Sunday, September 4, 2011

Garbled verse on the condescension of God

In John 3, Jesus talks to Nicodemus and tells him about His mission, of which I will give you a few verses.
12 If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?
13 And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.
14 ¶And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: (John 3:12-14)
I want to focus on verse 13, which seems to me like a bunch of bizarre gobblety-gook as it is written. How can Jesus say “no man hath ascended up to heaven” if Enoch and Zion were translated? And how can Jesus say “the Son of man which is in heaven” when Jesus is clearly right there in mortality on earth? Obviously there are some major misunderstandings and translation issues with this verse!

So, it may be better if we just look at the keywords and ignore all the connecting language.

no man
ascended up
came down
Son of man

First off, I notice there’s this odd order—ascending up then coming down. If understood in this order, it seems like transfiguration rather than the condescension of God, so maybe the order is not meant to be read linearly here.

I also notice “heaven” occurs three times. Also, “man” occurs twice, once at the beginning and once at the end. So maybe this was actually a chiasmus with the middle point of emphasis on “came down from heaven.”

It would make sense for the condescension of God to be emphasized here because the rest of Jesus’s words in the chapter progress through the elements (of which condescension would belong at front):
  1. (the Son of man came down from heaven)
  2. Moses lifted up the serpent as a type of Christ’s sacrifice
  3. God gave His Son to save the world
  4. The world must believe in the Son or perish
Also, looking at the rest of Jesus’s words in this story, it is plain verse 13 is needed, even in its garbled (to us) state. We already know that God sent His Son, but it adds the information that the Son came. To me it implies the Son’s willingness to come, not just obedience, and that is worth knowing. We also see how helpful Nephi’s vision was because he was shown specifically and he wrote clearly about the condescension of God.

Takeaway: If you mark anything in that verse, do yourself a favor and mark “he that came down from heaven.”

Update: Okay. I’m beginning to see more in this verse than I thought.

“no man hath ascended up to heaven” Think about this in terms of the Fall of man. The entire doctrine of the Fall is compacted into this little phrase. (It’s probably compacted so much because Jesus knew Nicodemus was already familiar with it.)

“he that came down from heaven” We’ve already noted this refers to the condescension of God. It might even be an incredibly abbreviated mention of the need for a Savior.

“the Son of man which is in heaven” Here I suspect Christ anticipates His ascension back up to heaven to the right hand of God with power to give spiritual gifts to men and open the way for them to return to God too.

So maybe the verse seemed garbled because the doctrine was massively abbreviated.


Curls said...

I think what Christ is saying in that verse is that He is the only one who is able to ascend to Heaven under his own power.

Nicodemus would have been very familiar with the law of Moses, and I think Christ is trying to say the law doesn't save, only He can save.

It is very interesting though, a verse that definitely leads to pondering.

Michaela Stephens said...

Good insight, Curls, thanks for that.