Today for Holy Saturday and the Vigil of Easter, I am moving away from the Gospel of Luke to explore the Son of Man sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John. In examining the expression “Son of Man” in Luke (and the Synoptic tradition), we have seen it used by Jesus four different ways—(1) as a self-reference, a substitute for “I”; (2) to identify himself as a human being or with the human condition, especially in terms of weakness, suffering and death; (3) in reference to his Passion; and (4) as a heavenly being who will come (again) to judge the world at the end-time. In some ways, all four uses are interrelated or connected in the Synoptics, and so also in the Gospel of John; however the sayings in John tend to have a more specific Christological emphasis, and may be grouped into three main categories:
1. The Son of Man “lifted high”—Here the verb used is u(yo/w (“make/place high”, i.e. “raise, lift up”):
- 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. below). 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’?”
2. The Son of Man “descending and ascending”—The verbs involved are katabai/nw and a)nabai/nw (literally “step down” and “step up”), and are commonly used in the Gospel narrative (“go up” etc), especially a)nabai/nw for “going up” to Jerusalem. However, they take on an important theological/Christological connotation in John; apart from these Son of Man sayings, cf. Jn 1:32-33; 20:17, and the play on words in Jn 2:12-13; 6:16; 7:8, 10, 14; 10:1; 11:55; 12:20.
- 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. below.
- 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 6:27: “work…for the food th(at) remains in the Life of Ages [i.e. eternal life], which the Son of Man will give to you”
John 6:53: “if you do not consume the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not hold Life in yourself”
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?”
These sayings are 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—which connects these sayings specifically with Jesus’ sacrificial death.
3. The Son of Man “glorified”—These sayings (using the verb doca/zw, “esteem, honor”, i.e. “give glory, glorify”) combine elements of categories 1 and 2 above, and also unite more precisely the two aspects of the Son of man being lifted up—(a) his death (on the cross), and (b) his exaltation (resurrection/ascension) and return to the Father:
- John 12:23: “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified [docasqh=]”—as indicated above, the primary context in this passage is to Jesus’ upcoming death.
- John 13:31: “Now the Son of Man is glorified [e)doca/sqh], and the Father is 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. Similarly, Jesus’ coming again (and the disciples’ seeing him again) should be understood on these two levels—i.e., (1) of his appearance after the resurrection, and (2) his future (and permanent) appearance, either in terms of the coming of the Spirit/Paraclete or Jesus’ own end-time/future return (or both).
There are only two other Son of Man sayings in the Gospel of John:
- 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“)
Both of these are set in the context of healing miracles, 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. The first saying draws on the on the figure of Son of Man as Divine/Heavenly Judge, familiar from a number of the Synoptic sayings (in Luke) we have been examining during this series. The second saying also has a reference to Jesus’ role in judgment (vv. 39-41), but overall the emphasis is on his healing/saving power.
Finally, we must mention John 1:51, which is almost certainly the most difficult of all these sayings:
“You will see the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God stepping up and stepping down upon the Son of Man”
There have been many and varied attempts at interpreting this apparently ambiguous utterance by Jesus. Because of its important position as the first Son of Man saying in John, and because, in my view, it is meant (by the Gospel writer) as a specific image that frames/binds the start of Jesus’ ministry (chapter 2) with the end of it (his Passion/Resurrection/Exaltation), I will be commenting on it in detail in an upcoming note (during the three days of Easter).