After taking several weeks off we are returning this morning to our study through the Gospel of John. Chapter 12 is a transition chapter. We are here reading the conclusion of “The Book of Signs” in preparation to enter “The Book of Glory.” It would be impossible to understand the significance of this chapter without having read the first 11 chapters. That struggle between light and darkness described in John 1:1-18 has now reached a fever pitch. The light is shining with brilliance in the world, calling people to join its ranks exposing the darkness with all of its deception.
To fully appreciate all that is happening in this passage we want to remind ourselves that this Gospel was written by the Apostle John toward the end of his life. Some think this may have been the last book he wrote, even after the Revelation. We know that for some time John had served as the leading elder in the church at Ephesus. They were the third outpost of the spread of the gospel in the first century of Christianity (following the churches in Jerusalem and Antioch). They were a very dynamic congregation serving as a powerful beacon of truth in an increasingly dark world. But, although they had successfully started churches throughout Asia minor (what is now known as Turkey), they were plagued by doubts. The growing intensity of persecution was a discouragement. Had Christianity failed as some had claimed? Was there no stopping the corrupt, pagan Roman Empire? Wasn’t it unjust that Jesus had been crucified by Rome? If Jesus really had been the promised Messiah, why had he been forced to experience the humility of death on a cross? These, and many other questions plagued the believers in those trying times. But John had the answer for them. It was at the cross that God’s greatest glory was on display. Everything had purposefully led to Calvary.
As we read John 12 we recognize two dramatic forces at work. On one hand, the popularity of Jesus following the resurrection of Lazarus was amazing. So much so that some of the leaders even wanted to kill Lazarus along with Jesus. Immediately following the Lazarus miracle Jesus and his disciples had left for Ephrata but that had not stopped the story from spreading. Now that he had returned to Bethany the enthusiasm was bursting at the seams! From Bethany, to Bethpage, to the western side of the Mt. of Olives, each step brought Jesus closer to Jerusalem and the excitement of the crowds was continually escalating. At the same time, the hatred of Jesus by the Jewish religious leaders was also escalating. They were convinced that the crowds were all being persuaded to believe in Jesus and they were also convinced that they were going to be severely punished by Rome for allowing things to get out of control. What is interesting, though, is that both forces, popularity and hatred, were leading to the same point. The cross. And that is where God’s glory would be on display.
As we study this chapter please notice that there are four separate scenes described for us but each one teaches us an important lesson:
I. The Anointing of Jesus (Devotion) vv. 1-11
A. It is important to read the account of Mary’s anointing of Jesus with the Matthew and Mark accounts in view. They help round out the story adding details that John did not include. We believe that the Luke account was dealing with an entirely different event. Different women. Different location. Different time. But the Matthew and Mark accounts are of the same event.
B. It is interesting that very little is made of Judas Iscariot’s problem with Mary’s costly sacrifice. It is almost a passing comment regarding the problem of the poor and the exposing of Judas as being a secret thief. Rather, the main focus of the account was on Mary and her devotion to Jesus. It is interesting that every time we meet Mary in the pages of Scripture she is kneeling at the feet of Jesus. She was supremely devoted to him. John’s account is quite brief when it comes to the details but we know from Matthew and Mark that her anointing was an anointing of his whole body. She made sure that his body and robes were well soaked with the strong smell of nard. It was a pleasant smell that he carried with him the remainder of the week, through the ordeal of his arrest and condemnation, through the severe punishment prior to the cross, and even the crucifixion itself. Mary had anointed him for his death. It was to die that he had come. And the smell of the nard ministered to him through his darkest moments.
C. Mary’s devotion in this account has been tied to the gospel story as Mark reminds us (Mark 14:9). Jesus declared that when the gospel is proclaimed, what Mary did will be a part of that story. This is a powerful reminder that the gospel story is a call to devotion, a call to discipleship. So much so, that the telling of the gospel is insufficient if devotion and sacrifice is avoided. Those who would be followers of Jesus would do well to imitate her sacrificial, excessive anointing of our Lord.
D. Through the centuries the excess of Mary’s gift has been a problem. If a church does something extravagant the criticism has typically been that the money would have been better spent on missions. But is that necessarily the case? Mary’s gift was outrageously extravagant. And Jesus honored her for it. Should we exercise great care and humble discernment when it comes to doing something extravagant for the Lord? Of course. But the fact of something being extravagant doesn’t rule out that it may also be honoring and fitting to commemorate our desire to exalt his name.
E. Mary’s example propels us forward in the story of his death. While the disciples, chiefly Peter, will find the necessity of his death confusing and repugnant, Mary, who asks no questions, gently prepared her Lord for the grave. Thus, this story is really about the cross, about Mary’s courageous understanding and acceptance of Jesus’ death. It was a profound signal that Jesus was really going to die.
II. The Popular Entrance into Jerusalem (Anticipation) vv. 12-19
A. It has become popular to celebrate Palm Sunday as a triumph for Jesus, although it was a short lived one. The idea of Jesus’ popularity reaching such heights and of the crowds welcoming him to Jerusalem at the time of the festival is an alluring idea. Certainly John portrays the events with this reality at the forefront. The miraculous resurrection of Lazarus had caused many to believe in Jesus. His reappearance in Bethany just days before the Passover festival was to begin and at a time when Jerusalem and the surrounding areas were overflowing with visitors was the perfect setting for such excitement. Fulfilling the prophecies of Zechariah 9, the crowds laid palm branches on the pathway along with their coats. The children waved the palm fronds and the people cried, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel.”
B. But there is a darker reality moving through this account. The cheers and accolades of the crowds were for a Messiah who had come to reign, not one who had come to die. Listen to their cheers. “Hosanna!” which is a transliteration of the Hebrew “hosi-a-na” which means, “Give salvation now”. But as the crowds used the term, and as the term is popularly used to today, it is an expression of exuberant praise for God. The people were caught up in the moment welcoming the one whom they had hoped had come to reign. Their use of Psalm 118 and the conclusion of the ascension Psalms, the Psalms sung each year during the Feast of Tabernacles symbolically welcoming the promised Messiah, was revealing. Most revealing of all was the addition of “even the King of Israel.” That’s not a quotation from anywhere in Scripture. The people had their sights on making him their king. Just like they had wanted to in John 6 where they intended by force to make him their king. They were cheering for a fantasy.
C. But Jesus did not come riding a stallion warrior clothed in battle armor as a conquering king. Rather, he came riding a small, young donkey. Yes, he was and is the King of kings and Lord of lords. But he came first to die. He came humbly. Their adoration of him, while exciting and pleasing to us, was a false view. It missed the significance of his coming. It missed the beauty of God’s plan for the occasion. And their misunderstanding would lead to rejection and cries for his crucifixion less than a week later. Yes, Jesus wants and deserves our praise. But we most honor him as we honor and submit to God’s plans rather than use Jesus to further our own plans.
III. The God-fearing Greeks (Inquiry) vv. 20-36
A. The third scene of the chapter revolves around a request by some Greeks to meet with Jesus. We don’t know whether these are Hellenist Jews (like those involved in the conflict in Acts 6) or whether these are Gentiles. What is most interesting is that Jesus’ response to their request is not clear. Instead of recording a meeting with them, John used their request to record clarification of two central truths related to the bigger story, the journey of Jesus to the cross. This request signals a dramatic turning point.
B. Consistently, Jesus had declared that he had come to seek the lost sheep of Israel. His ministry first of all was to the Jews. But now, that ministry is complete. Although a preponderance of evidence had been made available to Israel proving that Jesus was their Messiah, they still did not believe in him. Nationally, they still rejected him. So now, people not within the traditional sheepfold of Israel, are turning to him. Without rejecting Israel, this story affirms a new direction in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus’ ministry has now widened to embrace the needs of the whole world. Such language does not infer the salvation of every person of the world but it does infer the welcome of every nation of the world.
C. Tied directly to this turning point is the fact that Jesus’ hour had now come. Previously, we read repeated references to it not yet being his hour. But as the Gentiles begin to seek Jesus he responded, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Where would he be glorified? On the cross. Everything points to the cross. To embrace these inquiring Greeks means that his impending death would be for the benefit of the world.
D. This idea of Gentile acceptance was very problematic for the early church. God prepared Peter for this through the vision at Joppa. Peter confessed that it was God’s plan when the Gentile Cornelius and his household received the gospel. Still later, the Apostle Paul, a trained Pharisee, would declare himself to be the Apostle to the Gentiles. Such changes were very hard for the believing Jews to accept coming from their strong prejudicial hatred of all Gentiles. The entrance of Samaritans, God fearing Gentiles, and other nationalities into the church was more than a matter of racial diversity. It was a profound theological statement that cut across the heart of one of Judaism’s primary commitments of keeping themselves pure from Gentile corruption. For John’s church at Ephesus, comprised of a majority of converted Jews but now expanding through Gentile conversions, this matter was of great importance. Even for the American church we need to be careful about the tendency to assume that God’s plan is all about us and forget that his plan has always had the nations in mind. The familiar “America first” cry may resonate with us in matters of financial and national security but is at cross-purposes when it comes to the mission to take the gospel to every creature. We need to celebrate God’s plan. I remember my first trip to Colombia ending with the privilege of preaching that weekend for a combination of 12 churches in Bogotá. On Sunday morning they sang some songs that I did not know but then they transitioned to the Spanish version of Chris Tomlin’s “How Great is Our God.” I sang it in Spanish and my heart was overwhelmed with joy that we could share the same song and be powerfully moved to worship. It just reminded me that the gospel of Jesus Christ transcends all language and national barriers. From Bogotá I texted Iliana Ponce, “I just sang Tomlin’s “How Great is Our God” in Spanish and it wrecked me!”
E. Not only did the request from the Greeks prompt Jesus to declare that his hour had come but it also prompted him to call disciples to be ready to follow him, even to death. Jesus death was for the benefit of the world. His death was not an option. It was a necessity. Therefore, if a disciple is willing to follow him he must be willing to follow him to the death. This is no light matter. Even Jesus wrestled with the reality of all that his impending death entailed. Although his flesh may fear death, it was for this very reason he had come. What was non-negotiable, though, was Jesus’ insistence on revealing God’s glory and that could only happen on the cross. When he was lifted up he drew all men (all nations) to himself and God’s glory was confirmed.
IV. The Unbelieving Jews (Judicial Consequences) vv. 27-50
A. Beginning with v. 27, the Apostle John injected a teaching important to his church. The wholesale rejection of Jesus by the nation of Israel carried significant consequences. Their continual rejection of the Lord resulted in his eventual rejection of them. This is a difficult concept for most of us. We like to think of God as having inexhaustible patience with us. The idea that there would come a point where God would say, “That’s it! You’ve rejected me once too often. I now reject you!” is very hard. To accept that there comes a point of no return means that we may have loved ones who have been saying no to God. We wonder, “Is there hope for my loved ones?”
B. One aspect of this whole discussion we need to be careful about is to not see here determinism or predestination. Some would propose the view that God predestines some to hell, although that concept is never taught in the Scriptures. In fact, in our study of John we have seen numerous times when the Lord calls on all men to repent and accept him. Is there such a thing as prevenient grace? Is there a sense in which the gospel has been given to all people? Yes! Clearly, God’s mercies have been poured out on all of mankind. But the emphasis here is that there comes a time when judicial condemnation is declared in the face of repeated rejection of God. The tension between the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man is always close to the surface. Where we must be extremely cautious is that we never presume on God’s amazing patience. Yes, God’s mercies and steadfast love are incredibly longsuffering but judgment will come.
1. “Be not deceived, God is not mocked. Whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap.” (Galatians 6:7)
2. “Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” (Romans 2:4-5)
3. “Harden not your hearts as in the day of rebellion.” (Hebrews 3:15 quoting Psalm 95:8)
4. “For my Spirit shall not always strive with man.” (Genesis 6:3)
C. It is a clear Bible truth that there comes a point when God will judge those who have rejected him. That’s what we mean when we refer to judicial consequences. John purposefully referenced the warnings from the prophet Isaiah. In Isaiah 6:10 a vision of God’s holiness was seen and God declared that given Israel’s continual rejection of him he would reject them. This same warning is repeated in Acts 28:27 and Romans 11:8. It is very significant that this warning is found a total of four times in God’s Word, each time a clear condemnation of Israel. But we should never consider Israel as being the only target of judicial consequences.
D. It is very interesting that in the context of this sobering reminder of God’s judgment comes an acknowledgement of some within Israel, even among their leaders, who believed on him but who were unwilling to take a public stand. The missed the blessing of seeing God’s glory on display and instead chose to love the temporal glory of man. Were they saved? We hope so. We assume so. But they were not the testimonies of grace that God desires. Certainly, John was instructing his church to be zealous in their witness for God, even in the midst of great persecution.
Do you see the weave of themes here in chapter 12? Devotion, excitement but flawed in their understanding of God’s plan, the significance of Christ’s hour arriving, and the sobering warning of judgment? Where does all of this point? To the cross! Everything points to the cross. There, justice and mercy met. There, God’s eternal wrath against sin and his eternal love for mankind were finally satisfied. God’s greatest glory and our greatest blessing have come to us from the Father through the Son. Thank you, Lord!