“No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.’” — John 3:13
What might be the most famous (at least in the western world) Bible verse shows up in the lectionary reading this week, John 3:16. Before getting there, it’s probably best to set the scene a little bit. Nicodemus, a Pharisee and leader, comes to Jesus under cover of night to ask him some questions. Nicodemus is curious about the power and teaching Jesus has displayed, but he doesn’t want to be outed to his Pharisee buddies, so a night visit it is. As Jesus begins to answer his questions, he winds up either confused or in disbelief, and continues to question the nature of Jesus’ teaching.The remarkable answer comes in John 3:13. Jesus teaching’ isn’t merely remarkable. Jesus’ nature is remarkable. One of a kind. Jesus is both messenger and message all at once. Others have come from heaven, think angels at Jacob’s ladder, etc, but they have been bearers of the message only. Jesus is the message. This helps to explain his frustration with Nicodemus. Not only is Nicodemus getting the message, he has access to the essence of the message in the person of Jesus. Another way that Jesus is unique in his ascension/descension paradigm is that Jesus differentiated from the angels by his human nature. Only Jesus has put on fully human form to take on the ultimate in immersion with creation. This ties into his statements about Nicodemus failing to grasp the earthly teachings (verse 12). He also lays claim to the power and authority of the Son of Man (referenced from Daniel 7:13). This claim has all kinds of implications, but for this discussion the important note is that the Son of Man is one who has been/is/will be in full communion with the Father/Ancient of Days/God.
From this point Jesus foreshadows his own death by reminding Nicodemus of the bronze serpent Moses (Numbers 29). It is a remarkable story of God’s people rebelling, repenting, asking for and recieving salvation. How often we are like those people in the wilderness, fixated on complaining about our current state and forgetting all that God has done for us! Fortunately God’s mercy has been extended to us too.
The great offer of John 3:16 remains breath-taking every time I read it or hear it. God’s love, so enormous, that the Word would become flesh and offer life eternal. Not an offer that I have to work to achieve. Not an offer that I can get through the lineage of my family. Not an offer that I can purchase. Not an offer that the government or powerful can revoke. The offer has been compared to a gift that needs to be unwrapped, or a door that upon being knocked needs to be opened. I like the simplicity of these examples. Jesus is trying to help Nicodemus understand that the offer of life is not a complicated formula, it really is simplicity. Simplicity born out of love. And in verse 17 we see that this love has no boundaries, but is offered to the entire world through faith in the messenger who is the message.