John 12 - To Jerusalem

Erkki Koskenniemi
Reija Becks

The first few words of the twelfth chapter in John’s Gospel (“Six days before the Passover”) clearly link the incidents to the impending events of Jesus’s death and resurrection. Although several previous scenes have already pointed to Golgotha, John’s description of the Passion begins with this verse.

When describing Jesus’s suffering and resurrection, John treats his subject in his customary way and follows his own path. On one hand, he omits several things which occur in the Synoptics, and on the other hand, he presents much that is new. Even with all its differences, John’s account maintains an affinity to the Synoptics, despite the fact that, here and there, the old material has been placed in new frames. His account is a wonderful complement to the accounts of the three preceding Gospel writers.

Waste of ointment? 12:1-11

A wonderful scene takes place during a dinner at Bethany. All four evangelists tell how a woman, whom John calls Mary, suddenly and without asking permission from anyone, used expensive oil to anoint Jesus. She had about a third of a litre of it, and it was unbelievably costly. A daily pay for a workman was one denarius, so a year’s wages of a workman were used in a flash.

All four evangelists tell that Jesus’s disciples were annoyed at this waste, as the money could have been given to the poor. Jesus rejects this reproach, referring apparently to the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 15:11), and defends Mary.

The significance of the anointing is clearly twofold. On one hand, it represents the anointing of Jesus as King, who, indeed, was soon to enter Jerusalem. On the other hand, it has to do with another way of using expensive ointments; they were used to prepare a corpse for the burial.

The tragic figure entering the Passion at this stage is Judas. Hardly any teacher in the church has treated him in such a skilful and shocking way as John, who has an inclination to sound the depths of God’s plans. The role of Judas is obvious from the start (John 6:70-71), and, in fact, even much earlier (see 17:12). Has the night ever been as dark as when Judas set out to betray Jesus? (John 13:30).

The story about the anointing of Jesus has puzzled many Bible scholars. Why did all the four evangelists include it in their Gospels? What is the meaning of this story and the real heart of it for us to learn from? The likely answer, and one that would really speak to us, is that maybe there is no such thing. There is just one woman’s deep and extravagant love to Jesus, the intoxicating fragrance from the anointment, and the connection to the precious events of the Passion week. This story, exactly the way it is, links us to the holy history – and this lends plenty of importance to the story.

Jesus rides into Jerusalem 12:12-19

When describing Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem, John follows his predecessors faithfully. The Lord received a triumphal welcome. A donkey was brought to him, and this is a direct reference to the prophecy found in Zechariah (Zechariah 9:9). We have earlier seen that there is a close connection between the book of Zechariah and the Feast of Tabernacles. Now the branches of palm trees, which John mentions and which have their place particularly in the feast of Tabernacles, bring everything together, with the quote from Zechariah, in the royal entry of Jesus; here is the expected King of Israel!

As the crowds, out of curiosity, joined the people cheering Jesus, dark clouds continued to gather. The exaltation of the Son of Man was near.

Jesus talks about his death 12:20-36

Carefully and in detail John tells, how some Greeks desired to meet Jesus. They were probably not proselytes but devout Gentiles who honoured the God of Israel, without becoming Jews.

There is more to this story than we may realize. The Jews did not mix with Gentiles, nor did they eat with them or in any way keep in contact with them more than was necessary. In the Gospels, there is only few mention of Jesus speaking with Gentiles.

However, now some Greeks wished to meet Jesus. They fail in their attempt, but they are not rejected because of their origin. The grand plan of God is now moving on so fast that there is no longer time for new contacts. For this reason, Jesus’s significance for the Gentiles became clear only after his Resurrection.

Earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus has on several occasions mentioned his ‘hour’ (2:2, 7:6). Now this hour has come. The Son of Man is to be glorified, but this glory is such that it is shocking even to Jesus himself. It is the way of the grain of wheat; there will be no more refuge for him but he will face death.

The verses 27-30 have aptly been described as John’s account of Jesus’s struggle in Gethsemane. John does not tell about it elsewhere, but he was clearly familiar with this traditional knowledge.

The short section in John includes the key element of the great prayer battle: the Son of God trembling before death but, nevertheless, not withdrawing from the way given to him by the Father. Another thing described by the Synoptics that comes to the reader’s mind is the story of Jesus’s baptism (Mark 1:9-11).

Jesus’s words bring readily to mind the scene that Mark places in Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8). It is at this point that Mark, after Peter’s great confession of faith, describes how the way for Jesus now turns towards the cross and affliction. In Mark as well as in John, this turning point includes an exhortation to those who belong to Jesus: their way is a way tinged with the cross and affliction but it is the only way to follow Christ and to find the way to the Father.

After a short struggle, the path has been clearly outlined for Jesus. God will fight against and overthrow Satan. This will be a horrifying sight; Jesus will be “lifted up from the earth”, nailed to the cross for all to mock. But it is when he is lifted up like this that he will draw everybody to himself. All people will be judged according to their relationship with the crucified Christ. In him is life, and without him all will die.

People with many questions but no faith create a dark shadow over the forthcoming struggle of Passion week.

"The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it" 12:37-50

The end of the chapter is a great summary about what Jesus did here on earth before Passion week. The lyrics of the introductory hymn in John’s Gospel have now been fulfilled completely. Jesus was the Light of the world, but the people who were under the power of darkness could not receive it. Thus the prophecy of Isaiah (53:1; 6:9-10) was fulfilled. God had hardened the hearts of his own people and poured over them spiritual blindness, which prevented them from seeing the glory of Christ. It is this blindness that caused the crucifixion of Jesus. Of course there were those, even among the rulers, who understood the things, but they were afraid and did not have the courage to prevent this deadly injustice.

The final verses of the chapter are Jesus’s last address to the public and, at the same time, a strong appeal to all people. Jesus is the Light of the world sent by the Father and the only Saviour of the sinners. Fellowship with Jesus is the only way for the sinner to avoid eternal destruction. Jesus is not needed as judge, because God’s truth will judge all people. Instead, he is absolutely necessary as our Deliverer and Saviour, because we have not been given any other way to God’s glory.