30 March 2010

John 12:20-36

"The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." (v.23-24)


In John's Gospel there is no account of Jesus struggling in Gethsemane (see Matthew 26:36-46Mark 14:32-42 and Luke 22:39-46), but this passage and the farewell discourses that follow (chapters 13-17) explore some of the same themes: Jesus' questions; the necessity for his suffering; the judgement on those who cannot face the time of trial. Distinctive in John's account, though, are two recurrent phrases which express his 'theology of the Cross': the 'lifting up' and 'glorification' of the Son of Man.

The first reference to the 'lifting up' is in John 3:14 where John likened Jesus to the serpent lifted up by Moses (Numbers 21:8-9). That serpent was lifted up so that the Israelites could look at what was poisoning their life and be healed. In John's Gospel the lifting up refers to the crucifixion. Human beings look their betrayal of truth and light in the face and know its deathly consequences. Yet in doing so, they are healed, for the lifting up of Jesus has a double meaning. In the moment of crucifixion, in God's perspective, truth and light are exalted and seen to be stronger than death.

So for John, the glorification of Jesus happened in and through his shameful death. That is why John offered no account of the ascension of Jesus (as in Mark 16:19Luke 24:51 and Acts 1:6-11). In his obedient suffering, the Son of Man was already glorified.

Much ink has been spilled over the phrase, the 'Son of Man'. Does it mean any person, or a representative person? Does it refer to a messiah-like figure as it does in Daniel to the one who comes "on clouds descending" (Daniel 7:13)? Did Jesus use it of himself or did the Gospel writers adopt it after Jesus' death? Whatever the answer, in John's Gospel, the Son of Man is Jesus, seen from the perspective of the end of time, when truth and light are plain for all to see.

So, the Son of Man is glorified by God as he is obedient, even unto death (verses 27-28). In the same way Jesus' disciples will be glorified by God as they are prepared to follow him, even at the cost of their lives.

To Ponder

Unlike the first hearers of John's Gospel, western Christians do not live in as context of religious persecution. What does it mean to you to "hate your life in this world"?

John's Jesus can seem less troubled and less human than the Jesus of the other Gospels. To what extent is this helpful?

What courage do you have to look at the things that poison your life so you may be healed? What might help our society to do this?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Jane Leach

Jane writes on ministry, pastoral supervision and pilgrimage..