Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

169. “Lifted up” (John 12:20-36)

Amongst the worshippers who had come up to Jerusalem for the Passover were a number of Greeks who were (so the text implies) worshippers, "proselytes of the gate".

They came, most probably, from the cities of the Decapolis on the eastern side of Galilee. Of course they had not been without opportunity to see Jesus in the course of his repeated visits to their part of the countryside. But now there was a special purpose behind this present approach to him.

Jesus was teaching in the inner court from which they were rigidly excluded. So they seized the opportunity to appeal to Philip, who was possibly known personally to some of them: Would he persuade his Master to come into the outer court, the Court of the Gentiles, for their benefit? What a difference between their wish to see Jesus and that of Herod (Lk.23 :8)! The strong assertion of Jesus had gone round that this temple was to be "the house of prayer for all nations" (Mk. 11:17).

It is a likely guess that they came with a definite proposition:

'Jesus, by your triumphal entry into Jerusalem you have proclaimed yourself the Messiah. Yet you will never be accepted as Messiah by the chief priests and Sanhedrin. They are all bitterly hostile to you. Then why not begin your Messianic kingdom in our part of the country where there is much sympathy for your cause and none of this entrenched opposition? The Jews of Galilee are enthusiastic about you, and they will give all support to this scheme.'

Several details in the text harmonize well enough with this reading of the situation.

They came to Philip as intermediary, feeling sure that he would help, for his name implied Greek sympathy and perhaps even an admixture of Greek ancestry.

From the first (Jn.l :44,45) Philip had been eager to find disciples for his lord, so he was willing enough to help now, for he knew the value of seeing as a ground for faith (1 :46; 14:8). Nevertheless mindful of Christ's repeated emphasis on a mission to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel," he hesitated, even though they addressed him-a disciple-as "Lord."

He was unsure how to respond to this request, for earlier had not their Master instructed them: "Go not in the way of the Gentiles" (Mt.10:5)? So he went off to consult Andrew about it. This first of all evangelists (Jn.l :41) naturally added his encouragement to the idea, perhaps all the more readily because he had been specially impressed with so much in his Lord's recent words and actions which suggested a leaning towards the Gentiles. So together they approached Jesus. These two had shown a common concern about the needs of the multitude when Jesus fed the five thousand (Jn.6 :5-9). And had not Jesus himself said: "If two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven" (Mt.l8:19)? And also this: "All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out" (Jn.6 :37). Doubtless John foreshadowed here that it would be through the work of the apostles, and not by the direct ministry of Jesus, that Gentiles would come to the Faith.

The Son of man glorified

The reaction of Jesus now was extraordinary: "The hour is come that the Son of man should be glorified." What, precisely, did he mean? The usage of the words "glory, glorify" in John's gospel makes a study of considerable complexity. Here it must be sufficient to indicate the three powerful Messianic prophecies which lie behind the present allusion. (For details, see the end of Study 170).

There is Isaiah's moving picture of a Messiah facing the discouragement of a people indifferent to his claims and his wonderful work: "I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nought, and in vain . . . Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified... Though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the Lord ... I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the ends of the earth" (ls.49 :3-6). The appropriateness of these words to the context in John needs no explaining.

There is also the introduction to the outstanding prophecy of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53: "Behold, my servant shall cause to understand, and shall be lifted up, and shall be glorified exceedingly (LXX) ... so shall he sprinkle (i.e. cleanse) many nations" (52:13,15). Copious reference is made to both of these Scriptures in John 12.

But perhaps even more striking is the allusion to the Son of man prophecy in Daniel 7 :13,14: "Behold, one like unto the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days . . . And they offer all glory in service unto him (LXX), that all people, nations and languages should serve him." When Jesus cried out: "Now is the Son of man glorifed," he doubtless saw in the eager service of these Gentiles the first token of fulfilment of Daniel's impressive vision.

A corn of wheat

Nevertheless his response to the proposition of these Greek believers must be: 'No, I am here to die, and thus to bring forth much fruit. Your proposal would mean no fruit. The thought of the Isaiah passages had brought poignantly home to him that the path of heavenly glory was also the path of suffering:

"Verily, verily, I say unto you (and he was speaking now to both Jews and Gentiles), Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit." The principle of Life through death is basic to all God's dealings with this race of mortal sinners: "that through death he might destroy him that hath the power of death" (Heb.2 :14); "that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection . . . being made conformable unto his death" (Phil.3 :10); "always delivered unto death for Jesus' sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh" (2 Cor.4 :11); it is only the slaying of the burnt offering and its complete consumption on the altar which makes it "a sweet savour unto the Lord."

Paul learned from his Master this figure of the planted seed (1 Cor. 15 :36). It is a parable to be interpreted not of the process of resurrection, but of the results of it. Thus: the seed in the ground represents the old life in Adam, declared by burial to be fit only for death; this "natural man" does not die at once but gradually; as he dies, the New Man in Christ grows (this is the plant growing out of the dying seed); ultimately there is "the full corn in the ear"-this is the life to come, resurrection life, like that which was planted, only much more glorious and abundant.

Jesus proceeded to apply the principle of self-sacrifice involved in his parable, first to himself, and then to his disciples. "He that loveth his soul is destroying it; and he that hateth his soul in this world shall keep it unto life (zoe) eternal." The words are almost meaningless until it is realised that here, as in so many places in the New Testament, "soul" stands for all that belongs to the natural man, the old Adam (Lk.12 :19-23; Heb.4 :12; 1 Pet.1 :22; Rev.18 :14; Study 129). The tension and conflict in Jesus are summed up in his words: "Now is my soul troubled."

And the like experience must come to every disciple also: "If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will my Father honour." This marked emphasis on first person pronouns would be insufferable egotism in any one else. Yet, such is the status and authority of Jesus, there is no hint of unseemliness in his words.

It may be that, as in a later section of this discourse (Study 171), there is here another of the many hidden "Moses" allusions which this gospel has. "Servant" is the word "minister", one who serves in the presence of his Master, as Joshua did to Moses. The honour which came to Joshua is at least equalled by the honour God endows on the minister of His Son. But an important lesson Jesus impressed on these Greeks was: 'You must come to me and my example, not I to you.'

The phrase: "where I am" is often read as referring prospectively to the future. But the context asks for a literal interpretation. Jesus was already in the throes of Gethsemane. The disciple must follow, and with many a lesser Gethsemane, must share his experience. In a similar, but not equal, sense he too must die in order to bring forth much fruit. So much written about Christ here must apply to the disciple also.


John's gospel supplies no detail of the Lord's intense wrestling with self in Gethsemane, but his present discourse has all the marks of similar agonizing. It is John's equivalent of what the Synoptists record (Mt.26:36-46; Mk.l4:32-42; Lk.22:30-46). Almost every phrase from v.24 to v.33 needs to be read carefully from this point of view. Jesus "oftimes resorted thither"-to Gethsemane (18 :2). This assuredly was one of those "Gethsemane" experiences.

"Now is my soul troubled;" he said, "and what shall I say? Shall I say, Father, save me from this hour?" (or, possibly: "Why should I say, Father save me from this hour?"). But for this cause came I unto this hour. No, I will rather say, Father, glorify thy name."

How very close these words are to the prayer in Gethsemane! It was the soul of Jesus which turned away from the ordeal before him. But his spirit was willing. And now, as later, as always, that which was spiritual triumphed over that which was natural in him.

These anticipations of Gethsemane can be traced further:

v.26: "Where I am, there shall also my servant be."
v.27: "This hour."
v.29: "An angel spake to him."
v.31: "The prince of this world."
v.32: "Lifted up."
v.33: "What death he should die."

"Now is my soul troubled"(cp. 13:21; 11:33). Jesus was appropriating almost verbatim the words of Psalm 42 :6 LXX, a most intense psalm of David, written (very probably) at the time when he was hunted from his throne and from the holy city by Absalom and his rebels againstthe Lord's anointed (see Study 214). In all kinds of ways the situation presented a God- contrived parallel to the rejection of Jesus by those who more than any should have acknowledged him. And as David found refuge beyond Jordan and support from his loyal guard of Gentile warriors (2 Sam.15 :18), so now Jesus gained new strength and encouragement from these Gentiles who honoured him with their reverence: "for this cause came I to this hour," that, falling as a corn of wheat into the ground, he might bring forth much fruit; and it was also "for this cause (that he might be saved out of this hour; (Heb.5 :7RVm) that he was brought face to face with such dereliction.

A voice from heaven

The prayer of need Found immediate response from the Father in heaven: "There came therefore a voice from heaven (because such a prayer must be answered), I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again." Even in the unsuccessful mission to Israel, God had been glorified in the words of grace spoken by His Son, and in the winsome acts of compassion and power which he had displayed. Soon a yet wider ministry to the glory of God would take the gospel to Gentiles thirsty for good news of truth and righteousness. Accordingly Christ's last word to his preachers was: "Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all nations" (Mt.28:19).

The voice from heaven brought reassurance to Jesus, as at his baptism (Lk.3 :21,22) and at his transfiguration (9 :35), but that was not its primary purpose: "This voice came not because of me, but for your sakes," he explained to these eager Gentiles (Jn. 11:42). As Israel had heard the voice of God, a voice of thunder, when their covenant was inaugurated with sacrifice at Sinai, so now the Gentiles had a like experience when they were about to become sharers in the New Covenant. It may have been these Gentiles who were ready with their explanation of the impressive phenomenon. Although to them it was only a noise, they were immediately convinced that "an angel hath spoken (and is still speaking) to him." But to the Jews in the throng it was nothing more than thunder. Thunder in spring-time! Yet even they would not have made so foolish a suggestion if there had not been heavy clouds in the sky over Jerusalem. The Daniel prophecy alluded to by Jesus tells of the "clouds" of heaven (the Shekinah Glory) round the glorified Son of man (Dan.7 :13)—from the mention of thunder some would infer clouds and lightning, not infrequent accompaniments of the Shekinah Glory. But these Jews, like the scientists of the twentieth century, would rather find "natural causes" as the explanation of this thunder than see and hear God at work in anything to do with Jesus of Nazareth. (For thunder as the Voice of God consider: Ex.19 :18,19; 20 :18; Ps.81 :7; 18:13; 29:3;ls.29:6).

The prince of this world

Nevertheless, whether they discerned it or not, this mighty Voice of God gave plain intimation that the Almighty had not abdicated, but was about to bring vast far-reaching changes in the Jewish kosmos: "Now is the judgment of this Mosaic order (see Notes): now shall the prince of this world be cast out" (contrast 6:37).

These are enigmatic expressions. Three times Jesus was to speak of "the prince of this world" (14 :30; 16 :11), yet in none of the three occasions is there a decisive context to settle the meaning of the words. Various suggestions are available:

  1. The most familiar-that here the power of Sin is personified, as indeed it certainly is in other places. "God, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh" (Rom.8 :3). "Sin shall not have dominion over you . . . being made free from sin, ye became slaves of righteousness" (Rom.6 :14,18). But there are difficulties. "The prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me," implies a human adversary. And so also: "the Comforter will rebuke the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment ... of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged." How is the abstract principle of Sin to be rebuked? This again suggests a person or human system.
  2. Was Jesus alluding to the destroying angel of the Passover (Ex.12 :23)? There can be little doubt that he made at least one other reference to the world powers described from Egypt (Mt.26 :53). If this is the case, he now spoke of a greater deliverance-from the power of death. Through his sacrifice of himself this Lamb of God would, so to speak, judge the angel of judgment.
  3. Interpreting in harmony with the earlier allusion to Daniel 7, "the prince of this world" can be given a literal meaning with reference to the world powers described in Daniel's vision: "four kings which shall arise out of the earth." Without the power and authority of the fourth of these, no crucifixion could take place. Yet the death of Christ guaranteed the ultimate abolition of all human might and dominion.
  4. In this context Jesus had much to say about the rejection of Israel and the end of the Mosaic order. "Now is the judgment of this world" was, in that sense, literally true. So by "the prince of this world" he may have meant the high priest and the entire system which he stood for. Within hours that man of holiness and evil would send his minions to arrest Jesus. Yet the entire transaction could lead only to the final end of that high priesthood in the sight of God. At the trial of Jesus, Caiaphas rent his garment-Qnd thereby signified more than he knew.
  5. Clearly, with these Biblical alternatives, there is little room for the un-Biblical idea of a supernatural Devil, who never was and never will be "prince of this world."
"Lifted up"

Though Jesus drew comfort and strength from contemplation of the great redeeming work appointed for him to do, just now his mind dwelt more on the ordeal before him. Only through suffering could the victory be won: "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me." There was designed double meaning in these words, (as also in Jn.2 :19; 3 :3; 4 :10; 11:50). The interpretative passages from Isaiah quoted in the ensuing verses speak of Christ's glory. "I saw the Lord high and lifted up" (Is.6 :1). "Behold, my Servant shall cause to understand (Heb.), and shall be lifted up, and shall be glorified exceedingly" (52 :13 LXX). And similarly Daniel 7, very much in the mind of Jesus at this time, speaks of the exaltation of the Son of man in the presence of the Ancient of Days.

Even so, John's own comment is: "This he said, signifying by what manner of death he should die." And the words were evidently understood in this way by the multitude: "We have heard out of the Law that the Messiah abideth for ever (Ps.72 :17; 110 :4; ls.9 :7; Ez.37 :25; Dan.7 :14): and how sayest thou, The Son of man must be lifted up? who is this Son of man?" Evidently, the expression "lifted up" was currently used colloquially for "crucified." Similarly another word anaireo (literally: lift up, take up) is often used in the NT. to mean "kill, slay." Early in his ministry Jesus had used the same idiom: "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up" (Jn.3 :14; cp. 8 :28; Ezra 6 :11RV). To the minds of the people nothing could be more incongruous than the idea of a crucified Messiah. So this saying of Jesus would contribute to a further cooling of enthusiasm regarding his claims.

Any who leaned towards discipleship would also be greatly discouraged by Jesus' expectation that he would "draw all men unto him." Of course, he did not mean "all without exception," but "all without distinction," without any regard as to whether they were Pharisees or publicans, Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free, (as in Jn.5 :28; 3 :15,16; Acts 2 :21; 10:43; 1 Tim 2 :6; Rom.5 :18; Heb.2 :9). The exclusive national pride which possessed nearly all Jewry never took kindly to the idea of others being received by God on equal terms with themselves. Thus, with many, enthusiasm for the man of Galilee cooled to lukewarmness and even to indifference. There had been other recent discouragements: his failure to make use of a splendid opportunity at the Triumphal Entry, and his explicit sanction of payment of tribute to Caesar (Mk. 11 :11; 12:17).

Nevertheless Jesus spoke truth. His cross would, and did, draw all kinds of men unto him. The crucifixion itself was to illustrate this, for then not only disciples but also malefactors and women and Roman soldiers and honourable counsellors all paid their tribute to the One who was "lifted up." "So shall he sprinkle (and purify) many nations", wrote the prophet of the Lord (ls.52 :15). And, encouraging the Gentile enquirers, Jesus had pointedly said: "If any man serve me, let him follow me."

Light, darkness

Sensing the Jewish reaction against his doctrine, Jesus exhorted them to use well their present opportunity: "Yet a little while is the light among you. Walk as ye have the light, lest darkness seize you." It is possible that here he was comparing himself to the Shekinah Glory of God which guided and protected Israel in the wilderness. The pillar of fire and cloud had given light by night to Israel, but was darkness to the Egyptians who sought to seize them (Ex.14 :20). In the wilderness Israel's unwillingness to be guided by the Glory of the Lord resulted in years of aimless wandering. They walked in darkness for thirty-eight years, of which there is no record. (Note the great gap in the history at Num.20:1; 33 :36).

With all the earnestness he could command Jesus urged his hearers not to fall after the same example of unbelief. "While ye have the light, believe in the light, that ye may be the children of light."

And with that he put point to his appeal by acting the parable: "he departed, and did hide himself from them." The "hiding of God's face" from Israel is one of the most powerful figures of speech used by the Old Testament prophets (e.g. ls.8 :17). Almost every example of it goes back to the vision of the Cherubim of Glory covering their faces with their wings (Is.6 :2). Now, even more pointedly, Jesus tried to teach the people of their present danger because of indifference to himself and his message. But their minds were made up.

Notes: Jn.l 2:20-36

The Gk. text indicates a definite link with the preceding passage: "The world is gone after him." They had meant the Jewish world, but now the reader is encouraged to see a yet wider meaning in the phrase.
See Jesus. It was Philip who said: "Come and see" (1 :46); but he meant, and this means, more than see him optically: 15:24; 14:7, 9; 9:37; 6:36.
The Gk. text here shows distinct signs of compression. The usual Gk. particles are omitted; and "he saith to Andrew" and "they say to Jesus" both lack apodosis.
Now is my soul troubled. The suggested historical setting is not certain, for it is the first of the "Korah" psalms, and all the rest of that set seem to belong definitely to the time of Hezekiah. Much in the psalm is appropriate to Hezekiah's experience.
Glorify. First occurrence in Ex.15 (5 times) and "glory" (twice).
Spake to him. Gk. perfect tense seems to imply that the voice went on speaking, even as the people speculated.
This world. In John's gospel /cosmos not infrequently = the Jewish world: e.g. 7 :4,7; 12 :19; 18 :20.
Draw all men; s.w. 21 :11. Is there a designed allusion here to the name of Moses?
Signifying; i.e. expressing by sign or type; 3 :14.
The Law; here put by metonymy for the entire O.T.

Who is this Son of man? From these words it looks as though these Jews understood Jesus to be making outright claim to be the Messiah.
Light. . . darkness. For this combination of light and the fruitfulness of a corn of wheat, compare Ps. 97:11; 67:1,2,6.
Children of light; 1 Th.5 :5; Eph.5 :8; Lk. 16:8.

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