The Shadow of Death and the Promise of Life
Topic: Holy Week Passage: John 12:1–12:36
THE SHADOW OF DEATH AND THE PROMISE OF LIFE
An Exposition of John 12:1-36a
By Pastor Brian Wilbur
Date: April 14, 2019
Series: Holy Week 2019
Note: Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
On this Palm Sunday, when we remember our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem five days before He laid down His life on the cross, let us give our attention to John 12:1-36. This passage not only describes the triumphal entry, but also shows us the larger movement of Jesus’ journey to the cross and brings us face to face with the message of the gospel.
THE SCRIPTURAL TEXT
Holy Scripture says,
12 1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. 3 Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 6 He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. 8 For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”
9 When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well,11 because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.
12 The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” 14 And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written,
15 “Fear not, daughter of Zion;
behold, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey's colt!”
16 His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him. 17 The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness.18 The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign. 19 So the Pharisees said to one another, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.”
20 Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks.21 So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.
27 “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose 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 it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.34 So the crowd answered him, “We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” 35 So Jesus said to them, “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness 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, that you may become sons of light.” (John 12:1-36a)
RESURRECTION, HONOR, AND THE SHADOW OF DEATH: AN OVERVIEW OF JOHN 12:1-19
I would like to give most attention to verses 20-36, but let me begin with a brief overview of verses 1-19. I would summarize verses 1-19 this way: Jesus is honored by His friends in Bethany and by a large crowd on the way to Jerusalem, but the religious leaders were seeking to put both Jesus and Lazarus to death.
Jesus Raised Lazarus from the Dead
This reference to Lazarus is a matter of great importance. Verses 1, 9, and 17 tell us that Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, and verses 11 and 18 tells us that the good news about Jesus was spreading and many people were believing in Jesus “on account of [Lazarus]” (v. 11), because Lazarus stood forth as a sign of the Messianic glory and resurrection power of the Lord Jesus Christ. All this takes us back to John 11.
In John 11, we learn that Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, had fallen ill and then died. Mary and Martha identified Lazarus to Jesus as “he whom you love” (John 11:3), and Jesus called Lazarus “[our] friend” (John 11:11). John 11:5 tells us, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” (John 11:5) One of the great wonders of the gospel is that the Lord Jesus Christ loves His people.
As John 11 unfolds, Jesus reveals Himself and His promise to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26) Shortly thereafter, Jesus demonstrates His resurrection and life-giving power by raising Lazarus from the dead. This obviously created quite a stir in the village of Bethany and in the surrounding countryside. After Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (Luke 11:38-44), Luke 11:45 tells us: “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him.” (Luke 11:45)
So Jesus’ fame was spreading outward from Bethany because He raised Lazarus from the dead. Jesus came into our broken and dying world in order to bring life and light to sinners who dwell in this realm of darkness and death.
Jesus is Honored
Set in the context of Jesus’ powerful raising of Lazarus, Jesus is honored – first with a dinner in Bethany, then with celebratory praise on the way to Jerusalem.
Originally I was so focused on the three individuals named in John 12 – Lazarus, Martha, and Mary – that I just assumed that the dinner took place in their home. But a couple of commentaries helped me to see 1) that the text doesn’t say that this meal took place in their home and 2) that the parallel passages in Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9 tell us that this event actually took place in the home of Simon the leper. So the picture that emerges is a community gathering in the village of Bethany that took place in Simon’s house, where a dinner was given to honor Jesus. And why shouldn’t they honor Him? He is a dear friend to Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and yet He is much more than a friend: He is their friend who is also the Lord, the Messiah, the Son of God – and they knew it. And He had recently shown them profound love by revealing His divine glory to them, for that was the deeper significance of raising Lazarus from the dead. It’s not just that they got their brother back, but that they got to behold the Lord’s glory and power shining in their midst. And that display of resurrection power had made quite an impression on the residents of the greater Bethany area, and many believed in Him. So they honored Jesus with their gracious hospitality. “Martha served” (v. 2), Lazarus was among some others who were sitting with Jesus at the table (v. 2), and Mary worshiped the Lord by an act of extravagant devotion: “Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” (v. 3)
Mary exemplifies a heart of true worship, a heart of extravagant devotion to Jesus. We should pity the heart that can only think in terms of how little it can give in order to pass the bar of acceptable worship. We should repent when a heart of such little devotion is, in fact, our heart. How little can I give – really? When you consider the infinite worth of the Lord Jesus Christ, when you consider the magnificent value of His grace, when you consider the incomparable splendor of His glory, a ‘how little can I give’ mindset belittles Him and dishonors Him. Scripture rebukes this pathetic mindset: “When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the LORD of hosts.” (Malachi 1:8)
But the heart that loves and honors the Lord, is a large heart that worships the Lord by acts of extravagant devotion, in accordance with what one has. And Mary had “a pound of expensive ointment.” How much was it worth? Well, Judas thought it had a market value of “three hundred denarii” (v. 5). The English Standard Version has a footnote that indicates “A denarius was a day’s wage for a laborer.” So “three hundred denarii” is three hundred days of wages for a laborer. Although it is difficult to compare currency values across time and place, it may be helpful to think that “three hundred denarii” is roughly equivalent to the annual income of a blue collar worker. So this “expensive ointment” had substantial value. But Mary, having ‘calculated’ the infinite value of the Lord, thought it a fitting thing to break the jar of perfume and pour it out on the Master’s feet.
Jesus is honored in Bethany “[six] days before the Passover,” and “[the] next day” (v. 12) – thus five days before the Passover – Jesus is honored by a large crowd on the way to Jerusalem. Verses 12-15 is one of the accounts that describes Palm Sunday and Jesus’ celebratory entrance into the city of Jerusalem. The many Jews from the greater Bethany area (John 11:45), the many Jews who were going to Jerusalem from the countryside (John 11:55), the many Jerusalem-bound Jews who had just converged on Bethany to see Jesus and Lazarus (John 12:9), and perhaps others as well, now took to celebration: they celebrated the Lord Jesus as He journeyed to Jerusalem, and they praised Him as the promised Messiah.
“So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”” (v. 13)
When they cried out “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” they were quoting from Psalm 118:26 and ascribing praise to the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is “the King of Israel” “who comes in the name of the Lord” in order to bring salvation to God’s people. Then, in fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9,
“Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”” (v. 14-15)
Here is a king who, at His first coming, does not come on a war horse to make war on sinful men. At His second coming, yes (e.g., Revelation 19:11-21). But first this: a humble King who rides on a young donkey and in humility presents Himself as a sacrifice that will bring about peace and salvation for those who believe. If you have God-blessed eyes to behold the humble King, then you have more than enough to reason to “[fear] not”. Since the true and righteous King – He who is the resurrection and the life – has come in order to bring salvation and vanquish the power of sin and death, then you do not need to be afraid of oppressors on the outside, of traitors on the inside, or of any circumstance that seems to be against you. Trust Him, and all is well!
John 12:16 goes on to tell us that the disciples didn’t really comprehend what was happening at the time, for it was only after “Jesus was glorified” that they were able to put the all the pieces together. We have the benefit of the whole Bible – the whole storyline – but the men and women we encounter in the Bible were experiencing the unfolding of things in real time, and they often didn’t understand what was happening. But even though the disciples and the crowds in general didn’t understand the fullness of what was happening, they knew that Jesus was no ordinary man. And verses 17-18 help us to understand how His fame spread: the crowd that had witnessed the raising of Lazarus from the dead, bore witness to what they had seen, and so the news about Jesus spread. It was their faithful witness (v. 17-18) that had brought about “the large crowd” who had gone “out to meet him” and celebrate His coming (v. 12). Then and now, the good news about Jesus spreads to more and more people because believers “bear witness” about Jesus. And so it is that Jesus is honored by many people.
The Shadow of Death
And yet, the shadow of death hangs over it all.
There is surprise here: Jesus is the resurrection and the life; He raised Lazarus from the dead; He is the true King who brings salvation; He is rightly honored and praised. And yet, this very One is on the cusp of death.
The shadow of death is evident in the opposition. The very end of John 11 tells us that “the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that if anyone knew where he was, he should let them know, so that they might arrest him.” (John 11:57) In John 12:10 we learn that “the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well” (John 12:10) – so they intended to kill both Jesus and Lazarus. In John 12:19 the Pharisees can only express frustration and dismay that so many people were becoming followers of Jesus.
The shadow of death is evident not only in the opposition from the religious leaders, but also in the presence of a traitor who stands among Jesus’ disciples and friends. Judas did not love the Lord and he did not care for the poor, and yet in the name of charity he criticizes Mary’s extravagant devotion to Jesus:
“But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.” (v. 4-6)
Beware of non-worshipers who criticize true worshipers in the name of charity, in the name of good causes, in the name of social justice, in the name of their wonderful programs. Beware of non-worshipers who would distract us from worshiping Jesus, which is the main thing, by getting us fastened onto secondary issues. Beware of non-worshipers whose end goal isn’t even the secondary issues they claim to care about, but who care only about their own enrichment, their own advancement, their own status, their own market share of power or influence. In its proper place, it is good and right to show love for the poor. But true worshipers know that Jesus alone occupies first place!
Finally, the shadow of death is evident not only in the opposition from the outside and the betrayal from the inside, but also in Jesus’ reference to His burial. Jesus made it clear that Mary’s extravagant devotion was right, and He saw in it additional significance. In response to Judas’ vain protest of Mary’s devotion, “Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial.”” (v. 7) What we seem to have here is that Mary’s anointing of Jesus in verse 3 is, in a symbolic sense, an anointing of Jesus’ body for burial. Death looms large on Jesus’ horizon. He who is the resurrection and the life, shall soon enter into the sphere of death.
THE SURPRISE AND SUMMONS OF THE GOSPEL: A LOOK AT JOHN 12:20-36
The Pharisees’ comment that “the world has gone after him” (v. 19) is an interesting segue to the next scene, because there in verse 20 it is not countryside Jews who are “looking for Jesus” (John 11:56), as was the case in John 11:55-56, but Greeks who are doing so. Since these Greeks were “[going] up to worship at the [Passover] feast” (v. 20), they were probably Greeks who had been converted to Judaism and who worshiped the God of Israel. And like their fellow worshipers from the Judean countryside, they wanted to see Jesus: “So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”” (v. 21) Andrew and Philip pass on their request to Jesus, and this prompts Jesus to proclaim the surprise and summons of the gospel.
More Important Than a Personal Meeting
The passage doesn’t tell us whether the Greeks who “[wished] to see Jesus” ever got a personal meeting with the Savior in these final days before His death. But something much more important was at stake than whether these Greeks got to see Him. What is this more important thing that was at stake? This: That the gospel of Jesus Christ be clearly seen and embraced by large numbers of people all over the world. So after Andrew and Philip told Jesus that “some Greeks” had requested a personal meeting, Jesus took the opportunity to proclaim the gospel. What He said is so important that it was written down in John 12:23-36 so that wherever the Scripture goes, this message goes. Seeing the truth of John 12:23-36 is more important than being one of the relatively few people who got to see Jesus in the flesh in 1st century Palestine. We must see the surprising message and clear demand of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Death is the Way to Fruitfulness, Life, and Glory (v. 23-26)
Verse 23 says: “And Jesus answered them [Andrew and Philip], “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”” John’s Gospel teaches us that Jesus’ entire life was oriented to “[the] hour” when He would accomplish His purpose in coming. In verse 23 Jesus describes this purpose in terms of His glorification. What is surprising is that Jesus’ glorification involves His death.
So Jesus sets forth a general principle in verse 24: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Dying is a necessary step leading to “[bearing] much fruit”; dying is a necessary step leading to glory. Jesus applies this general principle both to Himself and to His followers, but let’s first simply appreciate what He is saying here. If you take “a grain of wheat” and put it into an empty glass jar in order to contain it, preserve it, and protect it, what will happen? The grain of wheat will “[remain] alone” and in due course it will perish, with zero fruit to show for it. But if that grain of wheat “falls into the earth” and experiences ‘death’, its ‘death’ will actually unlock the capacity for reproduction that is contained within that grain. The ‘burial’ and ‘death’ of a grain of wheat is ‘resurrected’ in the fruitfulness of a wheat field. If you seek to preserve that grain of wheat in a foolish act of single-grain-preservation, both the single grain and the prospect of a harvest are forever lost. But if the grain dies, then fruitfulness happens and glory happens. Dying is the way to life!
The death-as-pathway-to-glory principle applies to Jesus: it relates back to the glorification of Jesus in verse 23 and relates forward to the message of the cross that occurs in verses 27-33. But in verses 25-26 Jesus applies this principle to His potential followers. Here is the lesson we must learn: The only way to eternal life is to follow Jesus on the fruitful pathway of death! Verses 25-26 constitute the summons of the gospel, the demanding and urgent call to abandon ourselves completely to Jesus.
“Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” (v. 25-26)
Friends, this is not a general word of philosophical reflection for the world at large. This is a word to you – and you will experience the truth of it, one way or the other, whether in eternal loss or eternal gain. Your life is like a grain of wheat: you have one little life!
If you love your life in such a way that you seek to preserve it in this present world, if you love your life in this world and your status in this world and your possessions in this world and your comforts in this world and your successes in this world and your self-affirming social circles in this world, and if your aim is to pursue these things and protect these things and preserve these things, then like a grain of wheat put into an empty glass jar, you are going to remain alone and unfruitful, because you are alienated from the Lord’s life-giving power. And in due course you are going to lose your life, you are going to perish, and you are going to suffer everlasting punishment.
But if the grace of God descends upon your life and you learn to hate your life in this world – which doesn’t mean you hate your life, period; hating your life with respect to this world means that you love your life with respect to the kingdom of God – and if you embrace the wonderful truth that God’s will for your little life is to undergo ‘death to self’ so that the fruitful potential of your life is unlocked, if you forego or walk away from status and stuff and success, if you forego or walk away from comfort and convenience, and if you do that not as a moralistic act of self-will but because you have found Jesus to be the greatest Treasure, then you will “[bear] much fruit” now and enjoy “eternal life” forever under the smile of your heavenly Father.
Let us be clear: verse 25 is not a moral program! It is unreserved spiritual devotion to Jesus, as verse 26 makes clear. The call is to serve Him, and to serve Him is to be with Him and to follow Him, now and forever. “If anyone serves me, he must follow me.” (v. 26) We follow the One who rode into Jerusalem “on a donkey’s colt” (v. 15), not a Royals Royce or a stretch limousine or an Abrams tank. We follow the One who washed His disciples feet (John 13:1-17). We follow the One who laid down His life in order to make atonement for the sins of His people. We follow the One who was glorified on a cross.
Jesus continues: “[And] where I am, there will my servant be also.” (v. 26) We cannot be with Jesus in glory unless we have first of all stayed near Him and followed Him on the path that leads to glory – which, of course, is the path of dying to self and humbly serving others for Jesus’ sake. Follow Jesus on this path, and the Father will be pleased: “If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” (v. 26) All this is the summons of the gospel.
Jesus Saves Us By His Death (v. 27-33)
But beneath this summons is the surprising good news of the gospel. Indeed, before the gospel summons us to follow Jesus on the pathway of death, the gospel first summons us to trust in Jesus as the One who saves us by His death. We see this in verses 27-33.
As the hour of Jesus’ glorification – which is the hour of Jesus’ death – draws near, His soul is troubled:
“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour.” (v. 27)
Jesus didn’t “come to this hour” only to “[love] his life” and “save” his life from the death that was set before Him. He came to die. He came to die, and then be buried in the earth, and then rise again in victory over the grave, and thereby “[bear] much fruit” by releasing His people from the dominion of darkness and bringing many sons and daughters to glory. But in order to achieve this fruit, He had to die: He had to enter into the thick of spiritual darkness, He had to have the sins of His people laid on Him, He had to experience not only the malice of cruel men but also the justice of Holy God. He had to drink the cup of God’s wrath that ought to have been poured out on us. But in extravagant devotion to the glory of God and in extravagant love for the salvation of His people, Jesus drank the full measure of God’s holy judgment against human sin. And as the hour drew near, Jesus pressed on. He knew that He must die – not because of the murderous plot of the religious leaders, but because of the eternal purpose of the Father.
As I said before, death looms on Jesus’ horizon; death is drawing near; death casts a striking shadow over this entire passage. The Passover draws near (John 11:55, 12:1, 13:1), and countless animals will be sacrificed for the holy feast. Behold the dying lambs, and the dying Lamb! Jesus is anointed for burial, and like a grain of wheat that falls into the earth, the Savior will be buried in a tomb. And if you would have a share in the joys of eternal life, then you must die to yourself and die to your sin and die to the world. As we do so, the world will oppose us, as Jesus makes clear in John 15: “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:20). Here in John 11-12 we see the world – specifically Israel’s corrupt religious leaders – opposing Jesus. In all these ways, the shadow of death hangs over John 12.
But we must understand that the murderous plot of the religious leaders is only the minor theme. Yes, the religious leaders were seeking to arrest and destroy Jesus. But the major theme, indeed the major theme that controls the minor theme, is that the Father had sent Jesus to achieve salvation by dying. John 1: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) John 3: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:15) John 6: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51) John 10: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…. No one takes it [my life] from me, but I lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” (John 10:11, 18) John 15: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
So here in John 12: “for this purpose I have come to this hour.” The Father’s purpose would prevail, and the religious leaders would only prove to be unwitting participants in the divine plan. For although they would ‘succeed’ in crucifying Jesus, it was God’s plan that Jesus would be lifted up on a cross in order to accomplish salvation for God’s people. Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man, would not “[remain] alone” in an act of self-preservation, but would lay down His life and die for the salvation (and preservation!) of His people, and by dying He would “[bear] much fruit” and pave the way to everlasting glory.
In verses 28-30, Jesus prayed for the Father’s name to be glorified, which was immediately followed by the Father’s affirming answer that was heard by the crowd – though they didn’t really understand it. Then in verses 31-33 Jesus continues to proclaim the good news of the cross:
““Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.” (v. 31-33)
At the heart of biblical Christianity, at the heart of the gospel message, stands “the old rugged cross” and the Savior who was crucified on it. In verse 32, the phrase “lifted up” is a reference to crucifixion: Jesus would be “lifted up” on a cross. We know this because of verse 33: “He said this to show what kind of death he was going to die.” At the same time, verses 31-32 tell us what Jesus would accomplish by His death. In verse 31, the accomplishment is that the world is judged and the world’s ruler – the devil – is cast out. Satan has woven together an intricate worldly system of deception and sin that holds people in bondage, and no sinful man can break free from its power. But the cross of Jesus Christ stands forth as a judgment upon this world, exposing it as utterly wrongheaded and bankrupt. And the cross of Jesus Christ wrests power away from Satan, because Satan’s power runs on the fuel of sin and guilt and the fear of death. In sin, human beings turn away from God and run into the arms of the devil. Because sinful human beings are objectively guilty before God – and often feel the reality of this guilt and the reality of their alienation from God – human beings seek pseudo-salvation from pseudo-saviors, and the devil is more than willing to oblige. Because guilty human beings are under the judgment of God, death is a fearful thing and it only facilitates our final ruin. At the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ bore the guilt of our sins and died the death that we so justly deserve, then He rose again in victory over it.
Luke 11:55-56, which tells us about many countryside Jews going up to Jerusalem and looking for Jesus on the eve of the Passover feast, is full of irony. They wondered if Jesus would come to the Passover feast? The truth, however, is that Jesus is the feast! He is the Passover Lamb! He is the sacrifice for sin! His blood is the only means of true purification and cleansing! In fact, He is the true temple – the only place where sinful man can meet with Holy God and not be destroyed! And everyone who embraces the crucified Christ “does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (John 5:24) And Satan and this sinful world have no claim on the man or woman who belongs to Christ.
When Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (v. 32), He doesn’t mean all people without exception. Over and over again, in John’s Gospel and in all Scripture, it is clear that there are two groups of people: those who believe, and those who do not believe; those who come, and those who do not come; those who are drawn, and those who are not drawn, those who are savingly united to Jesus, and those who are not saved. Even later in John 12, Jesus refers to disobedient people who will be judged “on the last day” (John 12:48). So Jesus doesn’t draw everyone unto Himself for salvation. What Jesus means in verse 32 is that He will draw unto Himself all the people, from all over the world, Jew as well as Greek, that the Father has given to Him. This is the mindset that Jesus expresses in John 17: “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.” (John 17:1-2) The Crucified One will draw to Himself everyone who has been appointed for eternal life.
That said, you’re not supposed to sit around and try to figure out whether you have been appointed for eternal life, as if you can get your head into the secret counsels of heaven. You are summoned to believe. And this is how our passage concludes, with a final summons to trust in Jesus. The crowd was understandably perplexed at the surprising news that salvation would be accomplished by the crucifixion of the Messiah, for this was not what the popular Jewish mind was expecting. They envisioned a King at the head of an imposing army, not the Humble One on a donkey’s colt. They envisioned a worldly glory, not the glory that involved being lifted upon on a cross. They envisioned an outwardly impressive victory, not the Savior who brought salvation by surrendering and dying. They envisioned a political salvation, not salvation from their sin and their bondage to Satan. But even though they didn’t yet know how to put the pieces together, Jesus urges them to trust Him:
“The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” (v. 35-36)
Jesus, of course, is “the light of the world” (John 8:12). And He came in order that you might walk in Him, believe in Him, delight in the glory of a blood-bought salvation, and be transformed into “sons of light” who reflect His character and follow Him on the fruitful pathway of death. For “unless a grain of what falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
As you journey through Holy Week, remember this: the love-motivated death of Jesus Christ is the most fruitful death in the history of the world. For “by [his] blood [he] ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and [he has] made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9-10)
Love Him, dear friends, and so prove to be part of His glorious and everlasting harvest.
Let us pray.
 I recently listened to D. A. Carson’s sermon entitled “Lazarus,” an exposition of John 11:1-53, in which he called attention to this wonderful truth that Jesus loves each one of His people. Sermon preached April 3, 2019. Available online through: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/conference/2019-national-conference/.
 See, for example, D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (The Pillar New Testament Commentary). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991: p. 425-427.
 Note the NIV’s rendering of the first part of John 12:2 – “Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor” (John 12:2 NIV).
 See footnote #4 in John 12:5 of the English Standard Version (ESV).
 Note Carson’s use and discussion of “surprise” in his sermon entitled “Lazarus,” an exposition of John 11:1-53 (see footnote #1 above). Carson’s use of “surprise” stayed with me, and I found the word to fit the events of John 12 also.
 “The Old Rugged Cross” is the title of the well-known hymn written by George Bennard.
 Note Carson’s comment: “Here, ‘all men’ reminds the reader of what triggered these statements, viz. the arrival of the Greeks, and means ‘all people without distinction, Jews and Gentiles alike,’ not all individuals without exception, since the surround context has just established judgment as a major theme (v. 31), a time for distinguishing between those who love their lives (and therefore lose them) and those who hate their lives (and therefore keep them for eternal life, v. 25).” D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (The Pillar New Testament Commentary). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991: p. 444.