Jesus and the Judgment of the World

A reflection on the sermon preached by Gary Alloway at The Well on September 10, 2006. Gary’s sermon discussed John 12:12-50. Originally posted here.

It should come as no surprise that Jesus demands a lot—more accurately, he demands everything. The passage from Luke 14:26 on the “cost of discipleship” is well known: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” In the passage under discussion, Jesus encounters two groups who wish to compromise the cost of following Jesus based on their own ideas of what Jesus ought to be about:

(1) John 12:12-15. The first crowd praises Jesus as “the King of Israel,” the worldly messiah who will establish a kingdom of justice on the earth in the pattern of King David. The Jews during the time of Jesus had been under foreign rule for hundreds of years, and glorious pre-exilic days were now ancient history. These Jews wanted a national hero, a zealot who would establish an Israelite empire greater and more glorious than anything produced by the Greeks or Romans. The text of John, however, subtly rebukes this crowd by quoting the prophecy from Zechariah 9:9. The book of Zechariah speaks about the coming ruler of God’s people, but it is not a king who crushes a nation’s enemies. Zechariah calls this ruler “humble and riding on a donkey.” Furthermore, the reign of this king is marked by the laying down of weapons, not the shedding of blood: “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations” (v. 10). In other words, Jesus came to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah by bringing peace and not a sword, though the final fulfillment of these words will come only when God definitively establishes the kingdom of God and death will be no more.

(2) John 12:17-19. The second crowd had been with Jesus when he raised Lazarus from the dead. The greatest of Jesus’ signs marveled the people, and they wanted to see more amazing things. These people wanted Jesus the miracle worker, not the Jesus who calls people to carry their crosses and hate life itself for his sake. Because this second crowd was testifying about the Lazarus event, many others came to see Jesus in hopes of seeing similar wonders. But these people were about to be greatly disappointed, for these were the final days of Jesus’ life and there was no turning back; the cross stood squarely before Jesus and every day brought him one step closer to the purpose of his birth some thirty years prior. As Jesus declared, “it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”

Now we could—and should—stop here and reflect on our own lives as followers of Jesus: do we mistake the gospel of Christ for worldly power and authority? do we seek Jesus the magician rather than Jesus the cross-bearer? While these are important questions to consider, the most important parts of John 12 come in the second half of the chapter.

First, the author of John very carefully positions the statement of the Pharisees—“Look, the world has gone after him!”—with the arrival of the Greeks who came to see Jesus. Their arrival is significant for a number of reasons. Not only does this confirm what the Pharisees said, but it also indicates a movement in John away from the people of Israel to the whole world. We just saw that many of the Jews were trying to domesticate and compromise the call of Jesus. With the arrival of the Greeks, Jesus restates his call in vv. 23-26, presumably with the Greek audience in mind (if not physically present). The Jewish people were not being abandoned, but the mission of Jesus was not limited to the people of Israel. Jesus came for the whole world, but no matter who comes to Jesus, the call of discipleship remains the same: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (12:25). The Greeks represent the global mission of Jesus. The universality of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is confirmed when Jesus declares, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (12:32). The presence of the Greeks is symbolic and serves to show that “all people” cannot be limited to just one culture but extends to all the nations of the earth.

The heart of John 12 is a pivot-point for the entire Gospel, as the book transitions from the ministry to the passion of Jesus. In vv. 27-36, Jesus speaks about his death, and in vv. 44-50, Jesus summarizes his teachings. I will pull one passage from each section to explicate.

Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. (12:31-32)

I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge, for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me. (12:47-50)

I will comment on two lines in particular: “Now is the judgment of this world,” and “I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” At first glance, these two statements seem contradictory. Is Jesus judging the world or not? What I think is going here is a very nuanced and subtle account of divine judgment, in contrast to human judgment. First, Jesus declares to us that the judgment of the world is now, that is, the judgment of the world occurred in the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The words of Jesus offer a strong corrective to contemporary Christians who are prone to think of God’s judgment as something that will occur in the distant future in abstraction from the actual judgment that took place on the cross. Whenever we separate the future, eschatological judgment from the cross, however, we threaten to miss the point of judgment. The reason God judges the world is not “to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).

Second, we must conclude from these verses that the judgment enacted by Jesus in his passion and death is indeed the salvation of the world. Divine judgment, unlike human judgment, is salvific. As Jesus said, “Now is the judgment of this world,” and this judgment will take place “when I am lifted up from the earth.” Indeed, we do not simply await an unknown future judgment, because the world has already been judged, and the weight of that judgment was borne by the Son of God who became incarnate for this very purpose—to take upon himself the sins of the world. Jesus judged the world in his death and resurrection, and in so doing, he drove out the false ruler of the world along with all sin and death, and in place of the false kingdoms of power, money, and violence he established instead the peaceful Kingdom of God.

Finally, what is the relation between the crowds who were compromising the message of Jesus and the judgment of the world effected on the cross? The writer of John has some gloomy words about the people who encountered Jesus. In John 3:19, it says that “people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil,” and in John 12:43 it says “they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God.” Jesus faced a lot of rejection in his life, even from those closest to him. Those who truly followed him were few in number. But this does not mean that the people in the crowds (who in many ways represent us all) are hopelessly lost. Jesus declares that such people are judged by his word, which is the word of the Father. And what is this word to us? “I know that his commandment is eternal life” (12:50).

Jesus calls us to follow him, to take up our crosses in obedience, and to lose our lives in order to find them. But this call to follow him in costly discipleship is a gift, not a burden; we follow in freedom, not under coercion. We know that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, even though his yoke is his passion and his burden is the cross. We must not obey in order to earn salvation, nor should we live disobediently because we think grace is cheap. No, we must labor for the gospel and yearn to run the race marked out for us. But we do all of this and more because we know that God’s judgment is salvation, and God’s commandment is eternal life.

All glory to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.