Commentary on John 12:12-27; 19:16b-22
Context and intertext
These verses in John 19 continue to the next stage of the Passion Narrative. Having been found innocent by Pilate, yet threatening enough to be sentenced to death, Jesus is handed over to be crucified. It is here, in the narration of Jesus’ suffering and death, that John’s version of the story is most similar to the other Gospels. At the same time, there are unique details that carry important theological weight for the Johannine telling.
This episode is particularly rich when read in tandem with John 12:12-27, which the Narrative Lectionary lists as another option for today’s reading. In the flow of John’s story, chapter twelve takes place just after Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus’ sister Mary anoints Jesus as a preparatory sign for his impending death and burial. These verses have come to be called the “Triumphal Entry,” where worshiping crowds mark Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem the day before his arrest.
The marked volition in Jesus’ passion
The first shared theme between these two episodes is Jesus’ marked volition. While there is no doubt that he suffers, John is careful not to paint Jesus passively in this passion scene. The same Jesus who approached his arresting party in the garden (18:4-5) and reminded Pilate that he had no power except that which had been given from above (19:11), now carries the cross by himself—in what seems a deliberate contrast to the Synoptic account (John 19:17; Matthew 27:32; Mark 15:21; Luke 23:26).
In another stark contrast to his Synoptic counterparts, John’s Gethsemane account does not include Jesus praying that “the hour (of his death) might pass from him” (Mark 14:35-36; see also Matthew 27:39; Luke 22:42). Rather, it almost seems that John has pulled that language and moved it, placing it after the Triumphal Entry scene in chapter 12. After entering the city of Jerusalem and receiving a “royal” welcome (more on that later), Jesus tells his disciples that his “hour” has come. He is speaking of his death, but note the striking difference in his disposition—“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour” (John 12:27). For what reason? This brings us to the second shared theme between these two episodes.
The expansive scope of Jesus’ mission
When Jesus begins talking about his death in chapter twelve, it is the turning point in the entire Gospel. The event that spurs this conversation about his death is that “some Greeks,” who were among those worshiping at the festival, come to see Jesus. The mention of those outside of the traditional Palestinian Jewish boundaries is linked to the purpose of Jesus’ death in John’s Gospel. As the author of John is prone to do, he has the Pharisees say more than they even realize just a verse prior when they exclaim, “Look, the world has gone after him!” The purpose of Jesus’ incarnation, life, and death in John is so that all the world might have life (John 3:16). This theme carries through in the details of the Passion Narrative where the cross’s inscription that read, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” was written not only in Hebrew, but also in Latin and in Greek (John 19:20).
The anti-imperial agenda of Jesus’ kingdom
In addition to an expansive mission, Jesus’ death was purposeful in its relationship to the powers of Empire. While many (including Jesus’ disciples) expected the Messiah to exert political power and restore the nation of Israel to a position reminiscent of the Davidic monarchy, the Johannine Jesus subverts these expectations in a way that challenges the Empire. In John 19, we see Pilate affirming Jesus’ position as “King of the Jews” even in his death, despite protests by the religious leaders. John presents Jesus’ death not as a low point or failure in Jesus’s ministry, but as the high point and his moment of glorification.
Returning to John 12, we see that Jesus enters the city as a king. He is greeted with fanfare, but he is also importantly seated—not on a horse (an animal suited for battle), but on a lowly donkey. This animal symbolizes both humility and peace. The author reminds us that the disciples did not understand the events of the so-called “Triumphal Entry” when they occurred, but, “when he was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.”
In light of Jesus’ death, it becomes clear that this “King of the Jews” was not riding into Jerusalem to secure the geo-political power of the monarchy for Israel. Rather, Jesus came to speak truth to power in both the Roman Empire and the Jewish religious establishment. He also told his own followers the hard truth that “those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25).
In this way, Jesus’ volition in knowingly taking on his own suffering for the good of the world is offered as a pattern for discipleship. Like the grain of wheat that dies in order to bear much fruit, those who follow Jesus are asked to consider how our own sacrifice might be for the greater good. Rather than empty altruism, we would do well to consider Jesus’ example and look to how we participate in the systems around us. By considering how we participate in those systems and how we can be traitors to those systems, we might just find glorification that could lead to furthering justice. But, of course, we must count the cost. May we find comfort and courage knowing we are in good company.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of honor and celebration,
Together we cry, “Hosanna!” to your son, who rode willingly and bravely into Jerusalem. Hear us as we celebrate your anointed one, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Hosanna to the Son of David, Luc Jakobs