Reconsidering John 3.16 (john 3.12-21)

12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

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Jesus continues his conversation with Nicodemus around the familiar theme of the Son of Man. This was a well-known concept at the time of Jesus. For example, the book of Enoch, a pre-Christian Jewish text, talks about a divine eschatological figure – the Son of Man. It describes him as eternal/pre-existent and calls him the Chosen One. The Son of Man was understood to be the light to the nations. He would one day come as a judge, accompanied by the clouds of heaven. (Enoch 48)  Enoch was also God’s prophet against the fallen angels. Later tradition (2nd century BCE) emphasizes his ethical teaching and especially his apocalyptic revelations of the course of world history down to the last judgment. In the Similitudes (1 Enoch 37–71) he is identified with the Messianic Son of man (71:14–17), and some later Jewish traditions identified him with the nearly divine figure Metatron (2 Gn. 5:24; 3 Enoch).

However, not only the Enochite Son of Man is in view here. In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus is also calling to mind the imagery of the Son of Man from Daniel’s visions. As Daniel saw it (Dan.7.13), the Son of Man was coming up to the heavenly court to be presented to the Ancient of Days.

It is based on this passage that Jesus told Nicodemus that no one could go up to heaven if he had not first come down from heaven. (3.13) Jesus then predicted that the Son of Man would also be lifted up (3.14) similarly to how the bronze serpent was raised up by Moses (Num. 21) when the Israelites were dying in the desert. Before we continue let’s stop and think about this analogy.

The problem is that we almost automatically connect the pole and the serpent with the wooden cross where Jesus was crucified. We do so mostly because in many pictorial presentations Christian artists painted Moses holding up the cross with the bronze serpent pictured on it. However, does the “lifted up” necessarily refer to Jesus’ crucifixion and being hanged on the cross? We must remember that Jesus saying this to Nikodemus before crucifixion took place and not after. Could it not instead refer to his ascension to the heavenly throne prophetically described in Daniel’s vision? Let’s continue to think outside-of-the-box for a little while longer.

What is very important at this moment is that we also continue to reimagine Jesus talking to Nicodemus in 3.16-21 – the famous “for-God-so-loved-the-world” text. Why is this important? Because normally, our reading ends with vs.15 and we think of vs. 16 as the beginning of a new section with new ideas that have become central to Christianity. In fact, in Bibles that have section divisions, vss. 16-21 is almost always marked separately, so as to indicate the beginning of a new, distinct unit of thought. But I would like to suggest that such a division is arbitrary and problematic. If read separately, these words are no longer the words of Jesus, but rather a theological commentary by the author of the Gospel on the preceding words of Jesus. Nothing in the text necessitates such a conclusion.

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The most natural reading of the text is to see it being fully continuous with the previous  words of Jesus to Nicodemus. It is Jesus who continues to speak to Nicodemus with the words “for God so loved the world”. If this is correct, then what Jesus tells Nicodemus does not refer to the future event of Jesus’ crucifixion and death, but to Jesus’ crown rights as the Anointed One appointed.

I fully realize that Jesus’ death on the cross is very important to John. However, when Jesus’ death has not yet taken place, Nicodemus could not be expected to understand that the crucifixion is in fact in view (unless we think that John 3.16 and onward is in fact not Jesus’ words, but John’s retrospective commentary). It is much more likely that the connection with the pole and the serpent that was lifted up should be suggestive of Jesus’s ascension to the heavenly throne as per Daniel’s vision. This is why the section directly follows the discussion about the Son of Man who comes down in order to go up (Jn.3.13 and Dan.7).

Realizing, however, the connection between the Sonship of God (see previous discussion on the Sonship of God) in this Gospel as based on relevant Old Testament texts, we are forced to come to the conclusion that Jesus and Nicodemus had in mind the very dynamic described in Psalm 2:

“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath and terrify them in his fury, saying, “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

In a surprising twist the unworthy shepherds of Israel, whom Jesus has come to judge, have taken the dishonorable place of the Gentile nations raging against the Covenant Lord of Israel and the God appointed King. It is they who have raised the voices and feasts against the Lord and His Anointed Jesus. Yet, the royal decree setting up Jesus as the King over Israel has made things clear. They must honor God’s royal Son or parish in their ways (Jn.3.18-21).

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© By Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Ph.D.

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  1. Lois Eaton

    obviously I am Christianised, as the comparison with the crucifixion makes clear sense to me. How do I ‘unchristianise’ myself?

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Lous, hi. I think the best way is to simply try to stick to the text as much as possible within old testament context and that of extra-biblical literature.

  2. […] the Royal Son of God from Psalm 2. (See also Logos Theology in pre-Christian Jewish Tradition and ReReading John 3.:16). We read in Psalm 2 the words that were once likely sang in Jerusalem Temple in three separate […]

  3. […] In the Jewish treatises of Philo and others, authored in Greek, a very similar, if not the same, concept is also present. It is referred to by the use of the Greek word Logos just as in the Gospels (Heir 205-6), while in the Aramaic/Syriaic/Hebrew Jewish materials the same (or a very similar) idea is very often, though not always, is signified by the word Memra (Targum Neofiti in Gen.3.13). Once a student of history of religion begins surveying Jewish pre-Christian ideas about the Word of God in para-biblical literature, pre-dating or contemporary with John’s Gospel, that student is quickly beginning to realize that up to this point (John 1:3) the author of the Gospel has not yet introduced any new ideas (and surely nothing foreign) to the Jewish first century thought-world as it existed at the time. […]

  4. RamonAntonio

    Excellent reading Dr. Eli.
    The Navarra Bible reads continually so it reinforces your suggestion that these are Jesus words.
    However, I found what I consider a more crucial one. Straubinger’s translation of the Bible, one of the most respected Catholic translations, states in his note that these words by Jesus are the most important revelation in all the Bible for they reveal the true mission of Jesus as Son of God. This statement is unequaled in breadth and significance in all Straubinger’s work and coming from him is a validation of your reading. This are indeed Jesus own words revealing Himself as Son of God and clarifying his mission. Most probably, his message to Nicodemus is in reference to His rising to God as Son of God so that by rising and being looked, as Moses caused Hebrews to look the risen snake symbol ordered by God, all witnesses who believe will receive eternal life with Him in Him.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Thank you, Ramon. Keep your comments coming!

  5. Sonia Willats

    I agree with Kosty that the first image referred to there is clearly the lifting up of the serpent, and that we thus cannot set aside the lifting up of Jesus on the cross BUT WE CANNOT SEPARATE THE LIFTING UP OF JESUS ON THE CROSS FROM a)Pascal Lamb who was worthy NOR b)from the resurrection from the Dead, as per 1 Cor 15:14And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.”

    QUESTION, ELI: The Hebrew word sacrifice and lifted up are the same root(?). So if this does not apply to the Greek text, surely it applies to the Hebraic writer, John?

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      That could be interesting. But once again the snake was not sacrifice. What could Nicodemus be expected to understand that is the question.

  6. Kostya

    Thanks Eli for an interesting blog as always. Thank you for those links to Enoch, especially regarding the ‘ascending and descending’.
    I agree with you that we can jump too quickly to Christian images and contexts, even with the New Testament texts,and seeing the cross before it happened, but I think that it makes more sense to keep within the context of the raising up of the serpent by Moses in Numbers 2, rather than the ascension of the Son of Man. The point of the text seems to be that just as Moses lifted up the serpent, so the Son of Man would be lifted up so that etc. It is hard to see how the lifting up of the serpent by Moses can be related to the ascension of the Son of Man to the heavenly throne as per Daniel’s vision. There also seems to be the connection between the life from the dead that looking upon Moses’ serpent gave, and the eternal life given by Jesus. Faith in Himself is a key concept here that Jesus is teaching, and that also relates to the serpent in the wilderness incident.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Kostya, thank you for your comment.

  7. Sonia Willats

    Thank you, Eli. I always delight to read your interpretation. (I have reading and delighting in Psalm 2, both in the Hebrew and English and delighting in its Messianic beauty; and the relevance of this beautiful Messiah today.)

    Also Rev 5:5-10 ties up with the Daniel 7 scripture. The Lion of the tribe of Judah was found worthy and overcame. “And in the midst of the elders was a Lamb standing, as having been slain … and he came and took the scroll out of the right hand of Him sitting on the throne.. ..the 24 elders fell down before the Lamb… And they sang a new song saying “Worthy are you to receive the scroll… because you were slain and by your blood purchased us to G-d out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation.”

    I agree that the serpent being lifted up does not necessarily only look forward to the image of the cross. It looks forward to the Pascal Lamb as being the propitiation of our sins and because of that being worthy to receive the crown as in Dan 7 and Rev 5.

    At Passover we focus on the blood on the doorposts saving those who applied it (the Israelites) from the Angel of Death, and on the love of G-d to deliver his people. We do not focus on how the lamb is killed.

    So you are right to point out that Jesus is pointing to his resurrection and ascenscion to the throne, and not only to the manner in which he was to die.

    Yet he also talked to his inner circle a great deal on the way to Jerusalem, pointing out to them from the scriptures ‘many things the Son of Man must suffer ..'(from memory..)

    So the suffering of the servant (Isa 53 as well) and on the cross is not irrelevant, but is the necessary beginning of the redemption of those who look to the Messiah.

    But we need to see also that the cross is so horrific to Jews because of the immeasurable suffering that was committed against Jews by the “Church” under the banner of the cross. As a means of death it merely shows how barbarous the then rulers were.

    In summary, I agree that Jesus, talking to Nicodemus, must have been looking past the menas of his death to his resurrection and crowning in preparation for Judegment. But perhaps a) Christians need to become much, much more aware of the horrors committed under that symbol & b) perhaps Jews need to walk tall in the sight of the cross, knowing that it was THEIR MESSIAH who was unjustly killed by foreigners who worked with a small group of chosen leaders. (Josephus tells us that the High Priest was chosen by the Romans for a few generations around that time.)

    I hope that I am managing to convey that if the Church would take much more responsibility in acknowledging its horrific blood-guilt towards Jews over many centuries, then we would not need to divest the cross of its significance as the instrument of sacrifice of the Pascal Lamb. And Jews could more easily see that it was THEIR MESSIAH who dies for all of our sins.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Agree. Wonderful feedback and observations. I am simply saying that when we read the Gospels we must not “christianize them” 🙂 in a sense of not importing later theological (even true) developments into an earlier texts.

      1. Sonia Willats

        Yes, I agree. (That was why I was so keen to read Psalm 2 in Hebrew. I have suspected the english translation of “Kiss the Son…” for years! But it looks okay. (LONGING to read these Psalms in a class to clarify tenses etc.)

        1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

          I wish you all success in your studies!

          1. Sonia Willats

            Thanks. It was you, quoting Hillel, that finally pushed me forward to action in spite of a busy life. And I’m so, so glad I did! The system is amazing. AND I HAVE BEEN GIVEN A RABBI AS MY TEACHER! I get up early as often as possible to find time to study, and a new light shines in my life. YOUR BLOG IS PRECIOUS, ELI! YOU WILL NEVER KNOW HOW MUCH, when one lives so far away from some of the things one loves most, like Israel, and her Messiah.

          2. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

            This is most encouraging!

          3. Jill Miller

            Why did you use the translation “Kiss the Son..” instead of “embrace purity”?

          4. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

            Because I think that Kiss the son is far more likely in the ancient Israelite context translation that embrace purity. Please, look at my article on sonship this will help to make my reasoning clearer. Now… could you still be right, and am wrong? Of course. 🙂

          5. Jill Miller

            I am only a beginning Hebrew student. Thank you for your response. I just joined the group and am enjoying your insight. Looks like I should start from the beginning of your blog. 😉
            So, an obvious question is..why is the Hebrew beni(my son) used earlier in the same Psalm and then in just a couple sentences later the Aramaic bar used?

          6. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

            I suppose the answer could be similar to sentence in modern Hebrew Ben sheli yehie bar mitzvah. (My son will be (at the age) of bar mitzvah). Ben (Hebrew) and Bar (aramaic) are used in one sentence as part of modern Hebrew. This could be one explanation. But as I said that verse translated not as SON but as purity-relented word, would not change the core meaning of the psalm (Son set on zion). Let’s keep on thinking together! Glad you are enjoying eteachers Hebrew classes!

      2. Lida

        I totally agree with the choice of word you used, “Christianized”. Christians have the tendency to read the Gospel as a non Jewish material. Most of Christians I know don’t even realize that Jesus was Jewish.

  8. Michelle

    I think verses 12 and 13 paint the most interesting picture.

    As you said, Jesus continues His conversation with Nicodemus in these verses, but I see Him pausing between the sentence about ascending to and descending from Heaven, and the phrase “Son of Man.” Then, as He watches Nicodemus’ eyes – and knowing Nicodemus’ thoughts – He knows the light is beginning to dawn as Nicodemus starts remembering the scriptures in Daniel, and the book of Enoch. I believe once Jesus knows the gears are turning in Nicodemus’ mind, then He proceeds with verse 14. Of course, I have no way to prove my line of thinking, but I think this is a possibility.

    And I like how you pointed out that Jesus would not have been referring to the crucifixion when talking about Moses lifting up the serpent, because the crucifixion hadn’t happened yet. Too often we interpret scriptures in an “after the fact” manner, simply because we’re reading about these events after they happened. We forget to look at the events of the Bible as they were happening.

    I tend to see this event as pretty significant. Nicodemus came with lots of questions that night, but I believe he left with lots of answers, and this is why he defended Jesus to the Sanhedrin when they were seeking to kill Jesus.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Thank you for this wonderful feedback!

      1. Michelle

        You are welcome!

        One question: I found the book of Enoch online, and read through the first 10 or 11 chapters. Very interesting! But why is this not included in scripture (Tanakh)? Is it seen by Jews as extra-Biblical literature?

        1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

          These books are not part of Rabbinical Judaism, the Judaism of today. So in that way they are irrelevent to the normative contemprory Judaism. But they show that from various Jewish movements of Jesus and pre-Jesus’time there were those who accepted it.

  9. logiudice

    Enoch 71:16. And all shall walk in his ways since righteousness never forsaketh him:
    With him will be their dwelling-places, and with him their heritage,
    And they shall not be separated from him for ever and ever and ever.

    Sounds like the Son of Man we know!!

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Thanks so much! Indeed!

  10. Paula Maybery

    So FAITH and Belief is the only way…I guess that is why it is so important to pray for people, that the barriers may be broken down in order for belief to be birthed.

    A couple of thoughts – so it is possible that we have to die in order to be ‘KEPT’ sleeping in Christ in the heavenly sphere in order to be awakened ‘In Christ’ at the end times, and so be ‘Lifted up’ forever when the Son of man comes.
    In which case we also’come back down’ in order to be lifted up in the same way as the son of man and possibly Enoch…