March 26: John 12:31-34

John 12:31-34

“‘Now is (the) judgment of this world, now the chief (ruler) of this world shall be thrown out(side); and I, if I am lifted high out of the earth, I will drag all (people) toward myself.’ And he (was) say(ing) this, signifying [shmai/wn] what sort of death he (was) about to die away from.” (vv. 31-33)

In the discourse as we have it, the dual-saying of Jesus in vv. 31-33 follows directly after the sounding of the voice from heaven—the declaration of God the Father in response to Jesus’ request (cf. the previous note on vv. 27-30). Thus, Jesus’ own declaration in v. 31 must be understood here in that context: “Now is (the) judgment of this world…”. The hour of Jesus’ death—which is also the moment when he (the Son of Man) will be given honor/glory—marks the judgment (kri/si$) of the world. This is an example of the “realized” eschatology that is so prominent in the Gospel of John. The events which were believed to occur at the end of the current Age—the resurrection, the great Judgment, and eternal life for the righteous who pass through the Judgment—are already being experienced now, in the present, especially for believers in Christ. Indeed, there are several places in the Discourses where Jesus clearly states that those who trust in him have already passed through the Judgment, and, by contrast, those who are unable/unwilling to trust have already been judged—cf. 3:19; 5:22-24 [cp. 27-30]; 9:39; 12:47-48; 16:8-11. For more on this, see the recent article in the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”.

In the Johannine theology and religious outlook, the term “world” (ko/smo$, perhaps better rendered “world order“) refers to the current Age (i.e. the current order of things) that is dominated by darkness and wickedness and fundamentally opposed to God. The end-time Judgment—already being experienced in the present—involves the judgment/defeat of these forces of evil, led and embodied by the figure here called “the chief [a&rxwn] of this world”, perhaps also personified as “the Evil (One)” (o( ponhro/$, cf. 1 John 5:18-19; John 17:15, etc). In more traditional religious language, this figure would be identified as the Satan/Devil. This expression “the chief of this world” also occurs at 14:30 and 16:11:

“…the chief of the world comes, and he holds nothing in/on me” (14:30)
(the Spirit will demonstrate [the truth] to the world) …about (the) Judgment, (in) that the chief of this world has been judged” (16:11)

The statement in 16:11 corresponds closely with that in 12:31; in terms of the context of the narrative, 14:30 and 16:11 are ‘located’ before and after the death and resurrection of Jesus, which confirms the idea that his death/resurrection is the moment when the “ruler of this world” is judged. The actual verb used is e)kba/llw (“throw/cast out”), with the adverb e&cw giving added emphasis (“thrown outside“). This means that the power/control of the Evil One is broken and he no longer has dominion over the world. Revelation 12 similarly sets the Satan’s expulsion from heaven (being thrown out/down) in the context of Jesus’ death and resurrection (vv. 5-9ff). The saying of Jesus in Luke 10:18 (“I observed the Satan [hav]ing fallen as a flash [of lightning] out of heaven”) relates to the time of his earthly ministry, and the authority he has (over evil spirits, etc), the same power/authority he gives to his disciples (i.e. believers) over the forces of evil (cp. the statement on the purpose of Jesus’ mission in 1 Jn 3:8). His death, of course, represents the completion of his mission on earth, and is to be seen especially as the moment of the Evil One’s defeat. This will be discussed further in an upcoming note.

To this statement is added, in v. 32, an apparently separate saying which resembles, and repeats the message of, that in 3:14f:

“…even as Moshe lifted high the snake in the desolate (land), 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].” (3:14-15)

“…and I, if I am lifted high out of the earth, I will drag all (people) toward myself” (12:32)

As previous noted, the verb u(yo/w (“lift/raise high”) in these Johannine passages (cf. also 8:28) has a dual meaning: (1) Jesus’ death, being lifted up on the stake, and (2) his exaltation (resurrection and return to the Father). The author’s comment in v. 33 specifies that the first of these is primarily in view, as is fitting for the Passion-context of the narrative at this point. To come toward (pro/$) Jesus means to trust in him, even as the Greeks who wish to “come toward” Jesus and see him (vv. 20-22) represent all the believers from the surrounding nations who will come to trust in him.

A sense of election/predestination (to use the traditional theological terminology) is connoted by the verb e(lku/w (“drag”), a verb that is rare in the New Testament, being used in 21:6, 11 in the context of fishing (i.e. pulling/dragging in the nets). It is also used in the judicial context of ‘hauling’ someone into court, etc, which would fit the judgment theme in verse 31 (cf. Acts 16:19; James 2:6). The most relevant parallel, however, is found in 6:44, in the Bread of Life discourse, as Jesus speaks of the dynamic of people “coming” to him (i.e. to trust in him):

“No (one) is able to come toward me, if (it is) not (that) the Father, the (One) sending me, should drag [e(lku/sh|] him (there)…”

The language almost suggests someone being pulled against his/her will, which would be a bit too strong of an interpretation; however, there is a definite emphasis in the Johannine Discourses on what we would call election or predestination—believers come to Jesus because they (already) belong to God, and have been chosen. The inclusive language in 12:32— “…I will drag all (people)” —is best understood in terms of all believers, especially in light of the presence of Greek (i.e.  non-Jewish) believers here in the narrative context; that is to say, believers from all the nations/peoples will come to him.

Verse 34

The response of the crowd in verse 34 is another example of the motif of misunderstanding that is built into the Johannine discourse format. Which is not say that these instances do not reflect authentic historical details, but only that they have been tailored to fit the literary context of the discourse. Indeed, the response of the crowd here is entirely believable. It refers primarily to the main line of the discourse—the saying in verse 23, along with the latter statement in v. 32—that is to say, the core tradition regarding the death of the “Son of Man”:

Then the throng (of people) gave forth (an answer) to him: “We heard out of the Law that ‘the Anointed (One) remains into the Age’, and (so) how (can) you say that ‘it is necessary (for) the Son of Man to be lifted high’? Who is this ‘Son of Man’?”

This is best understood as a summary of different questions Jesus’ followers (and other interested hearers) had regarding his message. It reflects two basic issues, in terms of Jesus’ Messianic identity:

    • The idea that Jesus, as the Messiah, would die (and/or depart) before establishing the kingdom of God (on earth) in the New Age.
    • The manner in which he identified himself with the “Son of Man” figure—in two respects:
      • The Son of Man sayings which refer to his upcoming suffering and death
      • The eschatological Son of Man sayings, which refer to the appearance of a heavenly deliverer at the end-time

This will be discussed further in the upcoming note for Palm Sunday; you may also wish to consult my earlier series on the Son of Man Sayings of Jesus.