Having discussed the various Son of Man sayings and references in the Synoptic Gospels in the previous notes, today I will survey the sayings in the Gospel of John. None of the Synoptic sayings occur, as such, in John; as in most cases, the Fourth Gospel draws upon a separate line of tradition. However, there are some interesting parallels. As in the Synoptics, the Son of Man sayings have undergone relatively little development in John. Any adaptation that has taken place has primarily been to emphasize particular words or concepts which are common to the Gospel’s unique mode of expression. There are twelve distinct Son of Man sayings, the first of which is perhaps the most difficult.
“Amen, amen, I say to you (that) you will see [o&yesqe] the heavens opened up and the Messengers of God stepping up [a)nabai/nonta$] and stepping down [katabai/nonta$] upon the Son of Man”
I am very much inclined to the view that the saying of John 1:51, in its particular position within the structure of the narrative, is intended primarily as a symbolic picture that effectively encompasses the entire Gospel—a framing device representing beginning and end, much like the “Alpha and Omega” (A and W) of Revelation 1:8; 21:6; 22:13 (another Johannine work, with definite parallels in thought and language to the Gospel). Here are some points I would cite in favor of this interpretation:
- The clear parallels with the Baptism (cf. the earlier note), which marks the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry (descent/incarnation); the location of Jn 1:51 also strongly suggests an allusion to the Baptism.
- Similar parallels with the Resurrection (ascension), which effectively marks the end of Jesus’ earthly existence.
- Similarities to descriptions of the Son of Man coming in glory at the end-time (esp. in the Synoptic tradition); however, the Gospel of John understands the Son to have had this position and glory prior to his incarnation/birth as a human being (i.e. divine pre-existence). This means, in the Johannine context, that such images cannot refer only to Jesus’ exaltation and future return, but to a reality that encompasses and transcends the entire process of descent/ascent (cf. above).
- The saying in Jn 1:51 is part of a parallel, between the beginning and end of the Gospel, expressed by the encounter of two disciples (Nathanael and Thomas) with Jesus, and involving parallel confessions:
—Jn 1:49: “You are the Son of God | you are the King of Israel!”
—Jn 20:28: “My Lord | my God!”
Each of the confessions also includes a response by Jesus (Jn 1:50-51; 20:29) related to disciples/believers seeing him.
- In the Gospel of John, “seeing” often signifies a level of spiritual perception (or of faith/trust) that is different from visual observation (Jn 1:14, 18; 3:3; 6:36, 46; 9:37-41; 11:9, 40; 12:45; 14:7, 9, 17, 19; 17:24; 20:29, etc). It is likely that the declaration “you will see” (o&yesqe) does not refer to a concrete, visible event, but rather to the recognition and realization of Jesus’ true identity—the Son who reveals and leads the way to the Father. Note the parallel with 20:29:
The comprehensive nature of the Son of Man reference in 1:51 is paralleled by two key sayings toward the end of the ministry period (in John, the so-called “Book of Signs” chaps 2-12), which also serve to introduce the great Last Discourse (chs. 13-17) and Passion Narrative. Both of these sayings use the verb doca/zw (doxázœ), “give (or regard with) esteem, honor”, etc, i.e. “glorify”, related to the noun do/ca (dóxa, usually translated “glory”).
John 12:23; 13:31
- John 12:23: “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be honored/glorified [docasqh=]”—the primary context in this passage is to Jesus’ upcoming death (cf. below).
- John 13:31: “Now the Son of Man is honored/glorified [e)doca/sqh], and the Father is honored/glorified in him”—this saying effectively begins the great Discourses of chapters 13-17, and is tied throughout to the idea that Son is about to go away: a dual-layered reference to his death and his return to the Father.
For additional occurrences of the verb doca/zw in reference to Jesus (or the Son) being glorified, cf. John 7:39; 8:54; 11:4; 12:16; 14:13; 15:8; 16:14; 17:1, 4-5, 10. This “glory” covers both aspects of Jesus’ Passion—his death and his resurrection. In classic Christian theology this duality is often referred to as the two “states” of Christ—his humiliation and exaltation. However, in Johannine terminology, it is better understood as a descent to earth (i.e. the incarnation) leading all the way to death, followed by an ascent to heaven (including the resurrection), back to the Father.
This two-fold process of Jesus’ glorification is expressed in two distinct groups of Son of Man sayings. The first group involves the verb u(yo/w (hypsóœ, “make/place high”, i.e. “raise, lift up”); the second uses the related pair of verbs a)nabai/nw and katabai/nw (“step up” and “step down”, i.e. “ascend”, “descend”).
John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34: “lift (up) high”
- John 3:14: “so it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted high [u(ywqh=nai]”—the comparison is with the ‘fiery’ copper/bronze serpent lifted by Moses (on a pole) which brought healing (from the burning snakebite) to all who looked at it (Num 21:9); the reference is primarily to Jesus’ death (on the stake/cross), but almost certainly has his resurrection and exaltation in mind as well (cf. below). This is described in terms of salvation: “…so that every one trusting in him might have (the) Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]”.
- John 8:28: “when you (have) lifted high [u(yw/shte] the Son of Man…”—the formulation here (“when you…”) indicates more precisely Jesus being put to death (on the stake/cross), but again the subsequent exaltation is also in view. Throughout the discourse(s) of chapters 7-8, Jesus has been expressing, in various ways, his relationship to (and identification with) God the Father; here specifically Jesus states that when they have lifted up the Son of Man “…then you will know that I am, and I do nothing from myself, but just as the Father taught me, (so) I speak these things”. In verse 26, this is also described in terms of judgment, which is associated with the eschatological Son of Man figure of many of Jesus’ sayings in the Synoptics.
- John 12:32: “and if I am lifted high [u(ywqw=] I will drag all (people/things) toward me”—this is related to the previous sayings (especially 3:14), as well as to the Son of Man saying in 12:23 (cf. above). The context is specifically that of Jesus’ impending death (and resurrection), again relating to the promise of salvation and eternal life (vv. 24-25, 27-28, 33, 36).
- John 12:34: “you say that it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted high…”—this is part of a question to Jesus from the crowd, referring (in context) to verse 32, but more properly it cites the saying in 3:14 (above). There is a clear connection with the “Anointed (One)”, and expresses some confusion on the part of the people in the crowd as to just what Jesus means by the expression Son of Man—”…who is this ‘Son of Man’?”
John 3:13; 6:62 (with 6:27, 53): “descend / ascend”
- John 1:51: “You will see the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God stepping up and stepping down upon the Son of Man”—on this saying, cf. above.
- John 3:13: “no one has stepped up into heaven if not the one stepping down out of heaven, the Son of Man”—this saying is obviously related to that of verse 14 (cf. above); it identifies/contrasts a person being raised/exalted to heavenly status with one who has (first) come down out of heaven. The implication is that Jesus is not simply a human being who has been (or will be) raised to a heavenly/divine position, but was previously in heaven (with God) before coming to earth. This, of course, is stated clearly in the Prologue of John (1:1ff) and indicated throughout the Gospel by Jesus; in precise theological terms, it refers to the (divine) pre-existence of Jesus. This is made even more definite in the manuscripts which read “…the Son of Man, the (one) being in Heaven”.
- John 6:62: “then (what) if you should behold the Son of Man stepping up [a)nabai/nonta] (to) where he was (at) the first?”
This saying is part of the great Bread of Life discourse in John 6:27-71, which I have discussed in considerable detail in prior articles. Especially noteworthy are the references to the bread that has come down (lit “stepped down”) from Heaven (vv. 33, 38, 41-42, 50-51, 58), which in context clearly symbolizes Jesus (the Son of Man) who has stepped down from Heaven (i.e. the incarnation), and who will soon step back up into Heaven (back to the Father) from whence he came (v. 62). As in 3:13 (above), this indicates a pre-existent, heavenly status in relationship to God, and must be understood in light of the many references throughout the Gospel—especially in the discourses of chapters 13-17—where Jesus speaks of the Son coming from and going (back) to the Father. There is, of course, eucharistic symbolism in the bread—broken down into the dual image of eating his body and drinking his blood. This is expressed in the Son of Man sayings in vv. 27, 53, associated specifically with Jesus’ sacrificial death:
All of these sayings which speak of Jesus’ glorification through the dualistic imagery of death and resurrection, descent and ascent, along with the two-fold meaning of being “lifted (up) high”, as they run through the Gospel narrative, have a general parallel with the Passion predictions by Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels (cf. the earlier note). In those declarations, reference to the suffering and death of the Son of Man is followed by the announcement of his resurrection. In a similar way, the death of Jesus, indicated by his “trial” before the Sanhedrin, prefigures his exaltation (cf. Mk 14:62 par). The Synoptic Gospels use these three Passion predictions (Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:33 par) as a framing device for the narrative. However, in the Gospel of John, the Son of Man sayings serve rather a different purpose, which is primarily theological and Christological. However, there are two Son of Many sayings in John which draw more clearly upon the traditional imagery found in the Synoptics.
John 5:27; 9:35
- John 5:26-27: “For (even) as the Father holds life in himself, so also he gave the Son to hold life in himself; and he [i.e. the Father] gave him authority [e)cousi/a] to make judgment, (in) that [i.e. because] he is the Son of Man”
- John 9:35: “Do you trust in the Son of Man?” (other manuscripts read “…in the Son of God“)
The first saying (5:27) identifies the Son of Man with the end-time Judgment, as we see in many of the Synoptic sayings (cf. the previous two notes). Yet consider the way Jesus expounds this traditional association in the Johannine discourse. The statement in v. 27 essentially identifies Jesus with the heavenly “Son of Man” figure-type (Dan 7:13, etc), much as we find in the Synoptics:
- V. 27—”He [i.e. God the Father] gave him [i.e. Jesus] authority to make judgment, because he [i.e. Jesus] is the Son of Man“
At the same time, the statement in v. 26 brings out the distinctly Johannine idea of Jesus as the divine/eternal Son (of God), in his unique relation to (God) the Father:
- V. 26—”Just as the Father holds Life in himself, so also he gave (it) to the Son to hold Life in himself”
The saying in 9:35 is rather different; Jesus addresses the man whose sight was restored: “Do you trust in the Son of Man?”. As noted above, some manuscripts read “Son of God” instead of “Son of Man”, perhaps reflecting a point in time when copyists no longer understood the expression “Son of Man” and wished to stress the deity of Christ as the point of belief. However, as we have seen, Jesus often used the expression “Son of Man” as a self-reference, as if to say, in this instance, “Do you trust in me?” Yet, even people at the time seem to have had difficulty understanding Jesus’ use of the expression “Son of Man”, if we accept the authenticity of the crowd’s response in 12:34, and the question of the healed man here in v. 36: “Who is he, (my) lord, that I may trust in him?” Jesus’ immediate answer (v. 37) perfectly encapsulates the Johannine theology which associates belief (and salvation) with seeing Jesus—that is, coming to recognize just who Jesus is, his true identity.
It is worth noting that each of these last two sayings are set in the context of traditional healing miracle episodes, and thus are perhaps closer to the Son of Man sayings which occur in the Synoptics (from the standpoint of the Gospel narrative) during the period of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. With these sayings we bring this portion of the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”, dealing with the Galilean Period, to a close. It may serve as yet another reminder of the many rich and powerful ways that the traditions were developed—a fact, and a theme, that we will continue to explore as we enter into the next major portion of this series: the Passion Narrative.