John field notes 12a: A second stone, and the overlapping ripples

Six random observations about this Holy Week incident:

Among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Gentiles. They approached Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we should like to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew, and the two of them went to tell Jesus. Jesus replied: ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. In very truth I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains that and nothing more; but if it dies, it bears a rich harvest. Whoever loves himself is lost, but he who hates himself in this world will be kept safe for eternal life. If anyone is to serve me, he must follow me; where I am, there will my servant be. Whoever serves me will be honoured by the Father. (John 12:20 – 26, REB)

1. This elaborate description of how some Gentiles were introduced to Jesus (assuming they were!) reflects the outer and inner circles surrounding Jesus in John chapter 2. The circles aren’t impenetrable, and they don’t seem to circumscribe different levels of understanding and relationship to the same extent as they do in chapter 2. But they seem to connect the time just before Jesus’ crucifixion (John 12) with the beginning of his ministry (John 2). Circles as echoes: it’s as if another stone has been thrown into the pond, and the ripples overlap.

2. It’s fun that Andrew and Philip are being used again to introduce people to Jesus. In John chapter 1, Andrew finds Peter to tell him about Jesus, and then Philip finds Nathaniel to do the same (John 1:40-46). The difference here is that Andrew and Philip are no longer instigators but liaisons. The deliberate contrast between the introductions to Jesus in chapter 1 and this one in chapter 12 suggests a change in tone. Chapter 1 feels sweeter and more enthusiastic. Chapter 12 feels more like crowd management, like a structure at the end of its lifespan.

3. Philip’s origin (“who was from Bethsaida in Galilee”) has already been established (John 1:44). Is it repeated here to suggest Philip (and Andrew, too: we learn from John 1:44 that Andrew is also from Bethsaida) is a natural intermediary between the Gentiles and this event in Jerusalem? Philip and Andrew are strangers here, too, after all. Or does the reference emphasize Philip and Andrew’s role as fishers of men? Bethsaida was known as a fishing village; also, the term Bethsaida means “house of nets,” the Henry Commentary tells me. And the first time we learn that Philip is from Bethsaida, he is telling Nathaniel about Jesus.

4. Jesus’ reply to Andrew and Philip is hardly responsive. Now we’re back to more familiar ground! Jesus’ replies are often unresponsive, at least on the surface. My Western mind searches for some connection between the disciples’ news that some Gentiles wish to see Jesus and Jesus’ characterization of his crucifixion and the model it serves as for us. Nothing very logical jumps to mind. Are the Gentiles with Andrew and Philip, and is Jesus giving the Gentiles a brief summary of how things now stand in order to get them caught up? If so, may we assume that Jesus’ reply here is a skeleton, an outline, of a fuller response? Because the answer seems to be no, the shift in tone feels stronger (see point 6 below).

5. We don’t know who’s with Andrew, Philip, and Jesus. We learn later in Jesus’ reply (verse 29) that the crowd hears him and speaks to him. Did the crowd, which was already around Jesus when Andrew and Philip came to Jesus, overhear the first part of Jesus’ response to Andrew and Philip? And does it matter? The fact that it doesn’t seem to matter emphasizes again the discourse over time and place.

6. But the contrast between the activity surrounding the Gentiles’ introduction and Jesus’ words is strong. The hurried summary of how the Gentiles got through Jesus’ circles makes Jesus’ words following it feel more calm, like they proceed from a quieter, more permanent place than the activity surrounding him. The difference in content and the disconnect between the Gentiles’ introduction and Jesus’ reply strengthen this contrast.

Oh, it’s wonderful.

[I’m reading John’s gospel. My reactions here vacillate between notes — a list of impressions — and something less sketchy. A note on nomenclature: the note number in my post’s title indicates the chapter of John’s material I’m reacting to. A title’s letter, though, differentiates the post from earlier posts about that chapter. “John field note 2c,” then, is my third post about something in John’s second chapter. N.B.: 12a may precede 3d: I skip around.]