and enter the Church of England. When he was studying for the ministry at Cuddesdon, one day as he was praying in the chapel he heard unmistakably a voice saying to him: "You are wanted!" It was when he had buried his personal ambitions that he became useful to God.

By death comes life. By the loyalty which was true to death there have been preserved and born the most precious things which humanity possesses. By the death of personal desire and personal ambition a man becomes a servant of God.

(i) He was saying that only by spending life do we retain it. The man who loves his life is moved by two aims, by selfishness and by the desire for security. Not once or twice but many times Jesus insisted that the man who hoarded his life must in the end lose it, and the man who spent his life must in the end gain it. There was a famous evangelist called Christmas Evans who was always on the move preaching for Christ. His friends besought him to take things easier but his answer always was: "It is better to burn out than to rust out." When Joan of Arc knew that her enemies were strong and her time was short, she prayed to God: "I shall only last a year, use me as you can." Again and again Jesus laid down this law (Mark 8:35; Matthew 16:25; Luke 9:24; Matthew 10:39; Luke 17:33).

We have only to think of what this world would have lost if there had not been men prepared to forget their personal safety, security, selfish gain and selfish advancement. The world owes everything to people who recklessly spent their strength and gave themselves to God and to others. No doubt we will exist longer if we take things easily, if we avoid all strain, if we sit at the fire and husband life, if we look after ourselves as a hypochondriac looks after his health. No doubt we will exist longer--but we will never live.

(iii) He was saying that only by service comes greatness. The people whom the world remembers with love are the people who serve others. A certain Mrs. Berwick had been very active in Salvation Army work in Liverpool. She retired to London. There came the war and the air raids. People get queer ideas and the idea got about that somehow Mrs. Berwick's poor house and her shelter were specially safe. She was old now; her Liverpool days of social service were long behind her; but she felt she must do something about it. So she got together a simple first-aid box and she put a notice on her window: "If you need help, knock here." That is the Christian attitude to our fellow men.

Once a schoolboy was asked what parts of speech my and mine are. He answered--more truly than he knew--that they were aggressive pronouns. It is all too true that in the modern world the idea of service is in danger of getting lost. So many people are in business only for what they can get out of it. They may well become rich, but one thing is certain--they will never be loved, and love is the true wealth of life.

Jesus came to the Jews with a new view of life. They looked on glory as conquest, the acquisition of power, the right to rule. He looked on it as a cross. He taught men that only by death comes life; that only by spending life do we retain it; that only by service comes greatness. And the extraordinary thing is that when we come to think of it, Christ's paradox is nothing other than the truth of common sense.

FROM TENSION TO CERTAINTY (John 12:27-34)

12:27-34 "Now, my soul is troubled. And what shall I say? 'Father, rescue me from this hour.' But it was for this reason that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name." A voice came from heaven: "I have both glorified it and I will glorify it again." So the crowd who were standing by, and who heard it, said that there had been thunder. Others said: "An angel spoke to him." Jesus answered: "It was not for my sake that this voice came, but for yours. Now is the judgment of this world. Now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself." He said this in indication of what death he was going to die by. The crowd answered him: "We have heard from the law that God's Anointed One remains for ever. And do you say: 'The Son of Man must be lifted up'? Who is this Son of Man?"

In this passage John shows us both Jesus' tension and his triumph, and shows us what turned the tension into the triumph.

(i) John does not tell us of the agony in Gethsemane. It is here that he shows us Jesus fighting his battle with his human longing to avoid the Cross. No one wishes to die at thirty-three; and no one wishes to die upon a cross. There would have been no virtue in Jesus' obedience to God, if it had come easily and without cost. Real courage does not mean not being afraid. It means to be terribly afraid, and yet to do the thing that ought to be done. That was the courage of Jesus. As Bengel put it: "Here there met the horror of death and the ardour of obedience." God's will meant the Cross and Jesus had to nerve himself to accept it.

(ii) But the end of the story is not tension; it is triumph and certainty. Jesus was certain that if he went on, something would happen which would break the power of evil once and for all. if he was obedient to the Cross, he was sure that a death-blow would be struck to the ruler of this world, Satan. It was to be one last struggle which would break for ever the power of evil. Further, he was certain that if he went to the Cross, the sight of his upraised and crucified figure would in the end draw all men to him. Jesus, too, wanted conquest; he, too, wanted to subdue men; but he knew that the only way to conquer and to subdue the hearts of men for ever was to show himself to them on the Cross. He began with the tension; he ended with the triumph.

(iii) What came between the tension and the triumph and changed the one into the other? It was the voice of God. Behind this coming of the voice of God lies something great and deep.

There was a time when the Jews really and fully believed that God spoke direct to men. It was directly that God spoke to the child Samuel (1 Samuel 3:1-14). It was directly that God spoke to Elijah, when he had fled from the avenging Jezebel (1 Kings 19:1-18). It was directly that Eliphaz the Temanite had claimed to hear the voice of God (Job 4:16). But by the time of Jesus they had ceased to believe that God spoke directly. The great days were past; God was far too far away now; the voice that had spoken to the prophets was silent. Nowadays they believed in what they called the Bath (Hebrew #1323) Qol (Hebrew #6963), a Hebrew phrase which means "the daughter voice" or "the daughter of a voice." When the Bath (Hebrew #1323) Qol (Hebrew #6963) spoke it quoted Scripture most often. It was not really the direct voice of God; it was what we might call the echo of his voice, a distant, faint whisper instead of a direct, vital communication.

But it was not the echo of his voice that Jesus heard; it was the very voice of God Himself. Here is a great truth. With Jesus there comes to men not some distant whisper of the voice of God, not some faint echo from the heavenly places, but the unmistakable accents of God's direct voice.

It is to be noted that the voice of God came to Jesus at an the great moments of his life. It came at his baptism when he first set out upon the work God had given him to do (Mark 1:11). It came on the Mount of Transfiguration when he finally decided to take the way which led to Jerusalem and the Cross (Mark 9:7). And now it came to him when his human flesh and blood had to be strengthened by divine aid for the ordeal of the Cross.

What God did for Jesus, he does for every man. When he sends us out upon a road, he does not send us without directions and without guidance. When he gives us a task, he does not leave us to do it in the lonely weakness of our own strength. God is not silent, and ever and again, when the strain of life is too much for us, and the effort of his way is beyond our human resources, if we listen we will hear him speak, and we will go on with his strength surging through our frame. Our trouble is not that God does not speak, but that we do not listen.

FROM TENSION TO CERTAINTY (John 12:27-34 continued)

Jesus claimed that, when he was lifted up, he would draw all men to him. Some take this to refer to the Ascension and think it means that when Jesus was exalted in his risen power, he would draw all men to him. But that is far from the truth. Jesus was referring to his Cross--and the people knew it. And once again--inevitably--they were moved to incredulous astonishment. How could anyone possibly connect the Son of Man and a cross? Was not the Son of Man the invincible leader at the head of the irresistible armies of heaven? Was not his kingdom to last for ever? "His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed" (Daniel 7:14). Was it not said of the prince of the golden age: "David my servant shall be their prince for ever"? (Ezekiel 37:25). Had Isaiah not said of the ruler of the new world: "Of the increase of his government and of peace there shall be no end"? (Isaiah 9:7). Did the Psalmists not sing of this endless kingdom? "I will establish your descendants for ever, and build your thrones for all generations" (Psalms 89:4). The Jews connected the Son of Man with an everlasting kingdom, and here was he, who claimed to be the Son of Man, talking about being lifted up upon a cross. Who was this Son of Man, whose kingdom was to end before it had begun?

The lesson of history is that Jesus was right. It was on the magnet of the Cross that he pinned his hopes; and he was right because love will live long after might is dead.

As Kipling had it:

Far-called our navies melt away;

On dune and headland sinks the fire;

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Nineveh and Tyre are only names now, but Christ lives on.

One of the great sonnets of the English language is Ozymandias by Shelley:

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand

Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown

And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command

Tell that sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,

The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed:

And on the pedestal these words appear:

'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Ozymandias was king of kings, yet all that he has left is a shattered statue in the desert, and a name that a chance sonnet keeps alive.

H. E. Fosdick quotes a poem in one of his books:

"I saw the conquerors riding by

With cruel lips and faces wan:

Musing on kingdoms sacked and burned

There rode the Mongol Genghis Khan;

And Alexander, like a god,

Who sought to weld the world in one:

And Caesar with his laurel wreath;

And like a thing from Hell the Hun;

And, leading like a star, the van,

Heedless of upstretched arm and groan,

Inscrutable Napoleon went,

Dreaming of Empire, and alone....

Then all they perished from the earth,

As fleeting shadows from a glass,

And, conquering down the centuries,

Came Christ the swordless on an ass."

The empires founded on force have vanished, leaving only a memory which with the years becomes ever fainter. But the empire of Christ, founded upon a Cross, each year extends its sway.

In Shaw's play, when Joan of Arc knows that she has been betrayed to the stake by the leaders of her own people, she turns to them and says: "I will go out now to the common people, and let the love in their eyes comfort me for the hate in yours. You will all be glad to see me burnt; but if I go through the fire I shall go through it to their hearts for ever and ever." That is a parable of what happened to Jesus. His death upon the Cross made him go through men's hearts for ever and for ever. The conquering Messiah of the Jews is a figure about whom scholars write their books; but the Prince of Love on the Cross is a king who has his throne for ever in the hearts of men. The only secure foundation for a kingdom is sacrificial love.

SONS OF THE LIGHT (John 12:35-36)

12:35-36 Jesus said to them: "For a little while yet the light is among you. Walk while you have the light that the darkness may not overtake you. He who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become the sons of the light."

There is in this passage the implicit promise and the implicit threat which are never very far from the heart of the Christian faith.

(i) There is the promise of light. The man who walks with Jesus is delivered from the shadows. There are certain shadows which cast their shade sooner or later on every light. There is the shadow of fear. Sometimes we are afraid to look forward. Sometimes, especially when we see what they can do to others, we are afraid of the chances and the changes of life. There are the shadows of doubts and uncertainties. Sometimes the way ahead is far from being clear and we feel like people groping among the shadows with nothing firm to cling to. There are the shadows of sorrow. Sooner or later the sun sets at midday and the lights go out. But the man who walks with Jesus is delivered from fear; he is liberated from doubt; he has a joy that no man takes from him.

(ii) There is the implicit threat. The decision to trust life and all things to Jesus, the decision to take him as Master and Guide and Saviour, must be made in time. In life all things must be done in time, or they will not be done at all. There is work which we can do only when we have the physical strength to do it. There is study which can be carried out only when our minds are keen enough and our memories retentive enough to cope with it. There are things which have to be said and done or the time for saying and doing them is gone for ever. It is so with Jesus. At the actual moment Jesus said this, he was appealing to the Jews to believe in him before the Cross came and he was taken from them. But this is an eternal truth. It is a statistical fact that there is a steep rise in the number of conversions up to the age of seventeen and an equally steep fall afterwards. The more a man lets himself become fixed in his ways the harder it is to jerk himself out of them. In Christ the supreme blessedness is offered to men; in one sense it is never too late to grasp it; but nonetheless it remains true that it must be grasped in time.

BLIND UNBELIEF (John 12:37-41)

12:37-41 When Jesus had said these things, he went away and hid himself from them. Although he had done such great signs in their presence they did not believe in him. It happened thus that the word which Isaiah the prophet spoke should be fulfilled: "Lord, who has believed what he heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?" It was for this reason that they could not believe, because Isaiah said again: "He has blinded their eyes, he has hardened their heart, so that they may not see with their eyes and understand with their heart. and turn, and I will heal them." Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke about him.

This is a passage which is bound to trouble many minds. John quotes two passages from Isaiah. The first is from Isaiah 53:1-2. In it the prophet asks if there is anyone who has believed what he has been saying, and if there is anyone who recognizes the power of God when it is revealed to him. But it is the second passage which troubles the mind. The original is in Isaiah 6:9-10. It runs: "And God said, Go and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn, and be healed." That is a passage which runs all through the New Testament. It is quoted or echoed in Matthew 13:14-15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; Romans 11:8; 2 Corinthians 3:14; Acts 28:27. The terrible and the troubling thing is that it seems to say that man's unbelief is due to God's action; that God has ordained that certain people must not and will not believe. Now in whatever way we explain this passage, we cannot believe that the God whom Jesus told us about would make it impossible for his children to believe.

There are two things to be said.

(i) We must try to think ourselves back into Isaiah's heart and mind. He had proclaimed the word of God and put everything he had into his message. And men had refused to listen. In the end he was forced to say: "For all the good I have done I might as well never have spoken. Instead of making men better my message seems to have made them worse. They might as well never have heard it, for they are simply confirmed in their lethargy and their disobedience and their unbelief. You would think that God had meant them not to believe." Isaiah's words spring from a broken heart. They are the words of a man bewildered by the fact that his message seemed to make men worse instead of better. To read them with cold literalness is completely to misunderstand.

(ii) But there is something else. It was a basic belief of the Jews that God is behind everything. They believed that nothing could happen outside the purpose of God. If that is so they were bound to believe that when men would not accept God's message their unbelief was still within God's purpose. To put that into modern terms and into our way of thought--we would not say that unbelief is God's purpose, but we would say that God in his controlling wisdom and power can use even men's unbelief for his purposes. That is how Paul saw it. He saw God using the unbelief of the Jews for the conversion of the Gentiles.

We must understand this passage to mean, not that God predestined certain people to unbelief, but that even man's unbelief can be used to further God's eternal purposes. These Jews did not believe in Jesus; that was not God's fault but theirs; but even that has somehow its place in God's scheme. "Ill that he blesses is our good." God is so great that there is nothing in this world, not even sin, which is outside his power.

THE COWARD'S FAITH (John 12:42-43)

12:42-43 Nevertheless many of the rulers believed in him, but they did not publicly confess their faith for they did not wish to be excommunicated; for they loved the glory of men rather than the glory of God.

Jesus did not speak entirely to deaf ears; there were those even of the Jewish authorities, who in their heart of hearts believed. But they were afraid to confess their faith, because they did not wish to run the risk of being excommunicated from the synagogue. These people were seeking to carry out the impossible; they were trying to be secret disciples. Secret discipleship is a contradiction in terms for, "either the secrecy kills the discipleship, or the discipleship kills the secrecy."

They feared that by becoming confessed followers of Jesus they would lose so much. It is strange how often men have got their values mixed up. Again and again they have failed to support some great cause because it interfered with some lesser interest. When Joan of Arc realized that she stood forsaken and alone, she said: "Yes: I am alone on earth: I have always been alone. My father told my brothers to drown me if I would not stay to mind his sheep while France was bleeding to death; France might perish if only our lambs were safe." That French farmer preferred the safety of his sheep to the safety of his country. These Jewish rulers were a little like that. They knew that Jesus was right; they knew that their fellow-rulers were out to destroy him and all that he was seeking to do for God; but they were not prepared to take the risk of openly declaring for him. It would have meant an end of their place, their profit, and their prestige. They would have been ostracized from society and banished from orthodox religion. It was too high a price to pay. So they lived a lie because they were not big enough to stand up for the truth.

In one vivid phrase John diagnoses their position. They preferred to stand well with men rather than with God. No doubt they thought themselves wise and prudent; but their wisdom did not extend to remembering that while the opinion of men might matter for the few years in which they lived upon this earth, the judgment of God mattered for all eternity. It is true wisdom and prudence to prefer the good opinion of God to the good opinion of men; it is always better to be right for eternity than to be right for time.

THE INESCAPABLE JUDGMENT (John 12:44-50)

12:44-50 Jesus cried and said: "He who believes in me does not believe in me, but in him who sent me. And he who looks upon me, looks upon him who sent me. It was as light that I came into the world, that every one who believes in me should not remain in darkness. And, if anyone hears my words and does not keep them, it is not I who judge him. I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. He who completely disregards me as of no account, and who does not receive my words, has one who judges him. The word which I spoke, that will judge him on the last day. That is so because it was not out of my own self that I spoke. But the Father who sent me, it was he who gave me the commandment which laid down what I should speak and what I should say. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. The things that I speak, I speak as the Father spoke to me."

These, according to John, are Jesus' last words of public teaching. Hereafter he will teach his disciples and hereafter he will stand before Pilate, but these are the last words he will address to people at large.

Jesus makes the claim which is the basis of his whole life, that in him men are confronted with God. To listen to him is to listen to God; to see him is to see God. In him God meets man, and man meets God. That confrontation has two results and both have in them the core of judgment.

(i) Once again Jesus returns to a thought that is never far away in the Fourth Gospel. He did not come into the world to condemn; be came to save. It was not the wrath of God which sent Jesus to men; it was his love. Yet the coming of Jesus inevitably involves judgment. Why should that be? Because by his attitude to Jesus a man shows what he is and therefore judges himself. If he finds in Jesus an infinite magnetism and attraction, even if he never succeeds in making his life what he knows he ought to make it, he has felt the tug of God upon his heart; and therefore he is safe. If on the other hand he sees in Jesus nothing lovely and his heart remains completely untouched in his presence, it means that he is impervious to God; and he has therefore judged himself. Always in the Fourth Gospel there is this essential paradox; Jesus came in love, yet his coming is a judgment. As we have said before, we can in perfect, unmixed love offer a person some great experience, and find that he sees nothing in it; the experience offered in love has become a judgment. Jesus is God's touchstone. By a man's attitude to him he himself stands revealed.

(ii) Jesus said that at the last day the words which these people had heard would be their judges. That is one of the great truths of life. A man cannot be blamed for not knowing. But if he knows the right and does the wrong his condemnation is all the more serious. Therefore every wise thing that we have heard, and every opportunity we have had to know the truth, will in the end be a witness against us.

An old eighteenth century divine wrote a kind of catechism of the Christian faith for ordinary people. At the end there was a question which asked what would happen to a person if he disregarded the Christian message. The answer was that condemnation would follow, "and so much the more because thou hast read this book."

All that we have known and did not do will be a witness against us at the last.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on John 12:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/john-12.html. 1956-1959.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, September 16th, 2019
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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