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Jesus' Death Was Not a Surprise -- a study of John 12:20-33

Jesus came to be lifted up on a cross.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for John 12:20-33

Jesus came to be our King -- but not just any king. His "coronation" wouldn't end on a golden throne but on a wooden cross. The arrival of some Gentiles revealed to Jesus that His time had come; His purpose for coming to earth had always been to give His life for the "many". And now we must ask if we are willing to follow Him there.

But if it dies, it produces much fruit. (12:24)

What Do We Remember Leaders For?

If you want scratch your head, Google "famous world leaders" and hold on to your chairs. You'll see Hitler on the same list as JFK. Chairman Mao on the same list as Oprah. George Bush on the same list as Gandhi. Some truly bizarre lists.

Or this "top 5", where Caesar and Napoleon are side-by-side with Gandhi and Lincoln. What criteria are we working with here, exactly?

I had originally thought to send you to the internet to find some "representative lists" of famous historical leaders, but now I think that might derail your whole morning.

So -- just come up with a list of leaders you think your group would be familiar with. Please include either JFK or Lincoln on your list. The exercise is simple:

  • Say/write the name, then "What is this person known for?"

In my experience with this question, someone who was either assassinated or died while "on duty" will almost always be firstly remembered for that fact. I would be curious to know how far down the list the manner of their death comes up.

Of course, the point of this exercise would be to end with "Jesus Christ". What is He "known for"? In this week's passage, we learn that His death isn't just a bullet point on His resume -- it's the very purpose of His coming.

It's Agriculture Time!

I grew up in a suburb. To this day, I'm much better at killing plants than nurturing them. So when Jesus uses an agricultural metaphor, I'm kinda lost. In this week's passage, Jesus says that for a seed to turn into a plant, it must die. Huh. YouTube kids' videos, here I come!

One, how do kids ever eat sunflower seeds again? And two, if even the most basic seed is that amazing, how else is the natural world going to astound us?

Have you ever thought about how amazing plants and trees are? And if so, what facts in particular get you?

For me, I'm always amazed at how a tiny seed turns into a monstrous tree. And that tree can sway in strong winds. And every year it sheds its leaves and grows new ones.

Jesus focuses on wheat in His metaphor (which I know little about, even though my wife grew up across the street from a Kansas wheat field). So if you want a little direction in your natural world deep dive, start there. There's no shortage of information about wheat.

Every head of wheat has 50 kernels (seeds). (An ear of corn has 800!) Just think about that for a bit -- a "seed" of wheat turns into 50 seeds. 🤯 In just 4 growing seasons, a single wheat stalk could turn into more than 6 million. Keep that in mind as we study ...

Where We Are in John

We are spending two Sundays in John 12, and we really aren't covering even half of it. I would recommend watching the Visual Bible segment again:

Skipped Event 1: The Triumphal Entry

You remember that last week I suggested that Mary's anointing of Jesus had a double meaning to John the author. Yes, it was preparing Jesus for burial, but it also made John think about the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.

We studied Luke's version of this event:

[In that post, I considered the Triumphal Entry a no-turning-back moment for Jesus. This week's passage suggests that may not have been the case, but more on this below.]

What's unique (and surprising) about the Triumphal Entry is that Jesus embraced the crowd's declarations. To this point, He has consistently downplayed the public, incontrovertible announcements of who He was, preferring to let those things happen in private, among His followers. But not now. By riding in on a donkey and encouraging the crowd's use of Psalm 118, Jesus openly acknowledges that He is Jerusalem's King.

But this is no ordinary coronation procession -- Jesus isn't coming to be seated on a throne. Nobody but Jesus understood this (John the author makes this clear in 12:16).

Instead, Jesus is coming to Jerusalem to die. He is no ordinary king. He is above every king. He is the King of kings! But He came to serve. He came to give His life for His people.

And this just didn't compute with the people. See the verse following our passage:

34 Then the crowd replied to him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah will remain forever. So how can you say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this Son of Man?”

And this leads to...

Skipped Event 2: Belief and Unbelief

The rest of chapter 12 explains an understandable crisis among the people. They have seen what Jesus has done. Goodness, He raised Lazarus from the dead! What sign do you need?

But this is not what the people were expecting. And it is not what their religious leaders have been endorsing. John the author cites Isaiah 6 to explain this. We studied this passage a few years ago:

The scandal in that passage was not that God didn't want to forgive the people, but that the people didn't want to be forgiven. The people no longer wanted anything to do with God.

Put 2 and 2 together, and now we understand the situation in Jerusalem. Those people didn't want anything to do with God. And how that must be the case! Else, how would the people have been willing to execute Jesus for His wonderful miracles?

We don't understand that (I hope), but it begs us to ask ourselves what are the ways we live as if we don't really want anything to do with God?


Part 1: Introduced (John12:20-22)

20 Now some Greeks were among those who went up to worship at the festival. 21 So they came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and requested of him, “Sir, we want to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.

I would have continued this section into verse 23. If you just read these verses by themselves, it's just a nice little event. We would not guess that this event triggered in Jesus a confirmation of the end of His earthly life and ministry.

Aside: Passover

For this event to make sense, we have to remember the importance of Passover. We all have a vague awareness of this when we talk about Passover Meal // Lord's Supper, Passover Lamb // Jesus Lamb of God (and we will talk a lot more about that in a few weeks), but it helps to remember that Passover would have attracted Jews (and Jewish converts) from all over the world. It was a "pilgrimage festival", meaning that able-bodied Jews were expected to travel to Jerusalem to share the feast. That's why when you look up art for ancient Passover, you will mostly see paintings of people traveling to Jerusalem. The photo on the right is of last year's Passover at the Western Wall, just to give you a sense of how people can pack in.

There was a bunch of people in Jerusalem during this week's passage.

We are introduced to "some Greeks". This could have been anybody who wasn't a Jew (i.e., a Gentile). I had always assumed that they were converts to Judaism, but the historian Josephus noted that some Greeks would travel to these festivals just out of curiosity.

These Greeks had heard about Jesus (who hadn't?) and wanted to meet Him, and so they found Philip. "Philip" is a Greek name, so maybe they thought he would be friendly to them. I really don't think the mention of Bethsaida means anything other than to remind us who Philip was. If these Greeks were from Bethsaida, they probably would have met Jesus already. And if they knew Philip, they probably knew Andrew and Peter. But Jesus' reaction to them implies something bigger than "Gentiles from Bethsaida".

To understand what John the author is doing here, we have to read two verses together:

19 Then the Pharisees said to one another, “You see? You’ve accomplished nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!” 20 Now some Greeks were among those who went up to worship at the festival.

The Pharisees were betraying the very misconception that had gotten them in trouble with God in the first place -- to them, the world that mattered was "the Jewish world". But to God, "the world" means the whole world.

The Pharisees were astonished by how many Jews had flocked to Jesus. But John the author immediately mentions "some Greeks". This is as intentional as John the author can be about what Jesus' death would really mean. I recommend saving the discussion until the next section, when Jesus will explain what's going on.

Aside: Philip and Andrew

This wouldn't be hard (because we know so little about them) -- look up every mention of Philip and Andrew in the Gospels. What did they do? What character traits did they exhibit that show us why Jesus wanted them to be His disciples? I talked a little about them in an earlier lesson, if you want a shortcut:


Part 2: Dies (John 12:23-26)

23 Jesus replied to them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces much fruit. 25 The one who loves his life will lose it, and the one who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 If anyone serves me, he must follow me. Where I am, there my servant also will be. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.

Jesus immediately makes things weird. Imagine if Andrew introduced you to Jesus, and this was the first thing Jesus said to you. Right? We realize that Jesus isn't really talking to the Greeks -- He is talking to everyone.

So, what is it about these Greeks that "triggers" Jesus? We don't know. We can only guess. My "guess" is that this is God's sign to Jesus that He has completed His work with the Jews; they have either accepted Him or rejected Him. There is no more that He must do. It is time for the rest of the world to take its place in God's plan.

We have talked many times about the title "Son of Man" --

It refers to a "being" in Daniel 7:13 who receives glory from God after slaying God's enemies. Jesus used it of Himself throughout the Gospels, regularly in conjunction with what we would call "humanity". Consider a few uses in John's Gospel:

  • No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven —the Son of Man. (3:13)

  • And he has granted him the right to pass judgment, because he is the Son of Man. (5:27)

  • Truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life in yourselves. (6:53)

Jesus acts on behalf of all humanity; He acts for the benefit of all humanity; Jesus (as a man) is everything God intended humanity to be. The title "Son of Man" highlights that.

Now, Greeks have come to see Jesus, and it is time to draw His earthly ministry to a close.

With the benefit of hindsight, we understand "be glorified". John the author had earlier hinted what this phrase would mean:

16 His disciples did not understand these things at first. However, when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him.

What do you think "was glorified" refers to?

In modern theology, we use "glorified" to refer to what happens to believers in heaven/eternity. When Jesus comes back, we will all be given a perfect ("glorified") body and live the life God intended us to live. We will "be glorified".

But here, I think John the author means more than just Jesus ascending into heaven. I think "be glorified" refers to the entire sequence -- crucifixion, resurrection, ascension. Jesus talks about "being lifted up" as part of being the Son of Man, and here it sure seems like "dying" is a part of being glorified. So, perhaps chew on this: how does the humiliating/horrifying crucifixion bring glory to Jesus?

(And no, I don't think this is as simple as "everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die" 🙂)

If you used the agriculture icebreaker, you might have already covered this. If not, then set aside some time to explain what Jesus is saying.

For a kernel of wheat to accomplish its purpose (which is to grow into a wheat plant/stalk), it has to "die". It must cease to be a seed. Its husk disintegrates; its insides are consumed; all that is left is the "baby plant" that was inside of it. But that's why God put it here -- to die and let the baby plant grow.

Every metaphor breaks down, but discuss --

  • In what way is Jesus like a kernel of wheat?

  • What are the "many seeds" Jesus talks about?

If you're like me, you focused on how Jesus' death made possible salvation for the rest of humanity. And if you have time, do a search for the word "many" in the Gospels. You'll find verses like these:

  • I tell you that many will come from east and west to share the banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 8:11)

  • just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matt 20:28)

  • For this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matt 26:28)

You'll also find the word "many" used in an opposite connotation. What might you take from the way Jesus talks about "the many"?


These verses aren't just about Jesus, are they! These are also about those of us who follow Him. That's a bit ... sobering.

How are *we* supposed to be like that kernel of wheat?

But Jesus gets even more explicit than that -- everyone who follows Jesus must be willing to be with Jesus wherever He goes.

This had better not be a foreign concept to anyone. Name the song:

  • "Take up thy cross and follow Me" / I heard my Master say / I gave My life to ransom thee / Surrender your all today.

The song begs these questions (which I hope you've already asked yourself):

  • What do I need to surrender to Jesus?

  • Where is Jesus asking me to go?

If we call ourselves a follower of Jesus, we must be willing to go anywhere with Jesus. I really liked the illustration Thomas Hammond used in last week's sermon -- if you promise your spouse that you will be faithful 6 days out of 7, is that good? Is that something to brag about? Goodness gracious! We are to be faithful to Jesus whenever/wherever He leads.

But remember what Jesus said to Martha!

25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live.

Jesus experienced the true death -- a death we will never have to. Our earthly deaths that Jesus might call us to are just temporary.

Aside: Hate

It's a bit jarring to see that we are supposed to "hate" our lives in this world. Remember how Jesus has used "hate" elsewhere:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, and even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. (Lk 14:26)

This is very different from the expected use of the word:

For everyone who does evil hates the light and avoids it, so that his deeds may not be exposed. (Jn 3:20)

In our passage, the easiest way to understand how Jesus uses "hate" is to see it paired with the word "love". What does it mean to "love his life"? It means to want to hang onto it. So, what would be the opposite of that?

Look at the result: God "will honor" the servants of Jesus. What does that mean? I'll be honest -- I can't think of a greater honor than hearing God's affirmation at the end of our earthly life.

19 “After a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five talents approached, presented five more talents, and said, ‘Master, you gave me five talents. See, I’ve earned five more talents.’ 21 “His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You were faithful over a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Share your master’s joy.’ (Matt 25:19-21)

Note that the person in this parable didn't do something "heroic". Jesus is not saying that every follower of His will die on a cross. The person in this parable simply obeyed his master.

That's all Jesus asks of any of us.

21 The one who has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. And the one who loves me will be loved by my Father. (Jn 14)

We will cover that passage in a few weeks.

What earthly gain is better than the love of God?


Part 3: Glorified (John 12:27-28)

27 “Now my soul is troubled. What should I say—Father, save me from this hour? But that is why I came to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”

Now we see why Jesus worded things the way He did -- in order to "bear much fruit", Jesus as a seed must die. It's easy to talk about loving/hating your life as an academic exercise; Jesus has come to the point of making the decision to give up His life in order to fulfill God's plan.

I'm not going to say that it was a difficult decision for Jesus. It just wasn't easy to go through with.

And just as God's voice affirmed Jesus at the beginning of His ministry (Luke 3:22, etc.), now God's voice affirms Jesus at the end of it. I truly truly love NewSong's "Arise, My Love". God's words to Jesus in 12:28 must be terribly bittersweet to God. How He loves to affirm His Son! But their plan -- from before the foundation of the world -- is for God to forsake Jesus, heaping on Jesus the punishment for every sin we will ever commit. The words God really wants to say to Jesus? "Arise, My Love." (It's Friday, but Sunday's coming.)

The key revelation here is that the crucifixion isn't a consequence of living in a world that's under the sway of Satan. It's the very reason Jesus came. It's all this other stuff we've been focusing on -- raising people from the dead, healing the lame, turning water into wine -- those are the "peripheral" actions. Even the resurrection is just a "sign" of Jesus' authority! If you used my "world leaders" topic above, those would be the minor bullet points on Jesus' resume (things that anyone else would put at the very top in bold). Those actions are the function of ministering in a sin-broken world. Those things would be meaningless apart from the crucifixion.

Jesus came to the earth to die on the cross for the sins of the world.

John the author doesn't put this exchange in his Gospel, probably because he has already covered the idea many times:

Going a little farther, he fell facedown and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt 26:39)

I kinda think you should go on to the next few verses in John 12, which bring everything to a head:

29 The crowd standing there heard it and said it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus responded, “This voice came, not for me, but for you. 31 Now is the judgment of this world. Now the ruler of this world will be cast out. 32 As for me, if I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate what kind of death he was about to die. 34 Then the crowd replied to him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah will remain forever. So how can you say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this Son of Man?”

The repeated use of "now" in his chapter reveals that Jesus' glorification corresponds with the judgment of the world. Jesus' death is not just about Jesus, but about all of humanity.

Part of this judgment comes with the people not being able to understand what God has said to Jesus. They have been shut out from this knowledge.

And part of this judgment comes against Satan -- "the ruler of this world" and the god of this age. The language Jesus uses is as of an exorcism. There are no innocent bystanders -- there are only those under the control of Satan.

Jesus has explained this to the people before in John 8.

42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, because I came from God and I am here. For I didn’t come on my own, but he sent me. 43 Why don’t you understand what I say? Because you cannot listen to my word. 44 You are of your father the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks from his own nature, because he is a liar and the father of lies.

The only hope these people have is for Jesus to cast out the devil and for them to come back to their right mind. Sadly, we know from the Bible how many people would persist in their rejection of Jesus until their very deaths.

We talked about the imagery of Jesus being "lifted up" in chapter 3:

By being "lifted up", Jesus will cast out the devil and draw all people to Himself. Yes, that is a reference to our salvation, but I also see it as a reference to the judgment -- that moment when we see who has come to Jesus for salvation. Jesus discussed this in John 5:

25 Truly I tell you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26 For just as the Father has life in himself, so also he has granted to the Son to have life in himself. 27 And he has granted him the right to pass judgment, because he is the Son of Man. 28 Do not be amazed at this, because a time is coming when all who are in the graves will hear his voice 29 and come out—those who have done good things, to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked things, to the resurrection of condemnation.

This opens a very important topic that we probably don't talk about enough -- Jesus expects His followers to live lives characterized by good things and not wicked things. By putting others first and not themselves first. By living sacrificially and not selfishly. By taking up their cross and following Him wherever/whenever.

We are to be like Mary and Martha and not the Jewish leaders. All the time. And yet, haven't we talked in each one of these lessons how we can be like the Jewish leaders? Let's not get comfortable with that. Let's "hate our lives in this world" so as to enjoy fully our life eternal with God in heaven.

It's all about perspective. Jesus wants us to have His perspective on life.

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