This past week, I was consulting the internet support page for one of my Bible concordance programs when I came across an announcement that this software program was now being offered on sale at half price. Those of you who know me well know that this would certainly get my attention. I called their sales department and talked with “John”226 about the special offer they had posted on their web site. I was not able to negotiate the kind of bargain I had hoped for, and so I told “John” I would have to think about it and call him back later. This week I called him back, having decided to purchase only two copies of this software. When I called, “John” answered the phone, and so I responded, “Hello John, this is Bob Deffinbaugh …”
It was at this point that “John” broke in enthusiastically. It seemed apparent that he was reading from a script, but from what I thought he was saying, I didn’t mind. He told me he was glad I had called, and that he had a really exciting offer, which he was certain I would be interested in. I could tell he was speaking of a much better deal than we had discussed the week before, and so I listened with interest. I knew I was going to accept his offer, until I heard “John” say that this special deal was being offered to all their “resellers.”
Oops. I think you know that I am not a reseller. What you may not know is that my brother, Dan Deffinbaugh, is. He and his family have a home school supply mail order business in Washington State, and they have offered this Bible software product for sale in their catalog. In fact, that’s how I got my concordance program—from Dan. I hated to do it, but I had to interrupt “John.” “John, this is Bob Deffinbaugh calling. I’m a preacher, not a reseller. It’s my brother, Dan Deffinbaugh, who is the reseller.” John quickly attempted to redeem himself and to set aside all that he had just told me. He didn’t need to go to all that trouble. I informed “John” that as soon as I hung up the phone, I was going to call my brother, Dan, and then “we” would accept his offer.
The point to all this (you may be wondering if there is one) is that this all began with a case of mistaken identity. “John” mistakenly supposed I was my brother Dan, who is a reseller. He made an offer to me that he should have made to Dan. In the process of making this mistake, “John” unwittingly opened the door for me to enjoy the benefits that were available to my brother Dan.
All of this is strikingly similar to what we have been reading in John chapter 12. Israel had “welcomed” Jesus to Jerusalem, not unlike “John” welcomed me on the phone. “John” did so, thinking that I was someone else—someone similar (the same last name, and brothers, no less). The Jews in Jerusalem welcomed Jesus as their “king,” but as it turns out, they concluded they were mistaken. Jesus was not the kind of “king” they supposed Him to be. He was claiming to be Israel’s Messiah by His “triumphal entry,” and they were accepting Him as “Messiah,” but their “Messiah” was not the Jesus-kind of Messiah. And so it is that by the end of that week, those who hailed Jesus as their “King” cry out, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). Indeed, Jesus would then be mockingly worshipped as the “King of Israel” (Matthew 27:29, 37, 42; Mark 15:32; Luke 23:36-38; John 19:3, 14, 19).
This was a tragedy for the nation Israel (at least for a time), but it proved to be a great blessing for the Gentiles. As in my experience this past week when I was mistakenly identified, I was offered a “deal” which would never have been available to me as a preacher. It was not out of any merit or position that I could claim, but because of my relationship with my brother I can share in the benefits of his privileges as a reseller. The Gentiles (or, “Greeks” as our text has it) were “outsiders” with respect to the blessings God had promised Israel. Gentiles could, of course, enter into these blessings as Jews by becoming proselytes, but they could not enter into the blessings of Israel as Gentiles—not until now, that is. It is Israel’s “mistaken identity” of our Lord—their rejection of Him as their Messiah—which opened the door for the Gentiles to enter into Israel’s blessings as Gentiles. Israel’s mistake would be painful for the Jews, but it would be a great blessing to the Gentiles. This whole matter is taken up in our text.
We do not have to work hard at seeing the meaning and application of this text to our lives today, because it directly bears upon our salvation. Let us listen and learn well from this great text in the Gospel of John.
20 Now some Greeks were among those who had gone up to worship at the feast. 21 So these approached Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and requested, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew, and they both went and told Jesus.
I believe the mention of the “Greeks” here is the inclusion of the last segment of mankind represented in this chapter. In John 12, we find Jesus, Judas His betrayer, the 12 disciples, the intimate friends of our Lord (including, but not limited to Lazarus, Mary and Martha), those who came from Galilee and other places in Israel, those pilgrims who came from afar to Jerusalem for Passover, the residents of Jerusalem and Judea, those from Jerusalem who witnessed the raising of Lazarus, those who opposed Jesus (chief priests, scribes, Pharisees), and now, at last, the Greeks. To pick up on the words of the Pharisees in verse 19: “Look, the whole world has run off after him.” How right their words would prove to be!
There has been considerable discussion among the scholars as to just who these “Greeks” are. I am going to avoid any lengthy discussion of the issues involved and simply state my conclusion that it refers to those Gentiles who have come to worship in Jerusalem.227 These Greeks do not merely wish to look at (i.e. “see”) Jesus; they wish to speak with Him.
I think I can imagine228 how this event could have occurred. Jesus had already made His “triumphal entrance” into Jerusalem. In the days that follow, He teaches and performs miracles in the outer courts of the temple—the very courts from which He had driven out the cattle and moneychangers earlier. All this time, He was surrounded by the crowds, preventing the Pharisees from arresting Him. The people are pressing in to hear what He is saying. Others wish Him to perform some kind of healing, and so they are attempting to push through the crowd to get near to Him, where they hope to get His attention. Along with many Jewish pilgrims, a number of “Greeks” have come to Jerusalem to worship during Passover. While there, they hear about all that Jesus had been doing in recent days. They probably heard about the healing of the man born blind (chapter 9). They most certainly heard that Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. Some may even have seen Lazarus himself. They must have wondered if Jesus was the Messiah they had been seeking. Most of all, they would surely have wanted to hear from Him directly concerning what kind of relationship they might have with Him, since they were Greeks. To obtain the answers to their questions, they would have to arrange to talk privately with Jesus. They must have taken note of the fact that both Philip and Andrew had Greek names. John makes a point of telling us (verse 21) that Philip was from Bethsaida in Galilee. If any of the disciples might be inclined to lend a sympathetic ear to Greeks, Philip appeared to be the most likely one to do so. And so they approached him, requesting to meet with (i.e. to “see”) Jesus. Philip wasn’t quite sure how to handle this request, and so he consulted with Andrew. The two of them then must have pressed their way through the crowd, back to our Lord’s side. I can see Philip standing by our Lord as He taught, and at an opportune moment, getting Jesus’ attention and then whispering in His ear, “There are some Greeks here who would like to talk with you.”
23 Jesus replied,229 “The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 I tell you the solemn truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains by itself alone. But if it dies, it produces much grain. 25 The one who loves his life destroys it, and the one who hates his life in this world guards it for eternal life. 26 If anyone wants to serve me, he must follow me, and where I am, my servant will be too. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.
I’m not sure what Philip thought Jesus would do, but I am fairly confident that what Jesus did was not on the list of what Philip might expect from Jesus. Jesus appears to avoid the request of the Greeks. Those of us who are parents know how Philip must have felt. Have you ever been speaking to your child, working hard to make a point, and then asked the child something related to what you have just said, only to get a blank stare or a completely unrelated response? This might have been the way Philip viewed our Lord’s response. This is not the case here, however, since John tells us in verse 23 that we are reading our Lord’s direct response to the request that has been conveyed to Him by Philip and Andrew.
The point our Lord is making is really quite simple. (Let us bear in mind from all that we have already read in John’s Gospel that these words were not understood by the disciples or anyone else until after the cross.) Jesus sets down an important principle: fruit bearing does not result from one’s efforts to save his life, but from one’s willing sacrifice of his life. Jesus first employs an agricultural image, which enables His audience to grasp the principle as illustrated in everyday terms. One can preserve a grain of wheat, protecting it from the elements and from corruption, but doing so will never produce a crop of wheat. On the other hand, one can place this same grain of wheat in the ground, causing it to die. The “death” of this seed will produce much fruit.
In saying what He has, Jesus speaks primarily of Himself and of His imminent death. Jesus means that He will soon die, and that by means of His death, He will produce much life. He cannot be the Savior of the world without first dying. At the “triumphal entry,” those who heralded Jesus as the “King of Israel” expected Him to “save now” (this is what “Hosanna” means). What the masses failed to grasp was that He could only save men by giving up His life, by experiencing the death penalty for sin in the sinner’s place. It was not our Lord’s immediate coronation that would save many, but His death. It was not His acceptance by Israel, but His rejection, that would produce “much fruit.”
One might wonder what this has to do with the Greeks. We might agree that Jesus must die before He can reign over Israel as its King, but what does this have to do with the occasion? Why does Jesus speak of the necessity of His death in response to the Greeks request to meet with Him? I believe there are two primary reasons. First, whether Jews or Greeks, the death of Jesus Christ in the sinner’s place is the only way of salvation. Were the Greeks seeking Jesus as the Savior? His answer is that to be their Savior, He must die. Second, in order for the Greeks to be saved as Greeks, Israel must first of all reject Jesus as the Messiah, so that the gospel can be widely proclaimed to the Gentiles. This is in keeping with the principle, “To the Jew first, and also to the Greeks” (see Matthew 10:5-6; Romans 1:16; 2:9-10).
Why won’t Jesus give the Greeks an audience at this time? Quite simply, because it is premature—it is not the time. It was “His time” to die on the cross of Calvary. It was not the time to begin proclaiming the gospel worldwide, with the result that many Gentiles would come to faith. That “time” is soon to come, and will be described in the Book of Acts. Right now, Jesus must not lose His focus nor be turned aside from His goal—to be glorified by dying on the cross of Calvary. This will become even more apparent in verses 27-33.
The answer of our Lord, recorded in verse 23, is first applied directly to Himself. It was His time to be glorified, that is, to die on the cross of Calvary. Jesus must first die in order to give eternal life to men. Next, in verse 24, we find the general principle underlying our Lord’s statement concerning His death: dying precedes and produces life. The seed must first die before it can produce new life, before it can produce much fruit. This general principle is now extended to the followers of our Lord in verses 25 and 26. Anyone who strives to save his life will destroy it, so far as bearing fruit is concerned. And anyone who despises his life in this world actually preserves it. Those who would follow Jesus must follow the same principle and practice as their Master. If they would serve Him, they must follow Him. To follow Him, they must do as He does. If they do so, they will not only enter into His suffering and death, they will enter into God’s favor, for the Father will honor them as He does His Son.
27 “Now my soul is greatly distressed.230 And what should I say? ‘Father, deliver me from this hour’? No, but for this very reason I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that stood there and heard the voice said that it had thundered. Others said that an angel had spoken to him. 30 Jesus said, “This voice has not come for my benefit but for yours. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler 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 (Now he said this to indicate clearly what kind of death he was going to die.)
John omits the agony of our Lord in the Garden of Gethsemane, but this does not by any means ignore our Lord’s agony over the eternity of separation from the Father that He will experience on the cross of Calvary. That agony is expressed by these words from Psalm 22, uttered by our Lord on the cross: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me!” (Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34)
Our Lord’s agony in anticipation of this separation is recorded in the Synoptic Gospels, as they depict His anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane. John does not include this garden scene, but he does portray our Lord’s great distress in our text. In so doing, he enhances the reader’s appreciation for our Lord’s distress. From the incident in Gethsemane alone, one might conclude that Jesus agonized once. John’s account informs us that Jesus agonized on at least two accounts. I would be inclined to think there were other times as well. His agony in our text is indicative of the immensity of the suffering that awaits Him on the cross.
The Greeks have requested to meet with Jesus. Jesus has declined because it is not yet time for the gospel to embrace the Gentiles as Gentiles. That can come about only after Jesus is rejected by Israel and is glorified by His sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection. The request of these Greeks brings to the fore the matter of our Lord’s agony on the cross of Calvary. It is not a pretty picture, as our Lord knows too well. He who knows all (who is omniscient) fully knows what lies ahead for Him at the cross. And as the horror of having God turn His back on Him comes to mind, our Lord is “greatly distressed.”
Jesus considers the options before Him. He could say, “Father, deliver me from this hour” (verse 27), but His purpose in coming to this earth was to die, so that guilty sinners condemned to death might have eternal life. Jesus would never ask the Father to keep Him from what He had sent Him to do. And so Jesus responds, “Father, glorify your name.” We could paraphrase, “Father, glorify your name by the death which I am about to undergo, so that I might produce abundant life for many.” Jesus was soon to be glorified by His death on the cross of Calvary.
A dramatic heavenly response seems to immediately follow our Lord’s words of submission to the Father’s will. It would be easy for us to miss the significance of this divine declaration (dare I say “word”?) which comes down to men from heaven. There are only three occasions in the Gospels when God spoke audibly to His Son in the presence of men: (1) at His baptism (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22); (2) at His transfiguration (Matthew 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35-36); and (3) here, in John chapter 12. In the two previous declarations, it appears that only a few people overheard God speaking. This declaration in John is spoken in Jerusalem, at the temple, where a large crowd is gathered.
Can you imagine this? Jesus has recently given sight to a man born blind (chapter 9). Then, He has raised a man from the dead who had been buried four days. And this man—Lazarus—is walking around Jerusalem, to be seen by all. And then Jesus triumphantly rides into the city, accepting the praise and adoration of the crowd as the “King of Israel.” As if this were not enough proof of Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah, when He speaks of His death, God the Father booms out a spine-tingling “Amen!” from heaven. Is there anything else God could have done to convince men that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the Savior of the world?
Everyone seems to have heard the same sounds, but not everyone “heard” them the same way. Those who rejected Jesus as God’s Messiah did what one would have expected—what unbelieving men always do with the miraculous—explain it away in terms of natural phenomenon. And so to them the very voice of God was nothing more than thunder. Never mind (if this were the case) the fact that it was a cloudless day, without rain or lightning. It was thunder for sure. I well remember when I was teaching a high school class in a medium security prison. We were talking about creation and the theory of evolution. One inmate stated his unbelief in the clearest of terms. “I’ll tell you why I believe in evolution,” he said, “because I won’t believe in God.” And there you have it.
Those who believed (or at least had not closed their minds to the claims of our Lord) knew they had heard something much more than thunder. They seem to have recognized it as some kind of heavenly speech, but they did not understand the words that were spoken. It was almost as if God had spoken in some other language. And so they concluded that an angel had spoken to Jesus. They were not far from the truth. The “Word” who had come down from heaven had just received “word” from heaven.
The question must occur to us, “Why would God speak to Jesus in a way that prevented anyone else from understanding what was said?” This is all the more puzzling when we consider our Lord’s words, spoken to the crowd in response to what the Father had just said from heaven: “This voice has not come for my benefit but for yours” (verse 30).
Jesus indicates that God had not spoken for His benefit, primarily, but for theirs. He did not need reassurance of His Father’s love and approval. They needed to hear the Father’s response to His words about the cross He would bear. But if they needed to hear it, why were they not able to understand it? I think I know, not from this verse, but from the argument John has been developing throughout this Gospel. Jesus was the Son of God, who had come down from the Father and who spoke for the Father (John 3:13, 31; 6:33, 38, 41, 46, 50, 51, 58; 7:29; 8:14, 23, 26, 40, 42). Jesus was the logos, the Word. The writer to the Hebrews puts it this way:
1 After God spoke long ago in various portions and in various ways to our ancestors through the prophets, 2 in these last days he has spoken to us in a son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he created the world (Hebrews 1:1-2).
Our Lord is God’s spokesman; He speaks for God. If we want to know what God has to say, we must listen to the Son of God, who speaks for Him. As a matter of fact, this is exactly what Peter, James, and John heard from the Father earlier, at the transfiguration of our Lord:
While he was still speaking, a bright cloud surrounded them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is the Son I love, in whom I have great delight. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5, emphasis mine; see also Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35.)
All three Synoptic Gospels tell us that Peter, James, and John heard God declare Jesus to be His beloved Son, and that because of this, they had better pay careful attention to His words. The television commercial used to go something like this: “When E. F. Hutton speaks, men listen.” The words of God the Father go like this: “When My Son speaks, you’d better listen.”
What is it that God the Father wants these people to know? Jesus tells them (and us) in verses 31-36. The time for the judgment of this world is at hand (verse 31). The judgment of this world begins with the “ruler of this world,” Satan. He is about to be cast out (verse 31). For a very short time, the death of Jesus Christ appears to be the defeat of our Lord. Until the resurrection of our Lord, Satan and his fallen forces must have been celebrating, believing they had succeeded in their rebellion against God. But the cross was not Satan’s victory; it was Satan’s defeat. It robbed the evil one of his power. If judgment was imminent for the “prince of this world,” then it was also imminent for all those who belonged to him, to all of his “sons” (see John 8:42, 44). No wonder John the Baptist spoke so much about the coming judgment of God (see Matthew 3:1-12).
The basis for this judgment—of Satan and of the world—is the crucifixion and death Jesus is about to experience on the cross of Calvary:
32 “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 (Now he said this to indicate clearly what kind of death he was going to die.)
By the words He spoke in verse 32, Jesus indicated that He would die. This was immediately grasped by the crowd who heard Him speak these words (see verse 34). John tells us (parenthetically) that Jesus was not merely indicating that He would die, but indicating exactly how He would die. He must be “lifted up.” Such talk is not new in John’s Gospel:
14 “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14).
No wonder the attempts to stone Jesus failed. Our Lord’s death must be at the right time (Passover), and done in the right way (crucifixion) in order to fulfill Old Testament prophecies and the purposes of God.
34 Then the crowd responded, “We have heard from the law that the Christ will remain forever. How can you say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this Son of Man?” 35 Jesus replied, “The light is with you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. 36 While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become sons of light.” When Jesus had said these things, he went away and hid himself from them.
The difficulties the crowd faced were no different than those experienced by the prophets, as we read in 1 Peter 1:10-12. The prophets themselves struggled over their own prophecies, trying to understand them. How could the Messiah be both a triumphant king and a suffering servant? How could the Messiah be a man—the Son of David—and God Himself? There were tensions that only the fulfillment of these prophecies removed. As I understand this text, the crowd experienced a different tension. The tension was not between a Savior who would die and one who would live forever; it was a tension between what Jesus taught and what the Pharisees taught.
Allow me to put this into a historical context first. Fairly early in His ministry, Jesus gave His famous “Sermon on the Mount,” as recorded in Matthew 5–7. In chapter 5 Jesus begins, “You have heard it said …” (5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43), followed by, “But I say to you …” (5:22, 28, 34, 39, 44). Jesus was saying something like this: “The scribes and Pharisees have been teaching you this …, but I am here to tell you …” Jesus was correcting the way the scribes and Pharisees taught the Old Testament law.
I now see the words of the crowd in verse 34 as crucial:
Then the crowd responded, “We have heard from the law that the Christ will remain forever. How can you say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this Son of Man?” (emphasis mine).
If we were to paraphrase these words, it would go something like this:
In response to Jesus’ words about His imminent death, the crowd responded, “Hold on a minute! The scribes and Pharisees have long taught us from the Law that the Messiah will live forever. Now You come along and teach that you, who claim to be Messiah, are going to die. Something doesn’t fit. What kind of a ‘Messiah’ are you advocating?”
You see, the crowd does not say, “We have read that Messiah will remain forever,” but “We have heard that Messiah will remain forever.” The tension this crowd faces is whom they will believe. Will they believe our Lord, and what He says about Himself as the Messiah, or will they believe the Pharisees? They can’t follow both Jesus and the Pharisees. They must choose one or the other. And right now, what the Pharisees teach about Messiah is much more appealing than what Jesus is saying. Already the mood is changing. They are no longer heralding Jesus as their King; they are now beginning to question the kind of “kingdom” He advocates. The teaching of the Pharisees on this point sounds better because it is much more appealing to the fleshly desires of unsaved men.
Bear in mind that our Lord’s words in these closing verses of chapter 12 are His last public words to the Jews. From here on out in John’s Gospel, Jesus will be speaking to His disciples, or to those who arrest and try Him. Jesus urges those in the crowd to “walk in the light.” He is the light, and He is not going to be with them as the light much longer. When Jesus is “lifted up,” the darkness will overtake them, if they have rejected His light. There is therefore an urgency they should sense, an urgency to listen well to Him who is the “light.” This is their “hour of decision.”
Having said this, Jesus hid Himself from them. This is a most unexpected statement. Jesus had entered Jerusalem in the most “public” way possible—His “triumphal entry.” Each day Jesus came to the temple, where He performed miracles and taught. (And, from the other Gospels, we know that Jesus also debated with the scribes and Pharisees and religious leaders.) Now, after Jesus has spoken of His imminent death as His “glory,” and the Father in heaven has “seconded” His words, the crowd is not so sure they want a suffering Savior. Jesus reminds them that He is the “light,” and that they had better heed His teaching as the truth. To reject it would be to walk in darkness. There is nothing more to say. They have a choice to make, and Jesus goes into seclusion, so that they can decide. As I read these words, there is a strong sense of finality, of closure, here. Except for the last words of our Lord, recorded in the closing verses of John chapter 12, Jesus has said all there is to say. Israel must now decide whether to believe the teaching of the Pharisees, or the teaching of Jesus. They must put their faith in a suffering Savior or in a would-be military messiah.
37 Although Jesus had performed so many miraculous signs before them, they still refused to believe in him, 38 so that the word of Isaiah the prophet would be fulfilled. He said, “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 again Isaiah said, 40 “He has blinded their eyes and closed their mind, so that they cannot see with their eyes and understand with their mind, and turn to me, and I would heal them.” 41 Isaiah said these things because he saw Christ’s glory, and spoke about him.
John tells us clearly what we may already have inferred—that the crowd who heard Jesus, and who even heard the voice of God—did not believe in Jesus. Notice the characteristics of this unbelief. First, it is a persistent unbelief. John tells us very precisely that they “still refused to believe” (verse 37). They did not just decide not to believe; they persisted in the unbelief they had clung to all along. Secondly, it was an unbelief that was in spite of the signs our Lord had performed. We need to note this matter carefully. John tells us that he has selectively chosen the “signs” he recorded in this Gospel, so that his readers would believe that Jesus is the Messiah.
30 Now Jesus performed many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples that are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:30-31).
John’s readers will not have seen these signs, but they (we) will only have read about them. His readers will read only of the few signs that John has chosen to include in this Gospel. The Jews to whom Jesus is speaking (and of whom John is now speaking) have seen these signs with their own eyes, along with many other signs. Notice once again that John tells us these Jews did not believe “although Jesus had performed so many miraculous signs before them” (verse 37). This is hard core unbelief. No wonder John writes as well:
Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are the people who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
I am also reminded of these New Testament texts, which speak of the greater condemnation that will come to those Jews who have seen and rejected much more compelling evidence than others have been given:
20 Then Jesus began to criticize openly the cities in which he had done many of his miracles, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles done among you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, you won’t be lifted up to heaven, will you? No, you will be brought down to Hades! For if the miracles done among you had been done in Sodom, it would have continued to this day. 24 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for the region of Sodom on the day of judgment than for you!” (Matthew 11:20-24)
38 Then some of the experts in the law along with some Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. 41 The people of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; yet something greater than Jonah is here! 42 The Queen of the South will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; yet something greater than Solomon is here! (Matthew 12:38-42).
Third, the unbelief of the Jews should come as no surprise, because Israel’s unbelief and rejection of Jesus as their Messiah was foretold by Old Testament prophecy. John selects the prophet Isaiah to make his point. He cites two texts from the prophecy of Isaiah. He quotes Isaiah 53:1 in verse 38, and Isaiah 6:10 in verse 40. Much could be said of these texts, but for the moment, let me point out that Isaiah 53:1 is clearly a reference to the Messiah, and thus to our Lord Jesus. Earlier in this passage, Isaiah spoke of the Messiah as being “high and lifted up” (52:13). No wonder our Lord spoke of the necessity of His being “lifted up” (John 12:32). It is in these same verses in Isaiah that the suffering of our Lord at Calvary is so clearly spelled out. In the light of this text alone, should the Jews have been shocked that Jesus would speak of being lifted up, of dying in order to save? I think not!
To press this matter even further, there is a great deal in Isaiah 52 and 53 which relates to Jesus and the Jews at that moment. The “message” of Messiah was not believed (53:1a), and this in spite of the fact that the “arm of the Lord had been revealed” (53:1b). The words about Messiah were not believed, in spite of the fact that many witnessed the mighty works of Messiah. How could this be? The text in Isaiah goes on to tell us. Israel could not recognize Jesus as Messiah because of His suffering. They interpreted His suffering as proof of His guilt and of God’s disfavor, instead of grasping the fact that He suffered and died for the sins of men:
1 Who would have believed what we just heard? When was the LORD’s power revealed through him? 2 He sprouted up like a twig before God, like a root out of parched soil; he had no stately form or majesty that might catch our attention, no special appearance that we should want to follow him. 3 He was despised and rejected by people, one who experienced pain and was acquainted with illness; people hid their faces from him, he was despised and we considered him insignificant. 4 But he lifted up our illnesses, he carried our pain; even though we thought he was being punished, attacked by God, and afflicted for something he had done. 5 He was wounded because of our rebellious deeds, crushed because of our sins; he endured punishment that made us well, because of his wounds we have been healed. 6 All of us had wandered off like sheep, each of us had strayed off on his own path, but the LORD caused the sin of all of us to attack him (Isaiah 53:1-6, The NET Bible).
John wants his readers to know that the rejection of our Lord by the nation Israel was no failure on His part, but the fulfillment of Scripture. It not only did happen—it had to happen.
Now let us give some thought to Isaiah 6:10, as cited in verse 40. Even though this is a familiar text, allow me to quote the entire sixth chapter of Isaiah:
1 In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the sovereign master seated on a high, elevated throne. The skirts of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs stood over him; each one had six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and they used the remaining two to fly. 3 They called out to one another, “The LORD who leads armies has absolute sovereign authority. His majestic splendor fills the entire earth.” 4 The sound of their voices shook the door frames, and the temple was filled with smoke. 5 I said, “Too bad for me! I am destroyed, for my lips are contaminated by sin, and I live among people whose lips are contaminated by sin. My eyes have seen the king, the LORD who leads armies.” 6 But then one of the seraphs flew toward me. In his hand was a hot coal he had taken from the altar with tongs. 7 He touched my mouth with it and said, “Look, this coal has touched your lips. Your evil is removed; your sin is forgiven.” 8 I heard the voice of the sovereign master say, “Whom will I send? Who will go on our behalf?” I answered, “Here I am, send me!” 9 He said, “Go and tell these people: ‘Listen continually, but don’t understand! Look continually, but don’t perceive!’ 10 Make the minds of these people calloused, make their ears deaf and their eyes blind! Otherwise they might see with their eyes and hear with their ears, their minds might understand and they might repent and be healed.” 11 I replied, “How long, sovereign master?” He said, “Until cities are in ruins and unpopulated, and houses are uninhabited, and the land is ruined and devastated, 12 and the LORD has sent people off to a distant place, and the very heart of the land is completely abandoned. 13 Even if only a tenth of the people remain in the land, it will again be destroyed, like one of the large sacred trees or an Asherah pole, when a sacred pillar on a high place is thrown down. That sacred pillar symbolizes the special chosen family.” (Isaiah 6:1-13, The NET Bible).
God has been warning Israel through the prophets for a long time, and the Israelites have not hearkened to the word of the Lord. Before giving Isaiah his mission, God gives him a vision of Himself, of His glory. Then God commissioned Isaiah to preach to Israel, not so that they would repent and be spared from divine judgment, but so that they would be hardened, in preparation for the divine judgment that was soon to come.
In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus has commenced His public ministry. Already the scribes and Pharisees have opposed themselves to Jesus (see, for example, Mark 3:1-6). Since they cannot deny the miracles He has performed, they must somehow explain them. They attribute His miracles to the power of Beelzebul, rather than to the Holy Spirit. In so doing, they blaspheme the Holy Spirit, the one unpardonable sin: “I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies people may speak will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. They are liable for an eternal sin (because they said, ‘He has an unclean spirit’)” (Mark 3:28-30).
Those who have thus attributed to Satan the work of the Holy Spirit through Jesus can never be saved. Consequently, from this point on, Jesus speaks to them in parables, not so that they will better understand His teaching (as is often suggested), but so they will not understand, believe, and be saved. When the disciples ask Jesus why He is speaking to them in parables, He cites Isaiah 6:10 as the basis for His actions. The same thing can be found in Matthew’s parallel account in chapters 12 and 13.
Now, in John chapter 12, this same text from Isaiah chapter 6 is cited. Here, it is much later in our Lord’s ministry. It is not just the Jewish religious leaders who have rejected Jesus, but a large portion of those who are in Jerusalem for the Passover. Our Lord does not just “speak in parables” here; He literally hides Himself from them. Israel’s rejection of the divine message is the basis for withdrawing the gospel (and offering it to others).
There is a third time when this same text in Isaiah is cited. This time it is in the last (28th) chapter of the Book of Acts, and it is cited by the Apostle Paul. Paul has been preaching Jesus as the promised Messiah (the Christ) ever since his conversion. And virtually everywhere he has gone, unbelieving Jews have harassed him. In some instances, they have tried to kill him. After being falsely charged with profaning the temple (see Acts 21), Paul was forced to appeal his case to Caesar. In Acts 28, we find Paul in Rome, awaiting a hearing before Caesar. Paul calls for the Jews there in Rome and proclaims the gospel to them. As usual, a few believe in Jesus as Messiah, and the rest reject the message and the messenger. It is when this rejection becomes apparent to Paul that he cites Isaiah 6:10 as the end of an era (in which the gospel was proclaimed to Jews), and the beginning of a whole new era—the times of the Gentiles (see Romans 11).
This rejection of the gospel by the Jews in Rome is the last straw. Our Lord’s use of Isaiah 6:10 in Matthew and Mark explained why the gospel would not be proclaimed clearly to those who had determined to kill Him and who explained His miracles as the work of the devil. In John chapter 12, the same text in Isaiah is cited in response to the rejection of the Jews there in Jerusalem. In Acts chapter 28, the Isaiah text is cited in response to the rejection of the Jews dispersed around the world. Now that Jesus has been rejected by the Jews, has been crucified on the cross of Calvary and raised from the dead, and has ascended to the Father above, the Greeks can be evangelized as Greeks, rather than as potential proselytes (by which process Gentiles submit themselves to Judaism).
I should point out one more important observation from our text. In verse 41, John explains why Isaiah wrote what he did: “Isaiah said these things because he saw Christ’s glory, and spoke about him.” This is a most striking and important statement. Isaiah saw Christ’s glory, in a way that is not all that different from the way Jesus claimed that Abraham “saw His day and rejoiced” (John 8:56). The “glory” Isaiah saw was not just the Father’s glory, but also the glory of the Son. The “glory” which Isaiah saw was not just the glory of our Lord as He triumphed over His foes, but His “glory” in suffering, as depicted in the “suffering Servant” passage in Isaiah 52 and 53. The Jews of Jesus’ day may not have been able to reconcile the Messiah’s triumph and the tragedy of the cross, but Isaiah did. The Jews of Jesus’ day may not have been able to see how Messiah could both die and live forever, but Isaiah could. And the reason was because Isaiah could see the glory of God in suffering.
I was privileged to have Dr. Bruce Waltke as a professor while I was in seminary. I can remember this lovely man of God saying something like this to our class: “Men, whenever I read in the Old Testament, I ask God to allow me to see more of Jesus there.” That’s what Isaiah did. That’s what John did. That’s what you and I should do as well. The tragic thing we see from our text is that Israel could not see Jesus (the suffering Servant) in the Old Testament, and thus they could not recognize Him when He appears in the New. Israel has seen the signs which prove Jesus to be their Messiah. They have heard His words. They have, so to speak, “seen the light.” In spite of all of this, they have rejected Him as their Messiah. In so doing, they have fulfilled prophecy, they have paved the way for His sacrificial death, and they have opened the door to Gentile evangelization.
42 Nevertheless, even among the rulers many believed in him, but because of the Pharisees they would not confess Jesus to be the Christ, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue. 43 For they loved praise from men more than praise from God.
Israel’s unbelief was not complete. Besides the disciples and intimate friends of our Lord, there were a number who believed in Him as the Messiah. John notes this fact in verses 42 and 43. But John also makes a point of calling our attention to the “rulers” who believed in Jesus. Why would John take special note of these folks? I believe I understand what John is trying to tell us here: it was these “rulers” who could have put a stop to the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of our Lord … and didn’t. If you look back over the earlier chapters of John’s Gospel, you will see that there was a very strong feeling against Jesus on the part of some of the rulers of the Jews. The problem was that the Jewish rulers—the members of the Sanhedrin—were not unanimous in their commitment to kill Jesus, regardless of the law. Thus, in John chapter 7, the Sanhedrin orders the arrest of Jesus, but the temple police come back empty-handed. Most of the Sanhedrin are intent on killing Jesus, but Nicodemus raises some legitimate legal and procedural objections. Now, after the raising of Lazarus, the triumphal entry of our Lord into Jerusalem, and our Lord’s “attack” on the Pharisees (see Matthew 23), there is a very strong opposition to Jesus on the part of the rulers of the Jews.
In spite of the unbelief of Israel’s rulers, and in spite of the Sanhedrin’s commitment to arrest and to kill Jesus, there were some rulers who had come to believe in Jesus as Israel’s Messiah. It is my opinion that apart from the silence of these believing rulers, the arrest and crucifixion of our Lord would not have been possible. This silence, while cowardly and sinful, was also a part of the divine plan. It was this silence which paved the way for those opposed to Jesus to achieve His arrest, trial, and execution. While those who kept silent sinned, God used their sin to achieve His purposes. God is not limited to our times of faith and our acts of obedience to achieve His will; He is more than able to use our sin and rebellion to bring about His purposes as well. And that is what John is telling us here. It was due to the religious leaders’ animosity, the crowd’s rejection of Jesus, and the complacency of the rulers who believed in Jesus that the cross of our Lord was achieved, in fulfillment of our Lord’s purpose and plan, and of Old Testament prophecies.
John tells us why the believing rulers of Israel remained silent: they feared what the Pharisees could do to them. They were afraid of being cast out of the synagogue. While they were willing to identify with Jesus to some extent, these rulers of Israel were not willing to break with their colleagues. John explains that they “loved praise (literally glory) from men more than praise (literally glory) from God.”231 The “glory” which comes from men is the kind of “glory” we see at our Lord’s “triumphal entry.” It is praise that is rooted in popularity and success, and in living up to man’s expectations and goals. The “glory” which comes from God is that which is often His reward for suffering, for “taking up our cross.” Those rulers of Israel who believed in Jesus were not yet ready to suffer with Jesus, the Messiah.
These two verses (42 and 43) have much to say to us. I attended an HCJB banquet this past week and heard an exciting report of how God is using this great radio station, high up in the mountains of Quito, Ecuador, to proclaim the gospel. In a little quiz that was passed out at this banquet, this question was asked: “How many people would each Christian have to witness to in order for the Great Commission to be fulfilled?” The answer, my friend, was nine. If every Christian shared his or her faith with nine unbelievers, the Great Commission could be fulfilled in our generation.
This raises another question. “Why haven’t we fulfilled the Great Commission?” The reason is simple. Only one out of 20 professing Christians shares his faith. We are not so different from the “rulers” John speaks of, are we? We believe in Jesus as our Savior, and as the Savior of the world, and yet we keep it a secret. We don’t share our faith with the lost. And we don’t do so because we are more concerned with winning “glory” from men (by our success and popularity) than we are with seeking the glory that comes from Him—a glory that comes through suffering, from taking up our cross.
By way of application, I want to say two more things. First, the unbelieving world cares little about what we believe, so long as we keep quiet about it. I have heard the talk about being a “silent Christian,” and while there are times when we need to keep our mouths shut, most of our silence about Christ falls far short of being truly Christian. Let us beware of keeping silent when it is time to speak out regarding our Savior.
Second, the silence and the sins of those who profess to know Christ will not prevent God’s purposes from being achieved on this earth. Throughout history, God has been bringing about His purposes both “in spite of” and “by means of” man’s failures.
John continually stresses a very important biblical truth—the sovereignty of God. God is in complete control of everything. Even the actions of Judas are under our Lord’s control. Judas is responsible, but ultimately our Lord is in control. In the sovereign plan and purpose of God, Judas will betray Jesus, Peter will deny Him, and those rulers who have believed in Jesus will keep silent. God uses man’s opposition, rebellion, and even his sins to bring about His purposes, yet without justifying the sin.
44 But Jesus shouted out, “The one who believes in me does not believe in me, but in the one who sent me, 45 and the one who sees me sees the one who sent me. 46 I have come as a light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in darkness. 47 If anyone hears my words and does not obey them, I do not judge him. For I have not come to judge the world, but to save the world. 48 The one who rejects me and does not accept my words has a judge; the word I have spoken will judge him at the last day. 49 For I have not spoken from my own authority, but the Father himself who sent me has commanded me what I should say and what I should speak. 50 And I know that his commandment is eternal life. Thus the things I say, I say just as the Father has told me.”
We cannot tell for certain when and where these final words of our Lord were spoken. In verse 36, John tells us that Jesus “went away and hid himself from them.” Verses 37-43 are John’s words, explaining Israel’s unbelief. Verses 44-50 are our Lord’s final words, which seem to be placed here out of chronological sequence. John is not so concerned about the timing of these words as their impact. In many ways, verses 44-50 sum up the message of the Gospel of John, and of our Lord. We find nothing new here, but a repetition of what has been said many times before. Since these are our Lord’s final words, spoken publicly to the Jews in Jerusalem, this makes good sense.
I would point out that our Lord’s words here are not only applicable to the Jews, who are already rejecting Him as their Messiah, but to the Greeks, who are seeking Him as their Messiah. Jesus intends for these words to be heard because He shouts them out (verse 44).232 I believe the backdrop for these final words of our Lord is found in John chapter 10, where our Lord says,
37 “If I do not perform the deeds of my Father, do not believe me. 38 But if I do them, even if you do not believe me, believe the deeds, so that you may come to know and understand that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”
Jesus’ words here are spoken to the Jews in Jerusalem during the feast of the Dedication. Jesus has been teaching about Himself as the Good Shepherd, and He has clearly claimed to be one with the Father. As a result, the Jewish religious authorities sought to stone Him (10:31). Jesus tells them how they can put His words to the test. They know that He has claimed to be God, so let them test this claim by His works. Do His works confirm His words? This is a very sensitive point because our Lord frequently employs the word “hypocrite” in reference to the Pharisees. Their works did not measure up to their words (see Matthew 23:1-3). Jesus is more than willing to have His words tested by His works. If they will not believe His words for their sake alone, then let them believe His words on account of His works. Let them conclude with Nicodemus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him” (John 3:2).
When we go back to John 12:34, the Jewish people had to choose between the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of the Pharisees. There (12:35-36), Jesus urged them to “walk in the light,” to believe and behave in the light of what He taught. Once again, in Jesus’ final exhortation to the Jews, He urges those who hear Him to walk in the light. His message is clear and concise. He has come from God, and He speaks for God (verses 49-50). His words are God’s commandment, and this commandment is the means to eternal life (verses 49-50). To believe in the word of Jesus is to believe in the Father; to see Jesus is to see the Father (verses 44-45). If one believes in Jesus, he obeys His words. If one does not believe in the words of Jesus, he disobeys the commandment of God and fails to enter into eternal life. Instead, the words of Jesus become the basis of the unbeliever’s eternal judgment.
Allow me to focus on two vitally important truths from our text as I close. First, this text tells us that we dare not separate our Lord’s works from His words. From the very beginning and throughout our Lord’s ministry, there were very few objections to our Lord’s miraculous works (unless, of course, they took place on a Sabbath). When Jesus healed the paralytic who was let down through the roof, it was not the work of our Lord that troubled the scribes, but our Lord’s words: “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). Jesus healed the man in such a way that those witnessing this miracle could not separate His words (“Your sins are forgiven”) from His works (“Get up, take your stretcher, and go to your house”—Mark 2:11).
When Jesus fed the 5,000, the Galileans who received the free meal loved it. They wanted to make Jesus their king by force (John 6:15). It was not until Jesus began to teach them about the “bread of life” that they wanted no more of Him. They, too, wanted His works, but not His word. And so it is over and over again in the Gospels. When Jesus made His “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, the people wanted His works. But after Jesus taught them in the temple, they did not want His words, because His words concerned His sacrificial death on the cross of Calvary.
I would suggest to you that in these closing words of our Lord in John chapter 12, Jesus for one last time calls upon His hearers to believe in His words, if for no other reason than for His works. We dare not separate the words of our Lord from His works. In fact, I think it is accurate to say that when Jesus revealed the Father at His first coming to this earth, He was “the Word” (the logos) in both His words and His works. God spoke to us by His Son, in what He said and in what He did (Hebrews 1:1-3).
Today, most people are more than willing to grant that Jesus was a wonderful man. They may be willing to grant that He performed many wonderful works. But they are not so willing to accept His words—at least not all of them. The world will accept a few of the things which Jesus says, if properly edited. They accept with full authority all the statements in which Jesus appears to be compassionate, merciful, forgiving, and accepting of sinners. But they reject all of His teaching about the cross of Calvary, and the glory of suffering (His, and ours). They seize upon His statements about “life after death” and heaven, but they reject out of hand any statements about hell and eternal judgment. As we read the Gospel accounts, let me urge that you not separate what “God has joined together”—the words of our Lord (all of them)—and His works. Let us allow Jesus to speak for Himself. And let us listen to Him as the only One who has come down from the Father, and who speaks for the Father. Let us listen to Him as the “light of the world,” believe in His words, and obey them.
Second, I believe I now understand the reason John chose these three incidents described in chapter 12 as the conclusion to our Lord’s public ministry. I am firmly convinced that John was a very skillful writer. He did not simply jump from one subject to the next, with each subject having no relationship to the rest. John has chosen to omit many details that are recorded in the Synoptic Gospels pertaining to the final week of our Lord’s ministry. John sums up our Lord’s public ministry in Jerusalem the final week of His life by drawing together three separate incidents in chapter 12: (1) Mary’s anointing of our Lord with her precious ointment in verses 1-8; (2) our Lord’s “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem in verses 9-19; and, (3) the request of the Greeks as dealt with in verses 20-50. What is the connection between these three very different segments? And what is the overall message that John wants us to learn as he draws them all together in this chapter? I think, after considerable agony, that I have come to some conclusions here. John is developing a consistent argument, and the three incidents in chapter 12 are all very much related, and all pointing to the same conclusion. Let’s take these three incidents one at a time, and seek to see how they combine to make one powerful message.
The first incident in chapter 12 is Mary’s anointing of our Lord for burial. It may be out of chronological sequence, but John places it here in chapter 12. Judas (followed by a number of other disciples in the Synoptic accounts) cannot fathom how such “waste” could be permitted by Jesus. Mary’s actions appear to the disciples as needless extravagance. Our Lord puts her act of love in a different light. How different this act of extravagant love appears in the light of the cross of Calvary. That is just what Jesus does. He justifies Mary’s actions in the light of His imminent death. Calvary sheds an entirely different light on this incident. In the light of the priceless gift Jesus is about to bestow by the shedding of His blood, how appropriate Mary’s gift becomes. Her actions cannot be rightly appraised apart from the cross.
The second incident in John chapter 12 is the “triumphal entry” of our Lord into Jerusalem. The crowds are ecstatic with joy. They welcome Jesus as their king. Nowhere does Jesus speak of this event in terms of glory, and elsewhere we learn that Jesus actually wept (Luke 19:41-44). This incident does not make any sense at all—until after the death of our Lord at Calvary. Jesus did not come to Jerusalem to be crowned as their king, or to throw off Roman rule. Jesus came to Jerusalem to be mistakenly identified (as a political deliverer), to be rejected, and to be glorified by dying on a Roman cross at Calvary. We cannot properly understand or appreciate this “triumphal entry” until we view it in the light of the cross. This apparent earthly “success” is momentary, lasting less than a week. Our Lord’s glorious death at Calvary has benefits that last for eternity. The cross makes such things clear.
The third incident in John chapter 12 is the “seeking Greeks.” We are perplexed as we see Jesus virtually “brushing off” their request for an interview. Why would Jesus not meet with true seekers? The answer, once again, is bound up with the cross. It is the rejection of Jesus by the Jews which takes Him to the cross. It is at the cross that salvation is accomplished for all who believe in Christ, whether Jew or Greek. It is the cross of Calvary that makes perfect sense of our Lord’s response to the request of the Greeks.
Three incidents in chapter 12 have one thing in common—they require the cross of Calvary to make any sense to the reader, and to be of any value to men. Every week we observe communion, or “the Lord’s Table” as we refer to it. Some say that remembering our Lord’s death weekly deprives it of its meaning and significance. We would differ. We believe that the cross of our Lord puts everything else in its proper perspective. That is also why Paul restricts his message to the “cross of Christ” (see 1 Corinthians 1:18-25). There is no better way to see things clearly than from the vantage point of the cross.
What a turning point this chapter is for the nation Israel. Jesus has come down to the earth, the Word of the Father. He has spoken to men for God; He has spoken to men as God. Israel has seen Him perform “so many miraculous signs” (12:37). He has entered Jerusalem as the Messiah. And it is now Israel’s hour of decision. They have already rejected Him, and even those who have believed in Him are keeping silent. The cross is but a few hours away. Israel’s rejection of Jesus as their Messiah fulfills prophecy and paves the way not only for His work on the cross, but for the salvation of the Greeks, who are already seeking Him.
This may well be your hour of decision as well, my friend. It is not my words which are important, but His words, so clearly spoken in this great Gospel. And we have it from John that the few miraculous signs of which he has written are but a small sampling of all that Jesus did. In the light of His works, my friend, I urge you to heed His words. He is the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father, but by Him (John 14:6). Have you believed in His word? Have you received Him as the One who died for your sins, who bore your punishment on the cross? Listen well to these final words of our Lord. While John makes it very clear that God is sovereign in all these events (including Israel’s unbelief), he likewise emphasizes that these Jews made a willful choice, and were accountable for their decision. While the rejection of Jesus by the nation Israel was both necessary and inevitable, let us take note that in verses 35-36, and again in verses 44-50, Jesus makes an appeal to men to believe in Him for eternal life. This may be your hour of decision as well, my friend. What will your decision be?
227 I like what Carson says: “The Greeks who request to see Jesus not only represent ‘the whole world’…, but they stand in contrast to the Pharisees who are exasperated by Jesus’ growing influence… These Greeks were not necessarily from Greece: as elsewhere in the New Testament, the term refers to Gentiles who come from any part of the Greek-speaking world, possibly even a Greek city as near as the Decapolis. That they were God-fearing is intimated by John’s remark that they went up to worship at the Feast (sc. of Passover, 12:1). It is possible that they were proselytes, i.e. fully fledged converts to Judaism who would have been permitted to worship with Jews, but this cannot be inferred from the text, since other Gentiles who are said to have gone up to worship could not possibly be proselytes (e.g. the Ethiopian eunuch, Acts 8:27; cf. Jos., Bel. Vi. 427). Like Cornelius (Acts 10) or the centurion who loved the Jews and built them a synagogue (Lk. 7:5), such Greeks admired much that they saw in Judaism without becoming official converts, and sometimes attended the great Jewish festivals in Jerusalem, where they were admitted to the court of the Gentiles. The Greek construction suggests that these Gentiles were drawn from those who regularly made such pilgrimages.” D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), p. 436.
228 I am warning the reader that what I am about to write is conjecture, and not biblical fact. As a respected teacher, Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, used to say, “There may be a difference between what the Bible says and what I think it says.” If this is true, there surely could be a substantial difference between what the Bible says and what I imagine it says. I do not wish to venture into speculation here, but simply to help the reader picture in his or her mind what the text describes.
229 More literally, the text reads, “Jesus responded (or replied) to them …,” making it clear that the words which follow are our Lord’s direct response to the request of the Greeks, as conveyed to Him by Philip and Andrew. It is not that these Greeks received no response from Jesus. Our problem comes as we seek to understand the relationship of our Lord’s response to the question the Greeks raised.