Not long ago (May 21, 2020) we celebrated the ascension of Jesus—i.e. 40 days after Easter, based on the information in Acts 1:3ff. The “ascension” of Jesus is referred to differently in the Gospels and Acts, and can be understood several ways, based upon the particular narrative under consideration. Most Christians have the scene in Acts 1:9-11 in mind, but there are other references to Jesus’ ascension/departure from the disciples in Luke 24:50-51 [MT] and the “long ending” of Mark (16:19), and, because of the differences in the narrative location and setting, it is not entirely clear if these passages are supposed to refer to the same event as Acts 1:9-11. The situation is further complicated by mention of an ‘ascension’ by Jesus in John 20:17. I have discussed these matters in a prior article.
The earliest Christians, in their preaching and proclamation of the Gospel, did not refer to specifically to the Ascension as such, but rather, the resurrection of Jesus was connected closely to his exaltation by the Father, to a place in Heaven at the Father’s right hand. The emphasis is not so much on Jesus’ actual departure from earth, as to his position in glory in Heaven following the resurrection. The Gospel of John preserves this early view, but it is expanded and developed in the discourses of Jesus in several ways:
- The motif of the Son’s ascent is set parallel to his descent—i.e. his coming to earth (as a human being). This ascent/descent theme appears numerous times throughout the Gospel and is related to the dualistic imagery of above/below, etc. The motif is expressed primarily through use of the related verbs a)nabai/nw (“step up”) and katabai/nw (“step down”)—Jesus (the Son) has stepped down (descended) from heaven, and again steps up (ascends) back to the Father in heaven.
- There is a strong emphasis on the Son’s return to the Father—he was sent (into the world) by the Father, and returns back to Him.
- In the Last Discourse (chaps. 14-17), the theme of Jesus’ departure becomes prominent, though it had been introduced earlier in the Gospel as well (6:62; 7:33-34; 8:21-22ff). It has a two-fold meaning, referring to: (1) Jesus’ death, and (2) his ultimate return to the Father.
Of all the New Testament writings, it is in John that the death, resurrection and ‘ascension’ of Jesus are most thoroughly combined—and by Jesus himself, in the great discourses which make up the core of the Gospel. One of the ways this is expressed is by the verb u(yo/w (“raise/lift high”). In 3:14 and 8:28, Jesus refers to himself being “lifting high”, with the title “Son of Man”; while in 12:32, he makes the same essential declaration, but with the personal pronoun:
“And I, if I am lifted high out of the earth, I will drag all (person)s toward myself”
In 3:14, it is the death of Jesus (i.e. lifted up on the cross) which is most clearly in view, as also in 8:28; however, the same verb in 12:32 seems rather to refer to Jesus’ exaltation. He speaks of being “lifted high out of the earth“. This can refer concretely to being raised out of the tomb, but also, more properly, in the sense of his departure from earth. Just as the Father sent him into the world, so also he will be going out of it. Both aspects are likely in view here in this reference.
This series of notes is dealing with the themes of Life (zwh/) and the Spirit (pneu=ma). The theme of life in connection with resurrection features prominently in the Lazarus episode of chapter 11, especially the dialogue between Jesus and Martha in vv. 20-27. However, I have discussed these verses at length in an earlier series, and so will not be addressing them here. Instead, I wish to consider briefly three verses from the surrounding chapters (10 and 12) where Jesus makes use of the word zwh/ (“life”).
This is part of the “Good Shepherd” parable-discourse in chapter 10. It is here in this discourse that the sacrificial death of Jesus comes more clearly into view. The structure generally follows the Johannine discourse format and may be outlined simply as follows:
- Saying (parable) of Jesus (vv. 1-5)
- Reaction by the people indicating a lack of understanding (v. 6)
- Exposition by Jesus, which may be divided into three parts (each beginning with an “I am” declaration):
- Narrative conclusion [reaction by the people] (vv. 19-21)
Verse 10 concludes the first expository section (on Jesus as the door or entrance [qu/ra] to the sheepfold). It is only the shepherd, with charge over the sheep, who opens and closes this door; thus this verse provides the transition to the next section, in which Jesus is no longer the door, but the shepherd. Only the shepherd is able to open/close the door, and, when it is closed, any other person who enters presumably does so only to steal or harm the sheep. This effectively distinguishes the shepherd from all other persons. Jesus makes this contrast clear in verse 10:
“The (one) stealing does not come if not [i.e. except] that he might steal and slaughter and bring to ruin; (but) I came that they [i.e. the sheep] might hold life, and might hold (it) over (and) above (all else)”
This involves the familiar expression “hold life”, using the verb e&xw (“hold”); elsewhere in the Gospel, as we have seen, this life is often specified as “the Life of the Age” (i.e. eternal life). The role of herdsman is to protect the sheep (from harm) and to guide them where they can find life-giving sustenance. In both respects he is saving/preserving their lives—the sheep have/hold life under his care.
This verse is from the second half of chapter 10 (vv. 22-39), which comprises a second discourse, but one which shares important themes with vv. 1-21, and it is possible to read the passages in tandem as part of a single discourse-scene. Verses 25-30 reprise the “Good Shepherd” illustration—but here there is a more definite contrast between those sheep who belong to the shepherd and those who do not. For the religious leaders and others who are unable (or refuse) to accept Jesus, he designates them as those who are not part of his flock (vv. 25-26). By contrast, those who do trust in him are part of the flock:
“My sheep hear my voice and I know them, and they follow me, and I give them (the) Life of the Age, and no, they should not (ever) come to ruin into the Age, and no one will seize them out of my hand.” (vv. 27-28)
This motif, of Jesus giving to believers the “Life of the Age” (i.e. eternal life), occurred in the earlier discourses, as has been discussed in prior notes. In the context of the Johannine discourses, this Life which Jesus gives is to be identified primarily with the Spirit (cf. 3:34-35; 4:10ff, 24; 6:27ff, 63; 7:37-39). This is an important theological development of the traditional expression “life of the Age”, as we have discussed. That this Life is connected with the very presence and power of God is clear from vv. 28f, where God (the Father) is the ultimate source of this life (and its preservation/protection) for believers:
“My Father, who has given (them) to me, is greater than all, and no one is able [i.e. has power] to seize (anything) out of the Father’s hand.” (v. 29)
The theme of Jesus’ sacrificial death, so central to the Good Shepherd discourse (10:11-18)—the laying down of his soul/life and taking it up again—takes on even greater significance as we approach the start of the Passion narrative. In the Gospel of John, the (triumphal) entry of Jesus into Jerusalem is narrated in 12:12-19; Jerusalem is the setting, from verse 20 on, into the beginning of the Passion (chap. 13). There is an interesting parallel here between 12:20-36a (set in Jerusalem) and the Synoptic tradition at the transition point between the end of Jesus’ Galilean ministry and the beginning of the journey to Jerusalem. Consider the following points of similarity:
- Announcement of the coming passion/death of Jesus—Mark 8:30 par; John 12:23
- Teaching of Jesus regarding true discipleship, and the need to sacrifice one’s own life to follow him, in imitation of Jesus’ own example—Mark 9:34ff; 10:29, 42-45 par; John 12:24-26
- A ‘second’ announcement of his coming passion/death—Mark 10:33-34 par; John 12:27ff
“For whoever would wish to save his soul will bring it to ruin, but whoever will bring his soul to ruin for my sake and (for) the good message [i.e. Gospel] will save it.” (Mk)
“The one loving his soul brings it to ruin, and the one hating his soul in this world will watch/guard it into (the) Life of the Age.” (Jn)
However one would explain the development of the sayings of Jesus in the Gospel tradition (on this, cf. my recent series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”), there can be no doubt that the Johannine version of this traditional saying—this particular form of it—has certain elements which are distinctive to the Fourth Gospel. We may note the use of the articular participle, so frequent in John, to describe the disciple (believer)—”the (one) …ing”—as well as his opposite. Even more important are the qualifying expressions which enhance the point of contrast:
- “in this world”—with the use of ko/smo$ (“world-order, world”)
- “into the Life of the Age”—for this expression, cf. the previous notes of this series
The believer is one who “hates” his soul [i.e. his human life] insofar as it is in the world—that is, in the current age and world-order dominated by sin and darkness. The non-believer, by contrast, loves the darkness (3:19), and thus loves his life in the darkness. The contrast to the world and its darkness is the Life and Light of God found in the person of Jesus. This aspect of (eternal) Life will be discussed further in the next daily note, on 12:50.