Connections 03.25.2018: Now We Know

John 12:9-19

My dear friend Rickie is sixty-seven years old. Neglectful parents meant that he spent much of his childhood in an orphanage. He has told us stories of his time there, of days longing for a normal home life, of being one among many children and there wasn’t enough time or attention to go around. In one of the most poignant tales from his days in the orphanage, Rickie says that the kids were often told to be ready because Jesus would come soon.

Most of us who have grown up in church are familiar with that idea. Thanks to verses like Luke 12:40 and 21:36, Matthew 24:44 and 25:13, we’ve heard the coming of Christ preached, studied it in Sunday school, and sung about it in choir. In much of his writing, Paul too seemed to think that Jesus would come within his own lifetime. While that didn’t happen for Paul, some churches always seem to focus more on Jesus’ second coming than on the current desperate state of a world in need. It’s a prevalent concern among many Christian people.

Young Rickie took that promise into his heart and fully expected to see Jesus driving up the road toward the orphanage in a pickup truck. Sometimes he felt excited about it; at other times he was frightened—he wasn’t sure he wanted to get in that truck. Now, decades after his time at the orphanage, Rickie looks back over the sweep of his life and sees how Jesus did come to him over and over again, carrying him through times of pain and heartache and also through times of joy and happiness. It was hard to understand what Jesus was doing as those moments happened, but today, reflection and perspective allows Rickie to pinpoint the Lord’s presence in his life over the years.

The verse that stands out to me in our familiar lesson text about Jesus’ celebrated entry into Jerusalem is this one: “His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him” (John 12:16). One unique quality of John’s Gospel is its reflective, big-picture nature. While the other Gospel writers frequently give us a play-by-play of events during Jesus’ life, John seems to hover above it all and offer a more far-reaching interpretation of what is happening. It is always striking to me that the men who were closest to Jesus, who spent hours on end with him, who lived everyday life with him and also witnessed his most powerful actions, rarely seemed to comprehend what he was really about.

John remarks on that, as do some of the other Gospel writers, but then he adds, “when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered.” After Jesus completed his earthly mission by dying and rising again and going to be with God, his disciples gained a new understanding. They were able to look back over the long months with a different perspective. As they reflected on everything they’d seen and heard, the puzzle pieces began to come together and they knew that Jesus was exactly who he claimed to be—the Lord and Savior of the world.

Like Rickie, like the disciples, we may walk through strange and difficult times and wonder what it all means. We may look for Jesus and not see him. But then, when days have passed and we stand on the other side of a trial, we can look back and see that Jesus was there all along—in people, events, and our own spirits—in ways we only realize after the fact. We too can say, “Now we know.”

Discussion

1. What other Gospel stories can you find (in Matthew, Mark, and Luke) that show you how little the disciples understood about Jesus as they lived each day with him?
2. Why do you think their understanding was so limited? What hindered it?
3. John 12:16 is just one example of how the disciples realized who Jesus really was after his resurrection. Can you find others?
4. When have you felt unable to sense Jesus’ presence with you? Were you able to recognize his work in your life after that time had passed? If so, how?
5. What might help us be more sensitive to the presence of Jesus right now, as we live today?

Reference Shelf

The next day (v. 12) a great crowd who had come to the feast heard Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. “They took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (v. 13). The crowd’s initiative reflects Jewish nationalism. (a) The palms would have this meaning: e.g., when Judas rededicated the temple (164 BC), the Jews brought palms to the temple (2 Macc 10:7); when Simon conquered the Jerusalem citadel (142 BC) the Jews took possession carrying palms (1 Macc 13:51); in the Testament of Naphtali 5:4, palms are given to Levi as a symbol of his power over all Israel; the palm appears on coins of the second revolt of the Jews against Rome (132–35 BC). So the palms signal a welcome to Jesus as a national liberator. (b) The expression they “came out to meet him” reflects the normal Greek practice involved in the joyful reception of Hellenistic sovereigns into a city (Josephus, War 7.5.2 §100 103). (c) The exclamation, “Hosanna” (= Save/deliver us now) was used in addressing kings (2 Sam 14:4; 2 Kings 6:26). The crowd’s initiative, therefore, is an appeal for Jesus to accept the role of a nationalistic deliverer.

Only after the crowd has expressed its nationalistic conceptions does Jesus react by getting the donkey and sitting on it (v. 14). Verse 15’s quotation from Scripture tells the hearer the meaning of Jesus’ reaction. The first line is probably from Zephaniah 3:16, a passage whose context is universalistic (to Jerusalem will stream people from all over the earth to seek refuge, 3:9-10); the second line is from Zechariah 9:9, a passage emphasizing universalism and peace (a colt was ridden by a monarch when he came on an errand of peace; a horse was used in time of war, 1 Kings 4:26; Isa 31:1-3). Jesus’ entering Jerusalem on a donkey, then, is an act of prophetic symbolism designed to counteract the crowd’s nationalism (remember 6:15) with a message of universal kingship (12:32) and peace (18:36). The Evangelist notes that the reason the crowd went to meet Jesus was because they had heard about the raising of Lazarus (cf. 2:23; 4:45; 6:14; 10:21). The note of universalism continues with the Pharisees’ response: “the world has gone after him” (v. 19).

Charles H. Talbert, Reading John, Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 1992) 191-92.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She is also the office administrator for Jay’s HOPE, a local charity serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (12) and Natalie (10) and her husband John. For fun, she tries to stay caught up on the latest amazing TV series (including Doctor Who, Sherlock, Gilmore Girls, and The Crown).

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