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Friday, 2 September 2011

Ascending and Descending (Part 1)

In three previous blogs (here, here and here) on the pre-existence of Christ in the narrative of John’s Gospel, we focused on three separate lines of argument. Firstly, we focused on a plain assertion from the mouth of John the Baptist that Jesus had existed before him. Secondly, we looked at statements in which John the Baptist contrasted himself (a fundamentally earthly being) with Jesus (a fundamentally heavenly being). Thirdly, we looked at statements Jesus made which express an awareness of a prior existence in God’s presence in heaven. On this collective evidence a strong case can be built that Christ existed in heaven prior to his human birth.

However, the evidence doesn’t stop there! In this blog we are going to begin looking at passages that reveal another fascinating line of evidence from John’s Gospel – the language of Christ ascending and descending between heaven and earth.

The first such passage is John 1:51, where Jesus spoke to Nathanael (who had just professed faith in him as the Son of God because of Jesus’ powers of perception): “And he said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.’” This is a puzzling statement, and it is also the first occurrence of Jesus’ equally puzzling self-referent, ‘the Son of Man’ (which is a study in its own right). It is also the first use of his signature phrase, “Amen, Amen I say unto you” in this Gospel. Indeed, it was the first of many profound statements about himself that Jesus would make in this Gospel. But what does it mean?

The key to interpreting this saying is to recognize it as an allusion to a dream had by Jacob recorded in Genesis 28:11-13, in which there was a ladder reaching from earth up to heaven with the angels of God ascending and descending on it. Here in John, the angels are portrayed as ascending and descending on the Son of Man – Christ himself! Thus Christ is describing himself as a ladder reaching from earth to heaven. John Phillips describes the point Jesus was making in his commentary on John’s Gospel:

“I am that ladder.  I link God and man, heaven and earth.  I am the one and only mediator between God and man, the only link between heaven and earth.  The angels ascend and descend because of me” (Phillips, John. Exploring the Gospel of John: an expository commentary, p. 50)
This begs the question of how angels travelled between heaven and earth prior to Jesus’ existence, if he did not personally pre-exist. But more importantly, it establishes that in the context of this Gospel, language about ascent and descent between heaven and earth is literal. When angels travel between heaven and earth, they actually travel (not spatially in a physical sense, but nonetheless in terms of actual relocation). This sets a precedent for how to interpret language about Christ ascending and descending between heaven and earth in this Gospel.

We have a similar contextual clue at the end of John’s Gospel when Christ spoke of ascending to his Father after his resurrection (John 20:17). We know that he literally ascended to heaven (Acts 1:9-11 is unmistakably clear), so the language of ascension in John 20:17 must also be taken literally. Thus in John 1:51 and 20:17 we have two ‘bookends’ of literal ascent/descent language in the Gospel of John. In between these two bookends are two remarkable passages about the ascent and descent of the Son of Man. We’ll take a closer look at these two passages in the next blog.

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