Popularity is dangerous. We’ve all heard the cautionary tale of a celebrity whose rising star crashes to earth. Or maybe we’ve watched narcissistic leaders who use and abuse those around them. When people start drawing a crowd, it rarely ends well.
But knowing this truth doesn’t keep us from dreaming of fame. Nor does it keep us from following the famous. As humans, we incessantly crave celebrity for ourselves or, at the very least, hope to somehow bask in its glory through others.
Of course, there’s nothing new about this phenomenon. It’s seemingly as old as humanity. But this is one way Jesus’s character is unique. He was strangely unfazed by celebrity. He never went looking for the crowds—and when the crowds came looking for him, it led to his finest hour.
Gospel of Glory
As you read the Gospel of John, it’s hard to miss the theme of popularity. Right away, John lets us know he’s a witness to Jesus’s glory (1:14). And from the outset, that glory becomes a spectacle (1:50). Jesus wows the crowds with his miracles (2:23). Immediately, some see this as a threat. The followers of John the Baptist warn that “all are going to him” (3:26). But John’s not concerned with the challenge to his personal acclaim. He’s happy to see his platform fade if Jesus’s is raised (3:30).
This contrasts sharply with the Pharisees. Throughout John’s Gospel, they consistently pursue glory from others (5:44). But they’re not the only ones. Jesus says the reason many hesitate to follow him is they love “the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (12:43). Their desire for human approval manifests in fearing what others—especially the influential—might think or say or do (7:13; 9:22; 12:42; 19:38: 20:19).
Of course, we expect such cowering from the weak in society. But ironically in John’s Gospel—as in all of life—it’s the powerful like Pilate who constantly pander to the masses (18:28–19:16). Popular opinion turns everyone into a puppet.
Except for Jesus. Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus lives for an audience of One. He’s clearly not out to draw a crowd. In fact, his brothers mock him for his modesty. They think he should capitalize on his celebrity, so they try to cajole him into making a name for himself. “Show yourself to the world,” they urge (7:4). Meanwhile, the bigwigs in Jerusalem obsess over Jesus’s fame in the Galilean countryside. If he takes his show on the road, they wonder if he’ll gain a following among the Greeks (7:35).
This is their great fear: that Jesus will win the popularity contest of their day. That he’ll get more glory than them. And in Jesus’s final visit to Jerusalem, the competition comes to a climax. As Jesus rides in with the crowds crying “Hosanna!” we overhear the Pharisees mumbling to themselves a version of what John’s disciples first complained: “Look, the world has gone after him” (12:19).
At this point in John’s Gospel, we realize the Pharisees have more than just a problem with pride. They have a problem with perspective. Clearly the whole world wasn’t on Jesus’s heels. It’s not as if he was making global headlines. Jesus didn’t have millions of social media subscribers. Sure, this Rabbi from Nazareth was popular. But when it comes to his following, Jesus couldn’t hold a candle to today’s celebrities and influencers.
However, the size of the crowd isn’t of primary importance. While John clearly paints the Pharisees as paranoid, he agrees with their opinion. The next line in his Gospel confirms Jesus’s global pull: “Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks,” and they come looking for Jesus (12:20–21). Sure enough, Jesus isn’t drawing a crowd only from Jerusalem or Bethany where he’s just raised Lazarus from the dead. He’s drawing Gentiles from who-knows-where.
But what happens next is nothing short of amazing. When the Greeks ask for an audience, Jesus immediately starts talking about his glorification—and his death:
The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. . . . Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. (12:23–24, 27)
Jesus isn’t enthralled by adoring fans from far away—attention the Pharisees could only dream of. Instead, these Greek seekers serve as a kind of trigger that starts the ticking clock. All throughout John’s Gospel, the reader is primed for the coming of Jesus’s “hour.” And here it is. At this very moment, when the world comes to Jesus, he must go to the cross. It’s time for the Son of Man to fall to the earth and die.
When the world comes to Jesus, that’s when he must go to the cross.
Drawing a Crowd
Readers of John’s Gospel will likely wonder what happened next to the Gentile seekers. Perhaps they met Jesus. But it doesn’t really matter. Because on that day, Jesus knew what the Greeks needed most wasn’t to meet him. They didn’t need to witness a miracle or see a sign. They certainly didn’t need to get his autograph. What they needed—what the world needed—was for Jesus to die (cf. 1 John. 2:2). That’s why he came. To deal with the glory-seeking, others-using pride in all our hearts by humbly laying down his life for the sin of the world (John 1:29).
As Jesus said, when he was lifted up, he’d draw all people to himself (12:32). So in one sense, you could say Jesus went to the cross to draw a crowd. But not because our leader is a narcissist who lives for the spotlight or demands to have his way. No, we serve a King whose finest moment was the hour of his self-giving and sacrifice. Whose lifting up was his lowering down. Whose exaltation was his suffering. Whose glory was his shame.
We serve a King whose finest moment was the hour of his self-giving and sacrifice.
At one level, Jesus died because of his popularity. It truly was dangerous. The Pharisees and Sadducees couldn’t stand his growing influence, so they decided to silence him (11:45–53). But at another level, Jesus died because it was his purpose all along (12:27). He didn’t succumb to a Jewish plot, a Roman ruler, or an angry mob. As Jesus told pompous Pilate, no political authority or military guard could take him by force (19:11). Instead, he lay down his life out of love for the world. Yes, the crowds sent Jesus to the cross—because it was the crowds he came to save.
This is the stunning nature of Jesus’s celebrity. Here is a man unfazed by human acclaim and fearless of human indignity. Here is a God whose greatness is shown in his condescension and care. At Christmas, we’re right to remember what happened when he came to the world. But at Easter, we should celebrate what happened when the world came to Jesus. This is truly the hour of his glory.