It is sobering to be reminded again this Good Friday and Easter weekend that we live in challenging and unsettling times for the world, and for Christians in particular. Yet another massacre of Christians has just occurred, this time in Egypt, with Coptic Christians callously murdered as they gathered for worship in their churches Palm Sunday. The Christian mission organisation to the persecuted church, Open Doors, has recently made clear that the present global scale of suffering and persecution for Christians is unprecedented. On average, every month, 322 Christians are killed; 214 churches or Christian homes are destroyed and there are 722 beatings, abductions, rapes or arrests – much of it taking place in the Islamic world. Christians are sharing in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings and we should think of them and retain them in our prayers in this season.
With Good Friday we are reminded that our Lord and saviour, Jesus Christ, was on the receiving end of great injustice, was persecuted, suffered and died; and yet out of this great suffering came new life, hope and salvation for all the nations. We are reminded that instead of lawless revolutionary violence, murder and hatred to establish a regime, the King of all kings and Lord of all lords surrendered willingly and fully to the will of his Father and was put to death upon a cross for the sin of the world, in order to establish a kingdom of righteousness and peace. The one who could have called twelve legions of angels to deliver him from the tyranny of evil, went as a lamb to the slaughter, giving up his life so that from this seed sown, new creation would burst all darkness and death asunder.
With our focus at this season on the passion of the Lord, in the Gospel of John 12: 20-36, we are drawn to the conspicuous mention of a group of gentiles, who asked to ‘see Jesus;’ men who had no concept of the imminent sufferings of Christ; no real grasp of the atonement he was about to offer; and no appreciation in their culture for God’s wisdom and power in the covenant of grace. And yet their coming and their question pointed to the reality of the meaning of Good Friday. Now, as then, we live in a culture in desperate need of seeing Jesus.
There are three essential questions in this passage of Scripture that bring out the glory and power of the cross as we see Jesus for who he is. Here I am going to consider the first question, and the others in the coming few days.
We wish to see Jesus!?
The first question is asked by a group of Greeks who are caught up in the national religious enthusiasm of the crowd who had come up for the Passover Feast. It seems the procession we refer to as the Triumphal Entry had come to an end in the outer precincts of the Temple. Among the crowd were these interested ‘God-fearers,’ Gentiles who found something attractive about the faith of Abraham and were caught up in some measure in the excitement.
Naturally these people wanted a personal interview with this remarkable man called Jesus – who wouldn’t? Their cautious approach to talking with Jesus was to speak with Phillip, a man with a Greek name, from the Gentile territory of Bethsaida in Galilee. He tells Andrew of the request (another Greek name), and they go and tell Jesus about it.
At this moment of great ‘messianic expectation’ as Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem on a young donkey fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9, he is told that the gentiles are coming to him. Some must have asked themselves if this was going to be the ‘revolution’ the people hoped for – a ‘Semitic Spring’ that sweeps up even the gentiles into the new order as a new leader ascends to earthly power? But the answer is no. What was about to happen shocked even the closest of Jesus’ disciples. The way that God was working to bring salvation to all people was not going to be the outgrowth of Israel’s religious fervor, nor the intellectual curiosity of the Greek mind, nor the power of the Roman sword. Instead the path of redemption was one that was to be a stumbling block to the Jewish expectation and foolishness to the gentile tradition of wisdom and power.
And yet, in this remarkable incident, as Jesus approaches the cross and his death, we are reminded of the very beginning. At the birth of Christ, gentiles from the East come up to Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem because they have seen the star of a king rising. Whilst here, at the end of Jesus’ life, right on the eve of his death at the cross, gentiles from the West come, witnessing the king riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.
The magi from the East come to the cradle, the Greeks from the West to his cross! Both incidents signify the same reality: that Jesus Christ is the savior of the world, of all nations and peoples. This moment signifies that Christ really is king and the ruler of the kings of the earth! Jesus immediately indicates to them in the text of John’s Gospel that this coming of the gentiles on the eve of the cross pictures his world mission, ‘The Hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified.’ The way of true victory, of true conquest, of the establishment of God’s kingdom of righteousness and peace, was to be by the way none would expect - the death of the cross.
The image Jesus uses as he speaks to the crowd (among whom these Greeks stood), is one from the natural world – a seed must go into the ground before there can be a harvest (v. 24). Christ is that seed, that grain of wheat that must fall, die and be buried. Only in this way can the nations be gathered in. If these Greeks were to enter the kingdom, he must be lifted up.
For us to grasp the power of this moment as the gentiles come to Jesus just before the crucifixion, we should be mindful of the context from which they came. Greek thought (which occupies the consideration of St. Paul repeatedly in the books of Acts and his epistles), drew its central motive from two key ideas or aspects – the pre-Homeric religion of life and death, and the cultural religion of the Olympian gods. The first and older aspect deified nature, holding to a belief in mother earth and an endless stream of organic life flowing from her – the world of matter. But the existence of everything in this stream was subjected to the horrible and merciless fate of death – this was seen as a great tragedy and injustice.
The second aspect Greek religion deified a cultural part of Greek society – the Olympian gods centred on Apollo the legislator. These gods have left mother earth with her endless stream of life and death and have a personal and immortal ‘form’ living in Mount Olympus – an invisible world of ideal, perfect form or true being. But these gods have no power over the terrible fate of death for mortals. They cannot help lamentable man when cruel death strikes him down, as Homer put it in the Odyssey. So there developed these irreconcilable worlds of form and matter. This terrible tension was the basic religious presupposition of the Greeks’ thought and culture. The situation was a fatalistic and hopeless one.
The ideal men, then, for Greek culture were the heroes, the mighty men or philosopher kings who might, by great thoughts and deeds, become immortal and shed the materially bound life-death cycle. Yet this group of Greeks in John 12, possibly interested in Yahweh and fascinated by the religious zeal of the Jews concerning a new king, came and said, ‘we wish to see Jesus.’ Did they expect to see a Homeric hero; a philosopher king; an ideal man; an Adonis? A man fit for Olympus? The text doesn’t tell us. But what they did find was certainly what they would least have expected – the suffering servant of Isaiah 53:
… he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Yet there was something that day that drew these gentiles to the feast and to Jesus. Tired and exhausted by the religious culture of Greco-Roman life and thought, and its failure to answer man’s most basic needs, these Greeks ‘wished to see Jesus.’ Certainly many in our own time can relate – disillusioned and exhausted by the false answers and sense of meaninglessness haunting our bankrupt culture; anxious at the prospect of decay, disease and death; tired and worn down by a heavy heart and guilty conscience; let down by false hopes and empty experiences – many in our time also want to see Jesus. Are we ready and willing to speak truthfully and faithfully of Christ and him crucified so that God might open the eyes of the spiritually blind to see the Lord Jesus for who he really is?