- Analysis of each verse
v. 13 Indeed, no one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from it, the new Adam.
Literally: No one has ascended the heaven if not the (one) having descended out of the heaven, the son of man
Intuitively, we understand that heaven here refers to God and that the action of going up to heaven and coming down from it means having access to God and his thought and being able to share it with humanity. But if we want to be more precise, we have to go back to the Old Testament. For a Jew, the mind of God was expressed through the Law:
Deuteronomy 30:11-14: Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, "Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
Jewish tradition has always associated the giving of this Law with Moses:
Targum Neofiti on Deuteronomy 30:11: The Law is not in heaven that you should say, May we have someone like Moses the prophet who goes up to heaven and brings it to us.
Thus, Moses revealed the mind of God up on the mountain of Horeb by giving the Law to the people, and thus this mind is no longer unattainable, since it was written down and given to the people who were waiting at the bottom of the mountain. Jesus is thus presented by the evangelist as the new Moses: he came down from heaven to transmit the word of God.
In the Jewish tradition, the mind of God is not only expressed as Law, but also as Wisdom which also comes from heaven.
Baruch 3:29-31 Who went up to heaven to take it (Wisdom) and bring it down from the clouds? Who passed through the sea to find it and bring it back for the price of the purest gold? No one knows his way, no one understands his path.
The evangelist John presents Jesus as the only person with access to Wisdom or the Word of God, a word that appears confusing (No one knows his way, no one understands his path), or to repeat what he had said in v. 8: The wind blows where it wills, and you hear its voice, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
The action of going up to heaven and the action of coming down seem to correspond to each other. But in fact in both cases we are not talking about the same person. The subject of the action of going up to heaven is humanity in general, or rather nobody among this humanity in general. On the other hand, only one person descended from heaven: Jesus. This descent from heaven refers to the fact that Jesus is sent by God, as we see in the discourse on the bread of life: I am the bread that came down from heaven (6:41). God gave his son to the world to have wisdom and life. The evangelist places Jesus in a unique category.
The new Adam
. I thus translate the expression "son of man". See my explanation of it on my translation
||v. 14 As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so it is essential that the new Adam be lifted up,
Literally: And as Moses lifted up the snake in the deserted (place), thus it is necessary for the son of man to be lifted up (hypsōthēnai)
||as Moses lifted up the snake in the deserted (place)
Once again the evangelist refers to the Old Testament, and more particularly to the episode of the Jewish people in the desert under the leadership of Moses (Numbers 21:4-9):
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food." Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live." So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
In summary, the people suffer the deadly bite of the serpents in the desert for sinning by protesting against famine, but after Moses' intercession, this bite will no longer be deadly if they look at the brazen serpent placed on a pole or sign. The introduction of the image of the serpent may seem surprising: what does Jesus' mission have to do with the serpent?
To understand how the Jews interpreted this scene of the burning serpents in the book of Numbers, we can refer to the Targum of Neofiti on Numbers 21:6, which probably reflects the Jewish tradition of the New Testament era:
Come, see, all creatures, and come, hear all the sons of the flesh! Once I cursed the Serpent and said to it, Dust shall be your food.... And my people began to murmur before me about the manna being too meager a food! So let the Serpent come who did not murmur because of the food... Therefore Yahweh cast against the people the fiery serpents; they bit the people, and of Israel many died. (quoted by M. E. Boismard, A. Lamouille, Synopse des quatre évangiles, T. III - L'évangile de Jean: Paris, Cerf, 1977, p. 319.)
Jewish tradition thus makes a link between the serpent that tempted Eve in the book of Genesis (3) and the serpents that came from the Jews' murmuring in the desert: they are associated with the revolt against God. From the beginning of creation, this revolt against God appeared, and it continued in the desert. The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (25 BC 50 AD) takes up this association in Allegories of the Laws, 2, 79-81 by now turning to the brazen serpent:
When another serpent is made that is contrary to Eve's, the principle of self-control... God orders Moses to build the serpent of self-control; he says: 'Make yourself a serpent and put it on a pole.'... 'Whoever is bitten by a snake, looking at it, shall live.' This is very true: if the intellect, bitten by pleasure, the serpent of Eve, has the strength to see from a spiritual vision the beauty of self-control, the serpent of Moses, and through it God himself, he will live: let him only look and understand. (quoted by M. E. Boismard, A. Lamouille, Synopse des quatre évangiles, T. III - L'évangile de Jean: Paris, Cerf, 1977, p. 319.)
Influenced by Stoic philosophy, Philo thus associates the brazen serpent with self-control, an antidote to the pursuit of immoderate pleasures, as seen in Eve and the Jews of the desert. Early Christians would be familiar with this association between Genesis and the fiery serpents of the desert, as seen in St. Justin (ca. 100 165 AD) in his Dialogue with Tryphon, 94, 3, when he comments on Numbers 21:
Through this, as I said above, he was proclaiming a mystery: he was proclaiming that he would destroy the power of the Serpent that had caused Adam's transgression; he was proclaiming salvation for those who believe in him who by this pole, that is, by the cross, was to die from the Serpent's bites, namely evil deeds, idolatries, and other injustices. If you do not understand this, explain to me why Moses set up the bronze serpent as a sign and commanded that those who had been bitten should look at it? Why were those who had been bitten healed, and how, in giving these commands, he did not establish any symbol?
But what is special about Justin is of course the identification of the pole or sign of the bronze serpent with the cross of Christ, as did the evangelist John. But it is also the fact of associating the serpent with the power of evil, the source of Adam's transgression and of all the others thereafter. Thus, the cross is presented as the destruction of this evil power for all those who believe in it. It is in a way the restoration of the lost paradise and the appearance of the new Adam.
One might ask: does Justin's interpretation, which sees in the brazen serpent, a symbol of the cross of Christ, a victory over the forces of evil, correspond to the thought of the evangelist John in the verse we are analyzing? According to M.E. Boismard, this v. 14 originally followed John 12:31 (Now is the judgment of this world; now the Prince of this world is to be cast out) and closely associated this lifting up on the cross with the destruction of the Prince of this world. It was a later edit that ripped out elements of Jesus' speech in chapter 12 to integrate it into the conversation with Nicodemus: the purpose of this move would have been to create an effect of inclusion between chapters 3 and 12, both cases of Jewish notables who do not dare to publicly display their faith in Jesus and of Jesus' debate with those who do not believe (see M. E. Boismard, A. Lamouille, Synopse des quatre évangiles, T. III - L'évangile de Jean: Paris, Cerf, 1977, p. 319.)
||hypsōthēnai (to be lifted up)
The gospel according to John uses the verb "to lift up" (hypsoō
) only to refer to the cross. Other than this verse, here are the other uses:
8: 28: So Jesus said, "When you have lifted up the Son of Man (or new Adam), then you will realize that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me.
12: 32: And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself
12: 34: The crowd answered him, "We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?"
Rather than making a veiled reference to the cross, why was the evangelist not explicit in saying that it is essential that the new Adam be crucified, or go through death on the cross? We must remember that death on the cross was an atrocious torture reserved for criminal slaves. The early Christians and the evangelists in particular experienced the scandal of this type of death and were very discreet about it in their preaching. John is no exception. Only chapter 19 uses the words "cross" or "crucify", when it is difficult not to mention it during his condemnation and the account of his being put on the cross. Otherwise, the emphasis is on the resurrection. This is somewhat what happens here with the term "lift up" which, while referring to the wood of the cross, also refers to his lifting up, i.e. his return to God. John will also use the term "glorify" (Here has come the hour in which the Son of Man is to be glorified Jn 12:23): the emphasis is on the positive outcome of Jesus' mission, not on how he died (see on the subject Michel Gourgues, The Crucified one. From scandal to exaltation)
||v. 15 so that whoever believes in him will have an endless life.
Literally: so that everyone believing in him may have eternal life.
||v. 16 Indeed, God loved the world in this way: he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not die, but have an endless life..
Literally: For thus the God (theos) loved (ēgapēsen) the world that he gave the son, the only begotten (monogenē), so that everyone believing (pisteuōn eis) into him should not perish (mē apolētai), but should have eternal life (allʼ echē zōēn aiōnion).
The first difficulty of this verse comes from anthropomorphism, i.e. understanding God in our human categories, in particular our biological categories where we procreate, where we beget males and females. God, belonging to a world apart that is inaccessible to us, cannot enter into our human categories. Yet the evangelist uses the category of son, whose parent is God, who cannot be placed here in either the male or female category. Why these categories? Probably, the starting point is the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was a man, and therefore we must speak of a son, not a daughter. Our historical knowledge leads us to assert that Jesus had brothers and sisters, and therefore was not an only son (see Meier
). If the evangelist nevertheless speaks of an only son, it is not on the biological or historical level, but on the theological level: Jesus represents a unique reality in relation to God.
The second difficulty comes from the weight given to the act of believing: it is a question of life and death; he who does not believe will die or perish, but he who believes will know an eternal or endless life. What exactly is belief? Why is believing or not believing a matter of life and death? What life are we talking about? What death are we talking about? I reject the simplistic idea of some Christians that the one who is baptized and claims to believe in Jesus as the son of God goes to heaven, and therefore has eternal life, and that the one who cannot make the same claim ends up in hell, and therefore dies. When it is a matter of life and death, one cannot reduce the issue to being a member in good standing of the party, as if God were an authoritarian and implacable party leader.
Let us look at the notion of God in John, also called Father, first of all at the actions attributed to him:
- There appeared a man sent from God. His name was John (1:6)
- He (Word) who was begotten not of blood, nor of the will of flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (1:13)
- For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son (3:16)
- The Father loves the Son and has put all things into his hand (3:35)
- My Father is at work until now (5:17)
- For the Father loves the Son, and shows him all that he does; and he will show him greater works than these, to amaze you (5:20)
- For the Father judges no one; he has given the Son the whole judgment (5:22)
- In the same way did he (Father) give the Son also to have life in himself (5: 26)
- the works which the Father has given me to carry out to a good end, these very works that I do bear witness to me that the Father sends me (5:36)
- For it is he (Son of Man) whom the Father, God, has marked with his seal (6:27)
- It was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; but my Father gave you the bread from heaven, the true (6:32).
- All that the Father gives me will come to me (6:37)
- No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him (6:44)
- The living Father has sent me (6:57)
- No one can come to me, unless it is given to him by the Father (6:65)
- the Father who sent me (8:18)
- I say what the Father has taught me (8:28)
- It is my Father who glorifies me (8:54)
- We know that God spoke to Moses (9:29)
- If anyone is religious and does his will, that one he (God) will hear (9:31)
- My Father, as for what he has given me, is greater than all (10:29)
- I have shown you many good works, from the Father (10:32)
- he whom the Father has consecrated and sent into the world (10:36)
- I know that whatever you ask of God, God will grant (11:22)
- but the Father who sent me has himself commanded what I had to say and make known (12:49)
- So what I say, as the Father has told me I say. (12: 50)
- knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands (13:3)
- God also will glorify him in himself and it is at once that he will glorify him (13:32)
- but the Father abiding in me does his works (14:10)
- and he will give you another Paraclete (14: 16)
- and the word that you hear is not from me, but from the Father who sent (14:24)
- But the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name (14:26)
- so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give it to you (15: 16)
- Whatever you ask the Father, he will give it to you in my name. (16: 23)
- you (Father) have sent me (17:21)
- Father, those whom you have given me (17:24)
- The cup that the Father has given me, shall I not drink it? (18: 11)
- As the Father has sent me (20: 21)
To sum up, the word that comes up most often to describe the action of God the Father is "to give":
- He gives his son, sometimes expressed with the term "send".
- He gives the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, sometimes also expressed with the word "send"
- He gives his son powers, such as the power to have life in himself, to judge, and even gives him everything (3, 35; 13, 3)
- It gives Jesus believers, sometimes expressed under the term "attract"
- He gives the bread from heaven
- He gives what we ask for in prayer
- He gives Jesus the works that he must carry out
- He gives Jesus the cup that he must drink
In short, God the Father is the source of everything, he is the source of what Jesus is, he is the source of the Spirit, he is the source of Jesus' mission, he is the source of what the believer receives.
This idea is expressed by a number of other verbs:
- He begets the Word that is Jesus
- He teaches Jesus what he should say and do, just as he spoke to Moses
- He commands Jesus what to say and do
- Thus, in Jesus, it is he who accomplishes his works
- And he reveals the greatness of the being of Jesus by marking him with his seal and glorifying him
- Finally, it was he who sent John the Baptist to give testimony to Jesus
Everything that Jesus is, what he says and what he does, comes from God the Father. We can understand then that the evangelist puts in the mouth of Jesus: "The Father and I are one". We can now understand that, later on, it will be said of Jesus that he is the perfect image of God: "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father". The corollary notion is that God acts, speaks and makes himself visible only through Jesus, or through his envoy.
||ēgapēsen ho theos (God loved)
Let's take a look at how John presents God's love, in addition to what is said here.
- The Father loves the Son and has put everything in his hand (3:35)
- This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again (9:35)
- He who has my commandments and keeps them, this is the one who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father; and I will love him and manifest myself to him (14:21)
- If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make a home with him (14:23)
- As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love (15:9)
- I in them and you in me, that they may be perfected in unity, and that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me (17:23)
- Father, those whom you have given me, I want them also to be with me where I am, so that they may behold my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world (17:24)
- I have made your name known to them, and I will make it known to them, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them (17:26)
Let us summarize the characteristics of God's love.
- First of all, this love seems to have conditions: God loves Jesus because he gives his life, God loves people who love Jesus and keep his word and commandments, God can only show his love if Jesus makes him known.
- Secondly, the fact that God loves Jesus means that he gives him everything in his hand, that he gives him glory he had even before the foundation of the world; this love therefore implies a transforming action.
- But there is more. Love seems to be a reality in itself, a state of being: love comes to inhabit the person as if it were an independent reality that is transmitted; it has been transmitted to Jesus who in turn becomes the vehicle for us. And the fact of being in this state allows us to grasp the quality of being of Jesus, called here "glory", it also allows us to live a perfect unity with God and with Jesus: fundamentally, love puts us in the same tune as God and Jesus, and makes us capable of truly knowing them.
- Finally, it seems that love is like fire that must be maintained, hence the invitation: remain in my love.
||monogenē (only begotten)
The expression "only begotten" applied to Jesus is unique to the Johannine tradition:
- John 1: 14: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory which he has from his Father as one son, full of grace and truth.
- John 1: 18: No one has ever seen God; the only son, who is turned to the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.
- John 3: 16: Indeed, God loved the world in this way: he gave his only son
- John 3: 18: But he who does not believe in him has condemned himself, for he has not put his trust in the person of the only son of God
- 1 John 4: 9: In this was manifested God's love for us: God sent his son unique in the world that we might live through him.
In the New Testament, the word monogenēs is always the attribute of the word son or daughter. In the epistle to the Hebrews (11:17), this son is Isaac whom Abraham was about to sacrifice, in Luke it is either the only son of the widow of Nain (7:72), or the only daughter of Jairus (8:42), or the only child of a man praying to Jesus to cure him of his epilepsy. To speak of an only child emphasizes his importance in the eyes of the parents. But in the Johannine tradition, the expression refers only to Jesus in his relationship to God. What does this mean? If the word is rooted in the biological world of procreation, John forces us to make a leap in the analogical connotations of the word to another level. What is this level?
The evangelist is careful to say that we are no longer at the biological level: "he who was not begotten of blood, nor of the will of flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (1:13). He alludes to this level by speaking of glory, grace, and truth: "glory (doxa) which he has from his Father as the only begotten son, full of grace (charis) and truth (alētheia)» (1: 14). The term doxa takes up the Hebrew kabôd which means: to have weight, i.e. to be very important and to command respect, and thus refers to the person's quality of being. We are in front of someone whose quality of being is unique. This quality of being is a gift, a grace (charis), a favor. The other attribute is to be full of truth (alētheia). The word truth plays a unique role in the Johannine tradition. Its main characteristic is that it is associated with the knowledge of God, i.e., with the role of Jesus as the Verbum or Word, who transmits this knowledge:
- John 8: 31-32: Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed him, "If you remain in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free
- Jean 14: 5-6: Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How shall we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me
- Jean 16: 13: But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will bring you into all truth; for he will not speak of himself, but what he hears he will speak, and he will reveal to you the things to come
- Jean 17: 17: Sanctify them in the truth: your word is truth
- Jean 18: 37: I was not born, nor did I come into the world, except to give testimony to the truth. Whoever is of the truth hears my voice
This knowledge does not appear as theoretical knowledge, because it is a path and it liberates. It seems to be linked to the quality of being, because people who have this quality listen to Jesus. This truth is dynamic, because the Spirit of truth will complete what is still missing and will "introduce into the whole truth". Finally, this truth is associated with God himself, for Jesus was sent to bear witness to the truth, which is in fact God. Now we understand the meaning of "only son": he is the only one who has access to God's being, and he is the only one who can tell us about it, and this knowledge is liberating and opens the way to God (1:18: No one has ever seen God; the only son, who is turned to the bosom of the Father, he has made him known).
||pisteuōn eis (believing)
No one else than John spoke more about the vital importance of believing. In fact, this is how his gospel ends: "These (the signs) were written down so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (20:31). Let us examine some characteristics of the act of believing. What is the object or content of this faith?
- 5, 38: And his word you do not have abiding in you, since you do not believe he whom he has sent
- 5, 47: But if you don't believe in his writings, how will you believe in my words?
- 8, 24: So I told you that you will die in your sins. For if you do not believe that I Am, you will die in your sins
- 10, 38: but if I do them (works), even if you do not believe me, believe in these works, that you may know once for all that the Father is in me and I in the Father.
- 12, 44: Jesus said, he proclaimed, "Whoever believes in me, believes not in me, but in the one who sent me.
- 14, 10: Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father dwelling in me doeth his works
- 20, 31: These (signs) have been written down, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name
To believe is to accept the words of Jesus, to recognize that what he does reflects the action of God, and therefore that Jesus is the one sent by God, his Messiah and his son. But ultimately, to believe is to accept that Jesus lives such an intimacy with God (the Father is in me and I in the Father) that he can bear the same title attributed to God in the Bible: I Am.
||mē apolētai allʼ echē zōēn aiōnion (should not perish, but should have eternal life)
The antithesis death/life appears often in John. We know that the verb to die or perish is not to be taken in the physical sense, i.e. natural death, but in the spiritual sense. Let us try to clarify this meaning by considering some passages:
- 6: 39: Now it is the will of him who sent me that I should lose (apollymi) nothing of all that he has given me, but that I should raise (anistēmi) them up on the last day
- 10: 10: The thief comes only to steal, slaughter and destroy (apollymi). I have come that we may have life and have it in abundance.
- 10: 28: I give them (my sheep) eternal life (zōēn aiōnion); they shall never perish (apollymi) and no one shall snatch them from my hand
- 12: 25: He who loves his life loses it (apollymi); and he who hates his life in this world will keep it in eternal life (zōēn aiōnion)
- 17: 12: When I was with them, I kept them in your name which you gave me. I guarded them and none of them was lost (apollymi), except the son of perdition, so that the scripture was fulfilled
These few passages clarify the meaning of dying/perishing by contrast: it is the opposite of rising up, the opposite of life in superabundance, the opposite of eternal life. And an example is given of someone who perished: Judas. The question then arises: is this a reality after physical death, i.e. in addition to physical death, some will not be risen up and therefore will experience a spiritual death? In contrast, others would be risen up and have a life in superabundance, an eternal and endless life. Let us examine what John means by "life". There are too many references, so we will take only a representative sample. Note in particular the tense of the verbs.
- 1: 4: (In the beginning...) That which was in him (Word) was life, and life was the light of men
- 3: 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever refuses to believe in the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God remains upon him
- 4: 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst again; the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into eternal life
- 5: 24: Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes in him who sent me has eternal life and does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.
- 5: 25: Truly, truly, I say to you, the hour is coming - and it is now - when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear it will live.
- 5: 26: For as the Father has life in himself, so has he given the Son also to have life in himself
- 5: 28-29: Do not be surprised, for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and will come forth: those who have done good, to a resurrection of life; those who have done evil, to a resurrection of judgment
- 6: 27: Work not for the food that is lost, but for the food that abides in eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you, for he is the one whom the Father, God, has marked with his seal
- 6: 33: For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world
- 6: 40: Yes, this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day
- 6: 47: Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life
- 6: 54: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him at the last day
- 8: 12: Again Jesus spoke to them and said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life
- 10: 28: I give them eternal life; they shall never perish, nor shall anyone snatch them out of my hand
- 14: 6: Jesus said to him, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life .
- 17: 1-2: Thus spoke Jesus, and looking up to heaven, he said, "Father, the hour has come: glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you, and according to the power which you have given him over all flesh, he give eternal life to all whom you have given him!
- 17: 3: Now eternal life is that they know you, the only true God, and him whom you have sent, Jesus Christ.
- 1 John 1: 2: For the Life has been manifested: we have seen it, we bear witness to it, and we proclaim to you this eternal Life, who was turned to the Father and which has appeared to us
- 1 Jean 2: 24-25: For you, let what you heard from the beginning remain in you. If what you heard from the beginning remains in you, you too will remain in the Son and in the Father. Now this is the promise that he himself has made to you: eternal life.
- 1 John 3: 14: We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. He who does not love remains in death
- 1 Jean 5: 12: Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son does not have life
The passages on life can be grouped into three categories.
- Life is the very reality of God, in a way his substance (text a). In sharing God's being, Jesus sees his being defined by life (text f). But what is specific about this life that is Jesus is that it allows the world to find all its meaning, and therefore it is its light (texts a and o). And those who welcome this light are then able to testify that Jesus is the very life of God, the very life of the Father, and therefore an eternal life that cannot disappear (text r).
- Life is a future reality. Pointing to the future, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman, "the water I will give him will become in him a spring of water springing up into eternal life" (text c); eternal life exists, but not for now (see also text h). This life seems to be offered only beyond death, since he speaks of the dead who "will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live" (text e). To be more explicit, this future eternal life is linked to a resurrection of the dead (texts e, g, j, l).
- Life is a present reality: "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life" (text b). Since life is the very being of God, accepting the word of God in Jesus is equivalent to accepting life, so that the believer has already passed from death to life (text d; see also k, s, t, u). The same is said of the one who welcomes the bread of life (texts i and l).
- And to complicate matters, there are hybrid sentences, i.e., that refer to a present and a future at the same time. A typical example: "I give them eternal life; they shall never perish and no one shall snatch them out of my hand" (text n); the sentence begins with a present tense (give) and ends with future tenses (shall perish, snatch). There is thus an "already" and a "not yet" (see also texts b, j, l).
How can we untangle all this? Since Jesus shares the very life of God, accepting his word in faith and attaching ourselves to his person allows that life to take root in us, and thus to orient our being to take the same path, to pass through physical death in the same way and to rise to a new reality in the same way. There is even more. This final resurrection seems to be happening now, and is no longer postponed to the end of time: "Truly, truly, I say to you, the hour is coming - and it is now - when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live" (text e). This now is linked to the death/resurrection of Jesus.
In this sequence, which goes from faith to the resurrection of the dead, we understand the fundamental role of the starting point: faith. This is one of the keys to understanding the enigmatic phrase: "But eternal life is that they know you, the only true God, and him whom you have sent, Jesus Christ" (text q); in Jesus we discover who God is, and in discovering who God is, we discover the path that leads to life, since God is life. We now understand better the final part of the gospel: "and that you may have life in his name by believing" (20: 31).
||v. 17 For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to let the world be liberated by him.
Literally: For the God did not send (apesteilen) his son into the world (kosmon) so that he might judge (krinē) the world, but so that the world might be saved (sōthē) through him
||apesteilen (he sent)
This formula of God sending someone is found frequently in the Old Testament. It describes the belief that a man has been chosen by God to accomplish a mission, usually a prophet.
- Isaiah 61:1: The spirit of the Lord Yahweh is upon me, for Yahweh has anointed me; he has sent me (apostellō) to bring the news to the poor, to bind up the bruised hearts, to proclaim release to the captives and deliverance to the prisoners
- Exodus 5:22: Moses returned to Yahweh and said, "Lord, why do you mistreat this people? Why have you sent me (apostellō)? "
- Genesis 45:8: (This is Joseph speaking) So it was not you who sent me (apostellō) here, but God, and he made me a father to Pharaoh, and a ruler over all his house, and a governor in all the land of Egypt
Jesus is presented as someone who had a mission to fulfill. The word "sent" is used synonymously with "give" in the previous verse. The word "give" makes sense when the emphasis is on Jesus being the only son of God, while the word "sent" makes sense when the emphasis is on the mission.
In the fourth gospel, the term has several meanings.
- It is first of all the place where men live and where the human drama is played out. It is therefore normal that God's intervention should take place in this context: "He came into the world" (Jn 1:9; see 33:19; 11:27; 12:46).
- And if God intervenes, it is because he loves humanity (Jn 3:16), and he will send his disciples into the world (Jn 17:18) so that all may be one (Jn 17:21) and know that they are loved as Jesus is loved by his Father (Jn 17:23)
- On the other hand, other passages of the gospel represent the world as an evil force that opposes Jesus: the world did not recognize the one sent by God (Jn 1:10), the world hates Jesus because it testifies that his works that are evil (Jn 7:7), the world does not recognize and receive the Spirit of Truth (Jn 14:17), the world hates not only Jesus, but also his disciples (Jn 15:18), this world is dominated by a Prince (Jn 16:11).
Thus, the term "world" has multiple meanings depending on the context, designating sometimes the environment where Jesus' mission is carried out, sometimes the reality that he wants to illuminate and transform to the point of associating it with his intimacy with God, sometimes the group of people who refuse his word and take it in hate.
||krinē (he judges)
The Greek verb krinō
first means to separate, distinguish, order, discern (good and evil), hence to judge, make a decision, go to trial, accuse, condemn. And its noun krisis
means a judgment, sentence, decision, accusation, trial. There is another related noun, krima
, which means a judgment, verdict, prosecution, conviction. To understand and properly interpret these words in John's gospel, we must remember that the entire gospel is one huge trial. Let us consider a list of texts.
- John 3: 19: And this is the judgment (krisis): the light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness better than the light, because their deeds were evil.
- John 5:22: For the Father judges (krinō) no one; he has given the Son the whole judgment (krisis)
- John 5:24: He who hears my word and believes in him who sent me has eternal life and does not come into judgment (krisis), but has passed from death to life
- John 5:27: And he has given him authority to exercise judgment (krisis) because he is Son of Man.
- John 5:29: (the hour is coming when the dead will rise from their graves) those who have done good, to a resurrection of life; those who have done evil, to a resurrection of judgment (krisis)
- John 5:30: I judge (krinō) according to what I hear: and my judgment (krisis) is right, because I do not seek my own will, but the will of him who sent me
- John 8:15: You judge (krinō) according to the flesh; I judge (krinō) no one;
- John 8:16: And if I happen to judge (krinō), my judgment (krisis) is according to the truth, because I am not alone; but I and he who sent me are one;
- John 8:26: I have much to say and judge (krinō) about you; but he who sent me is truthful, and I tell the world what I have heard from him."
- John 9:39: Then Jesus said, "For a discernment (krima) I have come into this world: that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind."
- John 12:31: Now is the judgment (krisis) of this world; now the Prince of this world will be thrown out;
- John 12:47: If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge (krinō) him, for I have not come to judge (krinō) the world, but to save the world
- John 12:48: Whoever rejects me and does not accept my words has someone who judges him (krinō): the word that I have spoken will judge him (krinō) on the last day
- John 16:8: And he (the Paraclete), when he has come, will establish the guilt of the world in sin, in righteousness, and in judgment (krisis)
- John 16:11: of judgment (krisis), because the Prince of this world is judged (krinō) .
The reading of these texts can appear confusing, because Jesus seems to affirm one thing and its opposite at the same time: he does not judge and he does judge. And the judgment we are talking about here has above all the meaning of condemnation. Let us try to clarify things. In Judaism, and especially in the apocalyptic tradition, the final judgment of Yahweh is expected, who will destroy by fire and sword those who do evil, and gather all the others to himself (Isaiah 66:16). The prophet Daniel evokes this final judgment that accompanies the end of time when the great beast and the other beasts are exterminated, while the eternal reign of the Son of Man is inaugurated and the kingdom is given to the saints, after the Ancient One has rendered his judgment (Daniel 7: 9-26). These texts thus mention a final confrontation between God and sinful humanity, a confrontation scheduled for that Day of Yahweh. On that Day, all will be risen up to receive their sentence, some to life, others to eternal death. The oppressed and the slaves of the Gentiles are calling for this judgment with all their hearts (Psalm 140:13). And when John the Baptist begins his preaching, he will speak of the "coming wrath" and invite people to conversion in preparation for this judgment of God.
Now, according to the evangelist John, this final confrontation between Yahweh and sinful humanity happened in Jesus, particularly through his death on the cross and his resurrection, releasing the Paraclete or Holy Spirit, and announcing the end of the opposing forces. This is what biblical scholars call realized eschatology (end times). Let us gather the texts we have pointed out into five categories:
- First of all, the Judgment of God becomes the Judgment of Jesus, because the Father has decided to delegate this final judgment to Jesus, and Jesus is the Son of Man of the end of time of which Daniel spoke (texts b and d)
- Then, each time the evangelist affirms that Jesus judges, using the verb in the present tense, he immediately links this action to the fact that he is only fulfilling the will of the one who sent him, and more precisely he is only repeating what he heard from the One who is the Truth par excellence (texts f, h and i); this is the same vocabulary that we find when Jesus affirms that his word is not his own, but that which he heard from the Father
- All this puts us on the track that it is as the word or light that Jesus judges, not in the sense of condemning, but in the sense of revealing hearts, of discerning, of distinguishing between those who want this light and those who do not, because they have already made contrary life choices (texts a and j).
- This is why Jesus can define his role as one who has not come to condemn, but to save: for all those who welcome his light will experience liberation (texts g and l)
- On the other hand, by revealing who God is, and therefore what the Truth and the Light are, he forces a part of humanity to take a stand and assert itself against God, and thus to place itself among those who will be risen to eternal death. This is exactly what was foreseen for the end of time and has now happened. The Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, released as a result of Jesus' death, will continue his work and reveal who is destined for that eternal death and finalize the final judgment (texts c, e, k, m, n, o)
||sōthē (he might be saved)
John is not a great user of the Greek verb sōzō
which is usually translated as "save" and which I have translated as "be liberated." Let's try to understand what he means by this word.
- John 4:22: You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation (sōtēria) comes from the Jews
- John 4:42: We (the Samaritans) have heard him ourselves, and we know that he is truly the savior (sōtēr) of the world.
- John 5:34: Not that I take up the testimony of a man (John the Baptist); if I speak of it, it is that you may be saved (sōzō)
- John 10:9: I am the door. If anyone enters through me, he will be saved (sōzō); he will go in and out, and find pasture.
- John 12:47: If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him, for I have not come to judge the world, but to save (sōzō) the world
All the passages quoted have one thing in common: they refer to the word of Jesus (texts b, d and e) and to the fact that he is sent from God (texts c). Indeed, it is by listening to Jesus that the Samaritans declare that he is the Savior of the world (text b). It is by listening to his voice that the sheep recognize the good shepherd and follow him, and thus can receive their pasture (text d). It is by accepting his word and keeping it as a light on the world that a person will have eternal life and be saved (text e). Finally, the testimony of John the Baptist was intended to assure the Jews that Jesus was the one sent by God, and therefore that his word is God's own word (text c). Fundamentally, this word opens up a path of life that will ultimately rescue them from death. In this, it saves. In the list of texts quoted, only the first (text a) stands out. It perhaps bears the mark of the final editor (see M. E. Boismard, A. Lamouille, Synopse des quatre évangiles, T. III - L'évangile de Jean: Paris, Cerf, 1977, p. 144. ); the latter, using the word sōtēria unique in the whole gospel, wishes to remind us that the Jewish people remain God's chosen people, the ones who paved the way for the coming of John the Baptist and the coming of Jesus the savior (see what Luke says in Acts 13:23 (From his descendants, following his promise, God raised up Jesus as Savior for Israel) and Paul in Romans 9:4-5 (They who are Israelites, to whom belong the filial adoption, the glory, the covenants, the legislation, the worship, the promises, and also the patriarchs, and from whom Christ came according to the flesh, who is above all, God blessed forever! Amen. )
- Analysis of the narrative's structure
- In order to analyze the structure of these verses adequately, we must broaden the object of our study to include verse 12 at the beginning and verse 18 at the end. In fact, there are two sets of verses: 12-15 and 16-18.
- The whole of 12-15 is not well structured and is only cemented by key words: the word "heaven" which links verses 12 and 13, and the word "Son of man" which links verses 13 and 14. As for v. 15, it follows from v. 14 to conclude it. But at the same time it serves as a cement linking to the set 16-18 with the key words: believe and life without end. All these key words have been underlined.
12 If you do not believe when I tell you the things of the earth, how will you believe when I tell you the things of heaven?
13 Indeed, no one has ascended to the heaven except the one who descended from the heaven, the Son of Man.
14 As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes may have through him endless life.
- The set 16-18 is much better structured and forms a Semitic inclusion where the end takes up the beginning and the verses answer each other in a parallel way, which we have underlined by the similar colors.
The structure could therefore be presented schematically as follows:
16a Indeed, God (theos) loved (agapaō) the world (kosmos) in this way:
16b he gave (didōmi) his only son (huios) (monogenēs),
16c so that whoever believes (pisteuō) in him will not die (apollymi),
but has a life (zōē) without end.
17a For God (theos) did not send (apostellō) his son (huios) into the world (kosmos)
17b To condemn (krinō) the world (kosmos),
17c but for the world (kosmos) to be liberated (sōzō) by it.
18a He who believes (pisteuō) in him is not condemned (krinō).
18b But he who does not believe (pisteuō) in him has condemned (krinō) himself,
For he did not believe (pisteuō) in the person of the one son (huios) (monogenēs) of God (theos).
Introduction: this is the way God loved the world
A1 Central action of God: he gave his only son
B1: Expected response from the person: receive him in faith so as not to die but to have life
C: Meaning of the son's mission in the world, not to condemn, but to liberate
B2: Result of the person's answer: who believes is not condemned, who does not believe condemns himself
A2 Conclusion on the human response: did not receive in faith this only son of God
In an inclusion, the key is found in the central phrase, in this case C: the son's mission in the world is one of liberation or salvation. While the key sentence is focused on the world, and thus is a general statement, both what precedes and what follows are focused on the individual person, and more particularly on the condition for access to this salvation. In what precedes (B1), the emphasis is positive: whoever agrees to believe will escape death and know life. In what follows (B2), the emphasis is rather negative in that it focuses on the risk of condemnation, which the believer escapes, but which the unbeliever will experience. The whole thing ends with a conclusion (A2), the refusal to receive in faith this only begotten son, which takes up the beginning (A1) presenting the gift or sending of this only begotten son.
- When you put these two sets together, you get a sequence of ideas like the following:
- The wisdom of God is different from human wisdom v. 12
- Jesus is the new Moses who reveals the wisdom of God v. 13
- Here is this wisdom: Jesus is by his death on the cross the new bronze serpent: whoever believes in him has life without end v. 14-15
- It is a gesture of love from God giving his only son v. 16
- For the salvation of the world v. 17
- Faith in him is the key that determines his destiny v. 18
- If we limit ourselves to vv. 13-17 as proposed by the liturgy of the exaltation of the cross, we find ourselves eliminating the affirmation of the gap between human and divine wisdom v. 12, as well as the different destiny of those who believe and those who do not v. 18. We are left with only the positive aspect of the message: Jesus is this new Moses who reveals God's wisdom and love to offer life without end to humanity through the death on the cross of his only son
- Context Analysis
Our three verses are part of Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus. According to what precedes (Jn 2:23-25), Jesus is in Jerusalem on the occasion of the Passover festival. According to the narrator, many people believe in him because of the signs he performs, but Jesus does not see anything profound in them and does not allow himself to be deceived by this attitude. It is at this point that Nicodemus, a Pharisee who is sympathetic to Jesus and a member of the Sanhedrin, shows up. Let's look at the sequence of the dialogue (in red the three verses we are analyzing).
- Introduction: Nicodemus comes at night to see Jesus
- Nicodemus (statement):
- You are a teacher sent by God
- Rationale: only someone sent by God can make these signs
- Jesus (answer)
- To see the Kingdom of God, one must be born from above
- Nicodemus (question)
- How to be born a second time if you are old?
- Jesus (answer)
- One must be born of water and the Spirit to enter the Kingdom of God
- In the carnal birth, one remains carnal, while in the birth of the Spirit, one becomes spirit
- With this last birth begins a unique path that baffles people, just like the movement of the wind
- Nicodemus (question)
- Jesus (answer)
- You are a teacher of Judaism, and you don't know that?
- The wisdom of God is different from human wisdom
- Jesus is the new Moses who reveals the wisdom of God
- Here is this wisdom: Jesus is by his death on the cross the new bronze serpent: whoever believes in him has life without end
- It is a gesture of love on the part of God giving his only son for the salvation of the world
- Faith in him is the key that determines his destiny
- Unfortunately, men refused to believe and preferred the darkness because they did not want to see their evil deeds exposed
- But whoever acts in truth receives this light in faith, for his actions are inspired by God.
Thus ends this conversation with Nicodemus without any final reaction from him. The narrator takes us immediately to the land of Judea where Jesus, like John the Baptist, baptizes in the region of the Jordan (John 3:22-23).
- What can we learn from this context? This long scene begins by mentioning that it is night, and ends by introducing those who come to the light, because their actions are inspired by God. Between this beginning and end, there is a progressive teaching by Jesus, introduced by questions from Nicodemus. Even if Nicodemus recognizes Jesus as a man of God, this is not enough. The intervention of the Spirit of God is needed to transform the person, as if he were giving him a new birth. The person thus transformed is not only able to accept the word of Jesus, but to accept his death on the cross as a passage to life. All this is an expression of God's love for the world so that it may have access to life. But access to this life is a matter of openness in faith, and the answer depends on the individuals: unfortunately, a good part of them refused this openness in faith, preferring death and darkness, because they did not want to turn away from their evil actions; but the others welcomed this life in faith, because their actions were already inspired by God.
- When we look at the immediate context of our five verses, we notice that Jesus makes explicit his affirmation of the necessity to be born of water and the Spirit in order to enter the world of God, i.e. to welcome in faith his elevation on the cross. Thus, entry into this world must take the obligatory path of the cross. And this is totally beyond the wisdom of this world.
As we are used to with the fourth gospel, there are no parallels with the synoptic accounts: John is the only one to tell this scene of the conversation with Nicodemus. But we can draw parallels with other passages of the fourth gospel or with the first epistle of John. Since we have already distinguished two sets (13-15, 16-17), the analysis of the parallels will be done in two stages.
- Parallels of 13-15
Similar expressions are underlined.
|John 3:13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.||John 6:58 This is the bread descended from heaven; it is not like that which the fathers ate and died; whoever eats this bread will live forever|
|John 3:14 As Moses raised the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be raised,|
John 3:15 that whoever believes may have eternal life through him.
|John 12:31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the Prince of this world is to be cast out;|
John 12:32 and I, when I am raised from the earth, will draw all men to myself."
John 12:33 By this he meant what death he was going to die from.
- A first parallel can be drawn with this passage from the discourse on the bread of life (6:58). Both texts affirm the same thing: the person of Jesus has a unique character that distinguishes him from others, he comes from God (descends from heaven), and he is able to give a unique (eternal) life.
- A parallel can also be drawn with the speech of Jesus in Jerusalem (12:31-33) when Greeks want to see him on the occasion of the Passover feast, which is a sign for Jesus of his imminent death, for it is his death that will draw humanity to him (once I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself). Both texts thus affirm the fruitfulness of this death: in the first case, eternal life, in the second case, the formation of a community around his person. But there is more. We have already noted that Jewish tradition linked the serpent in the desert to the serpent that seduced Eve, basically representing Satan and the forces of evil. The death of Jesus will have the effect of destroying these forces of evil. This is the same idea that John 12 develops: the Prince of the world will be thrown out. M. E. Boismard goes so far as to assert that v. 14 followed v. 31 of ch. 12 before the final edition of the gospel, so that we would have had: Now is the judgment of this world; now the Prince of this world is going to be thrown out. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up (See M. E. Boismard, A. Lamouille, Synopse des quatre évangiles, T. III - L'évangile de Jean: Paris, Cerf, 1977, p. 318).
- Parallels of 16-17
In fact, it is vv. 16-18 that have parallels elsewhere in the fourth gospel.
|1 Jean 4, 9
||John 3: 16-18
||John 12: 46-48|
|In this was manifested the love (agapē) of God (theos) for us: God has sent (apostellō) his Son (huios) only begotten (monogenēs) in the world (kosmos) so that we live (zaō) through him.
||16 For God (theos) so loved (agapaō) the world (kosmos) that he gave his Son (huios) only begotten (monogenēs), so that everyone who believes (pisteuō) in him shall not perish, but have life (zōē) eternal.
||46 I, the light, have come into the world (kosmos), so that whoever believes (pisteuō) in me shall not abide in darkness.|
||17 For God (theos) did not send (apostellō) his Son (huios) into the world (kosmos) to judge (krinō ) the world (kosmos), but that the world (kosmos) may be saved (sōzō) by him.
||47 If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge (krinō) him, for I have not come to judge (krinō ) the world (kosmos), but to save (sōzō) the world.|
||18 Who believes (pisteuō) in him is not judged (krinō); who does not believe (pisteuō) is already judged (krinō ), because he has not believed (pisteuō) in the Name of the Son (huios) one (monogenēs) of God (theos).
||48 Whoever rejects me and does not receive not my words has his judge (krinō): the word which I have spoken, it is that which will judge him (krinō) at the last day;|
- Intention of the author when writng this passage
- Our five verses are part of this exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus, a prominent Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, in Jerusalem on the occasion of Easter. The evangelist loves symbols. This representative of Judaism comes to meet Jesus at night: for the Jews are in the dark because of their attitude towards Jesus. The scene with Nicodemus is not a real dialogue, because we will never know the outcome of this encounter; it aims rather to present the conditions for passing from night to light. In fact, at the beginning the attention is on the signs accomplished by Jesus, which leads Nicodemus, like some Jews, to recognize that Jesus is sustained by God, in the manner of the prophets. But for the evangelist, these signs reveal something much deeper, the presence of the Kingdom of God. This is why Jesus affirms that to see this Kingdom requires a radical transformation of the person, a transformation that only God can bring about through his Spirit and symbolized by Christian baptism: "Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, no one can enter the Kingdom of God". This transformation allows one to become the very substance of God, to become Spirit, and thus begins a road that is unique and eludes the majority of people. And above all, it makes it possible to welcome the Christian witness, and in particular the word of Jesus.
- The first statement of the evangelist for our purpose insists that Jesus is the only one able to truly communicate the mind and wisdom of God, and thus to enlighten human history. His word is truly God's word.
- After affirming the identity between the word of God and that of Jesus, the evangelist then presents Jesus as the new Moses who puts an end to the powers of evil present in the world since Adam's sin and symbolized by the poisonous snakes, successors of the serpent of the Garden of Eden: by destroying these evil powers, Jesus inaugurates a new creation. However, the way to destroy these evil powers is through crucifixion on the cross, mentioned modestly by the symbol of elevation, a reference to the bronze serpent tied to the signpost by Moses. This modest allusion to the cross reflects the embarrassment of this type of horrible death reserved only for criminal slaves, and which the first Christians had difficulty in addressing clearly. In this context, we understand the precaution John takes at the beginning in insisting on the gap between human wisdom and God's wisdom, and that only the fact that Jesus is the very word of God is capable of opening us up to such a horrible reality at first glance.
- The way of the cross is meaningful only because it opens onto life without end. Our five verses do not explain what John means by life without end. But when we read the whole of his gospel, we see that life refers to the very being of God to which we can have access right now and which will enable us to pass through death. But it is useless to try to find out "how" the cross is a source of life, and especially "why". The evangelist simply says: "it is necessary". It is here that the preceding statements take on their full meaning: it is a wisdom that escapes human intelligence, and only he who is born of the Spirit and of water can access it by faith; and Jesus is the great revealer of this wisdom.
- Finally, the evangelist situates this ignominious death on the cross in God's plan: it is a loving initiative of God, the gift of what he has most precious, to counter the destructive slope of humanity and allow it to find the path of liberation and life. We can imagine in this sentence the immense path taken by the first Christian communities: from the initial shock of seeing their master suffer the tragic end of criminal slaves and know the fate of people that the Bible considers as cursed, they passed to a loving initiative of God to heal humanity and give it life without end. It's night and day. They could have experienced this condemnation of an innocent man with a sense of guilt for humanity in general, and the Jewish people in particular, but John insists that God does not intend to judge humanity. The focus is on the love and life that accompanies the cross.
- How can we summarize the evangelist's intention in a single sentence? Jesus is the new Moses who reveals the wisdom of God, and this wisdom, inseparable from his love, which is accessed through faith, wants him to pass through death on the cross to free humanity from destructive forces, as Moses did for his people in the desert.
- Current situations or events in which we could read this text
- Suggestions from the different symbols in the story
- The first symbol is that of the heaven: going up to heaven, coming down from heaven. The image of heaven refers of course to God. This is the question: who can really speak about God? John says that only Jesus is really able to speak about him adequately. But how many people claim to know who God is, what he thinks, what he wants? How many times have people been killed in the name of God? The Pharisees imposed on people the heavy burden of religious rules, always in the name of God. What about today? Just think of all the religious fundamentalists who claim to act in the name of God.
- The son of man or new Adam. The expression "new Adam" which, in my opinion, best translates the expression "son of man" which comes from the prophet Daniel, seems to me to be symbolically rich. For it refers to the creation of the first man, but this time it is about the renewed man, the man as God wanted him. And this man becomes the model and the leader of all humanity.
- The image of the brass or bronze serpent with which Jesus is associated offers some interesting leads. Of course, we know it as a scary animal, a cunning creature that crawls and whose bite can cause death. But it is also a symbol of life, regeneration and eternal youth, because it has the ability to moult and constantly make new skin. The Greek god Aesculapius, a Greek god of healing, is represented under the figure of the snake, so that today this snake wrapped around a stick is associated with the tree of life and medical associations. Thus, Jesus can be seen as a healer. Anyone for whom Jesus is a central figure in their life can point out how Jesus plays this role.
- The elevation to the cross is a strange symbol. On the one hand, the symbolism of elevation is usually associated with a happy event: one is elevated to a throne, one reaches a higher level. But this elevation is linked to the crucifixion and to this horrible death on the cross. It remains that a reflection on the elevation that the cross constitutes can be extremely fruitful. There are sufferings and humiliating situations that can make one grow and be a source of life.
- The evangelist speaks of a "life without end". As we have analyzed, life is the very substance of God. Today, many people ask the question: what is life? Some claim to be living life to the fullest; what exactly are they doing? Others, on the other hand, complain that they do not live, but only exist. Our experience shows that there are people who say they are alive, but inside they are dead. The evangelist states that Jesus' role is to give eternal life. What does this mean for our lives?
- When we talk about life, we must also talk about death. Now, Jesus' role is to see to it that we do not die? What does that mean? What does it mean to be dead now? Does death have many meanings? Can we identify people around us who are actually dead, even though their heart is still beating? What characterizes them?
- Current situations or events in which we could read this text
The challenge here is to consider how an evangelical passage can shed light on events such as these:
- The Christian communities of Iraq have recently experienced a real massacre by Muslim fundamentalists, some women being raped, men beheaded. A true genocide. How to read such an event in the light of today's Gospel?
- The Ebola epidemic is taking its toll on Africa. So many deaths. And the international community seems powerless. Yet today we proclaim a healing Jesus. How do we make sense of it all?
- In a political conflict such as the one in Ukraine, how to have an adequate attitude? Russia is blowing hot and cold, Ukraine seems to be the victim, but its soldiers can be very rude. Of course, the Gospel does not offer a recipe. But it shapes the new man. How does the new man deal with crises?
- A neighbor is experiencing panic over the massive layoffs at her firm. When will it be her turn? She lives alone with her elderly mother and intellectually disabled sister, for whom she is the sole breadwinner. Can faith in the one "who comes down from heaven" imparting God's wisdom have any relevance here?
- As a grandfather, I regularly interact and play with my granddaughter. At four years old, a child cannot grasp the complexity of life. Even if we have to dilute everything for a child's ears, we can still convey the broad outlines of our way of seeing life. In this regard, what is relevant in today's gospel?
-André Gilbert, Gatineau, September 2014