Who is your King? Who or what rules your life? Who do you worship? Perhaps it's yourself. Your answer does matter, as we'll see. For some its sportspeople. In 1982, Kevin Keegan, the footballer who became King Kevin to Newcastle fans, sensationally arrived at St James' Park to spark Newcastle's eventual promotion back to the top flight after an absence of six seasons. In 1992, with the Magpies in crisis and on the brink of relegation to what is now League One, King Kevin returned as rookie manager to save them from the drop, then oversee their dramatic resurgence, as the 'Entertainers' challenged at the top of the Premiership in dashing style, though glory just evaded them. Then, out of the blue a decade ago, the so-called King was back but his mission to bring back the almost glory times ended in failure, let down perhaps by Mike Ashley. Often we make people into kings who can't deliver.
Here in John 12, the true King, the one who deserves our worship, King Jesus, is coming to save people from a different kind of drop - from sin and death. It begins with a huge welcome of Jesus as King. Hopes of glory were high, just as they were when King Kev returned. Yet, as Ashley did with King Kev, the crowds turned against Jesus and it looked like Jesus' mission had failed when he was crucified. But no. In fact, Jesus' crucifixion, though terrible, was part of the glory and mission succeeding. The perfect Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is about to enter Jerusalem as the Servant King on his way to die for you and me, at the time of the Passover Feast, when the Jews remember the sparing of their households by the blood of a lamb. You can sense the tension rising. Back in John 11.45 Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead and many Jews genuinely put their faith in Jesus as King. But (v46) "some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done." The religious leaders were panicking, fearing for their own future. 'What are we to do? If we let Jesus go on like this everyone will believe in him and then the Romans will take everything.' Then God enabled Caiaphas, the high priest, to say (v49-52):
"… "You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish." He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad."
Of course, his words were true in a way Caiaphas couldn't imagine. The truth was that Jesus' death would be for the nation and beyond, by taking away the sins of those who believe in him, making it possible for them to enter God's Kingdom, whereas Caiaphas believed Jesus' death would remove political trouble, maintain peace with the Romans and so be for the nation. So, verse 53, "from that day on they made plans to put him [Jesus] to death". Yet still many Jews were going over to Jesus and trusting in him because of his raising of Lazarus (John 12.11). And so to:
1. The Triumphal Entry
At Passover over 2 million people gathered in Jerusalem. This great crowd, fuelled by reports of the raising of Lazarus, heard Jesus was coming and so (v13):
"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!""
The crowds welcomed him with palms and shouts of 'Hosanna', both of which betrayed their nationalistic understanding of Jesus' Kingship. Palms had been a symbol of the Jewish state and appeared on Jewish coins during their struggle against the Romans. The cry 'Hosanna' literally means 'Save us now!' They were looking to him to deliver them from the Romans. If he could raise Lazarus from the dead, then surely he had the power to do it.
Jesus, though, came not on a warhorse but humbly on a donkey. And if we're to see this church grow and God's Kingdom extended, then under God, our attitude is to be the same. It can't be done in the way of the world. Jesus came humbly to defeat not the Romans but the power of sin and death, which are far deadlier. As Zechariah had prophesied,
"Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey's colt!"
He's the King of Israel, who will proclaim peace to the nations and whose rule will extend to the ends of the earth. His Kingship is non-military. He'll be crowned upon a cross of sacrifice through which he'll achieve freedom for his trusting world-wide subjects. He's the King of peace through whom we can have peace with God. But to achieve that he must ride on in lowly pomp to die. But the kingship Jesus declares on Palm Sunday is also divisive. Some will greet him with enthusiasm while others will plot his death. That's not surprising in a world where a rival power holds sway. You see the coming of the true King produces…
"the conflict of the kingdoms - light confronts darkness, life encounters death … and … means that we face death [death to self] before we can know life".
- Milne, B. (1993). The Message of John
Many resist giving up their sinful independence, thinking it's too costly - but each person must take sides. Doing nothing is siding against Jesus. Each of us must respond to the King one way or the other - to the universal King who will one day be acclaimed upon his throne in heaven as the one who with his blood, purchased people for God "from every tribe and language and people and nation" from Benwell to Iran (Rev 5.9). And that great multitude of believers will stand before the throne and in front of the Lamb, holding palm branches, hailing not a political Messiah but a Saviour from sin. So how do you greet him? As your Saviour and King? Are you on the side of light or of darkness?
Perhaps some of us are like the Greeks (v20) who want to see Jesus. You're searching and want to find out more. Up to now, like these Greeks, you've been a God fearer, attracted to Christianity by its morals but you're not sure about putting your trust in Christ and going his way, the way of the cross. Or you're a believer but you're struggling with going his way. Well consider Jesus. It is worth it. Or maybe you're like the disciples (v16) who didn't understand Jesus' purpose. It was to take Jesus being glorified through his death and resurrection for them to see the light. Do you see it?
2. Glory Through the Cross
The approach of these Greek non-Jews, who stand for the world that has gone after Jesus (v19), brings it home to Jesus that he was now to die for the world. Verse 23:
"The hour has come"
When President John F. Kennedy made a very different triumphal entry into Dallas, Texas 55 years ago riding on a vehicle with massive horsepower, he didn't know he was about to die. The crowds were cheering and waving their stars and stripes. He was waving back until the fatal gunshot. But Jesus knew he was about to die, despite the praise he received. He knew the crowd would soon be shouting 'crucify him' and that he must die. Kennedy's death was tragic. But Jesus' death wasn't to be a tragedy, rather a triumph. Verse 23:
"The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified"
By going the way of the cross, by his supreme act of obedience to death, Jesus brings final glory to the Father and as he does so the Father will also crown him with glory. So, Jesus being glorified is through death. He's like a grain of wheat (v24), which must fall into the earth and die before he can become fruitful in terms of revealing the glory of God and making the kingdom of God available for the whole world. Jesus would have to endure the suffering before the glory, the cross before the crown, the burden of bearing all our sins, all our wrongdoing and rebellion in his body on the tree, the agony of being separated from his Father, the cruel nails hammered through his wrists and ankles, crucifixion between two common criminals, lifted high on a wooden cross. In his death he must take our place. He must die our death to free us from death forever. And all that after being betrayed, denied and deserted by his own disciples; mocked and condemned by the religious leaders and the crowd who'd only just hailed him with palms. Jesus was willing because he wanted to obey and glorify his Father and achieve his Father's purposes for us. Even so, no wonder his heart was troubled at what he's about to face (v27). He even considered asking his Father to save him from this hour. But no. He knew that it was for this hour, for this death that he had come. "Father", he prays, "Glorify your name!" Surely for us too there can be no other prayer. The Gospel may be simple but it's not superficial. It may be free but it's not cheap. Jesus knew that he couldn't bypass the cross. Can we pass it by?
So, although the glory of God is also revealed in the resurrection, the essence of God being glorified and therefore of Jesus being glorified lies in the cross itself. And so we mustn't focus almost exclusively on the risen and ascended Christ and upon the Spirit in our worship, but also on the cross of Christ. So to:
3. Life Through Death
You see that the glory of God attained through death is true not only for Jesus but also for his disciples. To receive eternal life, Jesus says that we must hate life in this world (v25). That's not to say we should go around hating ourselves or that we must never enjoy the goodness of God's creation. No! Please don't misunderstand. But faith in Jesus does involve dying to all the sinful attractions of this passing world order. Jesus says that without turning from sin and trusting in him, there can be no salvation. Those who love or cling to their lives in this world will lose them. But if we turn to and trust in Jesus, willing to lose our lives for the sake of Christ then we'll keep them for eternal life. And, verse 26, we'll have the presence of Christ on the way beside us as well as the promise of being honoured by the Father here and hereafter.
So are you clinging on to life in this world or are you willing to lose your life for Jesus and for the glory of God? This life through death principle also applies to our Christian service. Fruitfulness for God is costly. It cost Jesus his life on the cross. Likewise, it's in dying that we become life givers. And we're to learn to die every day. To die to self. To bury our own selfish desires. The seed must perish for the harvest of Benwell and West Tyneside to be produced. One day, God may well call St Joseph's to plant a church. The death of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Church growth and church planting are costly.
4. The Meaning of the Cross
In verses 30-32 Jesus tells us that his death on the cross will achieve four things:
- (v31) Jesus' death on the cross will pass judgment on the world in two ways. One: it will expose our sin - the rejection of God - most dreadfully shown in the rejection and murder of God's only Son. And every one of us comes under that judgement. But two: Jesus bears the judgment for us on the cross. He took our place. He took our punishment which is death. He did the work for us! Through his death and resurrection Christ takes the sting of death away for us through faith in him. What a victorious and glorious death and resurrection!
- (v31) Jesus' death on the cross will drive out Satan, the prince of this world. Although the cross looks like defeat for Jesus and triumph for the devil, it was in fact Satan's defeat. Yes, Satan's still active, but the cross has broken the evil one and when Jesus returns, Satan will be "hurled down, overcome by the blood of the Lamb..." (Rev 12.10) And "The kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of our God and of his Christ". The victory's been won. Jesus is King.
- (v32) Jesus' death will exalt him. He's lifted up in crucifixion (v33). But on the cross he's also lifted up in exaltation. The cross is a throne; his crucifixion is his coronation; he reigns from the tree. His being glorified isn't a reward for his crucifixion; it's an inseparable part of it.
- (v32) The death of Christ will draw all peoples to himself, whatever their nationality, ethnic background or status, such as Greeks. He's the Saviour of the world. The harvest will be great. But first the grain of wheat must fall into the ground and perish. So:
5. Put Your Trust in the Light
The response of the crowd in verse 34 was typical of some Jews and Gentiles then and today. They ask - how can Jesus be God's King if he's to be lifted up on a cross? Wouldn't he have lost? Doesn't the Old Testament teach the true Christ will remain forever? Won't he establish an unending kingdom? So how can we believe in a crucified King? They were struggling to square what Jesus has already said: that the kingdom he brings is eternal and that the life he offers is eternal, with his talk of death. But for these to be made available Satan must be confronted and his enslaving hold upon the human heart broken through the final and perfect obedience of Jesus. The guilt of the ages can't be swept under the carpet, but must be drawn out into the light and judged. Jesus must die to reign forever.
The message of the cross is a stumbling block and foolishness to those who are perishing but to those who are being saved it is the power of God. Many still find it difficult to believe that only through a blood-stained cross can the meaning of existence be discovered and the life for which we were made experienced in its fullness. When Mel Gibson's movie the Passion of the Christ came out, one cynical reviewer said: "You have to see it, poor you. But despair not: help is on its way in the form of the re-release of Monty Python's Life of Brian. He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy. Aaaah, that's better."
But what's your response? Is someone here today ready to put their trust in Jesus as their Saviour and King, willing to follow him whatever the cost? He's your rightful King and he says to you (v36) put your trust in him before it's too late. He's the light who's come into the world. If you put your trust in him, you'll become sons of light. But the opportunity is just a little while longer. 'Put your trust in the light, in me', says Jesus 'before you die or before I return as Judge, whichever is first'.
The alternative is solemn. To refuse to trust in him means to be shut out from the light forever. Richard Wurmbrandt, a Romanian pastor who visited our partner church a while ago, was imprisoned along with his wife, for his faith, by the Communists. Their 9-year-old boy was taken from them and indoctrinated in communism and atheism. He was in darkness. As a method of psychological torture the boy was brought to see his mother to denounce Christianity to her face. But she was in the light and he could see that despite her suffering there was joy in her heart. One day her son said, "Mum, if Jesus means this much to you I want him too." Who today wants him too – to come out of darkness and into the light? And if you've already become sons of light, pray for and plead lovingly with those who haven't, to do so while there's still time. And are you showing how much Jesus means to you, by God's grace? King Jesus is coming again, his resurrection proves it, and, unlike Kevin Keegan's return in 2008, it won't end in failure but in glory.