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The Life of Jesus - Series 11: Episode 5

Jesus divided opinion in Jerusalem

| Martin Charlesworth
John 12:37-50

Despite many miracles and signs being performed in that area, most people did not believe. Jesus uses the prophecies of Isaiah to warn of impending disaster because of this unbelief.

Despite many miracles and signs being performed in that area, most people did not believe. Jesus uses the prophecies of Isaiah to warn of impending disaster because of this unbelief.


Hello and welcome to Series 11 and Episode 5, ‘Jesus Divides Opinion in Jerusalem’. We're going to be studying from John 12: 37 - 50, following on from the previous passage in John 12, which is set in the middle of Passion Week, the week where Jesus died.

Introduction and Recap

The week starts with the dramatic events of the triumphal entry on the Sunday, which we now call Palm Sunday, and then various other important events follow. The bigger picture is that we're now very much at the end of Jesus' ministry. We're at the climax - the crisis - at the point where his death is imminent and all the events of the past now come into sharp focus as pointing the way towards this moment. If you've been following us on our journey through the gospels, you'll be very well aware that there's a very fundamental dividing point in the story between three years spent largely ministering and travelling in Galilee, the northern province, where Jesus was based, and where his home was, and the second part of his ministry, which was a definite decision to leave Galilee and travel south, in order to finally arrive in Jerusalem, and make a big impact in his visit to Jerusalem.

We've finally arrived, and the gospels devote a lot of time to telling us the events of every single day of this week. We're right in the middle of that story now. We need to remember the things that have already happened including the opening event, the triumphal entry, where Jesus comes from the nearby village of Bethany and he arrives on a donkey. He comes into the city with huge crowds attending and applauding him, praising him, and expressing their aspiration that hopefully he is the Son of David, the Messiah, the Deliverer of Israel, who is going to come and make a big change - perhaps even overthrow the Roman authorities and the Jewish religious leaders in their corrupt practices. The triumphal entry was a great moment on the Sunday.

The Monday had another key moment, which is when Jesus went right into the Temple courts, right into the heart of the Jewish faith, and there he challenged the traders, who were under the authority of the priests. He overturned their tables, interrupted their trading for a sustained period of time by criticising them for turning the Temple into a ‘den of robbers’, so that it was no longer effectively a house of prayer, devoted to worship of God. These are very dramatic events, and could be seen, of course, as very provocative events. The religious establishment, the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling Council, and the High Priest, who chaired the Sanhedrin and looked after all the worship practices in the Temple, were very much on the defensive, really hoping to find a way to get rid of Jesus. They were using all their powers to influence the crowds against him. We're going to see, in the episode we're looking at today, some of the dynamics of what was going on in the mentality of the people in that week. It appeared as though the crowds were very much on Jesus' side but as we'll see in this episode, that support for Jesus was fairly superficial; it was on a very temporary basis. Things changed very suddenly. Luke has a good description of this week in terms of Jesus' activities. Just a quick summary, which is worth starting with in Luke 21: 37 - 38:

‘Each day Jesus was teaching at the Temple, and each evening he went to spend the night on a hill called the Mount of Olives, and all the people came early in the morning to hear him at the Temple.’

Luke 21:37-38, NIV

That seems to be the pattern for the week. We've mentioned the Mount of Olives nearby, and we've also Bethany, the village which is right by the Mount of Olives. Jesus seems to be based in Bethany and the Mount of Olives area. It's just a small hill, but because it's higher at its summit than the city of Jerusalem, it's a great place to go to get away from the city, but also to have a view of what's going on in the city. Every morning he went to the Temple, to the courts, which is the wide, social area where Jews and Gentiles were allowed to mix together, and everybody could come, who wasn't involved in any formal act of worship in the inner part of the Temple. They could socialise, they could meet together, they could talk together, they could study together, children were allowed there, Gentiles were allowed there, men and women could mix together. Jesus went and taught in those areas every single day. Every night he left the city and went back to the area of the Mount of Olives and the village of Bethany. That's the feel of what's going on every day during that week.

In our last episode, some Greeks wanted to come and see Jesus, and we see them mentioned in John 12: 20. They said to Philip, “We would like to see Jesus.” These were probably Gentiles, probably from the Decapolis area. They made a request to have a private discussion with Jesus, because they were very interested in his ministry and in his work, which they'd experienced in their district in the Decapolis, in the north and the east of the country, just outside the main heartland of Israel. Jesus didn't give them an interview, but he did start to teach. He talked very specifically about his forthcoming death and how significant that was going to be. During his conversation and teaching he uttered a prayer, which led to a remarkable, miraculous event. His prayer was, in verse 28,

‘“Father, glorify your name.”’

John 12:28, NIV

Then in verse 29, the voice of God the Father speaks,

‘A voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.”’

John 12:28, NIV

The crowd thought that there was thunder in the sky, or even that it was the voice of an angel.

Divided Opinion

That's the context, and Jesus continues to teach. We then enter into the particular dialogue and teaching of this passage, which emphasises the fact that opinion in Jerusalem is becoming divided over Jesus. It appears that everyone was supporting him on the day of the triumphal entry, but appearance is not always reality, as we are going to find out. We're going to study this passage in sections and find out the things that it teaches us. We're going to look, first of all, at verse 37, the first verse of our passage in John 12:

‘Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him.’

John 12:37, NIV

Now what miracles are being referred to here ‘in their presence’; in the presence of the people of Jerusalem, in the presence of the crowds, in the presence of the people in the district, in the presence of pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for the Passover? We can say that a number of remarkable miracles took place. For example, in the city of Jericho, not so far away, with a large crowd heading to Jerusalem, Jesus had remarkably healed blind Bartimaeus and his friend, causing a sensation. In nearby Bethany, just a few kilometres outside the city, near the Mount of Olives where Jesus walked every day, Jesus had recently raised Lazarus from the dead, after he'd been in his tomb for four days. Jesus came sensationally to the village and commanded people to take the stone in the front of the grave away, and then commanded Lazarus to come out, which he did with his grave clothes on, and then he said ‘Take the grave clothes off,’ and Lazarus was restored to life and perfectly normal again. That was a sensational miracle that everybody would have heard about, and a number of people actually witnessed, and were in Jerusalem at the time, according to John's Gospel, telling the story of what had happened to Lazarus. Even the opponents of Jesus, the Sanhedrin, in their consideration of the situation in John 11: 47 when they had a meeting said,

‘“What are we accomplishing? Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our Temple and our nation.”’

John 11:47-48, NIV

His arch opponents, the Sanhedrin - who'd completely denied his authenticity as the Messiah and believed that he was inspired by demonic forces - agreed amongst themselves, in a private conversation, that he'd performed many signs and miracles. He'd even performed miracles on the day of the triumphal entry and the days that followed in the Temple compound, right in the heart of Judaism. Matthew 21: 14 - 16,

‘The blind and the lame came to him at the Temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the Teachers of the Law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the Temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.’

Matthew 21:14-16, NIV

We can truly say that John is right here; he performed ‘many signs in their presence’. People had experienced Jesus' miraculous activity in and around Jerusalem. Not just in Galilee, in those three years in the north of the country, but right there in Jerusalem and nearby there were many miracles being performed. But John says, intriguingly here, ‘they still would not believe in him.’ This requires some explanation - we need to draw a distinction between the enthusiasm of the crowds, and genuine belief in Jesus. The enthusiasm of the crowds, like so often, was to do with a moment of excitement and a moment of hope, that Jesus would come and do something spectacular in Jerusalem. But it wasn't deep-rooted. The reason we can be sure it wasn't deep-rooted was that the crowds of the triumphal entry had evaporated within five days. By the time of the crucifixion of Jesus they'd gone. They weren't supporting him anymore, because they hadn't really understood that his coming to Jerusalem wasn't as a military conqueror, as a messianic figure to overturn the Romans; it was to suffer and to die. They hadn't believed in the essential mission of Jesus to die and then to rise again. Very few people believed in his essential mission. They were excited by his miracles, but they didn't draw the right conclusion from his miracles that he'd come to suffer and to die. So, we're talking here about superficial following and not real faith. That's why John says, ‘they still would not believe in him’.

Resistance to Jesus as Messiah

Why is there so much resistance to the messiahship of Jesus and his mission? I've already said in earlier episodes, that the spiritual atmosphere in Jerusalem was very complicated for Jesus. Whilst in Galilee he'd enjoyed high levels of popularity for his entire time there, in Jerusalem people were very fickle, people were very divided, and every incident of Jesus coming to Jerusalem that is recorded in the gospels, between the beginning of his ministry and this point, is filled with controversy, division and opposition. These incidences are all recorded in John's Gospel. Every single time Jesus is in Jerusalem there's a problem, there's opposition, there's division, there's the authorities exercising pressure very directly on people to try and prevent them from believing in Jesus. They'd already adjudicated against him, as I've said on many occasions before. They'd made their own private decision that Jesus was a false messiah, operating under the power of demons. This is articulated publicly in Matthew 12: 24 when some Pharisees declare this in front of Jesus, and a large crowd in Galilee. The religious authorities had a lot of influence over the crowds, especially people who lived in Jerusalem and those visiting the city. I'm going to move on from the first verse and leave out a few verses and come back to them in a moment, but to conclude this thought, verses 42 - 43:

‘Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved human praise more than praise of God.’

John 12:42-43, NIV

So, some people did believe, but they were being persecuted, and they were being threatened with being removed from the synagogue, which was a very severe discipline for a Jew to experience, because the synagogue was their community centre as well as their spiritual home. It was the place they worshipped when they couldn't get to the Temple, and if they were threatened with being put out of the synagogue that was a serious threat, which prevented many people from openly acknowledging Jesus Christ. They became secret believers, some of them, and we'll talk about that a little more at the end of this talk.

Fulfilment of Prophecy

Let's now move to John's comments about the fulfilment of prophecy, John 12:38 - 41:

‘This was to fulfil the word of Isaiah the prophet: “Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere:“He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn—and I would heal them.”’

John 12:37-40, NIV

I want to spend a little time now thinking about Old Testament prophecy and how it relates to Jesus' messianic claims. We've covered this material in different contexts earlier on in our studies. But I want to repeat that for you by reminding you that, with Old Testament prophecies, there were three types of use of Old Testament material in the New Testament. One was a direct prophecy where something is predicted in the Old Testament that happens specifically in the New Testament, that is obviously a direct fulfilment of a remarkable prophecy. For example, Micah 5: 2, speaks about the village of Bethlehem, as the one from whom the ruler of Israel would come, speaking of the birthplace of the Messiah, according to Matthew's Gospel. That's a direct prophecy, something prophesied and then it happens in the New Testament. Sometimes you get the use of an Old Testament description of something, which isn't actually a prophecy, which then that particular type of event which is described, happens in the Old Testament period, but then the writer in the New Testament thinks that it's very similar to a type of event happening in the New Testament. A good example is Micah 7: 6, as described in Matthew 10: 35 - 36. But then you get a third category, not a direct prophecy, not an application. The third category is what we call a typological prophecy, where the prophecy describes a predicted event in the Old Testament, and there's a greater fulfilment in the New Testament.

Keeping these categories in mind, we're going to look at the two prophecies here that are mentioned. They both come from Isaiah. John says, unambiguously, in verse 41 that ‘Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him.’ Isaiah had a vivid, prophetic sense of the coming Messiah, and prophesied about him in many different ways. If you go through the book of Isaiah, you'll see many messianic prophecies. He prophesies, for example, the virgin birth, Isaiah 7: 14. He prophesies about the Davidic Son who will rule, Isaiah 9: 6 - 7. He prophesies that the family of King David, whose father was Jesse, Jesse's family, will produce a shoot out of a stump of a tree in the future. It'll be cut down but then it'll grow again, in the person of Jesus, Isaiah 11: 1 - 3. Isaiah has a number of prophecies, which we call the Servant Songs, in Isaiah 42, 49, 50, and then an extended one in chapters 52 and 53, and then a conclusion in chapter 61, where the key figure is someone called the Servant of the Lord. These prophecies are closely tied to the life of Jesus. Isaiah provides more prophecy about Jesus than any other Old Testament prophet.

John uses Isaiah to explain what's happening in the hearts of people, at this particular time. Let's look at these two prophecies particularly. Verse 38

‘“Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”’

John 12:38, NIV

This is the first verse of Isaiah 53. This falls in one of the main prophecies of the Old Testament about Jesus, the Servant Song about the Suffering Servant that goes from Isaiah 52: 13 to Isaiah 53: 12. It's often quoted in the New Testament. If you read it through, you'll see that it is a remarkable description of an individual person, who voluntarily allows himself to suffer and to die, to be punished for other people's sins, to experience the rejection of his people, and to suffer without complaint, and then to see the light of life again, in other words to be resurrected. The New Testament writers were very clear that this was a direct prediction of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This verse, Isaiah 53: 1, falls towards the beginning of that prophecy where Isaiah says

“who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”

Isaiah 53:1, NIV

Isaiah brings the message of this Suffering Servant when he asks that poignant question; “Who's actually believed it?” The implicit answer is, that many people wouldn't believe even though it is clearly prophesied, and clearly revealed to Isaiah.

John goes on, after mentioning that direct prophecy, because all of that passage, Isaiah 52: 13 to Isaiah 53: 12, is a direct prophecy of Jesus. Nothing in the history of ancient Israel fulfils that prediction of that individual Suffering Servant at all, until the point when Jesus comes, when it's fulfilled completely. Verse 39:

‘For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere:’ (Quoting another prophecy) ‘“He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn—and I would heal them.”’

John 12:39-40, NIV

Here's a prophecy from Isaiah 6: 9 - 10. Its immediate reference is to the people of Judah, after the time of Isaiah, but related to his experience of the people of Judah. He's basically saying that they've resisted the prophetic message to reform their country for such a long time, that God has allowed them to be hardened in their sinful condition so that they won't turn and repent. They will end up, ultimately, in judgement, as other parts of Isaiah tell us. That judgement is that the Babylonians came to Judah, they came to the city of Jerusalem, surrounded it, captured it, conquered it, exiled the people of Judah, destroyed the city, and they destroyed the Temple. This particular prophecy, in its first fulfilment, is about the people of Judah, one part of Israel, in the Old Testament period, about 600 years before the time of Christ. But because we describe it as a typological prophecy, John is saying that what happened to the ancient Jews of Judah during that time is being recapitulated, or repeated, in a similar pattern in the time of Christ. The meaning of the prophecy applies to the original fulfilment, when they went into exile, and is also going to apply to the generation of Jews who experienced the life of Christ, and saw what happened to him, and decided to reject his claims as Messiah. That's a very interesting comparison, because the people in Isaiah's time and the generations that followed Isaiah's life, experienced the judgement of God, as a hostile, imperial power, came and took over their country, destroyed their city, destroyed their Temple. The same thing happened to the Jews of Jesus' day, because, as I've stated in a number of other contexts, the events that happened in the decades after the New Testament, are very interesting. They're clearly recorded for us in ancient historical sources outside the New Testament, notably the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, who wrote a book called ‘The Jewish War’, describing, as I've mentioned on a number of occasions, that in 66 A.D., the Jews started a revolt against the Roman authorities. This lasted about four years, leading to large numbers of Roman legions being sent to the land of Judea and Galilee, and the surrounding area, and dealing with all the different groups of rebels, and eventually they surrounded the city of Jerusalem; they captured the city; they destroyed the city; and they destroyed the Temple. In other words, exactly what happened in the Old Testament period, that Isaiah was predicting, happened again in the New Testament period. So, a typological prophecy has two fulfilments with the same meaning, and the same idea in each fulfilment. John says that Isaiah's prophecy about the ancient people of Judah, is being fulfilled a second time in the lifetime of the Jews of Jesus' day, who chose to resist his claims to be the Messiah.

To Believe, or Not

Let's read the last section, verses 44 - 50:

‘Then Jesus cried out, “Whoever believes in me does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me. I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness. If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I've not come to judge the world, but to save the world.There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day. For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken.I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.”’

John 12:44-50, NIV

Jesus is here saying to the Jews to believe in him, is really to believe in the God of Israel, because the God of Israel sent Jesus as the Messiah. He's come to save and not to judge, at this particular time but judgement will come to those who reject the message. It appears from this passage, that the majority of people who witnessed the life of Jesus in, particularly, in this last week of his life, are ultimately going to reject his claim to be the Messiah.


As we finish this episode, I want to think about a few things by way of reflection. There's such a strong contrast here: in Israel in general, particularly its leaders, there is wilful disobedience; in Jesus there is wilful obedience to his Father. Israel is heading for judgement and there is a choice to be made. Are people going to keep heading for judgement, or are they going to change their mind, even though the religious authorities will turn against them if they do, even threatening to throw them out of the synagogue?

The phenomenon of secret believers was arising in Israel just at this time. Some people believed in Jesus but they didn't acknowledge it publicly. This has always been a phenomenon in the Church; people who believe in Jesus but they're not seen publicly as believers, because of pressure in their society. The pressure was on here. The pressure was on from the authorities. They were doing everything they could to stop people believing in Jesus the Messiah. This conflict will continue in the episodes that follow, and in the dramatic events that we are going to discuss in the coming episodes. I hope you'll join us for those.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What pressure is put on people who want to believe in your culture?
    2. List the miracles that took place in or near Jerusalem at that time. Why did so many people still not believe despite these miracles?
  • Discipleship
    1. To what extent should you 'read' a situation and act accordingly?
    2. The religious authorities were putting pressure on people not to believe in Jesus.Is it always wrong to be a secret believer?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. How does God-given wisdom show itself? What is its role in your life?
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