Gethsemane in a New Setting—John 12:20-50

Studies in John’s Gospel—Bible Study Lesson 32

by Reta Halteman Finger

Detail of Mosaic from the Church of the Nations, Mount of Olives, Jerusalem, Israel
Though the Synoptic Gospels provide a setting for Jesus’s struggle over dying, John’s Gospel does not.
Detail of Mosaic from the Church of the Nations, Mount of Olives, Jerusalem, Israel

A recent email from Habitat for Humanity offered me a chance to meet former president Jimmy Carter—under certain conditions. You can even meet President Obama or a member of Congress if you pay enough to attend one of their fund-raising dinners.

But what if you wanted an audience with Jesus? He doesn’t sound very accessible either. In John 12:20-26, some Greeks with no personal connections to Jesus simply want to meet him, since his fame is spreading. They ask Philip if he can make the arrangements. Philip goes to Andrew, apparently for extra clout, and together they approach Jesus. Jerome Neyrey’s commentary on John’s Gospel describes this as ancient networking, which has also occurred in chapter 1:35-42.

But the stakes for an audience with Jesus are higher than an expensive banquet ticket. Knowing his life is in danger, Jesus can only offer a challenge to these curious outsiders (12:23-26):  “To see me is to accept the challenge of following me, even to death.”  Hanging around Jesus is a risky proposition. We don’t know if those Greeks ever got their wish!

The shadow of Gethsemane

It is all the more ominous because in the next verse, Jesus’s “soul is troubled.”  This is a rare admission from one who is always in control and meets every challenge with a superior argument. We have only seen Jesus “disturbed in spirit” once before, at Lazarus’s grave in 11:33. What follows in verses 27-36 is the Synoptic Gospels’ portrayal of Jesus’s struggle in the garden of Gethsemane placed in a different literary context. In all four Gospels he echoes Psalm 42:5—“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?”

Unlike the Synoptics, however, this fourth Gospel does not describe Jesus as pleading for God to rescue him from death. As we saw in Lesson 25 on the “noble shepherd,” a characteristic of nobility is the voluntary laying down of one’s life for others (John 10:11). In this spirit, Jesus accepts his destiny: “It is for this reason that I have come to this hour” (12:27).

What kind of honor and glory is this?

If you have been following our study of John’s Gospel, you will observe that the rest of this chapter continues the various literary techniques used to communicate the plot. Most obvious is the irony we often take for granted as we move into the second half of the story, the Book of Glory (see Lesson 1 and the diagram). “The hour has come for the Human One to be glorified” (12:23). When he is “lifted up,” Jesus will receive honor and glory from “the Father.” Now the world will be judged and “the ruler of this world will be driven out.”

This wildly extravagant statement sounds as though Jesus is ready to overthrow the Roman emperor and be enthroned in his place. But the perceived reality is the opposite of what the actual reality will be:  arrest, humiliation, torture, and execution by being “lifted up” on a cross of shame.

Woven into the same passage is another technique we’ve seen before: “statement-misunderstanding-clarification.” It happens twice, first in 12:27-31 and again in 32-36. How does the crowd misunderstand Jesus, and how does he clarify his points? Though some of this reasoning may seem oblique, it illustrates profound truth hiding under simple language that only a few hear and judge correctly. Verses 37-43 present a spectrum of people who hear Jesus—from outright scoffers to secret believers who won’t “come out” as disciples because they fear the religious authorities and because they “loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God” (43).

Ancient Olive Trees in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jerusalem, Israel - Photo by Reta Halteman Finger
Ancient Olive Trees – Photo by Reta Halteman Finger

“Son of Man” or the “Human One”?

In 12:23 in the NRSV, Jesus calls himself the “Son of Man,” but the Common English Bible (CEB, 2011) uses the term “Human One.” We might echo the crowd’s question: “Who is this Son of Man?” (12:34). I prefer using Human One as more gender-inclusive and for its intimate connotations, but Son of Man is a Hebraism (like saying “cross of wood” rather than “wooden cross”) that has become a title through its usage in Daniel 7:13. In this apocalyptic vision (Dan. 7:9-14), we find that some Jews were already seeing Yahweh manifested in two ways—as both a white-haired Ancient One, and a younger Son of Man (or Human One), to whom the Ancient One gives everlasting dominion over the whole earth.  In a supreme irony, Jesus claims this identity and sees being lifted up on a cross of death as the way to this ultimate honor. No wonder the crowd is confused!

The final paragraph (John 12:44-50) summarizes Jesus’s teachings and purpose for coming into the world. As in previous lessons, we hear him making remarkable claims, but only through his union with, and submission to, the Ancient One. As noted earlier, this role is less that of the eldest son and more of the wife and mother of the absent husband and father.

Questions for discussion and reflection:

1. Explain how Jesus will be glorified in his ignominious death. Is the author overdoing the irony?

2. In this chapter, which characters do you most identify with: the Greeks? the unbelievers as described in Isaiah 6:10 (John 12:40)? the secret believers?

3. Since we will never be literally crucified in our time and culture, how can we respond to Jesus’s challenge in 12:24-26 to lose our lives in order to gain eternal life?

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.