This passage in John is John’s record of Jesus’ message to the Greeks before his crucifixion and resurrection. We know it is to the Greeks because John carefully tells us how they came to Jesus by way of Philip and Andrew. At the end of the passage we read, When he had finished speaking, Jesus left and hid himself from them. And we know he did not hide himself from Philip and Andrew, or from the Jews for that matter.
Jesus begins by telling them about what will be in Greek allegory, not Jewish parable. The wheat must fall before the one seed can produce many seeds. The suggestion is with his fall, many will be “born” to follow after him. The Greeks might not have imagined that he meant he must die, but they understood the arrest of teachers by the state to shut them up. They might have even known about the arrest and eventual beheading of John the Baptist. But they likely also knew that state arrest was no guarantee that the message would be silenced. Sometimes when social and political firebrands got arrested, the message of their “disciples” became louder than ever.
But here was the litmus test for the Greeks: Be worldly or reject worldliness and follow Jesus. For us, that is asking a lot, but for the Greeks… The reason we refer to the Roman Empire as a Greco-Roman world is because even at that early date Roman culture had long since given way to Greek culture and ideas. The Romans and their empire were thoroughly Hellenized by the time of Jesus. Likewise in the East, because of Alexander the Great, Greek culture was dominant all the way to India. Indeed, the whole “oikumene” (known world) was Hellenized and the Greeks were at the center of it all. For the Greeks to reject the ways of the world was not asking a lot; it was asking everything. But then, that is what jesus asks of us all. He asks everything.
Jesus goes on to add, in effect, insult to injury. Not only is he demanding they give up their ways, but he says to follow him will not necessarily be a life of greatness. It will be a life of service, and they can expect no reward but from God in heaven, implying that they might not see any reward until their life in this world is over.
Some of the Greeks probably had to swallow, hard. Many today might need to swallow equally hard.
To the Greeks, Jesus said he had to be exalted or lifted up, by which he was suggesting the way he would die (lifted up on the cross). Notice, this time he did not include any Biblical references which the Greeks might not have understood. He said nothing about “as Moses lifted the snake in the wilderness.” But then, what should he do? Should he try to avoid his “fate?” (Greeks understood fate). NO. For this reason he came, to glorify the Father, and the voice from heaven responded.
Now, some heard thunder, a perfectly natural phenomenon. I would think that these were the ones who saw Jesus as a natural man and great teacher, perhaps, but no more. Some heard the voice of an angel (or as the Greeks might understand it, the voice of a demi-god). These at least knew there was something supernatural going on. But what, exactly?
Jesus went on to say judgment was coming on the world and the Prince of the world would be driven out. This was another attack on Greek worldliness thinking. It underlines his earlier words, that to love your life in this world is to lose it. But then he adds a note of hope. He reiterates that through his “lifting up” all “men” will be drawn to him. That says the Greeks have hope of being included. That means the Greeks are welcome in the Kingdom of God, and not just the Jews. The only thing Jesus does not say then and there is, “decide.”
One Greek then steps forward and speaks. Our understanding is the Messiah will be forever (immortal). Who is this “Son of Man?” He asked what the Greeks were wondering. Is this the Messiah of the Jews, and will he indeed be a god among the immortals?
Jesus responds in terms they might understand. He turns them from the implication of Greek Pantheism and points to the incomplete, but more singular conceptions of Zoroastrianism (an ancient Persian religion that still had great cultural influence in that Hellenized world, and imagery with which these Greeks would at least be familiar). He says, in effect, I am the light of the world. There is darkness in the world and as long as you continue in worldliness, you remain lost in darkness. Follow my light and you will become children of light. Again, he left of the word, “decide.” Indeed, he left them there and hid from them and did not say the word, because that was obvious. They would have to think about it and they would have to decide.