The Paradox of the Cross (John 12:20-36)


Well, the Christian life is a paradox. We almost never get it right. How do you ever figure out how to live in an economy that's exactly opposite to the way this world operates, in which:

  • The way up is down
  • The first are last and the last are first
  • The poor are rich and the rich are poor
  • The weak are strong
  • To find our life we have to lose it

We never quite figure this out, do we?

I've been married for over 16 years now. I know that for some of you, that's nothing – you're way ahead of me. There are times that I look at my wife and think that I know her fairly well, that I understand how she thinks and I'm not surprised by the things that she does. Then there are times that I realize I don't understand her at all! My only consolation is that I've heard couples who have been married for fifty years say that they are still, at some levels, mysteries to each other.

That's how I feel with God sometimes. I've been a follower of Jesus Christ for years. There are times that I feel like I know Jesus and his ways very well. Then there are days that I feel like I don't understand a thing about the way that God operates. I feel like I'm in Christian kindergarten at times. If there's any consolation, it's that I know I'm not alone. The disciples never seemed to be able to figure him out, and I think I've talked to saints who have followed Christ for years who feel like they're just beginning to really understand a few things about the way that God operates.

There isn't a better day to talk about this than today, Palm Sunday. It is a very paradoxical day, and it introduces us to a paradoxical week, the most important week in the life and ministry of Jesus.

So here's what I want to do today. I want to look at the events surrounding Palm Sunday. Then I want to look below the surface at the paradox of Palm Sunday and Easter. Then I want to look at what all of this means for our lives today.

I invite you to open your Bibles to John 12 and follow along as we look at what happened, what really happened, and what this means for us today.

So first, what happened? Let's first look at the events of Palm Sunday.

It was one of those times that the air was crackling with electricity. Everybody that was with Jesus could feel the tension.

It was days before Passover. At Passover, the population of Jerusalem would swell from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. Insurrection was in the air. If you've ever been somewhere where the government fears insurrection, you know what I'm talking about. Everybody was on edge. Anything could happen.

And there's Jesus. Jesus was on the list of Israel's Most Wanted. I don't know what they had in place of a no fly list, but whatever they had, Jesus was on it. Jesus had done something which had created a lot of buzz. He had raised a dead man. If you're trying to fly under the radar and not attract a lot of attention, that isn't the way to go. Everybody knew that Lazarus was dead, and now he was alive again. People wanted Lazarus dead, and they had their sights on Jesus too.

Let's look at three events that shape our understanding of what Palm Sunday was all about.

Event One: The day before Palm Sunday at the house of Lazarus in Bethany, just two miles away, something bizarre happens. Mary, brother of Lazarus, did something completely unexpected. You can understand why – Jesus had just brought her brother back from the dead. Mary took half a liter of imported nard and poured it at Jesus' feet and wiped it with her hair. It was unbelievable.

They've tried to figure out what Mary's gesture would have cost her. This much nard would have cost about a year's worth of salary. This could have represented her entire life's savings.

She unbound her hair, which was not proper behavior for a Jewish female. The fragrance of her offering filled the house and told everybody about her sacrificial gift.

There's a word that I think of when I think of what Mary did. The word is glory. Mary was giving glory to Jesus in an extravagant gesture that caught everyone's attention and was criticized by some as being way over the top.

Event Two: The next day, Jesus entered Jerusalem.

When Jesus had come to Jerusalem before, he hadn't always drawn much attention to himself. Whenever somebody wanted to go public with who Jesus was, Jesus always resisted. When people had tried to make him king before, Jesus disappeared. John 6:15 says, "Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself." Whenever somebody wanted to reveal who Jesus was, he always told them not to tell anyone. Jesus was not into public displays of affection or worship.

But look at what happened this time. Read verses 12-15:

The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,
"Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"
"Blessed is the king of Israel!"
Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:
"Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey's colt."

Four hundred years before this day, the prophet Zechariah had written, "Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey" (Zechariah 9:9). Jesus arrived that day in Jerusalem just the way that Zechariah had prophesied, in humility, riding on a donkey. The crowds quoted Psalm 118 with an addition: "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!" (John 12:13). Hosanna means, "Save now!" It was a cry for Jesus to do something. They were acclaiming Jesus as ruler over Israel.

They threw down palm branches. Palms were symbols of peace and victory, symbols of Jewish nationalism. The crowd – filled with people who had witnessed or heard about the raising of Lazarus and Jesus' other miracles – were welcoming Jesus as king and deliverer. They expected something to happen and for Jesus to do it.

You've heard of PDAs, or public displays of affection. This was the only time in the life of Jesus that our Lord allowed while he was on earth. Jesus was allowing them to announce that he indeed is the king of Israel. Here, for the first time, Jesus allows them to declare that he is king. He lets them go public with his praise.

The same word comes to mind again: glory. Jesus is glorified as the crowds praise him and praise him as king, and as he finally gets the glory that he deserves.

Event Three: There's one more story. John 12:20-21 says, "Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. 'Sir,' they said, 'we would like to see Jesus.'"

Up until that point, Jesus had made it very clear that he had only come for the Jewish nation. At this moment, when some non-Jews come and want to see Jesus, Jesus is reminded of why he came. He didn't just come to be a king over Israel. He came to deliver the world as well.

When these Greeks approach the disciples and ask to meet Jesus, Jesus is reminded of why he came to this earth. Jesus responds by saying something unusual. Jesus responds by saying, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified" (John 12:23). What in the world does this mean?

All throughout John's gospel, Jesus and John have stated that it wasn't Jesus' hour or Jesus' time. In John 2:4, when Jesus' mother told him that they had run out of wine at the wedding, Jesus said, "My hour has not yet come." In John 7, Jesus' brothers encouraged him to go to Jerusalem publicly, and Jesus said, "My time is not yet here." Soon after, Jesus went to Jerusalem secretly. The Jewish authorities tried to arrest him, but John records, "No one laid a hand on him, because his hour had not yet come." Jesus later taught in the Temple that he is the light of the world. John records, "Yet no one seized him, because his hour had not yet come" (John 8:20). Jesus knew that there was a right time, and he wasn't prepared to rush. The hour would come. That hour would be the focal point of his ministry, the time toward which all of his energies would be focused. So it's really significant that Jesus says, "The hour has come."

The hour has come for what in verse 23? "For the Son of man to be glorified." Here's the key word, the theme of what Palm Sunday is all about: the glory of Jesus.

So we're here. Everything has been building up to this. Jesus is anointed, finally goes public as king, and he says that the hour has come. He says, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified." That's what Palm Sunday is all about. In one word, it's about this: glory. Jesus finally receives the public glory that should be his. Jesus is recognized and praised and given honor. That's what Palm Sunday is all about: glory, specifically that Jesus receives the glory that's due to him.

The same word comes to mind again: glory. Jesus is glorified as a grateful women anoints him with an extravagant gift, as the crowds praise him and recognize him as king, and as those from other nations come to worship him. That's what the events of Palm Sunday tell us.

Let me ask you a question. When is Jesus Christ most glorified? If we stop here, we'd have to say that it's when people praise him. That sounds good, but it also presents a bit of a problem. In a way, we end up with a statement like this: Jesus is most glorified when he is most popular.

The problem with this statement is this: how often is Jesus really popular? The answer: not very often. if you look at history, we have a pretty bad record of being consistent in how well we honor Jesus. Look at our own lives. We gather on Sunday and worship, and we really mean it, don't we? But then Monday comes along, and life gets going, and the priority that Jesus held on Sunday disappears for a long time – maybe until the next Sunday.

That's the problem if we stop here. Please don't misunderstand me. God is glorified when we worship him and seek him and offer gifts to him. But if this is the way that God is most glorified, then God is in trouble most of the time, because most of the time we're pretty fickle. The path to real glory isn't the path of recognition and praise.

So let's look just a little below the surface, at the paradox of Palm Sunday and Easter, before looking at what this means for us today.

Look at what Jesus says in verses 23-24. "Jesus replied, 'The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.'"

Then again in verses 27-33:

"Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour?' No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!" Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and will glorify it again." The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.

Jesus said, "This voice was for your benefit, not mine. Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.

What is Jesus talking about here? His death. And what is he saying? He's saying that he is most glorified, not when people praise him although that's nice. Jesus is most glorified at the very moment that everybody has turned their back, as they spat at him and cursed him, as they took nails and killed the one they called a king.

Jesus wasn't most glorified when the crowds praised him. He was most glorified as the crowds rejected him, and he offered nothing but love anyway.

We tend to draw a dividing line between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. We think, "It's too bad that Jesus received glory on Palm Sunday but not on Good Friday." That's not at all the way that Jesus sees it. It was nice for the people to praise him on Sunday, but the moment that he received most glory was when he went to the cross. The moment of his greatest humiliation and suffering was also the moment of his greatest glory.

Look at what this passage says Jesus' death accomplished at great cost on the cross. Jesus' death produced lasting growth, he says in verse 24. He uses the parable of a seed that dies. "Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds." The church throughout the ages is the result of this single seed dying. Because of Jesus' death, hundreds millions of disciples have lived as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven for over two thousand years. That is a direct result of what Jesus did at the cross, and it brings Jesus glory.

In verse 28, a voice from heaven says, "I have glorified it, and will glorify it again." You can see that going to the cross was not easy for Jesus. Almost a week before Good Friday, Jesus is in anguish as he considers what lies before him. In going to the cross at such cost, the Father himself promises to glorify Christ. Jesus' obedience to the cross brings him glory.

Jesus also wins victory over Satan at the cross. Verse 31 says, "Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out." We looked at this last week. At the cross, Jesus won a decisive victory over Satan. What looked like Satan's greatest moment instead became the moment of his defeat. Jesus conquered Satan at the cross.

Jesus also draws people to himself to the cross. He says in verse 32, "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." For two thousand years, countless people have been drawn to the one who created this world, but chose to humble himself to the point of dying to set this world right and to bring us back into relationship with him. How could you not love a king who dies for his people like this?

Jesus is not most glorified when we praise him, although our worship is fitting and right. Jesus is most glorified as he accomplishes his work at the cross.

If you only hear one thing today, it's this: The path to true glory isn't the path of accomplishment or praise. The path to true glory is the path that leads to the cross.

Well, let me ask what this means for us today.

Does anybody here like glory? You're going to be too scared to raise your hand, but the answer is: of course we do. Glory comes from a word that originally meant weight. The closest English word that carries this concept is matter. We all want our lives to matter, to have that sense of weight and significance. Don't we? We all like glory.

When do we receive glory? Usually on the field of competition, or when we accomplish something. Yesterday, my son played in the championship of a hockey league. When the winners skate around the ice with the cup of victory, that's glory. If the Leafs ever won the Stanley Cup, that would be glory. When somebody comes up and tells me they like the sermon, that's glory! When we get a promotion or earn a degree or accomplish something significant, that's glory. But that's more like the glory we looked at in the first part of the sermon, when things are going well and people are praising us. We all know that's a pretty rare thing, not the normal state of affairs. Most of us don't go around accomplishing great things all the time and being carried on people's backs while people call out our name. That's not real life, and that's not the best kind of glory.

Jesus said in verses 25-26: "Those who love their life will lose it, while those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me."

What is Jesus saying? He's saying that if we want to experience real glory, real significance, the path is not found in accomplishing great things or from being popular and receiving praise. Glory is found in taking the same path that Jesus took, the path that lead him to the cross – the path in which we give our lives away for the sake of the gospel and for the good of others. You want your life to really matter? Then give your life away. Paul wrote, "Have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had…" (Philippians 2:5). That is the path to true glory – dying to self-reliance, self-assertiveness, and self-centered living. The path to glory is the path of giving our lives away in service and love.

What happens when we live this way? Four things, according to Jesus in this passage. Our lives will bear much fruit. We will keep our lives for eternal life. "Those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life," he says in verse 25. We will join Jesus where he is. Jesus says in verse 26, "Where I am, my servant also will be." And the Father will honor us. Verse 26 continues, "My Father will honor the one who serves me."

Our lives will count; we'll have eternal life; we'll join Jesus; and God will honor us. This is the path to fruitful living. The path to true glory isn't one of praise and accomplishment. The path to true glory is the path to the cross – the path in which we see what Jesus has done, stop living for ourselves, and give our lives up in service to him.

If we're not careful this week, we'll think that the real glory comes when we're at the top of our game and life is going well. Jesus teaches us that real glory comes not at the moments that we think it does. Real glory comes when we give our lives away, just as Christ did at the cross. The path to true glory is the path to the cross.

Father, we're going to be tempted this week to live in exactly the wrong way. We're going to be tempted to live for the praise of the crowds and to prize our accomplishments and our victories. But Jesus shows us here that real life comes when we take the same path that Jesus did – the path that took him to the cross.
So first, Father, thank you. Thank you that Jesus took this path. Thank you that as he was lifted up, he produced life that will last for eternity. He won victory over Satan, and he is drawing all kinds of people to himself. Thank you that you brought glory to your Son at the cross. We glorify him and we praise his mighty name.
Help us, Father, to live the same way. Help us to have the same attitude of mind that Jesus did, who "made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!" (Philippians 2:2-8)
And by taking this path, may we experience true glory – the kind of glory that can only come as we lose our lives in love and service. May we experience all that you've promised as we live that way. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.
Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada