Frequently in our study of John’s gospel, we have noted that many first-century Jews were looking for a Messiah who was first and foremost a political savior. They wanted someone to overthrow the Romans and restore the Jewish state to full independence. We see further evidence of this belief in today’s passage.
After commenting that Jesus’ reference to His being lifted up concerned His crucifixion (John 12:32–33), John tells us that the crowd is perplexed by this fact. They have heard from the Law that “the Christ remains forever,” so they cannot grasp why He must be lifted up on the cross to die (v. 34). Here “the Law” is being used by the crowd as a summary term for the entire Old Testament, and there are several passages in the Old Testament Scriptures that promise an everlasting reign for the Messiah (for example, Ps. 89:29; Ezek. 37:25). The crowd is not wrong to think that the Messiah must rule over His people forever; they err in thinking that the Messiah’s death is incompatible with His eternal reign. If Jesus were to die and not be raised, there would be a problem, but His resurrection guarantees that His death is only temporary. He will be raised to glory to fulfill the prophecies of an eternal messianic kingdom. Still, He must die to atone for the sin of His people. So when the crowd asks, “Who is this Son of Man?” (John 12:34), the answer is that He is the One who dies and then lives again forever.
The crowd must grasp this while Jesus is with them so that they will not be overcome by the enemy later on. That is what He means when He says: “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you” (vv. 35–36). It will not be any easier to believe after Jesus is crucified and is resurrected from the dead. In fact, we know from the New Testament that persecution actually increases against the disciples of Jesus after His return to heaven. He is calling the crowd to trust in Him while He still walks the earth during His earthly ministry so that they will be prepared for the coming trial. When things get much harder for the followers of Christ, it will be much more difficult to believe because it will be evident that doing so will bring suffering.
This call to walk in the light right now continues to apply to us two millennia after Jesus’ earthly ministry. We cannot think that it will be easier to believe in Christ tomorrow than it is today. In fact, eventually—when we die—it will be too late to trust Jesus if we have not yet done so. Thus, all of us must believe the gospel today.