Good Friday, Better Sunday

Lift Jesus higher, 
Lift Jesus higher.
Lift Him up for the world to see.
He said “If I be lifted up from the Earth.
I will draw all men unto Me.”

This is a song I used to sing in youth group. Perhaps you sang it loud and proud as little children cried and covered their ears. The chorus is a paraphrase from John 12:32. Whoever wrote this song forgot to keep reading so I will quote the next verse as well. But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself. (He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die).” John 12:32-33 John gives a parenthetical explanation because it could easily be confused, just as the crowd is confused in verse 34. So what is the confusion?

Most of the misunderstanding centers on the word translated “lifted up.” Often it refers to someone being exalted “in honor, fame, position, power, fortune, etc.” (Bauer, Greek-English Lexicon, 1979, p.851), but, as John mentions in verse 33, it can also refer to one being lifted up on the cross to be executed. Since John distinguished which meaning he meant, there should be no more confusion, right? Not exactly. John is being purposely ambiguous. In other words, when he uses this term, he means both meanings at the same time. “The double-meaning of ‘lifting up’ is obvious. They lift Jesus up by crucifying him; but it is precisely through his crucifixion that he is lifted up to his heavenly glory as the Son of Man. At the very moment when they think that they are passing judgment on him he becomes their judge.” (R. Bultmann, The Gospel of John, 1971, p. 350)

The crowd had many misunderstandings about Jesus at this time in His ministry. They wondered if He was the Messiah, but understood the Messiah to be a conquering king who would deliver them from the oppressive Romans. As Jesus alluded to His death (particularly in verses 8 and 24), the crowd started to doubt whether He was that king whom they had hailed with palm branches in verse 13. The crowd was so confused that they not only questioned what “lifted up” meant, but they finally questioned who and what “the Son of Man” meant (Jesus referred to Himself ten times before this scene so it was about time!). In a nutshell, the crowd had difficulty understanding how the Messiah and the Son of Man could be the same person, as is evident in verse 34. “We have heard from the Law that the Christ will remain forever, so how can you say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this ‘Son of Man’?” In other words, the Jews understood that the Messiah (that’s what “Christ” means) would come to reign forever on the throne of David, which implies that He would never die. And yet Jesus said He must “be lifted up.” Since they knew “lifted up” meant that He would not “remain forever,” it is easy to see why the Jews in the crowd were so confused. Since being lifted up is not one of the first things one might think of when describing crucifixions, the crowd’s confusion seems only natural. If only they could see the double meaning in the Jesus’ words.

Before we condemn the crowd for being blind and hard-hearted, let’s go back to the lyrics of the aforementioned song. Do you see an error? Look at the context. By quoting John 12:32, we are essentially saying we should crucify Jesus again so that He “will draw all men unto” Him. It is not our exaltation of Jesus that draws anyone to God; it is the death of Jesus and God’s exaltation of Him for His obedience which draws all people to Him. (Philippians 2:6-11) I am not saying we should not give honor to Jesus; I am simply giving credit to whom credit is due. If Jesus had not humbled Himself and took on our sins upon that cross, no amount of our exaltations and honor would draw anyone to God and we would still be dead in our sins. As we approach Good Friday, may we reflect on the humility of Jesus and his sacrifice (rather than our deeds) as He was lifted up upon the cross to draw all people to a relationship with God.

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