28 Ascending and Descending (John:9-15)
28. Ascending and Descending (John 3:9-15)
Nicodemus wants to know more. He is struggling to understand what Jesus is telling him.
“Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’”
Jesus tells Nicodemus that the reason he can’t understand is because he is trying to understand heavenly truth with earthly reasoning. Earthly logic has got him to Jesus. That is a good start. But he needs to go beyond earthly logic to enter the life that God has for him.
“Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?’” (John 3:10-11)
How can we grasp heavenly truths? Jesus tells Nicodemus that he needs to receive from the One who has come from heaven, Jesus Himself.
“No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-16)
It has already been implied in John’s gospel, that Jesus has come down from heaven to earth.
John’s first verse tells us that in the beginning He (the Logos referring to Jesus) was with God but now a few verses later he tells us that the Logos has become flesh and has come to live among us (John 1:14).
Again in chapter one, John has referred to Jesus as the light. That light was with God but has now come into our world (John 1:9).
However it is not until now, three chapters into the gospel, that the fact is clearly stated. And it is made clear by Jesus Himself. The Son of man (referring to Himself) has come down from heaven. That is why He knows heavenly truth. That is why He knows the Heavenly Father and the Holy Spirit, because He came down from heaven.
We have no conscious remembrance of any life before this one that we are living now. But Jesus was unique. Even as a child, He had some understanding that he had come from somewhere else. He told His anxious mother that He had been in His Father’s house and He was clearly not referring to Jesse’s carpentry shop.
” And he said to them, ‘Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’” (Luke 1:49)
Jesus plainly had some understanding of life beyond earth. He had told Nathanael that “you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:51) Again He was referring to Himself.
John the Baptist had some understanding of movement between heaven and earth too. He said that He had seen the Spirit descend from heaven upon Jesus.
“ And John bore witness: ‘I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.’” (John 1:32).
The word for heaven that John the Baptist uses here is “auranos” which can be translated “sky”. However Jesus uses the same word both when He is talking to Nathanael about heaven being open and again here when talking to Nicodemus. In these instances He is plainly talking about heaven, the dwelling place of God and the Angels, rather than just “sky”.
John the Baptist has told us that the Spirit has descended from heaven. Jesus has told Nathanael that Angels are ascending and descending from heaven. In both cases such heavenly activity happens “on” Jesus.
Now Jesus tells us, clearly for the first time, that He has come down from heaven. He seems to remember where He has come from. He seems to have a consciousness of life before His conception in Mary’s womb. Maybe He received this as revelation about Himself by reading the scriptures. In other words, maybe He had no personal, conscious, remembrance of His previous life in heaven and He had just received that knowledge by revelation from the Holy Spirit through the scriptures.
However, He speaks as if He remembers. He speaks with absolute certainty about something He knows and has experienced.
There is no indication from scripture that there was a time when He didn’t know. He may not have been born, like the rest of us, having to discover the truth about God. Maybe He was born knowing. Maybe right from the beginning of His conscious thought He knew who He was and where He had come from. He certainly knew by the time He was 12. And in His adulthood He says things that only someone who had been in heaven could have known.
He had known heavenly truths because He had come from heaven. But He still expected that someone who knew, studied and taught the scriptures should know heavenly truths as well. Those truths could be seen by those who had eyes to see them.
“Nicodemus said to him, ‘’How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?’” (John 3:9-10)
But even the Old Testament scriptures, as wonderful as they are, only make sense through Jesus. Because Jesus is God and He speaks not just what He has learnt and studied but what He knows from experience. When He speaks again to Nicodemus, He speaks as God. He speaks with the “royal we”. The plurality of Almighty God. He speaks on behalf of the Father and the Spirit as One.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen” (John 3:11)
But Nicodemus is not receiving what God is saying to Him:
“but you do not receive our testimony.” (John 3:11b)
Nicodemus is not receiving it because he is still earth bound in his understanding. More than that, Jesus is actually using earthly pictures to explain heavenly truth (like being born and the blowing of the wind) but Nicodemus is still not really getting it.
“If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:12)
But God, in Jesus, is going to persist in telling Nicodemus heavenly truth anyway. In fact it is to Nicodemus, the man who should have known the most but seems to understand the least, that He will most clearly reveal the most wonderful truth of them all.
He begins to move towards that primary truth in the next few verses. From gentle rebuke to wonderful revelation in two sentences. How like Jesus. How like God.
He begins where we began this chapter. Jesus has come down from heaven.
“No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” (John 3:12).
And He has come down from heaven with a mission and a message.
The mission is ultimately the cross.
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15).
Numbers 21:4-9 tells the story of how the Israelites grumbled against God (again) including calling their miraculous provision from heaven “worthless food” (Numbers 21:5). So the Lord released poisonous snakes among them to teach them a lesson. It took a while for the people to repent, long enough for “many” of them to die (Numbers 21:6).
The people came to Moses and were clear in their repentance “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” (Numbers 21:7).
Moses talked to the Lord who gave him an unusual response.
“And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” (Numbers 21:8).
Moses did as he was told, and, after that, if anyone was bitten by a snake they could look up to the image on the pole and they would be healed.
God didn’t remove the snakes right away. They were there because of the sin of the people. But He did provide a way for them to be healed. Something for them to look to. And when they looked to it, their lives were spared.
That is the story Jesus is referring to when He says:
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15)
We are in a worse predicament than the people of Israel. We have all sinned. We have let in the snake among us (satan the deceiver and destroyer). We have all been bitten. The curse of death is upon us all and the poison is slowly working it’s way through our system.
But we have an even better remedy than a snake on a pole. As in Jesus’ postscript to the clearing of the temple, where He speaks about His death and resurrection, He is again here pointing forwards towards those cosmic events. His whole life’s purpose pointed towards Calvary and the tomb, the hill and the garden and He dropped hints about it right from the beginning of His ministry.
When Jesus died on the cross He took all of our sin upon His shoulders. He provided for all our poison. And all who fully put their trust in Him will not only be healed spiritually in this life but will never spiritually die. They will be set free from the power of the snake.
Right from the start of His ministry Jesus knew where it was all leading. He had come down in order to be raised up. Jesus descended in order to ascend, so that He might descend in order to ascend.
Jesus descended from heaven in order to ascend the cross. So that He might descend into the grave and beyond, so that He might ascend into the Highest place in heaven and earth.
That was the mission.
The message? The most wonderful of them all:
“that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Jesus talks about the prize, the life that is available in Him. He introduces us here for the first time in John’s gospel to the concept of eternal, perpetual, everlasting life (“aionios zoe” in the Greek).
This is more than being adopted into God’s family, as we understand the term. This is not just being family in name, it is the sharing of eternal genes. It is the entry into the eternal life of God Himself.
As John has told us in verse 12 and 13 of his first chapter: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
Born of God. “Gennao ex Theos”.
Jesus wasn’t using a figure of speech to Nicodemus when he said “you must be born again”. If we want the wonderful life that comes from being part of God’s family, we don’t sign adoption papers, we need to become His children. We need to be gennao ex Theos. We need to be born of God. That happens by the power of the Holy Spirit. And it happens, Jesus says to “whoever believes in Him”.
This life is found by believing and receivingsssss, by wholly trusting, by putting your life into the hands of Jesus.
There’s that all inclusive word “whoever” again. “Pas” in the Greek. It means “all, any, every, as many as”. It is all embracing and without prejudice. Jesus underlines what John has already told us in John 1:12, that this gift of life is available to everyone and it is found only in Jesus.
An all inclusive gift in a totally exclusive package.
It is available to everyone but accessible through only One. Everyone can have it. Only One can give it. All can have eternal life, but they can only receive it through Jesus.
Jesus immediately underlines those themes in the next verse. Perhaps the best known and most loved of all the verses in the Bible.Posted on: June 4, 2018Peter Todd