Last week we began an exploration of the language of ascent and descent in the Gospel of John as it relates to the pre-existence of Christ. We looked at John 1:51, an allusion to the Old Testament account of Jacob’s ladder which effectively equated Christ with the ladder that stretched from earth to heaven and allowed angelic beings to pass between the two domains.
In this blog we will look at a passage that bears more directly upon the pre-existence of Christ: John 3:13. In context, a Jewish nobleman named Nicodemus has come to see Jesus under cover of darkness, and is perplexed by his teachings about the need to be born again. Jesus expresses amazement that a teacher of Israel could be ignorant of these things, and then declares that he speaks about things he has seen – earthly and heavenly things. He then makes this startling claim:
“No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”
There are some important textual issues that affect the way this verse is interpreted. Firstly, in a few English translations such as the King James Version, there is a final clause at the end of the verse: “which is in heaven.” However, most textual authorities are agreed that this is not authentic.
Secondly, some have thought that the words in this verse are not the words of Jesus. Rather, Jesus’ speech ends at verse 12, and verses 13-21 are narration by the author of the Gospel of John. We can, however, say confidently that Jesus spoke these words to Nicodemus. The use of the phrase ‘Son of Man’ points us in this direction. Outside of this text it occurs 77 times in the New Testament (with definite article). 75 of those are in the words of Jesus himself (the lone exceptions are John 12:34 and Acts 7:56). Furthermore, in verse 14 the Greek verb ‘dei’ is in the present tense – the Son of Man must be lifted up. This refers to the crucifixion as an event that must yet happen (as opposed to Luke 24:26, where ‘dei’ occurs in the imperfect past tense after the crucifixion).
If Jesus spoke these words to Nicodemus, the question that confronts us is, what did he mean when he claimed (at this early stage of his earthly ministry) to have descended from heaven and ascended up to heaven? Those who deny the pre-existence of Christ have suggested various interpretations, such as that the verbs are to be understood in future tense (in plain violation of the rules of grammar). Others have suggested a figurative interpretation. However, we already saw that John 1:51 sets a strong precedent for ‘ascending and descending’ language in this Gospel being literal.
I think there are two keys that allow us to unlock the correct interpretation of this verse. The first is recognizing from the context that the focus of the passage is about access to divine knowledge (see verses 10-12). A major theme in the Gospel of John is the contrast between Moses and Jesus (see John 1:17). A Jewish scholar like Nicodemus would have been aware of contemporary Jewish traditions which taught that Moses, Enoch and other figures had ascended to heaven to receive knowledge from God. Jesus here denies that anyone had experienced such a visit to heaven other than himself. But he does not stop there; he goes further to say that he had come from heaven. In effect he was saying, “Not only have I been to heaven; I come from there!” It is the difference between hearing about Paris from someone who vacationed there, and hearing about Paris from a Parisian.
The second key to interpreting the verse is recognizing that Jesus is alluding to Proverbs 30:4, which also occurs in the context of access to divine knowledge:
“3 I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the Holy One. 4 Who has ascended to heaven and come down? Who has gathered the wind in his fists? Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is his son's name? Surely you know!”
Jesus’ statement in John 3:13 is an allusion to the rhetorical question, “Who has ascended to heaven and come down?” The implied answer in Proverbs 30:4 is, “No one except God!” but this is followed with a veiled reference to the Messiah in the question, “What is his name, and what is his son’s name?” This mysterious question supports Jesus’ claim that someone other than God – namely the Son – had ascended to heaven and come down from heaven.
The ascending and descending in Proverbs 30:4 can only be literal (when seen next to the references to creation of the earth and control of the weather), so this parallel strengthens our case that in John 3:13, Jesus claims to have literally come down from heaven.