“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Johannine Sayings (Jn 3:13-14, cont.)

John 3:13-14, continued

John 3:14

“And, even as Moshe lifted high [u&ywsen] the snake in the desolate (land), so it is necessary (for) the son of man to be lifted high [u(ywqh=nai]”

This “son of man” saying follows upon the one in verse 13 (discussed in the previous study). While it is possible that these sayings once circulated separately, they are clearly connected here, being integral—indeed, central—to the Johannine Discourse of Jesus in chap. 3 (3:1-21). In this case, the initial conjunction (kai/), connecting verse 14 with v. 13, would seem to have a coordinating (and explicative) force (i.e., “and so…”).

The bonding motif, uniting the two sayings, is the idea of ascent. In verse 13 (as in 1:51, cf. the earlier study) the verb used is a)nabai/nw (“step up”), while here in v. 14 it is u(yo/w (“lift/raise high”). Both verbs are important Johannine keywords, used throughout the Gospel, with special theological (and Christological) meaning. In verse 13, the “stepping up” of the son of man (Jesus) is anticipated, and this is expressed with greater clarity in v. 14.

We may isolate two component clauses to the saying, reflecting two distinct lines of tradition:

    • Phrase 1: An illustrative comparison from Scripture, viz., a particular Moses tradition (Numbers 21:4-9, vv. 8-9)
    • Phrase 2: A “son of man” saying rooted in the Gospel Tradition, comparable to the three Passion-prediction sayings by Jesus (Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:33 pars)

Before turning to the Moses-tradition, let us consider the resemblance of v. 14b to the Synoptic Passion-predictions—all of which utilize the expression “the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou) as a self-reference by Jesus. The first prediction, in particular, bears a close formal resemblance:

    • “it is necessary [dei=] (for) the son of man to suffer many (thing)s…” (Mk 8:31)
    • “it is necessary [dei=] (for) the son of man to be lifted up high” (v. 14b)

In the Synoptic saying, the chain of infinitives covers the full range of Jesus’ Passion—suffering, death, and resurrection. By contrast, here in John, a single infinitive (of the verb u(yo/w) suffices. The parallel suggests that the verb corresponds similarly to the range of Jesus’ Passion (entailing both his death and resurrection), though it is his impending death that would seem to be primarily in view (cf. below).

The illustration of the bronze snake, set up by Moses on a ‘pole’ (Num 21:8f), certainly is suggestive (visually) of Jesus being placed upon a stake. Thus, it would seem that the primary reference is to Jesus’ crucifixion; the other occurrences of the verb u(yo/w (8:28; 12:32, 34) would tend to confirm this (see esp. the comment in 12:33).

However, the Hebrew word for the pole or staff, upon which the snake was set, is sn@, which specifically refers to a signal-flag or banner—viz., something placed up high (and waved) so that everyone can see it (and rally to it). This brings out additional associations for the symbolism. In the original Moses tradition, the snake served as signal-flag, so that, whenever a person was bitten by a snake, he/she could look to the elevated bronze snake, and thus be healed (lit. “live”). In verse 8, the verb ha*r* (“see”) is used, but in v. 9 it is the verb fb^n`, which can imply a more intense or careful looking (i.e., gazing at, contemplating).

Given the theological importance of the sight/seeing motif in the Gospel of John, it is no surprise that this aspect of the tradition is particularly brought out by the Gospel writer (and Jesus as the speaker). This becomes clear from the expository application that follows in verse 15:

“…(so) that every(one) trusting in him should hold (the) life of the Ages [i.e. eternal life].”

In the Johannine theological idiom, seeing means trusting in Jesus (as the Son of God)—see, in particular, this correlation in the chapter 9 narrative (esp. vv. 35-41). Thus, everyone “seeing” the raised snake corresponds to everyone “trusting in” Jesus.

What significance, if any, is there to the use of the expression “the son of man” here in v. 14, beyond its use as a self-reference by Jesus? If we limit our analysis to the parallel with the Synoptic Passion-prediction (Mk 8:31 par, see above), then there would seem to be a specific association between the expression and the suffering (and death) of Jesus. This, in turn, represents a natural extension of the poetic use of the expression in the Old Testament Scriptures, in which the limitation and weakness of the human condition—including its mortality—tends to be emphasized. Jesus identifies himself with these aspects of the human condition.

However, if we turn to the prior occurrences of the expression in the Gospel of John (1:51; 3:13) there would seem to be a rather different orientation and point of emphasis. As we saw in our studies on each of these references [1:51 and 3:13], there are two key thematic motifs associated with the expression “the son of man”: (1) the heavenly origin of Jesus, and (2) the descent/ascent motif. The principal point in verse 13 is Jesus’ descent to earth from heaven; implicit in the saying is the expectation that, after his descent (stepping down) to earth, he will then ascend (stepping back up) to heaven.

It is in this regard that the verb u(yo/w (“lift up high”) can be understood as signifying something more than Jesus’ death on the cross. Indeed, while the Johannine understanding of Son’s exaltation may begin with his being ‘lifted up’ on the cross, it also includes his resurrection and ultimate return to the Father (in heaven). Jesus’ suffering and death begins a process of exaltation that reaches its climax with his return to heaven. We shall find this same Christological dynamic at work in the remaining “son of man” sayings as well.

Given the parallel between verse 14b and Mark 8:31 par (see above), it would be enough to explain Jesus’ use of the expression “the son of man” here on that basis. However, in light of the proximity to the saying in v. 13, we may fairly assume that the expression in verse 14 carries the same theological import as it does in v. 13 (and 1:51). In other words, Jesus’ identity as the “son of man” must be understood in terms of the distinctive Johannine theology. As we begin to expound this in the context of the descent/ascent motif, we can isolate two principal theological strands:

    • Descent: Jesus’ heavenly origin, and his incarnation on earth as a human being (“son of man”)
    • Ascent: A process of exaltation that begins with his death (i.e., suffering of the “son of man”), and culminates with his return to heaven.

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The association with Moses in verse 14 raises an interesting (possible) point of interpretation for verse 13. Indeed, it is possible that the Gospel writer (and Jesus as the speaker) intends a specific comparison, between Jesus and Moses, in v. 13. Central to this theory is the idea of Moses’ ascension, as it is found in Jewish tradition. When Jesus declares that “no one has stepped up into heaven”, he may have the ascension of Moses specifically in mind. For traditions regarding an ascent by Moses, see Meeks, pp. 104ff, 110-111, 192-5, 235-6 (cf. Moloney, p. 56f).

Such a comparison is made more plausible by the thematic relationship, between Jesus and Moses, that runs through much of the Gospel. This begins in the Prologue (1:14-18, esp. vv. 17-18), where the comparative superiority of Jesus is established. These verses draw upon various Moses/Exodus traditions, particularly the theophany (YHWH’s revelation to Moses) in chapters 33-34—and especially the notice in 33:23 (cf. Deut 4:12ff). The wording in v. 18 of the Prologue resembles that of 3:13:

    • “no one has seen God at any time”
    • “no one has stepped up into heaven”

If the phrase in 1:18 alludes to Moses (Exod 33:23), then it is plausible that the similar phrase in 3:13 does so as well (particularly given the reference to Moses in v. 14).

References above marked “Meeks” are to Wayne A. Meeks, The Prophet-King: Moses Traditions and the Johannine Christology (Brill: 1967).
Those marked “Moloney” are to Francis J. Moloney SDB, The Johannine Son of Man, Second Edition (Wipf and Stock: 1978/2007).

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