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. Ruth Harvey

    A year down the line, will this be picked up?
    I have to confess that my Gentile mind struggles with these things – how we have been missing out on the whole of truth! Could we not see the serpent being lifted up in the wilderness as a type? As we see Pesach a forerunner of Jesus and Joseph as a type of Jesus? Or is that my view because this is the teaching we have always received. However, I see what you are saying Dr Eli and as ever it gives me much to chew over. Have you read David Pawson on John 3:16 – ‘Is John 3:16 the Gospel?’ He says very much the same about the splitting of the verses and the Greek ‘for thus’ linking it to what has gone before. It was mind blowing the first time I heard this from a well respected preacher we have sometimes and it really rocked some people’s faith.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Ruth, hi. I am nowdays trying not to read anything at all (it sounds strange, but I think that I did a lot of reading already) so I am not thinking by myself without always comparing with what the others are saying. I realize the dangerous in it of course, but I also see a lot of advantages too.

  2. Sonia Willats

    I was re-reading this section the other day, and think your exegesis and connection to Ps2 has been one of the high points of the blog. J Miller’s question and your responses are interesting too! I suspected this Psalm of mis-translation for years, but not now. I note that the “Bar” is connected to the “One who sits in the Heavens” in verse 5 by the anger that follows from challenging their authority. So it must be referring to the Son whom He has installed on his holy mountain – the Son of Man crowned in Dan 7!

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      I think you are right. Thank you for your encouragement.

      1. Jill Miller

        Thank you for responding Dr. Eli and Sonia. This is very helpful for me.