John 12: Mary Anoints Jesus at Bethany, The Plot to Kill Lazarus, The Triumphal Entry, Some Greeks Seek Jesus, The Son of Man Must Be Lifted Up, The Unbelief of the People, Jesus Came to Save the World
This is a longer passage than what I’ve typically been blogging in John, but I felt thematically it made sense to keep it together.
Jesus’ healing of Lazarus in Chapter 11 was shortly before the Passover, and now Passover is even closer. He comes back to Bethany to visit Lazarus, Martha, and Mary and have dinner with them. While he’s at the table Mary takes a bunch of expensive ointment, anoints his feet, and wipes his feet with her hair.
Judas gets offended, however, noting that if she’d simply sold the ointment—he estimated it could have been sold for 300 days’ wages—they could have given the money to the poor instead of wasting it like this. (John points out, however, that Judas was in charge of the moneybag, and used to help himself to whatever was in it, so his motives weren’t pure…) But Jesus takes Mary’s side, saying, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial” (verse 7), though the footnote gives an alternate phrasing (“Leave her alone; she intended to keep it for the day of my burial”), and the ESV Study Bible notes indicate that it’s kind of a hard piece of Greek to translate. And then he says something which is much easier to translate from Greek to English, but that has nevertheless been misinterpreted countless times over the millenia:
“For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” (verse 8)
I discuss this below.
Regardless, there’s a bit of a side note in verses 9–11, mentioning that a lot of people are coming to see Jesus but a lot of others are coming specifically to see Lazarus, the man who’d been raised from the dead. Not only that, but many are believing in Jesus because he raised Lazarus from the dead. So because of all of this attention the chief priests—who had already decided to put Jesus to death—now decide that they should put Lazarus to death as well. I guess they’re figuring out of sight out of mind; get rid of the man who’s such a spectacle and maybe people will forget about the miracle (and the one who’d performed that miracle).
The “next day”—after the chief priests had decided to put Lazarus to death, I guess?—Jesus enters Jerusalem in what we call “the triumphal entry.” A large crowd hears that he’s coming so they lay down palm branches and cry out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (verse 13), which is a quote from Psalm 118. Jesus is riding on a donkey, which John says is fulfillment of another Old Testament prophecy:
“Fear not, daughter of Zion;
behold, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
This is kind of a couple of Old Testament passages combined together:
- The “fear not” part is likely taken from Isaiah 40:9, which is referring to someone being a herald of good news (which Jesus definitely was)
- The rest is Zechariah 9:9, which talks about the king coming to Israel, humbled, and riding on a donkey
Jesus’ disciples don’t understand what’s going on (though John mentions that later on, after Jesus was raised from the dead, they remembered all of this and it started to make sense). John continues to point out that a big reason so many people are following Jesus right now is because they either saw or heard about Lazarus being raised from the dead. This fact is not lost on the Pharisees, either: “So the Pharisees said to one another, ‘You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him’” (verse 19).
Once Jesus is in Jerusalem, a pretty significant event occurs. In fact, I had never actually understood the significance of it before now. First, here’s the passage:
20 Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. 21 So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” (verses 20–26, with verse numbers)
I never understood this passage before; some Greeks (i.e. non-Jewish people) come to see Jesus, and for some reason that leads him to start talking about the fact that his hour has come? Verses 20–22 make sense on their own, and verses 23–26 make sense on their own, but I never understood how the two fit together. Here I’ll quote from the ESV Study Bible notes (as is my wont):
The present section concludes the first major part of John’s Gospel, which narrates Jesus’ mission to the Jews. The arrival of some Greeks signals to Jesus that this mission is about to come to an end. But before Jesus can reach out to the Gentiles, he first must die (cf. 10:16; 11:52). His hour is now at hand …
In other words, the fact that some Gentiles are coming to seek Jesus out signals to him that the first part of his mission—reaching out to God’s chosen people, the Jews—is coming to an end, and therefore it’s about to be time to extend the Gospel to the entire world. For which Jesus must die.
But Jesus doesn’t stop at verse 26, he continues on:
“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die. So the crowd answered him, “We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” So Jesus said to them, “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” (verses 27–36)
John then tells us that Jesus departs from the people, but that they still don’t believe in him:
When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them. Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Lord, who has believed what he heard from us,
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said,
“He has blinded their eyes
and hardened their heart,
lest they see with their eyes,
and understand with their heart, and turn,
and I would heal them.”
Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him. Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.
Although John said that Jesus had hidden himself from the people, he still has some listeners, because John records his response:
And Jesus cried out and said, “Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.” (verses 44–50)
Regardless of anything else, the people in this passage clearly expect that Jesus is the Messiah. They may not understand what the Messiah is, and they may not think Jesus is the Messiah for long, but right now, at this moment, they do.
Anointing Jesus’ Feet
Matthew 26:6–13 and Mark 14:3–9 mention Mary anointing Jesus’ head, while here in John it says that she anoints his feet. Given the amount of ointment mentioned it’s quite likely that she did both, but the different authors just chose to highlight different aspects of the anointing. Without knowing the cultural side of things, I wonder if Matthew and Mark were emphasizing her anointing him as king, whereas John emphasizes her treating herself as a servant by anointing his feet?
“The poor you always have with you”
I don’t know why we have such a problem with this statement from Jesus, when his original meaning was so clear. Actually, strike that, I know exactly why we have such a problem with this phrase: because we want to misinterpret it.
Judas had objected to Mary anointing Jesus with expensive ointment, ostensibly because he wanted to use the money to help the poor. Jesus, on the other hand, tells Judas that Mary did the right thing, because, “… the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” The point he’s making is obvious and straightforward: “Do you want to help the poor? Good! There will always be poor people to help—but right now, at this moment, you have me in your midst—God incarnate!—and you won’t have me here much longer. Take a moment to worship me, instead. I deserve it.”
We sometimes try really hard to twist this comment into some kind of reasoning as to why we shouldn’t help the poor, which is stupid and wrongheaded. But we really don’t like helping the poor, regardless of what the Scriptures tell us—over and over and over again!—so we look for any excuse. We twist “the poor you always have with you” into “… so why bother to try helping them when you know you’ll never solve the problem?” and somehow, in our sinful souls, that actually makes sense to us.
It’s also possible that Jesus was being a bit sarcastic with Judas, knowing that Judas didn’t care about the poor in the first place. “The poor you will always have with you—as if you actually cared about the poor, Judas!” But there’s nothing in the text to add any weight to that idea, so I wouldn’t push it too far.
“I deserve it”
The text doesn’t actually have Jesus saying the words “I deserve it,” that was my own paraphrasing, but… He is saying that. He is saying that it’s not a waste for Mary to worship Him in this manner. It’s true that Jesus is humble, but it’s also true that He’s God, and recognizes Himself as such.
And this is important because it means that Jesus is different from anyone else who ever started a religion. Buddha never claimed to be God, Muhammed never claimed to be God, none of the Jewish Patriarchs ever claimed to be God, but Jesus did. Jesus was more than just a teacher—at least He claimed to be—and more than just a “smart guy with some good ideas.” Jesus claimed to be God. Do with that what you will, but be honest with how you deal with Jesus. If you don’t think He could possibly have been God, then you can’t take Him seriously as a teacher. On the other hand, if you’re going to take him seriously as a teacher, and actually look at His claims, then be prepared to deal with some big ones.
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”
I blogged about Psalm 118 in anticipation of this post, but I didn’t gleany much insight from looking at the Psalm itself. It’s a song of praise to God, and in fact is quoted a number of times in the New Testament, so the New Testament writers clearly felt it was talking about Jesus. The specific portion the people are quoting here is:
26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!
We bless you from the house of the LORD.
27 The LORD is God,
and he has made his light to shine upon us.
Bind the festal sacrifice with cords,
up to the horns of the altar!
(Psalm 118:26–27, emphasis added)
The people welcoming Jesus add the words, “even the King of Israel!” which isn’t in the original Psalm. However, as mentioned, the Psalm is quoted a number of times in the New Testament; not just here, on Jesus’ Triumphal Entry, but also for this line:
22 The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
The New Testament writers clearly took this to be a reference to Jesus. I’m wondering if the entirety of Psalm 118, therefore, was understood to be a “Messianic Psalm”—that is, a Psalm that looks forward to the Messiah—and so anyone who quoted it would be understood to be talking about the Messiah.
Clearly, when the people are crying, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” they’re thinking the Messiah. They even add in that point about “even the King of Israel,” because that’s who they expected the Messiah to be: a king. Their king.
Jesus Came to Save the World
I’m using the ESV section heading for verses 44–50, but to me the entirety of verses 27–50 are on the theme that Jesus came to save the world—and only by Jesus can we be saved.
I won’t go into tons of details on what Jesus says in these verses, He speaks better for Himself, but I will say that, just like it’s not tenable to say that Jesus was a good teacher but can’t be God, it’s also not logically tenable to believe that Jesus is “one of a number of ways to get to God.” When you read Jesus’ actual words, this view isn’t viable. Jesus Himself claims that he came to save the world, and that only through His sacrifice can we be saved. That could be true, in which case we should follow Him, or it could be untrue, in which case we shouldn’t. There is no option in which Jesus’ approach to salvation is untrue, yet He’s still a good teacher. It doesn’t make sense.