In the last blog we continued our exploration of ‘ascending and descending’ language in the Gospel of John. We found that John 3:13, when considered in context and against the background of Proverbs 30:4, provides a strong statement of Christ’s personal preexistence.
In this, the last of a three-part series, we will consider yet another verse which uses ascending and descending language to teach us about Christ’s pre-existence: John 6:62. It reads in context thus:
“58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever." 59 Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum. 60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?" 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, "Do you take offense at this? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?”
Here we find Jesus issuing a bold rebuke to those who were offended by his prior claims to have descended from heaven, and to have given his flesh to eat: “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” We find again the common thread of the “Son of Man” which was also found in John 1:51 and 3:13, which is certainly worthy of further study.
But it is not too difficult to determine what Jesus question meant. The context is full of references to Christ having descended from heaven (John 6:33, 38, 41, 42, 50, 51, 58), so for Jesus to “ascend to where he was before” can only refer to his ascension back to heaven. The rhetorical question makes good sense in light of the historical record which declares that Jesus subsequently did ascend to heaven. Jesus’ subsequent ascent to heaven was undeniably literal (i.e. personal). So for him to use the language of “ascending to where he was before” requires that he had literally, personally, been in heaven before. This requires that he pre-existed. The argument is straightforward.
Those who deny the pre-existence of Christ have produced innovative alternative interpretations of John 6:62. One is that Jesus was referring to an ascent to Jerusalem (i.e. an uphill walk). Support for this view is claimed in the use of the verb anabaino (to go up), which is used of going up to the feast in Jerusalem in John 7:8, 10, 14; and also is translated 'ascending' in John 6:62. However, this view makes no sense in the context. Jesus’ question, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if…” implies that he is about to make an even more provocative statement than those he had just made (about descending from heaven and giving his flesh to eat). Does “Then what if I were to go up to the feast at Jerusalem?” qualify as even more provocative? It does not.
Others have claimed that Jesus’ statement in John 6:62 referred to his resurrection, that is, “ascending” out of the grave back to the realm of the living. This, too, is fraught with difficulties. For one thing, the verb anabaino is nowhere else used in the sense of resurrection. For another, the verb is a present active participle here; Jesus is emphasizing the action in progress. What if you were to see the Son of man in the act of ascending to where he was before? This use of the verb makes little sense if it refers to a figurative, resurrection meaning; but it makes a lot of sense if it refers to his bodily ascension to heaven, which was witnessed in progress by some of the disciples who heard these words (see Acts 1:11).
In their commentary on John, Bernard and McNeile bring out the sense of this verse well:
“Here is suggested the pre-existence of the Son of Man, as before at 3:13...The meaning of vv. 62, 63 is best brought out if we take them in connexion with v. 58 (cf. v. 51), which had seemed to the hearers of Jesus to be hard of acceptance...that He was the Bread which came down from heaven...That One moving among men in the flesh had descended from heaven seemed incredible, but is it not still less credible that He should ascend to heaven? Yet the former had happened (in the Incarnation); the latter will happen at the Ascension, and some of those present might be there to see it” (p. 111).