Studies in John (Lesson 10: The Triumphal Entry)
As we mentioned in the first lesson, the gospel of John may be divided into two major sections, the first of which emphasizes Jesus' sign-miracles and connected discourses; and the second of which emphasizes the true meaning and manifold effects of Jesus' death and resurrection. In this lesson, we will look at chapter twelve, which is the final chapter in the first major section. It makes sense, then, that in this chapter many loose ends are tied up (in a manner of speaking), and many themes that we have noticed time and again, in the previous twelve chapters, are brought up once more, and developed as fully as they ever will be. In a way, this is both a summary and climax of the great theological truths which John has been intent on teaching throughout the first half of his gospel.
For instance, John has had much to say about the nature of true faith, which advances beyond a mere fascination with miracles, and looks to the person of Jesus Christ alone. And so the chapter begins with the account of Mary expressing her lavish devotion to Jesus, not for physical signs and blessings, but out of love for him alone. Then, we see the Pharisaical opposition rise to its final extreme â€“ now, they are not only trying to kill Jesus, but they are even wanting to kill Lazarus, certainly not for anything that he has done, but just because Jesus has used him to perform a miracle which displays his own glory. Then, we see the fickle, false faith of the crowds, who, because of his signs, throng to him as never before, and hail him as their king â€“ but their faith is not genuine, and will soon turn against him. And going on we see the humility of Jesus in his earthly life; the ultimate reason for the hardening and opposition of the Jews, as well as its intended effect, the salvation of the Gentiles; Jesus' own understanding of the substitutionary death which awaited him; and finally, a reminder of the final day, when Jesus' words which had been given for the salvation of mankind, would turn to the final judgment of those who had rejected him.
II. Mary's Anointing of Jesus (John 12:1-8)
As we turn to this text, the first thing that John would have us notice is how lavish and extreme Mary's act of devotion really was, and how unreasonable it must have been to human thinking. After all, Jesus certainly did not profit from this act, in any tangible way â€“ but if the myrrh which Mary used had been sold and given to the poor, it would have been enough to feed a multitude of beggars. This was genuine and very precious myrrh, worth the equivalent of an entire year's wages for the typical worker, and it was all â€œwastedâ€ on Jesus. But Jesus does not see this act as a waste, because it portrays the heart attitude which is worth more than all the gold in the world: true love and devotion to Jesus the Messiah. Mary's faith, unlike that of the crowds which enjoyed being fed for free, was genuine, and delighted in the Son of God. And there is nothing more precious than that sort of faith, and no sort of gift which can rival it.
This act of Mary also had significance beyond that of demonstrating true faith. Just as myrrh and spices were used to embalm the dead bodies of those loved ones who had died, this myrrh symbolized the precious nature of Christ's impending death, and how it would be a sweet savor to God, rising up as the smell of forgiveness and reconciliation to his lost and sinful people. Although Mary herself might not have recognized this truth, but was simply trying to express her love as emphatically as possible; yet in God's plan, her act had a significance far beyond her own intention. Remember that, in the last chapter, even the high priest, who hated Jesus, was used by God to prophesy of the nature of Jesus' death â€“ how much more might he use a true act of faith to signify more than anyone could understand at the time? At any rate, this much, at least, is clear: the disciples themselves did not appreciate the significance of so many of these signs until after Jesus had risen from the dead (see vs. 16) â€“ but later on, they understood, and were strengthened in their faith. This reality, too, was in the divine design, and served to underscore the necessity of Christ's completed and victorious work of redemption, signified in his resurrection, for the corresponding resurrection of the elect to newness of life, to a new spiritual nature which sees Christ, and believes.
We must finally mention that, although the synoptic gospels record a similar event (cf. Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:36-38), it is likely a different occasion than this. Or at least, Luke's account must be different, even if the account mentioned in Matthew and Mark is the same. But in all events, the four gospel accounts are emphasizing the same truth â€“ that Jesus' death and burial are soon to come, but far from being a cause of sorrow or a source of defeat, they will be precious beyond compare, and ultimately issue in triumph and eternal salvation.
III. The Pharisaical opposition to Lazarus (John 12:9-11)
Throughout John's gospel, the enormous impact of Jesus miracles, and the Pharisaical opposition to the miracles and their results, have been very clear. In no case is this twofold reality more clear. The resurrection of Lazarus from the dead, was, in a sense, the pinnacle of Jesus' sign-miracles. And now, we see the pinnacle of the common response: the crowds, being superficially enamored, are thronging to him; but the Pharisees are so jealously opposed that their murderous rage is spreading even beyond Jesus, and focuses on a person whose only fault was that, although entirely passive â€“ in fact, dead! â€“ he was the object of Christ's miraculous signs. The tension has built to it's breaking point, and cries for a quick resolution â€“ a resolution which is, in fact, soon to come in the sham trial and crucifixion of Jesus the Messiah.
IV. The Triumphal Entry (John 12:12-19)
The following day (after Mary anointed Jesus), Jesus rode into Jerusalem, in what has come to be known as â€œthe triumphal entryâ€. Perhaps more than any other event in his life, this day symbolized exactly what sort of ministry Jesus had on this earth. It was in fact a glorious ministry, deserving of, and in fact resulting in the exuberant worship of the multitudes. However, this glory was accomplished and displayed far differently than might have been expected. It was not outwardly glorious â€“ quite the opposite, in fact. Instead of a magnificent white charger, decked in gold, he rode on an unbroken colt of a donkey. In the same way, the most glorious event in all of history was to be his mighty accomplishment of redemption; and the results of this great accomplishment, for the rest of history, would spread over all the earth, and finally come to fruition in the exuberant and everlasting worship of an innumerable band of worshipers. But on the other hand, this most glorious event in all of history was also the lowliest and most shameful â€“ for the Lord of glory would humble himself even to the point of the most atrocious and shameful form of death ever devised by man!
The words that the crowd is crying out are taken from Psalm 118. â€œHosanna,â€ literally, â€œGive salvation now!â€, is from the twenty-fifth verse, and the following phrase, â€œBlessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,â€ is from the following verse. This reference is significant because this was the psalm sung during the Feast of Tabernacles, in expectation of the Messiah. In fact, it was customary to wave palm branches in celebration at the mention of the word â€œHosanna,â€ just as the crowds were doing here. So, in essence, the people were saying, â€œWe recognize that you are the Messiah who should bring salvation, and whom we have been awaiting.â€ How right they were, but how tragic that their faith was so materialistic and temporary!
But regardless of their sincerity or depth of knowledge, this event was a fitting and necessary accomplishment in the ministry of Jesus â€“ so necessary, in fact, that if the multitudes had been silent, the very rocks would have cried out in worship and testimony to who this Jesus truly was (see Luke 19:37-40)! In fact, this very event had been prophesied already, in Zechariah 9:9; although John seems to have added the phrase â€œDo not fearâ€ to the quotation. This addition is perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the text: even though Jesus would be a mighty and glorious King, he would be humble and lowly, so that even sinners might approach him without fear. How wonderful it is that Jesus should be glorious, powerful enough to save the worst of us, and great enough to command our fervent worship for all eternity! But ah, it is equally wonderful that he is meek and lowly so that we who are sinful, broken, and helpless might come to him for grace and succor, without fear of rejection!
V. The Greeks' Coming to Jesus (John 12:20-26)
Throughout John's gospel, Jesus has provided many hints and foretastes that the gospel would ultimately spread to the Gentiles (e.g. his discourse with the Samaritan woman, 4:1-42); but up until this point, he has also made it clear that the hour of his death and following glorification, together with the in-gathering of the Gentiles that should follow, had not yet arrived (e.g. 2:4, 7:6,8; 7:30; 8:20). But now, he says something different; now, â€œthe hour has come, in order that the Son of Man might be glorifiedâ€ (vs. 23). Now is no longer the time to tell to these foreigners that â€œsalvation is of the Jewsâ€ (John 4:22), as he had with the Samaritan woman. No, now is the time to tell them that his death is impending; but, just as a grain of wheat, when it dies and is buried, springs forth with much fruit â€“ so his death would be fruitful to produce much eternal life. And moreover, anyone who shared in this experience, anyone who â€œdied with Christâ€ (see Colossians 3:1-4; Galatians 2:19-20; Romans 6:5-6), would also reap the fruit of eternal life â€“ even these Gentiles! In order to gain eternal life, one must hate his life in this world, and follow Christ; and one's nationality or ethnicity matters not at all, so great is the change that was wrought when the hour of Christ's substitutionary death finally arrived.
VI. The Father's Testimony (John 12:27-36)
Another theme which John has emphasized throughout his gospel is also brought up in this summarizing chapter â€“ and that is, the reliable testimony to the Son of Man, Jesus Christ. Just as the Father spoke audibly from heaven, to authenticate the ministry of Jesus, at his baptism (Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21-22), and also at his transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13, Mark 9:2-13, Luke 9:28-36); so now he speaks audibly again, and confirms that he will glorify his name through the ministry of Jesus, as he had never glorified it before, nor would again. Of course (as we know now), the way in which Jesus would glorify the Father's name would be unimaginably difficult for Jesus, who took upon himself our sins, and willingly accepted for them the just wrath of God, so that we might be saved â€“ and for this cause, Jesus was deeply distressed, as he was in the Garden of Gethsemane (see Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46). But nevertheless, he was resolutely determined to continue in his appointed path. What greater example could we have to embrace suffering for the Name of the Most High!
But ultimately, this testimony was not for Jesus' sake â€“ it was not to make him ready for so great a sacrifice, as he already knew what he had to do, and was determined to do it â€“ but it was for the sake of the listeners, so that they might believe, and be saved. Ever since the Fall of Adam, in the Garden of Eden, mankind had been subject to the devil, and deserving of wrath. But through what Jesus was about to do, the devil would be cast out, and men from everywhere under the sun would be delivered from his power. But in order to be saved, they must believe in Jesus, and, as Jesus so often declared, the crowds in general did not believe in him; instead, they only possessed an inadequate half-truth. They knew that the Messiah would live forever â€“ after all, the prophecies stated that he would be the â€œEverlasting Fatherâ€, and that his reign would have no end (see Isaiah 9:6-7). In this much, they were right: but they failed to take notice of the prophecies which spoke of Jesus' substitutionary suffering and death (e.g. Isaiah 52:13-53:12); and so they were offended by this teaching that the Messiah's eternal, victorious life would be a resurrection life, and that the Son of Man must first be lifted up in death before he sat down to reign in life forevermore.
The testimony to Jesus, then, through the Old Testament prophets, God the Father, and Jesus' own teaching about himself, was clear and irrefutable. So why did the people not believe in him? They did hear the Father's voice, but they could not understand it, and believed it to be thunder, or else the voice of an angel. This underscores a deeper truth: as long as they were under the authority of their father the devil, it was not possible that they should understand and believe the truth of God. There was never a better time to hear the truth than when Jesus was walking upon the earth, for he was Light itself. But all the light in the world will do no good for a blind man. Jesus would only walk the earth for a few days longer, and his call is urgent: â€œAs long as the light of my presence is with you, believe in me, so that you might have the light in yourselves, and so be children of light! Soon I will be gone, and darkness will overtake you again, unless, through faith in me, you have the light of God's truth within yourself.â€ As Jesus taught elsewhere, if one's eyes be blinded with darkness, how great must that darkness be! For no amount of light can do any good for one with blinded eyes (Matthew 6:22-23).
VII. The Reason for the Jews' Unbelief (John 12:37-43)
At this point, Jesus leaves the crowds; but John goes on to explain why Jesus spoke the way he did, and why the people could not believe him. As surprising as the answer may seem, the answer ultimately goes back to God's choice: the people had every reason to believe in Jesus, who had done countless miracles and received every conceivable form of reliable testimony, and yet they were still unable to believe. Why is this? Because God had already decided, as far back as the days of Isaiah, that when the Messiah came, he would blind the eyes of the people, and harden their hearts, so that they would not see or understand, and so be converted and healed by God. This may be a difficult teaching, but it is a biblical one! And furthermore, as Paul later explains to us, the hardening of the Jews was not simply so that they might fall, but for the mercy of us Gentiles, in order that we might receive God's free grace, and provoke Israel to jealousy! The ultimate outcome of all this will be Jew and Gentile alike coming to God for free, undeserved mercy, all to the glory of God alone (see Romans 11:11-12; 30-36).
And so it was that, while a few of the Jews looked to Jesus and saw his glory, just as Isaiah had so many years before (see Isaiah 6:1-7); yet, the majority of them were completely blinded to his divine glory, and so rejected him. And others, who did glimpse his glory in a fleeting and shallow way, did not turn to him, for they still loved the glory of man more than the glory of Jesus, our only God and Savior! Alas, the same blindness is still around us today â€“ how many people love the fleeting emptiness of worldly possessions, success, and fame, and care nothing at all for the greater and lasting glory in the face of Jesus Christ? If this is your case, tremble with fear, and cry out for God in his mercy to open your eyes to see his glory! When one has found the costliest pearl, the dung heap of the world seems paltry and unsatisfying in comparison. Giving up everything in order to know Christ and be found in him is the best trade one could ever make. This, too, is a gift of God; but he will not refuse to give it to one who comes in rags and filth, and pleads for free mercy! Of all who come to Jesus, he will cast no one out (John 6:37).
VIII. The Final Judgment (John 12:44-50)
The first section of John's gospel has now come to an end. From this point on, John will focus on the private instruction that Jesus relays in much detail to his disciples, and the crucifixion and resurrection with which Jesus would glorify God. In summary, John relates a few key teachings of Jesus, that he has been emphasizing all along: Jesus and the Father are One, and so, to see Jesus is to see the Father, and to believe in Jesus is to believe in the Father. Jesus has not spoken anything that did not come directly from the Father; he spoke only the Father's words, and, moreover, the words which lead to eternal life. For this reason, Jesus again calls himself the Light of the world. He alone reveals the nature of the Father, whom no one has seen, and whom to know is itself life everlasting. And everyone who believes in him will pass into this light of fellowship, and will never again be thoroughly blinded by the darkness, as he was before. This is Jesus' purpose and mission in the world. This is what he came for, and this is what he was about to accomplish through his impending death and resurrection.
This is as much as to say, Jesus' present ministry was not a ministry of condemnation or judgment, but a ministry of peace and salvation. He had not come to conquer in glorious power, but to overcome in glorious humility and suffering. However, before he goes to the cross, he gives his hearers a very stern warning: his message of free grace and salvation is precious beyond compare; and therefore, to reject it will have dire results. For Jesus will return one day, and in that day, he will judge the world in power and righteousness. At that time, the very words that Jesus has now spoken will rise up to condemn all who have rejected him â€“ and ah, how fearful will that final judgment be! The days are hastening to the final accounting, and today is the day of salvation! Do not despise this offer of free grace, for the next day, no, the next moment, you might be cut off forever from any further offer of grace, and left to burn in righteous torment for the sins which you have committed against a Holy and Almighty God!
And so John concludes this portion of his gospel, and turns to a rich and marvelously deep examination of the glory and wonder of Jesus' death, and the things which should follow. To which account, if God permits it, we will turn in our study next week.