Understanding John 12:32
by John Samson
Question: I read your recent article on John 6:35-45 entitled “The Perseverance of the Saints,” and I understand the following to be a brief summary of Jesus’ words regarding God’s Sovereign purpose in election from John 6:35-45: Unless it is granted, no one will come to Christ. All to whom it is granted will come to Christ, and all of these will be raised up to eternal life on the last day. So, this being the case, can you please explain to me the meaning of John 12:32, where Jesus said: “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.”?
Answer: Thanks for your excellent question. What I will say here may surprise you, but as I have sought to explain elsewhere, the word “all” has a number of different meanings in the Bible. We tend to assume that when Jesus speaks of drawing “all men” that He is referring to every last person on the planet. Well, that may or may not be true, but it is in the CONTEXT where we find the phrase that tells us if this assumption is correct or misplaced.
Even today we use the words “all” or “every” in many different ways. When a teacher in a classroom of people asks, “Are we all here?” or “is everyone listening?” we understand he is not talking about every one of the 6 billion plus folk on the planet, but all the students who have signed up for the class. Context determines the proper interpretation or meaning of words. When the word “all” is used, it is used within a context.
In this illustration, the “all” had a context of the school classroom, which did not include “all” the hockey players in Iceland, “all” the dentists in Denmark, or “all” the carpet layers in Atlanta, Georgia. To rip the word “all” out of its setting and say that the teacher was refering to all people everywhere, would be to totally misunderstand and misinterpret how the word was being used. Again, it is context that determines correct interpretation.
I believe you are correct in your understanding of what John 6:35-45 teaches. So how do we understand the nature of the drawing in John 12:32? Who is being drawn?
We find answers to these questions by refusing to be lazy, doing some serious study, and by consciously allowing our traditions to be exposed to the light of Scripture.
So if understanding the context plays such a major role in getting the correct interpretation, exactly what was the context in John 12? Well it is a very different setting than the one we find in John 6. In John 12, Greeks were coming to Jesus and believing in Him.
John 12:20-22 – Now there were some Greeks among those who were going up to worship at the feast; these then came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida of Galilee, and began to ask him, saying, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip came and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip came and told Jesus.
Dr. James White, in his book the Potter’s Freedom (p. 163), describes the background as follows: “John 12 narrates the final events of Jesus’ public ministry. After this particular incident, the Lord will go into a period of private ministry to His disciples right before He goes to the cross. The final words of Jesus’ public teachings are prompted by the arrival of Greeks who are seeking Jesus. This important turn of events prompts the teaching that follows. Jesus is now being sought by non-Jews, Gentiles. It is when Jesus is informed of this that He says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” This then is the context which leads us to Jesus’ words in verse 32:
John 12:27-33 “Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, ‘Father, save Me from this hour ‘? But for this purpose I came to this hour. “Father, glorify Your name.” Then a voice came out of heaven: “I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.” So the crowd of people who stood by and heard it were saying that it had thundered; others were saying, “An angel has spoken to Him.” Jesus answered and said, “This voice has not come for My sake, but for your sakes. “Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die.
I believe that in its context the “all men” refers to Jews and Gentiles, not to every individual person on earth. Through His work on the cross, Jesus will draw all kinds of men, all kinds of people to Himself, including those from outside of the covenant community of Israel. We must bear in mind that this would have been an extremely radical thought to the Jews who were hearing Him say these words.
But lets look at this issue from another angle by asking the question, “Is it true that everyone on earth is drawn to the cross?” Is that what the Bible really teaches about the cross?
What does the scripture say? It says that the cross is foolishness to Gentiles and a stumbling block to Jews. 1 Corinthians 1:22-24 says, “For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Question: Who views the cross as something other than foolishness or a stumbling block?
Answer: “…those who are the called, both Jews and Gentiles…”
Again, to quote Dr. White: “To whom is Christ the power and wisdom of God? To “the called.” What is the preaching of the cross to those who are not called? Something that draws them or repels them? The answer I think is obvious. The cross of Christ is foolishness to the world. These considerations, along with the immediate context of the Gentiles seeking Christ, make it clear that if He is lifted up in crucifixion, He will draw all men, Jews and Gentiles, to Himself. This is exactly the same as saying that He has sheep not of this fold (John 10:16), the Gentiles, who become one body in Christ (Eph. 2:13-16).”
If we assume that God is drawing every single individual on the planet we run into a major problem when we use this interpretation of John 12:32 (out of its context) and to try to understand the drawing in John 6:44 in the light of it. Lets also bear in mind that we would need to demonstrate that the simple word “draw” MUST have the exact same meaning and objects in both contexts – something I don’t believe bears out at all. What is the problem? Well, if we do this, we end up with the unbiblical doctrine of universalism (all people will be saved).
Why? Because Jesus said in John 6:44 “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.” The one drawn here is raised up to eternal life. If everyone on the planet is drawn, then all will be saved, which, I am sure you will agree is not a biblical position, for scripture teaches clearly that not everyone will inherit eternal life.
Rather than solving the issue, this interpretation causes severe problems and in fact undermines the truth of the Gospel. I believe we therefore need to discard this assumption, and interpret both passages in their biblical context. The result will be, as I believe I have shown, a consistent revelation of the Sovereign purposes of God in drawing His elect to Himself, for His own purposes, from every tribe, tongue, people and nation.