Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

24. “Earthly things, and heavenly” (John 3:13-21)*

It is commonly assumed that the discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus continued right through the first 21 verses of John 3, and that in fact after the question: “How can these things be?” (v.10), it became a monologue. There are, however, several considerations (none of them decisive, admittedly) which suggest that the discourse of Jesus, or the summary of it supplied by John, actually ends at verse 12, the rest being commentary and amplification supplied by John out of his intimate knowledge of the Lord’s teaching and its bearing on the later bitter reaction of the Jewish nation to the preaching of the gospel through the apostles.

John’s words, not the Lord’s        

  1. “And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven” (v. 13). The last clause here could hardly have been spoken by Jesus — unless one is prepared to assume that he was using “heaven” in a very unusual figurative sense.
  2. “Only begotten Son” (v. 16,18) is a phrase used by John, and not by Jesus (1: 14; 1 John 4: 9).
  3. The tenses of the verbs suggest a comment made at a later date: “gave his only begotten Son” has little relevance to the very beginning of the ministry of Jesus, before men had had opportunity to choose between belief and disbelief; but it is full of meaning for the time when John was writing and Jewry had already turned its back on the gospel.
  4. Chapter 1: 16-18 is, very clearly, the evangelist’s expansion of John the Baptist’s declaration (v.15). Yet the many who read these verses as a continuation of the Baptist’s words could be readily forgiven their error, for there is no hint of a discontinuity at the end of v. 15. It would appear to be the same in this place also.
  5. The first person pronoun is fairly common up if -to the end of v. 10, but after that it occurs only “ in the words of John (v. 27-30).
Literally from heaven?

Whether the view just advanced be accepted or not verse 13 still presents a problem of some magnitude. Since the ascension of Jesus into heaven was a literal bodily ascent, is it not necessary to take “he that came down from heaven” in the same literal fashion? The answer to that is: “Not necessarily”. But it has to be admitted that a literal meaning for both phrases is certainly desirable.

This is possible once the literal interpretation of John 20:17 be adopted. After his resurrection Jesus said to Mary Magdalene: “Go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father, and to my God, and your God.” Reasons have been given (ch. 242) for inferring from these words a personal ascension of Jesus to the Father on the morning of his resurrection after his appearing to Mary and before the walk to Emmaus.

Support for this view may perhaps be seen in the title used here: “Son of man.” The allusion (and in Jn. 12: 34 also) is to the Son of man prophecy in Dan. 7: 13, where a literal ascension to heaven and coming again in glory is the main theme of the revelation. Thus John’s words written years later, about Jesus coming down from heaven and ascending to heaven can be read literally in the light of what took place on Easter day. The comment is added here by the author of the gospel to underline the Lord’s special authority to instruct even a leader such as Nicodemus in “earthly things” and also “heavenly things.”


A very different approach to this problem passage was suggested by John Carter. He pointed to the phrase “came down from heaven” as being a fairly common Biblical idiom for a Theophany.

Thus, “the Lord came down to see the city and the tower (of Babel)” (Gen. 11: 5). “Mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire” (Ex. 19: 18; other examples: Gen. 18: 21; Ex. 3: 7,8: 19: 11,20; 34: 5; Ps. 18: 9,10; 68: 18; Dt. 30: 12; Is. 7: 11; 64: 1; Prov. 30: 4; Acts 7: 34; and compare Jn. 6: 33,38,50,51,58,62.)

Similarly, the termination of the Theophany is spoken of as “God going up”. Examples: “And he left off talking with him, and God went up from Abraham” (Gen. 17: 22). “And the glory of the Lord went up from the midst of the city...” (Ez. 11: 23; see also Gen. 35: 13; Ps. 47: 5; 68: 18.)

If Jn.3:l3 is another example of this Biblical idiom, then it emphasizes that Jesus was a quite unique manifestation of God among men, without the phrases necessarily requiring to be read with strict literalness (cp. 1:51) regarding a personal coming from heaven and return thither.

The Brazen Serpent

Next comes the familiar allusion to the brazen serpent: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life” (v. 14,15). The reason for mention of this is not far to seek. It reinforces with special power the declaration of Jesus: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

The eloquent details of this allegory have often been worked out. The grumbling of the people in the wilderness was a sustained rebellion against the authority of God, and they were shown in very grim fashion that “the wages of sin” is death. They did not die from the sting of the serpent immediately. The poison took a while to work in a man’s system. But all who were bitten knew that death was inevitable. When they were prayed for, the divine compassion did not immediately remove the serpents from the camp. lnstead, the sin itself, represented by metonymy in a serpent of brass, was displayed before all. The dying sinner who would be healed must look in faith to this symbol of the crucifying of sin. Hitherto the tabernacle had been the centre of all his religion and piety, but if he persisted in looking to it for redemption in this hour of need, he died. Thus the Lord’s standard or banner (same word as Exodus 17: 15) became one who was “made sin for us” (2 Cor. 5: 21), a redeemer from the curse, “being made a curse for us, as it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree” (Gal. 3: 13). Through this God-provided salvation the sinner, stricken and yet saved from his sin, was enabled to cry with triumph: “O death, where is thy sting?” (1 Cor. 15: 56). No self-healing was possible. “Surely, shall one say, in the lord have I righteousness and strength: even to him shall men come... Unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear” (ls. 45: 23,24).

Divine Imperative

This sign in the wilderness became an imperative to Jesus: “even so must the Son of man be lifted up.” It is clear that this expression was used as a euphemism for “crucifixion”, for when Jesus said to the people: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth will draw all men unto me”, John’s comment is: “This he said, signifying what death he should die.” And the people, mystified, answered: “The Christ abideth for ever; and how sayest thou, The Son of man must be lifted up? who is this Son of man?” (Jn. 12: 32-34). A crucified Messiah, was not at all the kind of leader they looked for.

Nevertheless he must be “lifted up”. There was no other way to save the believer from perishing. The time came when Jesus was to pray: “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” It may be taken as certain that, if it were possible, such a petition asked of such a Father by such a Son would have been granted. That it was not serves to underline the awful truth that even Divine Omnipotence and Omniscience could find no other road to man’s redemption. So “it behoved the Christ to suffer” (Lk. 24: 46). The Son of man must be lifted up!


The familiar words of John 3: 16 turn the allegory of the brazen serpent into profound reality. There is a double link: “God so loved the world” echoes “even so must the Son of man be lifted up”; there is also the valuable repetition: “that whosoever believeth may have everlasting Iife” (v. 15,16).

It is appropriate that the first occurrence in John’s writings of this characteristic word “love”: should express the love of God for men -”not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 Jn. 4:10). The origin and spring of all agape is in God. That which men express towards God or for one another is not uncaused, as is the love of God. Any love men show for God springs from what God has first done. It is evoked by His love and nurtured by Him. But no human love can ever rise to God’s level for He gave (and did not merely send) His only begotten Son.

Modern sentimentality would clamour for a universalist redemption, yet a moment’s reflection shows that a salvation through Christ for all without exception would declare an unloving God. For a man who has no inclination or intention of acknowledging the supremacy of God everlasting life would be an eternity of misery, an endless torment.

This “gospel in miniature” includes a remarkable assembly of John’s key words and phrases. Another of these is “believe”. It is, of course, the verb form of the word “faith”. In his gospel John preaches justification by faith with just as much emphasis as Paul does in his epistles.

It may be possible to go further and to see in the phrase “believeth into him” (which is the more exact reading here and in 33 other places in this gospel) the idea of the disciple’s appropriation of the proffered “eternal life” through identification with Christ in baptism. Other qualifications over and above a self-yielding faith in Christ are not necessary. “Every one believing” (again, this is the more exact translation) may thus save himself from the serpent-sting of sin. There are no barriers of race, social status, or sex: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female.” This is the meaning of that great word “whosoever” (Rom. 10: 11,12; 1 Jn 2:2).


But whilst these humanly cherished distinctions are swept away in Christ, one sharp line of demarcation remains-the only alternatives are that a man rejoices in this eternal life in Christ or he perishes. Attempts have been made by believers in the immortality of the soul to make this word mean survival in misery, by contrast with the happiness of heaven; but it requires only a quick glance at a good concordance to verify that the normal meaning is “destruction, a final end”. To attempt to read into it the idea of survival in torment is to make nonsense of many a passage.

Furthermore, the Greek aorist will hardly allow of the idea of continuous punishment hereafter. It must signify a summary judgment which a man experiences once and for all.

By contrast, in the expression “have everlasting life” the verb is a continuous present. The implication is that “eternal life”, as John uses the expression, is not so much that which lasts for ever as that which is deemed fit to last for ever. In John the emphasis is qualitative rather than quantitative. This idiomatic usage occurs time after time; e.g. “He that believeth on me hath everlasting life” (6: 47); “he that hearefh my word and believeth him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and cometh not into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life” (1 John 3: 14); “he that hath the Son hath life” (1 John 5: 12); and, by contrast, “he that hateth his brother abideth in death” (even whilst alive in this mortality); and in Jn 17: 12 RV Judas has already “perished”, even though, in the next chapter, he is physically alive. At the same time there is no lack of examples of this meaning merging into future fulfillment (e.g. 4: 36; 6: 27,68; 12: 25)

Basic Doctrine in John 3: 16

It is perhaps useful to catalogue baldly the fundamental doctrines which are all explicitly stated or else implied in John 3: 16.

  1. Redemption is an act of uncaused love on God’s part. The initiative is His, not the believer’s.
  2. Jesus is a unique Son of God, the “only begotten”.
  3. The sacrifice of Jesus is the means of human redemption.
  4. This salvation is for all men, without any kind of distinction; in the true sense of the term it is “catholic”.
  5. Justification is by faith in Christ, and by no other way.
  6. This justifying faith also unites a man to Christ in baptism.
  7. By contrast with the Law’s promise of “length of days”, it also brings present and everlasting future enjoyment of “eternal life.”
  8. The only alternative for the unbelieving sinner is ultimate oblivion.
  9. In 3: 13, “which is” - Gk: ho On - is the Covenant Name of God in Ex. 3: 14 LXX (cp. Phil. 2: 9).

In the words that follow, the function of Christ as Judge of all appears to be explicitly disclaimed: “For God sent not his Son into the world to judge (and condemn) the world: but (he gave him; v. 16 - note the contrast in the verbs) that the world through him might be saved” (v. 17). Jesus repeatedly stressed this: “I came not to judge the world, but to save the world” (12: 47); “I judge no man” (8: 15); and especially: “If any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world” (12: 47). At first sight this appears to be in sharp contradiction with other sayings: “I have many things to say, and to judge of you” (8: 26); “if I judge, my judgment is true” (8: 16); “as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just” (5: 30).

These two aspects of Christ are readily reconciled by recognizing that the function and act of judging is reserved for the future, but the ground of judgment is the present. Even as he spoke Jesus was assessing the quality of the men who resisted him so perversely:

In fact, those who reject the claims of Christ are by that very act writing their own condemnation: “he that believeth not is judged (and condemned) already, because he hath not believed...”

John repeats this basic principle in other words: a man who comes face to face with Christ, the Light of the world, and then deliberately chooses to turn away, preferring the darkness, is by that choice made amenable to the judgment of God: “This is the condemnation (the ground of judgment) that Light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light.”

The words have often been given pointed reference to Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night. But this is hardly fair to the man, for, as Plummer has so concisely stated, “he wished to conceal, not an evil deed from good men, but a good deed from evil men.” The past tense “loved” suggests rather a reference to the nation-wide rejection of the gospel by Jewry within a generation of the crucifixion. John wrote his gospel before A.D. 70, and already it was evident that almost no more converts to the Faith could be expected from the ranks of the Chosen People. Earlier, (Study 14) it was shown that John often uses the word “world” with reference to the Jewish kosmos. It was hardly true in the fullest sense of the word that “light is come into the world”, the whole wide world, but it was already abundantly true of Israel both in Palestine and among the Dispersion. “ Their deeds (the Greek makes the pronoun emphatic) were evil.”

Special Reference to Jewry

Nearly every phrase which follows seems to have pointed reference to Israel: “Everyone that doeth evil hateth the light.” This word “evil” is not the same as in the previous verse; it means that which is trivial, futile, petty, flimsy, valueless. Turning away from the light of Christ was thoroughly evil. In the Jews it sprang out of an obession with that which was of no account — the unspiritual minutiae of rabbinic tradition and casuistry. Human pride would not allow men to come to the light lest these “works be reproved”. It would mean an open admission that hitherto lives of great religiosity had been wasted in sustained striving to achieve a God-pleasing righteousness by personal effort, in other words, justification by works.

By contrast, “he that doeth truth cometh to the light”. The phrase is a remarkable one and only becomes Intelligible when read not in contrast to that which is false but to that which is type and shadow — the inner spiritual reality, as against the outward forms of religion, the life in Christ rather than the jots and tittles of Mosaic discipline. The man who in this sense “doeth truth” comes openly to Christ, professing a bold discipleship, and “his deeds are made manifest, that they are wrought in (or, by) God”, that is, association with Christ is first of all a public confession of personal inability to achieve any worthwhile righteousness. Whatever of spiritual value accrues in his life is brought about by God working in him, and not by his own personal efforts on God’s behalf.

Appropriate to this climax of thought, John’s gospel proceeds to tell how some Jews abandoned all religious self-confidence and came to John the Baptist and to Jesus for a baptism which buried the old life and the old outlook (3:22,23). Instead they expressed their faith in the washing away of sins and in the regeneration made possible through the Lamb of God whom John had announced.

Notes: John 3: 13-21

This Num.21 allusion may possibly support the view that the “cross” was an upright stake. LXX there uses John’s word “sign”. The brazen serpent would be fashioned, of course, by Bezaleel (=in the shadow of God) of Judah, and so — again, of course — it would be put on the standard of Judah.
RV: may In him have eternal life. But in v. 16 the Greek is different.
Only begotten. Heb. 11: 17 may allude to this verse; in which case, this gospel was written before A.D. 70.

Perish = earthly things (v. 12);

eternal life = heavenly things.
Truth. In not a few places “truth” is used as a synonym for “righteousness”; cp. 7: 18; Ps. 51: 5,6; Rom. 2: 8; 1 Cor. 13: 6.

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