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Saturday, 18 June 2011

He who comes from heaven


In last week’s blog we looked at something John the Baptist said about Jesus (John 1:29-30) and we claimed that it required Jesus to have existed before his human birth. In this week’s blog we will look another statement John the Baptist made comparing himself with Jesus, this time taken from John 3:27-32:

“27 John answered, ‘A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. 28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, 'I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.' 29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.’ 31 He who comes from above is above all.  He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way.  He who comes from heaven is above all.  32 He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony.”

It is plain from the immediate context ( verse 35) and the wider context of John’s Gospel (John 8:23) that ‘he who comes from heaven’ is Jesus Christ.

It appears that ‘he who is of the earth’ refers to John the Baptist (or perhaps more generally to all prophets other than the Christ). Thus we have here another contrast between John the Baptist, who ‘is of the earth, belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way,’ and Christ, who ‘comes from heaven,’ ‘is above all,’ and ‘bears witness to what he has seen and heard.’

In what sense did Christ come from heaven? Did he pre-exist in heaven and then actually descend to earth? This is the literal interpretation of the passage. But others claim it has a figurative meaning. Some say it refers to the fact that Jesus was born as a result of miraculous, heavenly intervention. Others say Christ came from heaven in the sense that the heavenly God had been planning his life long before he was born. Still others say that Christ came from heaven in the sense that the heavenly God sent him on a mission. So which meaning is correct?

A basic rule of biblical interpretation is to take words at their plain, literal meaning unless there is good reason to prefer a figurative meaning. In this case, there is no good reason to prefer a figurative meaning, and in fact the figurative interpretations mentioned above have serious flaws.

One thing everyone can agree on is that the main point of this passage is the distinction between Christ (who came from heaven) and John the Baptist (who is of the earth). Interpreted literally, the distinction is significant indeed. But interpreted figuratively, the distinction is almost trivial. It is true that Christ’s birth was a result of heavenly intervention; but so was John the Baptist’s (Luke 1:7-20). It is true that Christ’s life was planned ahead by God, but so was John the Baptist’s (John 1:23), and so too are all the saints’ (Ephesians 1:5). It is true that Christ was sent on a mission by God, but so was John the Baptist (John 1:6). So under these interpretations, John the Baptist came from heaven almost as truly as Jesus Christ did. It is only the literal meaning that accounts for the ‘heaven and earth’ distinction drawn here between Christ and John the Baptist.

There are other reasons to take the words “He who comes from heaven” literally. John 3:31-32 implies that Christ testified to what he had seen and heard in heaven (we will look at other passages in this vein in the next blog). Christ could not have seen and heard things in heaven unless he had actually been there.

Note also the difference in verbs between “he who comes from heaven” and “he who is of the earth.” The writer doesn’t say “he who comes from the earth,” because John the Baptist didn’t literally come out of the ground. But he does emphatically refer to Christ as “he who comes from heaven.”

The Socinians (a group of Polish unitarian Christians in the 16th century) believed that Christ made a special trip to heaven after his baptism where he met the Father, was instructed by him, and then returned to earth (see Section V of the Racovian Catechism, ‘Of the prophetic office of Christ’). They knew that this verse and others clearly taught that Christ actually descended from heaven, but they were not prepared to accept the pre-existence of Christ.

Rather than inventing a story to avoid the plain meaning of the passage, let us hear the Scriptural testimony that Christ personally pre-existed in heaven before coming down to earth. He ranked before John the Baptist because he existed before him. He is above all because he comes from above.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

'One thing everyone can agree on is that the main point of this passage is the distinction between Christ (who came from heaven) and John the Baptist (who is of the earth). Interpreted literally, the distinction is significant indeed. But interpreted figuratively, the distinction is almost trivial'

I have to disagree with you there Tom. If one were to interpret this passage figuratively, the distinction between Jesus and JTB is actually of fundamental importance. Jesus was the 'Word made Flesh'. The word defines who God is, God's word was what he used in the OT to convey who he was. This word was manifested in 'flesh' (a human being who is prone to sin and has all temptations and problems that we face in our lives). The point that the passage is making is that while Jesus was a man, he was heavenly, he declared the Father to us (John 1:18), and in that sense he came down from heaven, because it was as if Yahweh himself had come down from heaven. Jesus was the embodiment of Yahweh and that is the point being made here.

Tom said...

Thanks for your comment. It is true that Jesus declared and revealed the Father to us, but I don't think this is a satisfying explanation of what Jesus meant when he said that he came from heaven. Jesus didn't say that he brought the Father down from heaven; the emphasis in these sayings is always on the fact that he himself came down from heaven. See also my newest blog about Jesus' previous experience of heaven.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but he is the Father in the sense that he embodies who the Father is. The sense in which Jesus 'came down from heaven' is very much a parallel with the manna (John 6). The manna did not literally come down from heaven, it was 'formed on the ground', in the same way as Jesus, but it came from God and as a result it is appropriate to say that Jesus came down from Heaven.

Tom said...

The language of Psalm 78:23-29 strongly suggests that the manna actually did come "down from heaven," if we are to take the "rain" imagery and "bread of the angels" phrase seriously.

The language of coming "down" may be a concession to the frailties of human understanding, since heaven is not a location in the physical universe (in my opinion). Nevertheless, persons and objects can and do move between the heavenly and earthly spheres, with manna, angels and Jesus being clear biblical examples.

The language of 'descent' and 'ascent' in John makes it clear that an actual relocation of Jesus' personal presence is meant - even in the context of the 'bread of heaven' discourse, in John 6:62 (which we'll get to in a blog in the near future).

Anonymous said...

I think that while trying to look at Scripture at face-value (which is admirable), you are perhaps trying to take things too literally. John's gospel is full of analogous and metaphorical language, and I think that in this context it is clearly metaphorical.

With regards to the manna, the point being made is that the bread clearly came from God - he provided it. But we read in Exodus 16:

"That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor"

The dew came from heaven signifying that this was indeed from God, but the manna is formed on the ground, in a very similar way to the Lord Jesus which is why he draws a parallel between this Heavenly gift and himself.

Having said all that, when we get to John 6, we clearly see Jesus using metaphorical lanugage to describe his role with the people. The fact that he indicates that if any man does not eat his flesh or drink his blood then he does not have life in him is a clear case in point. Jesus is not referring to his literal flesh and blood, but rather by symbol, the bread and the cup which would become a key part of 1st century discipleship. Most people would agree that the Bread and the Cup are symbols and that Jesus is not speaking literally, nor is he speaking literally about descending from Heaven.

When we look to interpret Scripture we should (as I believe you are attempting to do) treat it at face-value. However, it is essentially a book from our Father in Heaven and therefore, is not easy to understand. We must search things out, and try and ascertain whether or not we should interpet things figuratively or literally. In this case, it is very clear that Jesus is speaking figuratively.

Tom said...

Thanks for your comment. First, with regard to the actual origin of manna: I cannot find the source of your quotation that it "formed on the ground." The only thing close is in Ex. 16:13-14: "In the evening quail came up and covered the camp, and in the morning dew lay around the camp.
And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as frost on the ground."

This says that the manna was found on the ground, but it does not say that the manna formed on the ground. The Old Testament consistently speaks of the manna as having rained down (Ex. 16:4; Ps. 78:23-24), fallen with the dew (Num. 11:9), and come from heaven (Neh. 9:15; Ps. 105:40). Note also the interesting reference in Ps. 78:25 to manna being the bread of the angels. There are both literal and figurative aspects here. The manna did in some literal sense come from heaven (even "the skies" in Ps. 78:23), and also figuratively it was a gift from God's hand (Deut. 8:3).

When thinking on how manna came from heaven, we are thus not faced with a stark "either/or" choice between a literal and figurative interpretation. So it is with thinking on how Christ came from heaven.

Indeed, students of the Gospel of John have often noted his tendency to use double entendres - turns of phrase which have multiple layers of meaning. A couple famous examples include: "Born again / born from above" in John 3:3, "Lifted up" in the literal sense of crucifixion and the figurative sense of exaltation in John 8:28, 12:32; "It is finished" in the literal sense of his physical earthly life, and the figurative sense of his Father's purpose, in John 19:30. In all of these cases, a literal interpretation is correct, but incomplete.

There are also many instances of irony in John's Gospel, in which a surface, literal interpretation is not merely incomplete but is wrong. Examples include: 'food' in John 4:32, Jesus' flesh to eat in John 6:51, 'where I am you cannot come' in John 7:35/8:21, Lazarus is asleep in John 11:11. However, Jesus' ironic statements are generally apparent from the ignorant replies of his disciples and the Jews.

There are no such indications in any Jesus' numerous statements about coming down from heaven or originating in heaven to suggest that it would be wrong to apply a literal interpretation to these statements. And such a literal interpretation is not necessarily opposed to a figurative interpretation (i.e. that Jesus was on a mission to do the Father's will). Indeed, both ideas are to be found within John's Gospel.