“Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in Him” (John 12:37).People can waver for a time. But a moment comes when a once-and-for-all decision must be made.
Jesus was anointed by Mary, Lazarus’ sister (12:1–11). On the way to Jerusalem He was acclaimed King (vv. 12–19). Deeply troubled, Jesus predicted His death (vv. 20–28). He was reassured by God (vv. 29–30) and spoke of what His death would accomplish (vv. 31–36). John commented on the blindness of the leaders (vv. 37–43) and reported Jesus’ final call to faith (vv. 44–50).
Understanding the Text
“The house was filled with the fragrance” John 12:1–3.
The perfume that Mary used to anoint Jesus was worth some 300 denarii, equivalent to a year’s wages. Perfume was imported into Palestine, and because of its value was often purchased as an investment. The nard Mary poured on Jesus’ feet may well have represented her life savings. From what we know of Mary—her eagerness to learn at Jesus’ feet, and the genuine faith she exhibited when Lazarus died—it seems likely that she anticipated Christ’s coming death. At the very least she sensed the increasing stress under which He lived, and sought to show her devotion. Her loving act “filled the house” with fragrance. There is always something beautiful and fragrant about what we do out of love. No act performed out of a mere sense of duty, or out of obligation, can fill the air with that kind of fragrance. “You will always have the poor among you” John 12:4–11. Judas’ insincere concern for the poor earned a much misunderstood retort from Jesus. John tells us that Judas had a selfish reason for rebuking Mary. He was upset because he wanted cash in Christ’s coffers—so he could steal some! The other Gospels report that Judas’ remark led other disciples to be critical as well. But what did Jesus mean when He said, “The poor you will always have among you”? Simply that any person who is truly concerned for the poor need not worry. There will always be opportunities to aid the poor! Today the moment for pouring perfume on Jesus’ feet is long past. But the poor are still with us. And we do have an opportunity to aid them, in Jesus’ name. “Many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in Him” John 12:9–10. The raising of Lazarus convinced many who had hesitated before. If John used “the Jews” here as he had earlier, even members of the opposition party were being converted. These verses introduce us to the sharp divisions that now developed in Judean society. Some were “going over to Jesus and putting their faith in Him.” The Jerusalem crowds, convinced by the ultimate miracle that Jesus must be the Messiah, wanted to make Him King. The religious leaders were intent on getting rid of Jesus. And Christ urged hesitating individuals to get off the fence; to not only hear but also to keep His words. In the swirling turmoil of excitement that swept Jerusalem as Passover week arrived it was utterly clear that everyone must make some decision about who Jesus was. One of Satan’s favorite ploys is to keep people putting off that decision. Satan is delighted when days and nights are filled with ordinary activities that dull the soul to eternal issues. On the other hand, times marked by turmoil or suffering are especially tense for Satan and are opportunities for Christians to press the claims of Christ. “Blessed is the King of Israel” John 12:12–19. The raising of Lazarus seems to have convinced the crowd that Jesus truly was the Messiah, the Ruler promised by the prophets. They greeted Him with shouts acclaiming Him Israel’s King. Even “Hosanna” suggests the thought, for it means “Save Now!” While the Triumphal Entry did fulfill prophecy, it also showed that even the many who had come to “believe” in Jesus accepted on their terms, not His. They believed what they wanted to believe about Him—that He would free them from Rome and set up God’s kingdom on earth. It’s not unusual for folks today to believe Jesus will act in ways they expect or want Him to. Not unusual, but still a mistake. “Sir, we would like to see Jesus” John 12:20–26. The “Greeks” who wanted to see Jesus may have been Gentiles present to observe the spectacular Jewish festival of Passover, or perhaps Greek-speaking Jews. In either case, they had their own agenda in asking to see Jesus. Curiosity. Christ seemed to ignore the request when it was passed on to Him. Instead He spoke of His coming death. Jesus had an agenda set by the Father, and nothing would distract Him from doing the Father’s will. “Now is the time for judgment on this world” John 12:28–33. The Gospels speak of a literal voice coming from heaven at three points in Jesus’ ministry. At His baptism (the beginning), at His transfiguration (the midpoint) and now, just before His crucifixion (the end). Here it marks the time of decision. In saying, “Now is the time for judgment on this world,” Jesus meant that with His death, God’s ultimate self-revelation would be complete. From then on, belief and unbelief would mark a line that divides mankind into two groups, distinct in nature and in destiny. “They still would not believe in Him” John 12:37–50. The final crisis had arrived, and still most held back from the full commitment of faith. Jesus made one last stunning statement about Himself. In quoting Isaiah 6 John says that he implicitly claimed that Isaiah “saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about Him” (John 12:41). Turning to that chapter we realize that the person Isaiah describes is Yahweh Himself, seated on a heavenly throne (6:1) and acclaimed by angels who constantly cry out: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of His glory” (v. 3). God Himself has come to earth, and displayed His power in miraculous signs. Yet men were more impressed with the puny power of other men than with the glory of their God (John 12:42–43). When we grasp the glory of our God, we will be thoroughly unimpressed with men. Then we will acknowledge and obey Jesus Christ.
Who’s on First?(John 12:12–24)
Abbott and Costello are credited with the baseball comedy routine, “Who’s on First?” (What is on second base, Where plays third, and I think Why is shortstop.) If I’m confused about the players and their positions, well, this report in John shows a somewhat similar confusion existed in first-century Jerusalem as Jesus approached that city for the last time. John tells us He was met by cheering crowds, who greeted Him as “the King of Israel.” The raising of Lazarus had convinced the crowds: Jesus must be the expected Messiah after all. And so they shouted out praises and cried, “Hosanna,” which means “Save Now!” At last, they thought, Jesus would get on with the Messiah’s real business, throw out the Romans, and make Israel a world power. A little later some Greeks approached one of Jesus’ disciples, and politely expressed their interest in seeing Him. So Philip and Andrew passed on the message. “Some nice Greek folk would like to see You, Lord.” Perhaps they were thinking it would be good politics for Jesus to establish relationships with foreigners. Maybe Philip or Andrew would do for a diplomatic posting to a major city, like Corinth or Philippi! I can understand the crowds, the Greeks, and the disciples. They all had agendas that were important to them. And each had a big role for Jesus in his plans! There was only one problem. Not one had stopped to ask the truly critical question: “Who’s on first?” Jesus cleared up the confusion, though, just as He clears up ours. After speaking of His death, Jesus said, “Whoever serves Me must follow Me; and where I am, My servant will also be” (v. 26). You see, the mistake made by the cheering crowds, the Greeks, and even the disciples—the mistake still made by us, that causes so much confusion—is that all forgot who’s on first. God’s blunt and simple answer is, Jesus is on first. We don’t lead, and expect Jesus to follow. We let Jesus go first, and we follow Him. If you and I keep this order in mind, it will clear most of our confusion about life. We’ll seldom become depressed or anxious about why God doesn’t do things our way. We won’t expect Him to. And we’ll seldom wonder why God hasn’t blessed our plans, when we’ve gone to all the trouble of making them and then asking Him to bless. As Jesus’ servants we’ll have sought His will first—and then done our very best to follow closely where He leads. So enjoy the Abbott and Costello routine when you hear it. But don’t let yourself be confused about who’s on first in the Christian life, and who follows.
Don’t try to use Jesus. Follow Him.
“Ideally, when Christians meet, as Christians, to take counsel together, their purpose is not—or should not be—to ascertain what is the mind of the majority but what is the mind of the Holy Spirit—something which may be quite different.”—Margaret Thatcher