March 22: John 12:20-23

John 12:20-23

The daily notes here leading into Holy Week will focus on John 12:20-36. In the previous note, I discussed the place of this section in the context of chapters 11-12, as the conclusion to the first half of the Gospel (the “Book of Signs”, 1:19-12:50).

“And there were some Greeks out of the (one)s stepping [i.e. coming] up (to Jerusalem so) that they might kiss toward [i.e. worship] (God) in the festival. So (then) these (persons) came toward {Philip}, the (one) from Beth-Saida of the Galîl, and inquired (of) him, saying: ‘Lord [i.e. Sir], we wish to see Yeshua’. (Then) {Philip} comes and relates (this) to {Andrew}, (and) {Philip} and {Andrew} come and relate (it) to Yeshua. And Yeshua gives forth (an answer) to them, saying:

‘The hour has come that the Son of Man should be honored’.”

This is the historical tradition that serves as basis for the discourse. Verses 20-22 provide the narrative introduction, while the remainder of the discourse essentially functions as an exposition of the initial saying of Jesus in verse 23. The regular discourse-feature of the audience response (and misunderstanding) is introduced further on in the discourse (vv. 29, 33-34). In terms of the Johannine discourses, this one is rather loosely constructed. It takes the form of a sequence of individual sayings, which may well have originally been uttered by Jesus on separate occasions, but gathered together and connected based on common theme and wording (i.e. catchword bonding). This is typical of many discourse-blocks in the Synoptic Gospels, while the Johannine discourses, by comparison, tend to be more developed literary pieces.

Almost certainly we can determine that verses 20-22 represent an authentic historical tradition. The details appear, on the surface, to be irrelevant to the sayings that follow in vv. 23ff. The references to Philip and Andrew, while characteristic of the Johannine tradition (1:40-48; 6:5-8; 14:8-9), are entirely incidental to the passage here. Apparently the Gospel writer has drawn from a specific historical tradition to introduce the discourse, without altering it significantly to fit the scenario. Even the mention of the “Greeks” who wish to see Jesus is not followed through in the discourse—they disappear without further mention (did they ever actually meet with Jesus?). This is rather typical of the Johannine discourses; note, for example, how Nicodemus, after his involvement in the opening of that discourse (3:1-9), is not mentioned again in the remainder, which consists entirely of exposition by Jesus.

The detail of these “Greeks” coming to see Jesus is actually more significant that it might seem at first glance. Here the word  (Ellhne/$ refers, not simply to Greek-speakers, but to non-Israelite Greeks (and Romans), i.e. Gentiles. Their statement “we wish to see Yeshua”, and the idea of their “stepping up” (vb a)nabai/nw) and “coming toward” (vb prose/rxomai) him, expressed in the idiom of the Johannine theological vocabulary, indicates that these are believers—Gentiles who would come to trust in Jesus. In the Gospel of John, to “see” (i)dei=n) is an idiomatic way of referring to trust in Jesus, and of union with God the Father through Jesus the Son. Even in ordinary Greek expression seeing and knowing are interconnected, with the verb ei&dw (“see”) used interchangeably with ginw/skw (“know”); this is all the more so in the Johannine writings, where one sees/knows God the Father through Jesus the Son.

The immediate context of the passage, too, tends to confirm this theological aspect of the Greeks coming to Jesus. We would note, for example, the declaration by Jesus in 10:16, where he states that

“…I hold other sheep which are not out of [i.e. from] this yard, and it is necessary for me to lead them also, and they will hear my voice—and they will come to be a single herd [i.e. flock], (and) one herder [i.e. shepherd].”

There can be little doubt that this is an allusion to believers coming to Jesus from the surrounding nations and peoples (i.e. other yards). The discourse that follows here also contains a saying of Jesus that reflects this idea more directly, when he declares

“and I, if [i.e. when] I should be lifted high out of the earth, I will drag all (people) toward me.” (12:32)

It is perhaps significant that we are never told whether those Greek actually were able to meet with Jesus—that is, to come toward [pro/$] him. The scene gives a foreshadowing of what will occur after (and as a result of) Jesus’ death and resurrection; in other words, believers from the other nations/peoples will only be able to come toward Jesus, when his work on earth is complete (19:30).

This leads us to the initial saying of Jesus in verse 23:

“The hour has come that the Son of Man should be honored.”

This is one of the few “Son of Man” sayings in the Gospel of John; while frequent in the Synoptic tradition, such Johannine sayings are less common, though the ones which occur are notable—1:51; 3:13-14; 5:27; 6:27, 53, 62; 8:28, etc. The sayings with an eschatological context are quite rare (5:27); most follow the Synoptic line of tradition, of sayings whereby Jesus refers to his impending suffering and death. The statement here involves the lifting/raising high (vb u(yo/w) of the Son of Man, essentially repeating that from the earlier discourse in 3:14f:

“And, even as Moshe lifted high the snake in the desolate land [i.e. desert], so it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted high, (so) that every (one) trusting in him would hold (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life].”

The allusion to the episode in Numbers 21:4-9 makes rather clear that the idea of Jesus’ death on the stake (crucifixion) is in view. The snake raised on the pole brings healing, to everyone who sees it; so also Jesus’ death (his body raised on the stake) brings salvation to every one who sees—that is, trusts in—him. The coming of the Greeks toward him indicates, from the standpoint of the Gospel narrative, that the moment for his death is close at hand. This is made explicit in the saying here: “The hour has come…”. The word w%ra (“hour”) has this specific connotation in the Synoptic Passion narrative (Mark 14:35, 41 par; cf. also Luke 22:53). Indeed, a nearly identical declaration is made in Mk 14:41: “the hour came [i.e. has come]—see, the Son of Man is given along into the hands of sinful (men)”. The same idiom occurs in the Gospel of John, in the narration (7:30; 8:20; 13:1), but also in the parallel saying of Jesus in 2:4—one statement occurring at the beginning of the “Book of Signs”, the other at its conclusion:

“My hour has not yet arrived” (2:4)
“The hour has come…” (12:23)

The moment of his death is further explained here as the time when the Son of Man will be honored. The verb doca/zw fundamentally means “esteem, treat/regard with honor”. It is a distinctive Johannine word, occurring 23 times in the Gospel, compared with 14 in all three Synoptic Gospels combined. It is especially prevalent in chapters 13-17 (13 of the 23 occurrences), in the context of the Passion Narrative; its use in the saying here was anticipated in the Lazarus episode (11:4), and again in the narrative aside at 12:16. The word do/ca essentially refers to how a person regards or considers something, i.e., the regard or esteem one has for it. When applied to God, in a religious context, it relates to the honor and respect one ought to show Him; moreover, by extension, it also signifies to the attributes and characteristics which make Him worthy of honor—His greatness, holiness, purity, etc. These may be summarized as His “splendor” or “glory” (the customary English translation of do/ca). What applies to God the Father applies just as well to Jesus the Son—however, here, from the standpoint of Johannine theology, it refers to two distinct aspects of Jesus’ work on earth: (1) the completion of his mission (with his sacrificial death, 19:30 etc), and (2) his exaltation following his death (resurrection and return to the Father). These two aspects play on the common motif of Jesus being “lifted up” —his death (lifted up on the cross), and his exaltation (raised from the death and lifted to heaven).

This will be discussed further on the saying in verse 28, where the verb doca/zw is again used.

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