The Paradox of Faith and Life – John 12:20-50

There are many paradoxical elements of faith, not the least of which is that God should choose to love the sinners who rebelled against him, and that Christ would die for the very ones who put him on the cross.

The Scriptures are filled with paradoxical statements and counter-intuitive realities. A list of a few that come immediately to mind:  He who would be great among you must become the servant of all; the first shall be the last, and the last shall be the first; whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me; enter through the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction.

In the verses immediately following the presentation and coming of the King to Israel, rather than a mass of Jews seeking out the Lord, we see a group of Gentiles coming to meet Jesus. They apparently pick out the most Gentile sounding of the disciples – Philip – with hopes that he can get them an audience with Christ. He goes to Andrew, and together they go to Jesus.

20 Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.

Jesus speaks in paradoxical terms that, as in the plant world, life and abundant fruit and growth come only after the death of the seed. And so it would be that the Savior would give life through his sacrificial death, while even his followers must also understand that death to this world is the price of discipleship.

23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.

As the climatic moments of Christ’s life and ministry are approaching, the confusion of the crowds mounts as they misunderstand the message and illustrations that Jesus gives …

27 “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name!”

Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.

30 Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. 31 Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.

34 The crowd spoke up, “We have heard from the Law that the Messiah will remain forever, so how can you say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this ‘Son of Man’?”

35 Then Jesus told them, “You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where they are going. 36 Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light.”When he had finished speaking, Jesus left and hid himself from them.

Though certainly the clarity we see about who Jesus is and what he meant by the teachings he gave was not as easily understood at this time before the cross, enough had been done and said that the people should have connected it with the messianic prophecies, particularly of Isaiah. But even the rejection was prophesied, as God was working a master plan of redemption to extend to the whole human race …

37 Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him.38 This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet:

“Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”

39 For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere:

40 “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn—and I would heal them.”

41 Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him.

Even with the general mass rejection that was officially rendered by the Jewish leadership, John records here that there were many others, even among the leaders, who did believe in Jesus and recognized the signs as Scripturally true. Yet out of fear to publicly acknowledge their faith and suffer humiliation, they kept it secret – ultimately preferring the comfort of man more than the pleasure of God.

42 Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; 43 for they loved human praise more than praise from God.

44 Then Jesus cried out, “Whoever believes in me does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. 45 The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me. 46 I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.

47 “If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. 48 There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day. 49 For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. 50 I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.”

Life is difficult in a sin-saturated world. But in Christ, there is light in the darkness, life that is eternal, and peace in the bigger picture of the great work of God that transcends this world.

The Priority of Christ as King – John 12:1-19

As we open chapter 12 today, John’s Gospel will “turn the corner toward home,” as this marks the end of Jesus’ public ministry and brings him triumphantly into Jerusalem as the promised Messiah King.

The scene is in the home of Simon the Leper (we know this from the parallel passage in Mark 14), which is in Bethany – the hometown of Martha, Mary, and the recently-resurrected brother Lazarus. In typical fashion of the two sisters with opposite personality types, Martha is serving and Mary is creating another “awkward moment.”

12:1  Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.”  He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

This aromatic nard from India was incredibly expensive. In today’s terms, it would be about like a bottle of perfume that would cost approximately 50-60 thousand dollars!  And the bookkeeper of the disciples – Judas Iscariot – runs the math through his head and sees this as an incredible waste of money. And on one hand, we can sort of understand that … imagine what a $50,000 gift to the REACH Cold Weather Shelter here in Hagerstown could accomplish. On the other hand, think of the personal benefits that Mary could have accrued for herself had she sold the nard and pocketed the proceeds (which is really what Judas would have done and actually wanted to do). The passage in Mark gives us some additional understanding of the scene:

From Mark 14:6-11 … “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over.

Dead Men Don’t Tell Tales

According to the authoritative Urban Dictionary (insert smiley face), this is a saying that has existed for a long time but became famous through the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, in which a pirate-ish skull and crossed bones on the wall utters this very phrase. It means that to keep something quiet, kill anyone who knows about it and, since that person is dead, it would be pretty much impossible for them to tell your secret. A similar saying is “Three can keep a secret if two are dead,” invented by Benjamin Franklin.

The chief priests in Israel would love these sentiments, as they essentially come to the same conclusion: the only way to stop the growing popularity and distraction of this magician dude from Galilee was to kill him and his #1 carnival prop – Lazarus …

Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, 11 for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him. 

… and let me momentarily skip a few verses to put the end of today’s reading at this point …

 17 Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. 18 Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him. 19 So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!”

Jesus Comes to Jerusalem as King

The event that we know and celebrate on Palm Sunday was a scene fulfilling Old Testament prophecies. The “blessed is he who comes” is from Psalm 118:25,26; and the entrance on a donkey fulfills a prophecy in Zechariah 9:9 …

12 The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. 13 They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,

“Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Blessed is the king of Israel!”

14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:

15 “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.”

16 At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.

A professor friend of mine from Dallas – whom I knew well from his service as an elder at the church where I was the Minister of Music – had done research for his Ph.D. from Cambridge University and later published what he believed to be the exact date that this event occurred. Dr. Harold Hoehner took the passage from Daniel 9:24-25 – which says that from the time of the decree of the Persian King Artaxerses to rebuild Jerusalem until the time of the official presentation of Jesus as the King of Israel (this triumphal entry) would be 483 years. He then went through all the calculations of dates, calendar changes, etc., and arrived at a final date of Monday, March 30, in the year A.D. 33!  Is this absolutely true? We don’t know for sure, but it could be … and it powerfully does argue for the incredible accuracy of Scripture and the overarching plan of God for the ages.

Application:  It is all about Priorities

We have to set priorities every day. Seldom are our priorities about what is “good” or “bad,” rather, it is about what is “better” or “best.”  It is good to care about the poor, but it is best to care deeply about God himself – loving him and serving him together with God’s people … which, of course, involves serving the poor as Jesus did. Yet the greatest priority of seeing Jesus for who he is – the King of Kings – is fully lost on the masses of humanity in our culture and world, even as it was on the religious “in crowd” when they rejected his offer as their king in March, A.D. 33.  Don’t be like that … set your priorities well.

Killing Jesus: Then and Now – John 11:45-57

In a famous quote of President Harry Truman in 1948, complaining about what he felt was duplicitous rhetoric of Republicans, he said, “On the one hand, the Republicans are telling industrial workers that the high cost of food in the cities is due to this government’s farm policy. On the other hand, the Republicans are telling the farmers that the high cost of manufactured goods on the farm is due to this government’s labor policy. That’s plain hokum. It’s an old political trick: ‘If you can’t convince ’em, confuse ’em.’”

In our reading today in John 11 recording the reactions of various people to the raising of Lazarus, we see some people who were convinced of Christ’s messiah status, yet also of the religious leaders who were confused – evidently believing Jesus to be some sort of magician.

Frankly, it would seem to me that such an indisputable miracle as Christ performed could only be rejected if you REALLY wanted to disbelieve. And that was certainly the situation with the religious leaders.

45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. 46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. 47 Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”

Students of the Scriptures should be more aware of this verse 48, for it summarizes in a few words the feelings and perspectives of the Jewish religious leadership toward the works and words of Jesus. This is a first century Jerusalem illustration of what we call today “inside the beltway thinking.”  We see politicians on all sides who go to Washington and forget there is a real world outside the DC beltway – their self-preservation becomes the full impetus and motivation feeding their perspectives and decisions.

Truly, the religious leadership had reached the end of tolerance for this Galilean preacher dude. He was now a serious problem. If he was allowed to continue and to gain a larger following, the Romans were sure to step in and bust up everything. (This actually did happen about 40 years later under Titus.)  Speaking up was Caiaphas – the high priest at that time who was allowed by the Romans to serve for a limited period of time …

49 Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! 50 You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

51 He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, 52 and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. 53 So from that day on they plotted to take his life.

Caiaphas says it would be better to see one person dead – Jesus – than to risk the loss of the whole nation to a Roman smack-down. And so, the plot was hatched and affirmed from that time forward: Killing Jesus was then the name of the plot – not the name of Bill O’Reilly’s bestselling book!

John – writing after the conclusion of these events – under the inspiration of the Spirit identifies the irony in the words of the high priest. Jesus was indeed dying for the nation; and not only for Israel, but for all of God’s elect of all time.

54 Therefore Jesus no longer moved about publicly among the people of Judea. Instead he withdrew to a region near the wilderness, to a village called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples.

55 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, many went up from the country to Jerusalem for their ceremonial cleansing before the Passover. 56 They kept looking for Jesus, and as they stood in the temple courts they asked one another, “What do you think? Isn’t he coming to the festival at all?”57 But the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who found out where Jesus was should report it so that they might arrest him.

So Jesus relocates to a remote region about another 15 miles to the north. It was approaching the time of the Passover – a time when many pilgrims were already beginning to drift into the city of Jerusalem. Throughout the city and temple courts, eyes were watching for Jesus to arrive, which he would before long in a manner that fulfilled Scripture.

It appears to me that, as incredible as it may seem that people like the Jewish religious leaders would reject an obvious miracle because of their hostility to change, the same thing occurs today. The bulk of humanity continues to reject Christ out of hostility to the idea that his authority would rule over them. They fear the change of a loss of their individual power to control their lives and destiny – a sort of individualized “inside the beltway” manner of thinking.  But the irony is that true freedom only comes from yieldedness to Christ as Lord.