John 12:23 had always intrigued me, so I decided to preach on it this past (Palm) Sunday. The question I had always wondered about was why, precisely, did the coming of the Greeks to “see Jesus” cause Jesus to declare suddenly that his “hour had come”? After so many notices in John’s Gospel that the hour of Jesus “had not yet come” (2:4; 7:30; 8:20), what was it about the coming of the Greeks that for Jesus, signaled the arrival of his “hour”?
An article written by John Davies (“Desire of the Nations: John 12:20-22,” Reformed Theological Review 69, no. 3, Dec. 2010, pp. 151-163) pointed to a possible connection between John 12:20-23 and Isaiah 66:18-19. In the Isaiah verses, God says that “the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory, and I will set a sign among them.” In the context, of course the “time” of which God spoke was future to the prophet Isaiah.
In John 11, twice Jesus linked the glory of God with the miracle of Lazarus’s resurrection. John 11:4 reports Jesus saying that Lazarus’s illness was “for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Then in John 11:40, Jesus tells Martha that she is about to “see the glory of God” as her brother Lazarus is raised. (The reader will note that the words “see the glory of God” in John 11:40 are striking in their similarity to “see my glory” in Isaiah 66:18).
The Greeks of John 12:20-21 came seeking Jesus at least partly because they had heard reports of the “glory” of Lazarus’s resurrection. The Greeks “wish to see Jesus” (see Zech 8:20-23!) because they had heard about his glorious miracle in raising a dead man to life. The nations, then, were coming to see the glory of God, in fulfillment of Isaiah 66:18.
My argument is that in John 12:20-24, Jesus was working with the Isaiah 66 ‘script.’ The Greeks (nations) were now coming to see God’s glory, which Jesus perceived as a fulfillment of Isaiah 66:18, and Jesus knew that the next verse in the Isaiah passage talked about God setting a “sign” among the nations. Following Motyer, I believe that the “sign” spoken of in Isaiah 66:19 is the cross. When the nations came seeking God’s glory (Isaiah 66:18), the time of the “sign” (the cross) had arrived. Jesus knew this, hence his pronouncement in John 12:23 that the “hour” of his glorification (i.e. his death, resurrection and exaltation) had come.
Today is Monday of Holy Week 2016. As a Gentile piece of the “much fruit” borne by the cross of Christ (John 12:24), I am ever thankful that Jesus suffered his “hour” in my place.
Grace and Peace,