The Gospel according to John is replete with revelation being misunderstood. Nicodemus misses the point in his talk with Jesus, as do many others in their encounter with the Messiah. Perhaps the same is true of the crowds present. There opinions of the sound being thunder or the voice of an angel is headed in the right direction. Thunder was a common religious symbol for the voice of God (e.g., Exod 4:23; Ps 29:3–9), and angels were traditionally understood as God’s messengers (e.g., Gen 16:7; 18:2–8; 19:1; Luke 1:11, 26; 2:9). The crowd’s hearing the voice of God as either thunder or an angel’s voice suggests that the crowd recognized that they were witnesses to an epiphany, some revelation of the divine, but that they missed the point: they were witnesses to the unmediated presence of God in God’s relationship to Jesus. His words in v. 30 underscore that this is indeed what the crowd has missed.
Jesus explained that the voice did not come for his sake but for theirs. And as Morris points out [530-1] if this removes one difficulty it introduces another. Jesus did not need to be reassured, but if it was intended primarily for the crowds, why did they not understand it? Perhaps because they lacked the spiritual acuity to recognize the voice of God. But the voice would be of the greatest value to those of his followers who could take in something of its significance, even though they lacked the spiritual awareness to understand it fully here at “the hour.” Upon later reflection, the memory of that voice would be assuring.
For the Sake of the World. 31 Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” 33 He said this indicating the kind of death he would die.
This unusual mixture of dialogue and monologue seems to come to its point and purpose: “Now is the time of judgment..” It should echo the words spoken at the end of the dialogue/monologue with Nicodemus in John 3:
18 Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. 21 But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.
The light is in the world (cf. John 1:4-5) and that light draws all people to it.
So what does it mean when Jesus says that “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (12:32) or “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me” (6:44)? The word “draw” (helko) is often an offensive word. It generally means physically forcing someone or something to go where they don’t want to go. It is used of “hauling” in nets full of fish (John 21:6, 11). It is used of “dragging” Paul and Silas before the authorities (Acts 16:19) and Paul away from the Temple (Acts 21:30). It is used of the rich “dragging” people into court (James 2:6). There is an even more intensive form, helkeo, meaning “to drag about, tear asunder; to mistreat.” These are not a very comforting images.
I have no real answer for this query, but I wonder if the “strong” helko matches what one would see when looking upon Jesus crucified; when one contemplates the scene at Calvary. It is not a warm, fuzzy scene – not one that a person would naturally stare at – and yet, it is compelling, it is hard to turn away from it. Maybe in that sense we are indeed “drawn.” Draw” brings out the truth that people do not naturally come to Christ. It is only as God works in one’s soul and draws one that one can come to Christ.
Epilogue to the Sunday Gospel. These verses are considered part of the narrative but are not part of our Sunday reading. It is clear that St. John continues with his themes of misunderstanding, light/dark, and that “the hour” has come – an hour for decision.
34 So the crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. Then how can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” 35 Jesus said to them, “The light will be among you only a little while. Walk while you have the light, so that darkness may not overcome you. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where he is going. 36 While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of the light.” After he had said this, Jesus left and hid from them.