Commentary on John 12:20-33
Matters of life and death have a way of focusing one’s attention.
It has not been long since Lazarus, still wrapped in grave cloths and smelling four days dead, stumbled out of the tomb and into the waiting arms of his sisters and friends. Now that life is getting back to normal (can life ever be normal after somebody is raised from the dead?), one might expect the focus to turn to the impending feast of Passover. However, even that greatest of festivals cannot hold a candle to the Light of the World, who has, after all, just brought his friend from death to life with only a heavenward glance and the strength of his voice.
That is precisely what troubles the Pharisees. They and the rest of the religious establishment are powerless against this Galilean man who claims to have come from the Father in heaven.
Already many of the Jews are believing in him. Before too long, the Pharisees fear, everyone will follow after him, causing the Romans to come and destroy their temple and the nation (John 11:45-48) and strip them of their authority. Their worst fears are confirmed when the crowds who had been at Lazarus’ tomb begin to testify. “Look,” the Pharisees exclaim, like the representatives of a failed ad campaign, “the world has gone after him!” (John 12:19).
We want to see Jesus
In our pericope the world is focused on Jesus to such an extent that even some Greeks – could they be among the sheep who are not from the fold? (10:16) – are anxious to lay eyes on him. They engage in a little first-century social networking with Philip, the disciple with the Greek name, a person whom Jesus had “friended” near the start of his earthly ministry (1:43). And it is no wonder they want to see Jesus. After all, he has been inviting folks to “come and see” from the very beginning (1:39).
Plus, there is the matter of all those signs, of which the raising of Lazarus is only the most recent. It is easy to imagine how seeing water turned to wine or a man given his sight would lead people to believe in and follow One who can do such things (see 4:48; 6:30; 11:45). Seeing is believing in this Gospel (6:14, 30; 19:35; 20:27), so when the Greeks ask to see Jesus, they are, perhaps, expressing their desire to believe. Whether they are successful in meeting Jesus we are not told, but Jesus’ response to their query refocuses the terms of the discussion.
No longer is it enough to come and see Jesus; from “this hour” forward his followers are invited to come and be with Jesus.
Whoever serves me must follow me
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus invites his disciples to “follow me” (1:43), and he promises the “light of life” to those who do follow (8:12). However, on more than one occasion, he tells some of “the Jews” that they cannot come where he is going (7:34; 8:21). Later during this Passover festival, he says the same thing to his disciples (13:33). Nonetheless, it is clear that a time will come when they will be able to follow him (13:36). Indeed, he says, he will go first “and prepare a place for you,” and then “come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may also be.” (14:3).
Making it possible for his followers to abide together with him seems to be a core purpose of Jesus’ ministry, as he prays to God that “I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am” (17:24).
Where I am, there will my servant be also
Where is Jesus? He is with the Father (1:1; 14:11), and he dwells among us (1:14; 14:23). He is leading his followers to eternal life as he moves toward the hour of his death (12:32-33). Before much longer he will be “lifted up” on the cross (12:32, 34; 8:28) where he will lay down his life for his friends (15:13). Even as a grain of wheat falls to the earth in order to fulfill its true purpose, Jesus is lifted up from the earth in order to fulfill his, so that he may draw all people to himself. (12:24, 32). It is there, at the cross, that we will see his glory (17:24).
The hour has come
Following Jesus is a matter of life and death. Or, to put it another way, life and death matter to those who follow Jesus.
During this season of Lent we follow him all the way to Golgotha, all the way to the cross, where we will stand beneath it, together with those followers who asked at the beginning of his ministry, “Where are you staying?” (1:38). It is there, in the face of the world’s many ways of death (e.g., poverty, economic collapse, hunger, sickness, war) that we are drawn even closer to Jesus. It is there, in the light of the stark reality of life at its end that we begin to catch a glimpse of life at its fullest.
Jesus promises, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (12:32). It is for such a time as this that Jesus has brought us to this hour. There is nothing like impending death to focus our attention.