Jesus’ Final Word on Judgment in John’s Gospel

Although it wasn’t the original plan (the “original plan” was no plan at all, this all just sort of happened), I’ve ended up writing essays on all the significant passages about judgment in the Gospel of John. This essay is about the final significant passage found in Jn. 12:31. John 12 tells the story of Jesus’ Entrance into Jerusalem (ie, Palm Sunday). Verse 31 itself is in the middle of a longer passage that is difficult to summarize, so I’ll quote the whole thing.

And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified. [24] Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. [25] He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. [26] If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honor him. [27] “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? `Father, save me from this hour’? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour. [28] Father, glorify thy name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” [29] The crowd standing by heard it and said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” [30] Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. [31] Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; [32] and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” [33] He said this to show by what death he was to die. [Jn 12:23-33]

Verse 31 itself is a rather odd sentence. It is three declaratives (essentially, stand-alone sentences) connected with the Greek equivalent of a semicolon. The three declarations are: “Now is the judgment of this world; now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; … I will draw all men to myself.”

“I will draw all men to myself” seems self-evident, in light of the New Testament as a whole. This is Jesus’ mission in the world. The second declaration is almost as obvious. The “leader of this world” is Satan and he will be (or is now) cast out of his role as ruler. Furthermore, these two declarations are interrelated. It is the Passion specifically (that begins with the Entrance into Jerusalem) that marks both the defeat of Satan and the glorification of the Son (as punctuated in the resurrection). That leaves the first declaration. What does Jesus mean when he says, “Now is the judgment of the world”?

If the Passion ties the second and third declarations together, it is likely that the Passion is also at the center of the first declaration about the judgment of the world. The words bring to mind Jn 1:10, “the world knew him not.” It is the cross that puts an exclamation point on this statement from Jn 1:10. The crowds celebrated the hot new Rabbi and Messiah-hopeful on Palm Sunday, but as soon as the tide began to turn, they were just as willing to shout “Crucify him!” as they were to cry out “Hosanna in the highest.” Hope is not the same as knowledge, and while the crowd clearly hoped for some theoretical salvation, they didn’t actually know Jesus as Christ and Son of God.

This is also our condition. I’ll offer a couple of examples. If we grew up in an American Evangelical church, chances are we invited Jesus into our hearts as children. (I did.) But how much of that decision had to do with wanting to please our parents, or peer pressure, or the seductive coerciveness of an altar call on a hot and humid summer night? An evangelical conversion experience is far more realistically one small step on a long journey than an absolutely life-transforming moment. (Of course there are exceptions to this. Saul of Tarsus, who, in one blinding moment became Paul, is the obvious example. But even Saul/Paul spent a couple years in the desert before becoming the Apostle, missionary, and author of much of the New Testament.) Similarly, for those who grew up in church without a specific identifiable moment of conversion, but rather simply grew into their faith, the profound implications of Jesus as the Son of God, the Christ (Messiah), and Lord of all who sits at the right hand of God, were not (and likely still are not) obvious. The path from initial recognition to full-blown faith and Christ-likeness is a long path.

One of the great challenges of familiarity with the faith is that we don’t know that we don’t know. We assume we know far more than we actually do. We even occasionally assume false things to be true. And that misplaced trust in familiarity instead of actual knowledge is a very dangerous confusion that Jesus addressed in Mt. 7:23f. “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and coast out demons in your name, and do many might works in your name? And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’”

This brings us to the role of judgment in every person’s life. Judgment (see the previous two essays) is not a declaration of what is to happen to me in the future, but rather a revealing of the way things are here and now. Every professor (ie, one who professes Christ) must, at some point be made aware of the way things really are, in contrast to the way they think things ought to be. The profound truth of the matter must be revealed. (Typically this happens many times in a lifetime, for we can only handle the truth in bits and pieces, little by little, over time.) And every time “the truth of the matter” is revealed to us, we must recommit to this new insight into the truth and consequent new way of living. And this can be extremely difficult because often we are shackled to cultural misperceptions that cause us to reject the truth.

We see this very dynamic in John 6 where Jesus offers a particularly difficult and profound teaching (ie, revelation of who who was). John tells us that “after this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him” (v 66). The truth of the matter was revealed (ie, it was a moment of judgment) and the result was that many of his disciples (not tag-alongs, not interested followers, but disciples) no longer followed him.

It is this very dynamic that is so profoundly described in Jn 12:31. Judgment, the defeat of Satan, and Jesus drawing all men to himself … these three seemingly separate things … are in fact a single event. In our own lives and in the life of the church corporately over time, we know that it is a single event repeated over and over in the lives of disciples. Something new is revealed; the implications are made clear; the disciple is freed from his or her shackles, and in that moment the disciple must decide whether to continue on with Christ or draw back and no longer follow him.

If, as a believer, I take each of these moments seriously, then I am constantly judged in an ongoing manner. And if I step up and through each of these revelations/judgments, willingly letting go of my precious falsehoods and grasping on to the much harder truth of the matter, the Final Judgment is not that big of a deal, because the truth of Christ has already been truly revealed, and my own attitudes, actions, and conscience have also been revealed. I have been revealed to be a follower of Christ. Judgment is life. Judgment is the defeat of Satan. Judgment is my very salvation. At least that is the implication of Jn. 12:31.



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