Along with many other Southern Baptist churches, the one I now attend is in the middle of a series of Bible Study lessons on the Book of John. We are covering John 12 over a two-week span. It is a particularly important chapter for me because it records the transition from Jesus’ itinerant ministry in and around Judah and Galilee, to His crucifixion and the aftermath.
The events leading up to Jesus’ final Passover began with the previous Hanukkah, as recorded in John 10:22–39. Hanukkah is a Jewish celebration not mentioned in Scripture, but celebrated, nevertheless, by Jesus, His followers, and Jews everywhere. It is an 8-day festival, starting on the Jewish date Kislev 25, which usually corresponds with mid to late December. It is also called the Festival of Lights, or the Feast of Dedication, and it celebrates the Maccabean victory over Syria in 165 BC, and reconsecration of the Temple after its desecration by Antiochus IV and his successors.
During that Hanukkah, Jesus was confronted in Solomon’s Porch, the Collonade inside the eastern wall of the Temple Mount and challenged to state plainly if He was the expected Messiah. He responded that He had already answered that question and went on to say explicitly that He and [God] the Father are one, and that He, Himself, has power to grant eternal life. His accusers then threatened first to stone Him and then to arrest Him because He, being a man, was making Himself out to be God.
His response to that was to quote from Psalm 82, thereby invoking the entire Psalm and turning the accusations back on His accusers, before slipping away from them supernaturally. The explanation of that response is that the Hebrew Elohim, meaning God in some contexts, can mean “judges“, “angels“, or “masters” in other contexts. The Psalm itself is a pun or play on the word. Jesus is effectively saying that He is the judge of the judges.
1 Elohim [God] stands in the divine assembly;
there with the elohim [judges], he judges:
2 “How long will you go on judging unfairly,
favoring the wicked? (Selah)
3 Give justice to the weak and fatherless!
Uphold the rights of the wretched and poor!
4 Rescue the destitute and needy;
deliver them from the power of the wicked!”
—Psalm 82:1–4 CJB
After Jesus disappeared from the Temple, He was next seen in Bethany Beyond Jordan, the area where He and John the Baptizer had met earlier in the Book.
The confrontation in Solomon’s Porch recorded in John 10 occurred in December, and the Crucifixion was in Early April, so the raising of El’azar (Lazarus) had to have occurred in the intervening span of around three months. Many people, both friend and foe of Jesus, witnessed Lazarus’ resurrection. Subsequent plots against Jesus led Him to retreat to the town of Efrayim, in northeast Judah. When He returned to Jerusalem, possibly only weeks later, the miracle was still no doubt fresh in people’s minds.
Since the raising of Lazarus was a completely unprecedented event, it was probably totally shocking to everyone. We know of five resurrections prior to Lazarus: one by Elijah; one by Elisha while he lived; one by contact with Elisha’s corpse; and two previous by Jesus. Lazarus was the only recorded resurrection of someone three or more days after death. A number of commentaries note that three days in the grave were considered to be the maximum time for any hope of an apparently dead body to be capable of resuscitation; for example, The Net Bible Commentary references, “a rabbinic belief that the soul hovered near the body of the deceased for three days, hoping to be able to return to the body.” I think that this was probably a recognition that significant, irreversible signs of decomposition generally appear two to three days after death. Rigor mortis begins within a few hours of death, and fades after two or three days. Lividity becomes quickly evident but does not lock into place for about three days. Putrefaction begins immediately at the cellular level, but dependent on circumstances may not be externally evident for several days.
Unfortunately, almost nobody understands the various sects of Jesus’ day. The Gospel writers had no need to teach an in-depth course, because everyone in their day knew the players. Since pretty much every contact between Jesus and the sectarians was confrontational, that makes them all look like villains. But that is a skewed generalization! When someone was referred to in Scripture as a Pharisee, that was usually referring to a trained and ordained rabbi, but there weren’t all that many of those. Estimates for 1st Century Judea are about 6,000 Pharisees, 4,000 Essenes, substantially fewer Sadducees, and just pockets of anything else. Here is a very brief summary:
This, of course, was not a sect, but a system of governing courts, or councils. Every city had a Lesser Sanhedrin of 23 members, which answered to the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. The latter consisted of 71 appointed members. The Cohen HaGadol, or High Priest, functioned as the Nasi, (Prince, President, Chief Justice, or Chairman of the Board, so to speak). Ideally around half of the remaining 70 were Pharisees and half Sadducees. In Jesus’ day they met daily in the Chamber of Hewn Stone, in the Temple complex (see diagram). Around the time of the Crucifixion, they moved into the nave of the Royal Portico, which was a grand basilica constructed parallel to the southern wall of the Temple Mount, where the Al Aqsa Mosque presently sits.
One of the official functions of the Sanhedrin was to evaluate anyone who claimed to be the Messiah. In the Synoptic Gospels, when you read of “chief priests and scribes” or “scribes and Pharisees” apparently harassing Jesus, I think that most likely they were officially tasked by the Sanhedrin to follow and question. Given the politicization of the Sanhedrin under Roman rule, some of these were undoubtedly hostile, but others were probably merely conscientiously concerned. Nicodemus and Gamaliel were surely members of the Council and were certainly not evil men. Joseph of Arimathea and Paul were probably both also members. With one exception, the book of John mentions only the Pharisees among those following the crowds with Jesus, but that should not be taken to mean anything other than the normal agents of the Sanhedrin. John wrote probably a decade after the destruction of the Temple and the priesthood. By that time, the Sadducees were a distant memory to his readers, and the Temple had been replaced in their lives by the synagogues. Banishment from the synagogue had become the worst punishment possible, short of death to some and worse than death to others.
Under Mosaic Law, the High Priest was required to be a direct descendent of Aaron, as were all priests and Levites. King David replaced a corrupt High Priest with Zadoc, who was himself an Aaronic descendent. Subsequently, all high priests (but not other priests or the Levites) were to be from Zadoc’s lineage. From at least Hasmonean times, the office was corrupt to the extent that many high priests were illegitimate. Under Roman rule, appointments were made by the regent or governor, and the office became more political than religious.
As the title suggest, these were high ranking priests in the Jerusalem hierarchy. Most, if not all, were probably members of the Sanhedrin. Most were Sadducees.
This is the first actual sect I will discuss. These men were considered the “priestly caste” in Judea. It consisted not only of priests, but also aristocratic “hangers on”. By no means were all priests Sadducees; in fact, many were Pharisees, though most were unaffiliated with either sect. Officially, the Sadducees rejected all scripture but the Five Books of Moses (the Chumash), and in particular, rejected the concept of resurrection. Though only a small sect, the Sadducees were wealthy, and thus powerful. They controlled the priesthood, the Levites, the Temple, and the festivals. After AD 70, they disappeared from history.
This sect had more popular support than any others in Jesus’ day, though they weren’t in control, either of the nation or the Temple. They did lead the synagogues, for the most part. They probably had their origins with holy elders in the Babylonia captivity but evolved into a cohesive sect alongside the Sadducees in the Hasmonean Kingdom of the 1st and 2nd Centuries, BC. The two sects were in open warfare with each other during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus, the second Hasmonean King, and hundreds of Pharisees were killed.
Doctrinally, the Pharisees treasured the entire canon of the Tanach (Old Testament) and believed in resurrection. They were the popularizers of the “Oral Torah“, or so-called “traditions of the elders.” After the destruction of the Temple, only this sect survived, and they are the ones, humanly speaking, who God used to preserve a Jewish remnant for 2,000+ years.
Contrary to the assumptions of most Christians, the Pharisee sect was not monumental. Above, I mentioned four members of the Sanhedrin that we would not call evil. All of those were Pharisees. Paul was a Pharisee both before and after Damascus. In Acts 23:6 (ESV), he declared, “Brothers, I am [present tense] a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees.” It was Pharisees who wrote the Talmud, and I think they accurately analyzed their own shortcomings and eccentricities:
Talmudic Classification of the Pharisees:
(1) the “shoulder” Pharisee, who wears his good deeds on his shoulders and obeys the precept of the Law, not from principle, but from expediency;
(2) the “wait-a-little” Pharisee, who begs for time in order to perform a meritorious action;
(3) the “bleeding” Pharisee, who in his eagerness to avoid looking on a woman shuts his eyes and so bruises himself to bleeding by stumbling against a wall;
(4) the “painted” Pharisee, who advertises his holiness lest any one should touch him so that he should be defiled;
(5) the “reckoning” Pharisee, who is always saying “What duty must I do to balance any unpalatable duty which I have neglected?”;
(6) the “fearing” Pharisee, whose relation to God is one merely of trembling awe;
(7) the Pharisee from “love.”The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1915 Edition
The scribes were not a sect, but rather a profession. They were, as you would expect, the educated readers and writers of Israel. Many of them were Pharisees. Some were Sadducees or members of another sect, or of none at all. Many were members of the Sanhedrin.
Little is said about the sect of the Essenes in the Bible, because they were ultrareligious outsiders who pretty much kept to themselves. Claims that John the Baptizer was an Essene are completely wrong.
The Yahad are the sect of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Many think that they were Essenes, but there were radical doctrinal differences between the two groups. My friend, Dr. Randall Price, wrote the definitive book on the subject, Secrets of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
These were the common “people of the land”, those without power or wealth. Jesus’ ministry was primarily to this group, who were members of no sect, but mostly listened to the Pharisees.
This was a political party, not a true sect. They were supporters of the Herodian Dynasty and were a small minority of the population.
Timeline of John 12
Jesus returned to Bethany “six days before the Passover”, which by my own calculations (see table, below) was March 30, 0030. The 30th was a Sabbath, so He had to have arrived no later than Friday afternoon. The dinner in His honor was, according to Mark, at the home of Simon the Leper, who we know nothing else about. The meal would have been prepared before sundown, and served after dark, on the new day. The account makes perfect sense, because Sabbath dinners were always festive and joyous occasions. Perfect for welcoming a distinguished friend and guest!
The text says that Miryam washed Jesus’ feet with spikenard that she had obtained for His burial. (Could it be that she was the only one paying attention to what He had been saying?) We know from previous scripture that her family was important and well off, so her possession of the pure nard oil was not surprising. It was an expensive perfume imported from India in alabaster containers, and a pint of it would have cost about a year’s wages for a common laborer of the am Ha’aretz. The Southern Baptist quarterly mentions that respectable 1st Century Jewish women kept their hair concealed. That was true then, and it’s still true among the pious Orthodox. Using a headscarf like a Muslim woman is acceptable, but in Western cultures it is more common to wear a wig.
Jesus’ comment about the poor should not be taken as insensitive. He was making reference explicitly to Deuteronomy 15:11, and saying, in effect, that this is a drop in the bucket and will make little difference to the poor, who will always be around.
 for there will always be poor people in the land. That is why I am giving you this order, ‘You must open your hand to your poor and needy brother in your land.’
—Deuteronomy 15:11 (CJB)
We see here yet another example of the Sanhedrin plotting against Jesus, and in this case also against Lazarus. I would not wish to paint them as blameless, but I think they weren’t as bad as many believe. Yes, there were corrupt men on the Council, but on balance, I don’t think they were as worried about losing their personal influence as they were of goading the Romans into just what finally did happen in AD 70. Paul himself gives them an excuse of sorts:
1 Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.
2 For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.
3 For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.
—Romans 10:1–3 ESV
The Triumphal Entry. It was the day after the feast at Simon’s house. Sunday, Nisan 10 of the year 3790, or by our reckoning, March 31, 0030. Jesus went from Bethany to Jerusalem. Rather than walk this time, He had to ride a donkey’s colt into the city in order to fulfill the prophecies of Psalm 118:25–26 and Zechariah 9:9. Actually, did you catch the oddity in Matthew 21:2? He actually rode two donkeys—a mare and her colt. Evidently, he rode the mare part way and then transferred to the colt for the last part of the ride. Bible trivia!
Another mistake that many people make is to think that the people glorifying Jesus as He rode into town are the same people that days later insisted that Pilate put Him to death and release Barrabas. The people waving palm fronds on Sunday were home in bed on Friday when Jesus was on trial. The only people present for that were Jesus’ enemies.
The quarterly, and some of my favorite commentators as well, interpret “some Greeks” as referring either to Greek nationals or to God-fearing gentiles visiting the city from outside Judea. I disagree. I think that the context here, and more clearly in John 5:35, is the same as that in Acts 6:1. It is referring to Greek-speaking Jews from the Jewish Diaspora.
What did they want? The quarterly is wrong to say that “John gave no indication”, but that it “triggered something in Jesus.” Verse 23 clearly states that what it triggered was a response; evidently what they wanted was to request that He visit their countries next, which would explain why His answer, that He was about to die and couldn’t go, was directly to the point. As was verse 26, where He effectively told them that, instead of Him following them home, they could ultimately follow Him home.
My purpose in writing a blog is not to regurgitate things that most of my readers already know, nor is it to find fault with Sunday School quarterlies, though I’m not above doing that from time to time. Though I don’t agree with anybody about everything, I really think that Dr. Howell has done a fine job with his commentary in this quarter’s booklet. The reason for my blog posts in general is that for decades I’ve tried to understand Scripture not only from conventional, traditional, points of view, but from my own historical and cultural perspectives and from observations of God’s design of the universe and its physical laws.
The reason I bring this up now is because, while this whole passage is extremely interesting and vitally important, I have only one thing to add to what Dr. Howell has said. He interprets God’s voice in verse 28 as a “thunderous response.” I’m pretty sure he is picturing an earsplitting clap of thunder from lightning striking a tree in his backyard. On the contrary, my own vision is of a gently rolling murmur of distant thunder, as carried by the wind. The Complete Jewish Bible translates it as,
 ‘Father, glorify your name!’” At this a bat-kol came out of heaven, “I have glorified it before, and I will glorify it again!”
—John 12:28 (CJB) Emphasis mine
I’ve written about the bat-kol, or “daughter of a voice”, before. It is the “low whisper”, or “still, small voice” that Elijah heard in I Kings 19:12ff. When God spoke to His prophets audibly, I think that it was in this soothing, intimate fashion, not like a scary Zeus or Thor figure would blare out to his minions. This whisper voice is the way it was depicted in ancient Jewish literature, as described by the 2nd or 3rd Century Rabbis who compiled it:
“After the death of Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi,
the last of the prophets, the Holy Spirit ceased from
Israel; nevertheless they received communications
from God through the medium of the bat-koi.”
—Tosefta Sotah 13:2
In the same spirit as with the previous section, I am going to comment on only two thoughts:
First, in verse 38 John quotes Isaiah 53:1. Something that you should remember when reading the New Testament is that most Jews were taught Scripture from a very early age, in their homes and then, in some cases, in a beit midrash (house of study”, an arm of the local synagogue. For this reason, speakers like the rabbis and Jesus referred to entire passages of the Old Testament by merely quoting a key sentence or phrase. Thus, by quoting this one verse, Jesus was effectively applying Isaiah 53, in its entirety, to Himself. I repeat it here:
1 Who believes our report?
To whom is the arm of ADONAI revealed?
2 For before him he grew up like a young plant,
like a root out of dry ground.
He was not well-formed or especially handsome;
we saw him, but his appearance did not attract us.
3 People despised and avoided him,
a man of pains, well acquainted with illness.
Like someone from whom people turn their faces,
he was despised; we did not value him.
4 ¶ In fact, it was our diseases he bore,
our pains from which he suffered;
yet we regarded him as punished,
stricken and afflicted by God.
5 But he was wounded because of our crimes,
crushed because of our sins;
the disciplining that makes us whole fell on him,
and by his bruises* we are healed.
6 ¶ We all, like sheep, went astray;
we turned, each one, to his own way;
yet ADONAI laid on him
the guilt of all of us.
7 ¶ Though mistreated, he was submissive –
he did not open his mouth.
Like a lamb led to be slaughtered,
like a sheep silent before its shearers,
he did not open his mouth.
8 After forcible arrest and sentencing,
he was taken away;
and none of his generation protested
his being cut off from the land of the living
for the crimes of my people,
who deserved the punishment themselves.
9 He was given a grave among the wicked;
in his death he was with a rich man.
¶ Although he had done no violence
and had said nothing deceptive,
10 yet it pleased ADONAI to crush him with illness,
to see if he would present himself as a guilt offering.
If he does, he will see his offspring;
and he will prolong his days;
and at his hand ADONAI’s desire
will be accomplished.
11 After this ordeal, he will see satisfaction.
“By his knowing [pain and sacrifice],
my righteous servant makes many righteous;
it is for their sins that he suffers.
12 Therefore I will assign him a share with the great,
he will divide the spoil with the mighty,
for having exposed himself to death
and being counted among the sinners,
while actually bearing the sin of many
and interceding for the offenders.”
—Isaiah 53:1–12 CJB
Finally, John 12:40 was another Isaiah quote. In its Old Testament context:
8 ¶ Then I heard the voice of Adonai saying,
¶ “Whom should I send?
Who will go for us?”
¶ I answered, “I’m here, send me!”
9 He said, “Go and tell this people:
¶ ‘Yes, you hear, but you don’t understand.
You certainly see, but you don’t get the point!’
10 ¶ “Make the heart of this people [sluggish with] fat,
stop up their ears, and shut their eyes.
Otherwise, seeing with their eyes,
and hearing with their ears,
then understanding with their hearts,
they might repent and be healed!”
11 ¶ I asked, “Adonai, how long?” and he answered,
¶ “Until cities become uninhabited ruins,
houses without human presence,
the land utterly wasted;
12 until ADONAI drives the people far away,
and the land is one vast desolation.
13 If even a tenth [of the people] remain,
it will again be devoured.
¶ “But like a pistachio tree or an oak,
whose trunk remains alive
after its leaves fall off,
the holy seed will be its trunk.”
—Isaiah 6:8–13 CJB
Jesus is explaining, by this reference, why so many of His hearers could not see the truth, despite His signs and wonders. Just as God hardened Pharaoh’s heart after Pharaoh had several times hardened his own heart, He has hardened the hearts of many Jews who have repeatedly rejected Him. That doesn’t mean that Jews can’t be saved, obviously, nor does it mean that God has rejected the people as a whole. They are still “God’s chosen people”, natural branches of the olive tree to which we believers who are not Jews have merely been grafted.
How is this hardening even fair? Because God chose them for His own, revealed Himself to them, in particular, and gave them all the advantages of a special relationship. When the hardening ends, at the close of the Great Tribulation, all that remain alive, and I think their numbers will be vast, will be saved. Every last one of them, I believe!
Today I learned that David H. Stern, PhD died late last year, at the age of 87. I’ve never met Dr. Stern, but between his books and his English translation, The Complete Jewish Bible, with a commentary on the New Testament, he, more than anyone else, influenced my interest in Jewish life and culture and the Jewish foundations of Christianity. He was born, educated and married in America, but as a devout Messianic Jew, he emigrated to Israel in 1979.
Life isn’t always easy for Messianic Jews in Israel. They are regarded by both secular and ultraorthodox Israeli Jews as “missionaries”, a term used in scorn, and are often denied Israeli citizenship. At the same time, I have known many non-Jewish Christians around the world, particularly those in Reformed denominations, to strenuously object to non-assimilated Jews, and to resist any recognition of the debt Christianity owes to its Jewish origins. And given the argumentative nature of many religious, ethnic Jews, I’m sure that even they could be a challenge to him. Many years ago, I had lunch at a Shoney’s Restaurant in Shawnee, Kansas, with Moishe Rosen, the founder of Jews for Jesus. Not to be too hard on a great man, but Rabbi Rosen was intensely critical of Dr. Stern, for reasons that I could not and still do not at all agree with.
Rest in peace, Dr. Stern.
נוח על משכבך בשלום, דוקטור שטרן