Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

John 12.20-33
5th Sunday in Lent - Year B

Other texts: 

In regards to the larger context, O'Day in the New Interpreter's Bible suggests the significance of chapters 11-12 is lost when they are taken as the conclusion to Jesus' public ministry -- the way John is commonly outlined. Rather, in her outline 10:22-42 forms the conclusion and 11-12 "stand as a bridge between Jesus' ministry and his hour. They belong neither to the public ministry nor to the story of Jesus' hour, but constitute their own section within the Gospel narrative. John 11-12 move the public ministry into the context of Jesus' death" [p. 681].

Her outline of these chapters which she calls: The Prelude to Jesus' Hour (11:1-12:50) is:

A. Jesus' Hour Prefigured (John 11:1-12:11)

  1. The Raising of Lazarus (11:1-44)
  2. The Decision to Kill Jesus (11:45-54)
  3. Jesus' Anointing at Bethany (11:55-12:11)

B. Jesus' Entry into Jerusalem (12:12-19)

C. Jesus Interprets His Death (12:20-36)

D. The Epilogue to Jesus' Ministry (12:37-50)

  1. The Evangelist's Commentary on Jesus' Ministry (12:37-43)
  2. A Summary Discourse by Jesus (12:44-50)

"B" ends with the Pharisees declaring, "Look, the world has gone after him!" 
"C" begins with Greeks (representing the world) wishing to see Jesus.


These Greeks begin by asking Philip, "Sir, we are wishing to see Jesus." Philip takes them to Andrew. It may be that these two are singled out because they have Greek names. Narratively, they were the first disciples who brought Jews to Jesus. Andrew brings his brother Peter (1:42) and Philip brings his friend Nathanael (1:45). Thus, they serve as a connection between the first Jewish disciples and the first Gentile disciples -- if the request to "see" Jesus is interpreted as their desire to have a meeting with Jesus so as to become his disciples. (O'Day interprets it this way and Brown in the Anchor Bible on John raises this possibility.)

One of the critiques of mainline churches today is that they are not well equipped to lead the unchurched to "seeing" Jesus. Roy Oswald and Martin Saarinen in The Alban Institute paper called Why Some Churches Don't Grow, presents these abstracts, based on research among Lutheran congregations.

The Lutheran Church, like most mainline denominations, works under a broad unwritten assumption that the conversion to personal faith in Jesus Christ has already occurred in people's lives elsewhere and that church growth merely involves assimilating those "already converted" into the ongoing life of the congregation.

Lutheran clergy are trained as nurturers of the faith, rather than as catalysts in any process of spiritual transformation in the lives of individuals.

As a denomination, the Lutheran church is unprepared and ill-equipped to reach out to non-Christians and engage them in a transformational process that leads to an active faith in Jesus Christ. [p. 1]

Are our congregations (both the corporate body and individual members) places where "Gentiles" can come and "see" Jesus? Do our members (clergy included) have the skills to bring the unchurched to Jesus for a "conversion experience"?

Rick Warren (The Purpose Driven Church) writes the following about part of his belief in starting a new mission church (which became the fastest growing Baptist Church in America):

We've never encouraged other believers to transfer their membership to our church; in fact, we have openly discouraged it. We don't want transfer growth. In every membership class we say, "If you are coming to Saddleback from another church, you need to understand up front that this church was not designed for you. It is geared toward reaching the unchurched who do not attend anywhere. If you are transferring from another church you are welcome here only if you are willing to serve and minister. If all you intend to do is attend services, we'd rather save your seat for someone who is an unbeliever. There are plenty of good Bible-teaching churches in this area that we can recommend to you."

This position may sound harsh, but I believe we are following the example of Jesus. He defined his ministry target by saying, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners" (Mark 2:17). ... [p. 39]

How many members in our congregations would stand for that kind of blunt emphasis?


Even if their desire to "see" Jesus doesn't mean "become a follower," their presence relates to Jesus' statement in v. 32, "When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself." [NOTE: As the NRSV indicates, there is a variant reading of "all things" (panta) in many ancient Greek manuscripts rather than "all people" (pantas).] The coming of the Greeks symbolizes the drawing of all people to Jesus. His hour has come.

NOTE ALSO: The Greek word for "lifted up" (3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34) also has the meaning "to exalt" -- in John, Jesus' death on the cross is also his exaltation, or glorification.

Besides signaling Jesus' coming hour, the arrival of the Greeks prefigures the church's future mission to the Gentiles and their inclusion in God's promises. This is also an area where congregations tend to be weak. A reason I have mentioned in sermons for this weakness is "parochialism".

"Parochial" originally meant, "belonging to the parish." It has also come to mean, "belonging to us." Too often congregations are only concerned about themselves and their own members. More from the study by Oswald and Saarinen about why churches aren't growing.

... As a research team we were struck by the massive collusion on the part of church leaders and members to deny the reality of the existing conditions within their congregations. Most were unable to perceive that what they considered "closeness" within the congregation would more than likely be perceived as "closed-ness" by outsiders. ...

The term "Lutheran" is more a sign of affiliation than it is a symbol of vision and purpose. Each individual congregation must struggle to form a vision since its denominational identity will not do this. Without exception, the congregations in our study had no active mission or vision for their growth. Their mission was maintaining themselves; their calling limited to serving those already included in their congregation. [p. 1]

There is an attitude, which I have heard in more than one congregation, "If we take care of our own members, outsiders will see this and want to join us." As their research suggests, "Missing completely was any desire to find out about the spiritual needs of outsiders or to see if their congregation had resources to meet those needs. Also missing was any sort of strategy for reaching the unchurched of their area." [p. 4]

Beyond this, our text states (v. 25) that those who are loving their own selves/lives lose them, and those who are hating their selves/lives in this world will keep them for eternal life. [In previous notes I have suggested "self" as a way of translating the Greek psyche. Besides its application to individuals, I think that it also applies to congregations.

What does it mean "to hate one's self"? From v. 24, it means to "fall into the earth and die, so that one might bear much fruit." It is not just "self-hatred," but more like denying one's self for a greater good -- bearing much fruit, keeping one's self for eternal life, and being honored by God (v. 26).

Related to church growth (or lack thereof), the seed that does not fall into the earth and die, stays pretty much the same. An attitude of many congregations is that they want everything to get better, but nothing to change. This fulfills the quote, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and over again and expecting different results." In order for a seed to produce fruit, it has to change -- or perhaps better stated in relationship to what will happen to Jesus -- it means dying to self and turning one's whole future over to the power of God. While this idea can be difficult to apply in concrete ways to individuals, I think that it is even more difficult to apply to corporate entities, like congregations. Perhaps if we start with the desired result, then ask, "What must we do" or "How must we change to 'bear much fruit'?" We may have a start at understanding what "hating one's self/life in this world" might mean.

From Oswald and Saarinen again (Why Some Churches Don't Grow):

One thing that stood out in this study was the massive denial taking place among leaders and members of these congregations of the steady decline of church members. If they did acknowledge it, they had no plans to address it. [p. 2]

They then give statistical information about a congregation who had a 46% decline in baptized members and a 42% decline in confirmed members during a 12-year period when the three counties surrounding the congregation had doubled in population.

What amazed the researches is when they asked members of this congregation: "What do you expect will happen if current behavior and practices continue?"

41% of the respondents said: "We will grow."
45% of the respondents said: "We will be able to sustain our current membership."
14% of the respondents said: "We will lose members and decline." [pp. 2-3]

Why would 86% of the people believe that doing the same things that produced a 12-year decline, would suddenly cause them to stop declining or to start growing? My hunch is that the things that they are doing, are meeting the needs of the people who are there and they are quite content to keep it that way.

An old The Parish Paper from Herb Miller suggests that for smaller congregations, (worshiping less than 100), their goal is to gather "the family" together and have "pleasant interpersonal interactions." The idea of adding lots of new people, threatens the success they already experience of gathering "the family" together. Often such "gathering oriented" congregations move forward with their breaks on.

If a congregation wants to keep the small "family" feeling, start small groups that are committed to dividing and multiplying. That's the way organisms grow. The cells divide: one becomes two, two becomes four, four becomes eight, etc.

Dan Southerland in Transitioning, reports that in the nine years of transitioning his congregation they lost 300 members. At the same time, they gained 2000 members. Are congregations willing to lose members to gain many more? This is a bit like the image of planting a seed in the ground. The seed dies, but produces many more.


Just before our text we are told that a crowd had come to Jesus because they had heard that he had raised Lazarus from the dead (12:18). Soon after our text we are told: "Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him" (12:37). "Seeing" is not believing in John's gospel. The place to see Jesus in all his glory is not just the miraculous (2:11, 11:4, 40), which may not produce faith; but also seeing his glory on the cross (12:23; 21:19).

It is certainly from Luther's theology of the cross, but also from this text, that what should "draw" us to Jesus, is his being lifted up on the cross. If one is to properly "see" Jesus, one needs to look to the cross, not just to the miraculous.

The word "draw" (helko) is an offensive word. It generally means physically forcing someone or something to go where they don't want to go. It is used of "hauling" in nets full of fish (John 21:6, 11). It is used of "dragging" Paul and Silas before the authorities (Acts 16:19) and Paul away from the Temple (Acts 21:30). It is used of the rich "dragging" people into court (James 2:6). (A more intensive form, helkeo, means "to drag about, tear asunder; to mistreat" -- not a very comforting image.)

So what does it mean when Jesus says that "When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself" (12:32) or "No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me" (6:44)?

One interpretation might be that at Jesus "lifting up," all people will be drawn to him -- some for judgment (see 12:31) and some for salvation.

Another approach, which I have used (in preaching on 6:44 -- part of the lesson for Proper 14 B) is to stress the primacy of God's grace for us who believe. Rather than ask, "Why do some people not believe in Jesus?" I ask, "Why do some continue to believe in Jesus?" (Or the related questions, "Why do you believe?" "Why are you in church this morning?"). The answer suggested by this word is, "Because God has drawn me to this place." "Because God has drawn me to Jesus." "Give God the credit." God is like a Peterbuilt and we are like the trailer. ("Peter"-built sounds more biblical than "Mack" or "Kenworth," but any of those could work -- as could being pulled along by the Starship Enterprise's tractor beam.) God is responsible for taking us down the road of life.


O'Day (John, the Interpreter's Bible) writes the following about Jesus' "agony" in vv. 27-28:

The only words of "agony" that Jesus speaks in v. 27a are an allusion to Psalm 42:5, 11 (Ps 41 LXX). The fourth Evangelist's use of this psalm as the vehicle for Jesus' words of agony is one indicator of his ironic handling of the tradition, because Psalm 42 affirms the psalmist's trust in God. By evoking this psalm, the fourth Evangelist communicates that Jesus trusts in God at his hour. A second indication of the Evangelist's ironic handling of the agony tradition is the parallel prayers of vv. 27b and 28a. The first prayer, framed as a question ("And what should I say?"), is never prayed by Jesus and stands as a parody of the prayer associated with Jesus' agony in the garden (Mark 14:36). The second prayer, "Father, glorify your name," is the true prayer for the hour. Jesus lays down his life of his own free will (10:18); he embraces his hour as an expression of his love for God and the moment of God's glorification.

Verses 27-28 are an excellent example of the way the fourth Evangelist takes traditional material and reshapes it to fit the theological vision that drives the Gospel. An "agony" scene cast in the idiom of the tradition as recorded in Mark would make no sense in this Gospel, because God's will and Jesus' will have always been the same. There is no internal struggle in the face of his death, because Jesus recognizes the hour as the ultimate purpose of his ministry. It is the final revelation of his relationship with God. [p. 712]


What is most interesting about the crowd's response is that they have not completely misunderstood Jesus (cf. v. 29). They are the ones who introduce both "Messiah" and "son of Man" into the conversation; Jesus has used neither of those terms in his passion prediction. The Fourth Evangelist thus suggests that the crowd grasps some of the eschatological implications of Jesus' words, but not enough. The distance between Jesus and the crowd is captured in their final question. Jesus has been speaking about himself as the Son of Man since v. 23, but the crowd has not realized this. [p. 713]

Who do we believe Jesus is? What do we believe the Messiah should do? Dying is not a trait we usually give to our saviors. Robert Farrar Capon writes:

... The human race is, was and probably always will be deeply unwilling to accept a human messiah. We don't want to be saved in our humanity; we want to be fished out of it. We crucified Jesus, not because he was God, but because he blasphemed: He claimed to be God and then failed to come up to our standards for assessing the claim. It's not that we weren't looking for the Messiah; it's just that he wasn't what we were looking for. Our kind of Messiah would come down from a cross. He would carry a folding phone booth in his back pocket [from an earlier reference to Superman]. He wouldn't do a stupid thing like rising from the dead. He would do a smart thing like never dying. [Hunting the Divine Fox: Images and Mystery in Christian Faith, p. 91; reprinted in The Romance of the Word: One Man's Love Affair with Theology, p.314]


O'Day also raises some questions about John's view of the atonement. He doesn't seem to follow the traditional views. There is no mention of Jesus' death being a ransom (payment) that buys the world its freedom from sin and death. Jesus is not presented as a victim, whose death is understood as the sacrifice necessary to atone for human guilt and sin. She writes about a third theory of atonement:

Abelard's theology of Jesus' death on the cross as the demonstration of God's love captures part of the Fourth Gospel's soteriology, but ... it overlooks the demand for human response and decision that is an essential part of Jesus' "glorification" in John. [p. 714]

Her theory is that in John, "Jesus' death offers reconciliation to all people, but one must decide to accept this offer." "One must make the decision to believe in Jesus." "... in the Fourth Gospel, the focus remains steadfastly on the inseparable interrelationship of the divine and human, and interrelationship that is most fully expressed in the incarnation." She summarizes:

First, [the Fourth Gospel] suggests a way of understanding reconciliation that takes relationship as a serious theological category. Jesus' death is the ultimate expression of his relationship to God and to his own people (10:16-18). The decision to believe is the decision to become a partner in the relationship, to become a member of a community that is bound to God and Jesus as they are bound to each other, and whose relationship to one another is an extension of the God/Jesus relationship. Second, the Fourth Gospel insists on placing the incarnation as the starting point for any conversation about atonement and reconciliation and not isolating Jesus' death on the cross as the sole moment of reconciliation. Jesus' glorification, the events of his "hour," complete what began in the incarnation (cf. 12:28), but the incarnation itself is the locus of reconciliation. [p. 715]

I have to admit that I don't care much for "decision" type language in terms of our Christian faith. Such language too easily leads to a "works-righteousness" mode of salvation -- that is, our salvation is determined by something I do, i.e., make a decision for Christ; or the attitude, contrary to what John says earlier, "I drew myself to Christ." At the same time, John presents a contrast between those who believe and those who don't. Can one refuse to be drawn by God to Christ? There is something important about the human response to what God has done for us in Jesus that results either in salvation or judgment (see 3:18). Part of the faith response to what God has done for us in Jesus is to become part of the believing community, which is composed of people from all races, and whose love for one another is their witness to the world that they are disciples of Jesus (13:35). Our proper response is not just what we believe, but also how we act -- or, to phrase it as a question I've often presented before: "What difference does it make that we believe?"

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901