John 12:36b-50 is considered as the epilogue of the first part of the Gospel of John that is called the “Book of Signs.” The text reaffirms certain facts based on the previous narrative events. At the micro-level, the text is well aligned within the framework of chap. 12.
In chap. 12, the narrator introduces four contrasting identities: first, Mary anoints Jesus, but Judas Iscariot opposes (12:1-8); second, Jews plot against Jesus and Lazarus, but the crowd sing Hosanna (12:9-15); third, the disciples misunderstand, but the Greeks request to see Jesus (12:16-36a); and fourth, Jesus reveals himself, but the people unbelieve (12:36b-50).
As we deal with the fourth section of the chapter (12:36b-50), the following four aspects are noteworthy.
First, Unbelief as a prophetic fulfilment
(12:36b-41). In the first half of the Gospel, some of the miraculous signs and Messianic discourses of Jesus are incorporated. The Word becoming flesh and dwelling among humanity can be considered as one of the greatest signs within the Gospel.
The narrator reveals that Jesus is the Messianic figure, mediator between God and human beings, Saviour of the world, and above all the Divine Logos. The identity of Jesus is revealed through the means of miraculous signs and dramatic discourses.
Jesus invites the attention of the audience to believe in Him and the Father. But the audience of Jesus remains constantly in misunderstanding, unknowing, and unbelieving natures.
In chap. 12, the narrator brings to the foreground the unbelief of the people in a convincing manner. The narrator states that “Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in Him” (v. 37).
Two passages from the Old Testament are quoted here to make their unbelief obvious (Isa 53:1 and then 6:10). Isa 53:1 makes it clear that the divine revelations did not convince the Israelites to trust in God. Its prophetic effect is continued in the mission and ministry of Jesus.
Isa 6:10 is quoted in v. 40 to make known that the people were “blinded,” “deadened,” “misunderstanding” and “diseased” even after witnessing the great works of Jesus. Due to their lack of understanding, they unbelieved the words and deeds of Jesus. Isaiah saw the glory of Jesus beforehand and made his pronouncements in public.
Though Jesus is about to be glorified on the cross (13:1-20:31), the people are not able to receive its benefits due to their unbelief. Thus, we see a fulfilment of prophesy in their unbelief.
Second, Diplomacy of the leaders (12:42-43). It is clearly stated that many even among the leaders believed in Jesus irrespective of a wider antagonism. Jesus confronted opposition from the Jewish religious leaders more often than from the common people.
In John 2:13-21, Jesus’ temple cleansing event invites considerable amount of antagonism among the Jews. In chap. 3, a Pharisee called Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night; but he does not witness Him in public.
In chaps. 7-8, the Jewish leaders including the police men came to arrest Jesus. In 11:49-50, Caiaphas who was a high priest spoke: “it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” There were several occasions of “murmuring,” “plotting,” and “attempts of stoning” against Jesus.
All these details demonstrate the antagonism of the Jews against Jesus. Irrespective of their enmity, some of the leaders believed in Jesus. At the same time, they were not willing to confess their faith in the public due to the fear of the Pharisees. They feared that if they believe in Him, they would be sent out of the synagogue. It amply reveals that if someone was confessing Jesus in public, s/he was sent out of the synagogue.
In John 9:22, the parents of the man born blind were not ready to testify their son’s healing in public due to the fear of the Jews. In John 16:2, again the same expression aposynagōgē (sent out of the synagogue) is used.
This is the context in which Jesus says “they loved praise from men more than praise from God” (v. 43). Even though believing in Jesus, many leaders behaved diplomatic in public like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea (3:1-10; 19:38-42).
Third, Unbelieving Jesus is unbelieving God
(vv. 44-46). From vv. 44-50, some of the dramatic declarations of Jesus are incorporated. In vv. 44-46, Jesus declares many things related to people’s belief and unbelief. He says that “when a wo/man believes in me, s/he does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me” (v. 44). It indicates that only through Jesus, people can have access to God.
The Jews had a great claim that they were children of Abraham and in that way well-connected to God. Jesus says to them: “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I am” (8:58). As Jesus is greater than Abraham and came to the world as the Son of God, believing in Him is a significant requirement to have access to God.
Jesus says that “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (14:6). Though the Jews claim that they believe in God, it is impossible for them to have access to God without having personal relationship with Jesus.
As Jesus is sent to the world by Father-God, the Jews should put their faith in Him. Jesus revealed himself and made the identity of the Father known to the people. But the Jews do not believe in him. Jesus came as the light from heaven to remove the darkness in the world below.
In John 1:5, the narrator states that “the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” In John 8:12 and 9:5, Jesus told them that He is the light of the world. By believing in Jesus, the people of the world come to the light of God that enlightened the world.
Fourth, Judgment is pronounced to the unbelieving
(vv. 47-50). Jesus pronounces judgment upon those who unbelieve. He came to speak about the eternal works of salvation. Those who hear His words and believe in Him shall be saved. Jesus came not merely to judge the world, but to save it.
Now salvation is accessible to all those who believe, and the judgment is already started and coming in the future. The Father God is going to judge those who reject and unbelieve the words of Jesus.
Those who reject Jesus, reject also the Father. Those who reject the Son of God, reject the heavenly message of God. Those who reject the commandments of Jesus, reject the oracles of the Father. Those who reject the word of Jesus, reject the word of God too.
Eternal life is possible only through Jesus. In that sense, the Jews cannot be saved unless they come to the light of God. Once they reject and unbelieve Jesus, they deny access to the one who sent Him.
This passage reveals the unbelief of the people irrespective of the full revelation of God available to them through Jesus. The words and deeds of Jesus reveal God’s presence in the world. But the people remained in unbelief.
In the passage, first of all, the unbelief of the people is presented as a fulfilment of prophesy. Second, the Jewish socio-religious leaders are presented as diplomatic even after believing in Jesus. They are hesitant to proclaim Jesus in public due to the fear of excommunication. Third, Jesus states that unbelieving Him further means that they unbelieve in God. As light of the world, Jesus came to remove darkness. But the people preferred darkness rather than light. Fourth, Jesus pronounces judgment upon those who unbelieve the word that He spoke and the miracles that He performed.
In today’s context, we should believe in Jesus and lead others to believe in Him irrespective of various trials and temptations, pandemic situations and persecutions, and different sorts of discriminations in the world. Jesus makes it firm that unbelief is a greater sin than anything else.
Being in Jesus is the most significant responsibility that is required in our life. As believing is a requirement for eternal life, Jesus expects people nurture belief rather than unbelief. In that sense, believing is living and unbelieving is dying.
Rev Dr Johnson Thomaskutty serves as the Associate Professor of New Testament at Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India.
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