Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” (John 12.20-21)
One of my favorite episodes in the Holy Week narrative turns up in John 12.20-26. I’m probably drawn to it because it’s so often discarded to focus on more famous events that transpire during Jesus’s final days. But I love it because what happens here is a major breakthrough in His ministry—a momentary glimpse at what the Church will look like and what will be required of it. I believe this moment gets overlooked because it’s not overly complicated. But what happens is most unusual.
We start by noting that first-century Judaism holds tremendous appeal for many non-Jews. The God of Israel is unlike most deities, in that God remains in constant dialogue with the people. This God is known for mighty works and exhibits no mortal frailties. So, the power of God is the main attraction. Quite a few foreigners convert to monotheistic Judaism completely, while a large group worships YHWH as a God above all gods. At high holidays like Passover, the mainly Jewish crowd that flocks to Jerusalem is peppered with people from pagan traditions who come to pay homage to Israel’s God. While their status prevents them from being admitted into the Temple’s inner court, their faith compels them to participate in the festival from afar.
It happens that a group of Greeks is in Jerusalem for Passover. Evidently they’ve heard of Jesus, catching wind that His disciples say He’s the Promised One. It’s rumored that He raised a man from the dead and He’s created quite a stir since arriving in town. If, as some say, He is God, they want to meet Him. They go looking for Jesus. When they find one of His disciples, Philip, they say, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip needs to clear this with the higher-ups. He takes their request to Andrew and the two of them approach Jesus. (For the record, this is the same Philip who, in the Book of Acts, becomes the first Apostle to baptize a non-Jew—the Ethiopian eunuch—into the faith. So there’s some poetic foreshadowing underway here, too. Nor can it go unnoticed another group of foreigners, the Magi, seek the newborn Jesus out.)
Jesus’s response is rather curious. He doesn’t ask one question about the Greeks—who they are, what they want, what they said. Indeed, there’s nothing in the text that implies their request surprises Jesus at all. Instead, Jesus reminds Philip and Andrew that His death is at hand. God’s plan is at work, and this out-of-the-blue appearance by the Greeks indicates the full extent of what God intends to do. Of course, He will see them.
The real point of the story arises in verse 26, where Jesus says, “Whoever serves Me must follow Me, and where I am, there will My servant be also. Whoever serves Me, the Father will honor.” The Greeks have come looking for Jesus. When they meet Him, they’ll find what they’re searching for. The nonsense about ethnicity, religious background, circumcision—all the criteria the Temple officials employ to segregate worshippers into “us” and “them”—is passing away. A New Order is coming into fruition, born of a single Divine Root that will spring up out of Its burial ground to spread Its branches over all of humanity. Jesus doesn’t simply invite the Greeks for a courteous chat, as if He’s campaigning for office and needs to shake as many hands as possible. He welcomes the Greeks’ request to get to know Him, fully confident that their encounter with Him will transform them into true followers. Finding Jesus puts them in the right place at the right time.
I sometimes think Holy Week’s epic emotions and tragic events eclipse what it’s really about: finding Jesus in the midst of chaos and treachery. We worry about the disciples. We hiss at the villains. We wring our hands in despair that no one will come to His defense. Yet to the end, from a group of curious Greeks to the believing thief hanging beside Him, Jesus keeps welcoming people who, according to tradition, are unworthy of His attention.
As we revisit this familiar story we love so dearly, our prayer should be, “We wish to see Jesus”—not through the lens of His enemies nor the frightened eyes of His followers. We wish to see Jesus as He wants to be seen: welcoming, accepting, willing to see us, regardless who we are or where we’re from. Inner court, outer court, Jew, Greek, male, female, straight, gay, saint, sinner—none of it matters. Finding Jesus. Meeting Him. Seeing Him as He wants to be seen. Being where He is. These are the things that mark us as His followers.
Where I am, there will My servant be also.