Text Study on John 12:20-33 (Pt. 3); 5 Lent B 2021

Part Three: Lifted Up

I must confess that for most of my adult life, I didn’t care much for John’s gospel. All of that “you in me and me in you” stuff in the High Priestly Prayer. Doubting Thomas and “the truth shall make you free” every blessed year. Six long, dull weeks of the Bread of Life discourse every three years when there was plenty of Mark on which to drill down in detail. No parables to speak of. Long, long discourses in which you couldn’t even tell where to put the quotation marks. Preaching on John was like preaching on another’s sermons – a redundant exercise in mostly missing the point.

Give me Mark and his “immediately” any day of the week and twice on Sundays, thank you very much. I tried to schedule vacation and continuing education times during the Bread of Life discourse to decrease my frustration.

In these last days, I have had a change of heart. I have come to see John’s Gospel as the inexhaustible treasure and indispensable companion to the Synoptics that it is. So, what changed? Well, me, of course.

Photo by Akil Mazumder on Pexels.com

First, when I heard Father John Behr note that John’s gospel begins where the Synoptics end, something clicked in my theological brain. I could see John as a deep commentary and reflection on the Jesus story as told in the Synoptics rather than an idiosyncratic competitor with them. As I began to experience John’s gospel as a subtle and sophisticated meditation on Holy Week as the lens through which to view all of Jesus’ ministry, the power of the gospel began to take hold of me.

Second, when I came to a deeper understanding of the doctrine of theosis, as taught in the Eastern church, John’s gospel made even more sense to me. St. Athanasius suggests that the goal of the Incarnation is our divinization. The Word became human so that humans might become divine. For now, let me say that reading John through the lens of that doctrine and letting John explicate that doctrine has made a profound difference in my reading of John’s gospel and my articulation of the Christian journey. Learning that this doctrine is found embedded in Luther’s theology has been icing on the interpretive cake (more on that in the next post).

Third, and building on the previous two notions, is the understanding in John of the nature of Incarnation as Glorification. “The hour has come,” Jesus solemnly declares in John 12:23, “in order that the Son of Man shall be glorified.” In John, as Karoline Lewis reminds us rightly and repeatedly, Jesus’ “glorification” runs from the Crucifixion through the Resurrection and into the Ascension. Separating these three elements into distinct “stages” can produce a misreading of John’s intended message. I am grateful for this regular reminder from Dr. Lewis as a key not only to John’s gospel but to Christian theology as a whole.

Jesus’ “glorification” runs from the Crucifixion through the Resurrection and into the Ascension. This is particularly true, I think, when we reflect on John 12:32. “And I,” Jesus promises, “when I am lifted up from the earth, shall draw all people to myself” (NRSV). We should note the immediate ambiguity in this description. Jesus is “lifted up” from the ground when he is suspended on the cross to die. He is “lifted up” from the tomb at his resurrection. He is “lifted up” from the earth as he ascends to heaven.

All three “elevations” are parts of the one process of the glorification of the Son of Man. John is the master of metaphor and a shameless punster. The writer of John exploits the double meanings of the term to the fullest. Those who lift Jesus up on the cross think they are hoisting him on the executioner’s pole. In fact, John wants us to see, they are exalting him to his heavenly throne.

The “ruler of this world” has occupied a throne that must now be vacated, since Jesus is taking his rightful place on the real throne. The “ruler of this world” is therefore “driven out” by the very means that worldly powers use to drive Jesus out of the world. They think they have brought an end to his disruptive presence. Instead, they have put him in the place where he will now draw all people to himself.

We who stand on the far side of this process can see the various elements of John’s account if we are looking. This is in contrast to the response of the crowd in verse 34 who understand “lifted up” as referring to solely to death by crucifixion. In order to get the full picture, we must conduct ourselves in the light which produces understanding.

John’s gospel does not have three “passion predictions,” in the way the Synoptics do. Three times, however, Jesus declares that the Son of Man will be “lifted up.” Those declarations are in John 3:14, 8:28, and 12:32. Whether these are John’s answers to the Synoptic passion predictions is not clear or all that important. More to the point is what Jesus means by “lifting up” and what it takes to see that elevation as glorification.

In each of the three cases, what is required is the light of the world that Jesus embodies. In John 3, Nicodemus comes by night and seeks enlightenment. In John 8, we have the central affirmation of Jesus as the light of the world. And in John 12, that theme is completed with the necessity for us to walk as children of the light if we are to come to that enlightenment.

When Jesus is exalted, he declares, he will “draw” all people to himself. The verb is used in John 6:44 as well. The Judean authorities complain that Jesus is “getting above his raising” (I love puns too, by the way) by describing himself as “the bread that came down from heaven.” In response to their skepticism, Jesus urges them to stop murmuring. “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me,” he declares, “and I will raise that person up on the last day.” God draws people from the cross through the Resurrection and into the Ascension in glory.

Jesus makes it clear that we who follow him must take the path from cross to resurrection to ascension in glory as well. “When someone serves me,” Jesus declares in John 12:26, “let that one follow me, and where I am, there my servant shall be” (my translation). The scriptural vibrations in this sentence are nearly unmanageable. We who follow Jesus take on the role of “servant,” and we too come not to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45).

As we serve, we find ourselves in the place where Jesus is the “I am” – an allusion to the name God gives to Moses in Exodus – and which John uses repeatedly in the gospel to identify Jesus with God. It is in the suffering service of the cross that we will lose our life in order to sustain it for all the ages (see John 12:25). Clinging to merely human life is the path toward losing real life. It is the path away from full humanity.

In verses 27-30, we get John’s version of the Transfiguration. In John, the Transfiguration affirms Jesus’ testimony to this point and promises to carry through to the end. John’s account of the Transfiguration is changed from the Synoptic reports in much the same way as John’s account of Jesus’ baptism is developed.

Here in John 12, Jesus prays for God’s name to be glorified. The prayer is answered by the voice from heaven. John notes that the voice was not given to benefit or reassure Jesus. In John, Jesus needs no such reassurance, since he knows how all things will turn out. Instead, the response is given for the sake of the crowd.

People, however, don’t understand what they heard. Apart from a living trust in Jesus, the voice of God sounds like the thunder of doom or the whispering of angels. Jesus is the Word made flesh, and it is only through him that God’s voice becomes intelligible. The Johannine transfiguration presents the “crisis” of his coming to the this “cosmos,” as noted in verse 31. The rulers of this world “go down” as Jesus is lifted up. We should not miss those contrasting directions.

And in verses 31-36, we get the final commentary on the “lifting up” of the Son of Man. The coming of the Greeks who wish to see Jesus is a sign that in this lifting up, Jesus will draw all people to himself. Jesus concludes by taking us back to the Prologue in John 1 and some final words about the presence of the Light in the world.  In verse 35, we have direct reference to John 1:5 and the danger that the darkness might “overtake” us.

Why do the crowds now ask who the Son of Man is? We can hear echoes of Caesarea Philippi once again. When Jesus talks about being “lifted up,” the crowds are clear about his meaning. John keeps the reader up to speed by reminding us in verse 33 that “he said this to signify by what sort of death he was destined to die” (my translation).

The NRSV omits some of the teeth in this verse. The “lifting up” metaphor is a sign, and the death is not accidental but part of the path. Just as in Mark 8, the cross is “necessary.” And the grammar in John puts the emphasis on “who” does the dying rather than the way in which he dies (see Wallace, page 636-637). So, the crowd hears what Jesus says. The Son of Man is going to die, and that’s not an accident or mistake.

Here in John 12, it is not Peter who rebukes Jesus this time but rather the crowds. If Jesus is to be lifted up on the cross, then in the minds of the crowd, he cannot be the Messiah. They are also thinking in human rather than divine terms. They quote some unknown proverb about how the Messiah cannot and shall not die. Perhaps this is a connection to Elijah as a Messianic figure, but we can’t be certain of that. In any event, a crucified Messiah is not part of the understanding the crowds have of what God intends.

Myers writes in conclusion, “For John’s Gospel, therefore, it’s not enough just to come to Jesus or “want to see” him; we must have our ears unclogged and our vision corrected by the trauma that is Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. As Jesus explains, we cannot avoid darkness and death, but instead, must trust that God will bring about life. This message is perhaps even more important this year, as we’ve all endured a time of pandemic and seemingly endless death. We may not be able to avoid the darkness, but we can, like those foretold in Isaiah 56, cling to Jesus’ promise that he will light our paths toward life.”

Following Jesus means being drawn up to the cross. It means descending into the tomb. It means being drawn up toward life in the Resurrection and knowing the abundance of that life in our ongoing Ascension into glory. More on that from an interesting Lutheran perspective in the next post.

References and Resources

Behr, John. The Mystery of Christ. Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press, 1969. See especially pages 73-86.

Lossky, Vladimir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Crestwood, NY.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1957.

Myers, Alicia D. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-john-1220-33-5

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.

Text Study for 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Transfiguration B 2021 (part two)

Part two: Shining with Resurrection Light

In his book, The Resurrection of the Son of God, N. T. Wright comments on this passage and 2 Corinthians in general, from the perspective of the Resurrection. He notes a shift in that perspective from 1 Corinthians to 2 Corinthians. “But whereas in 1 Corinthians the movement is primarily towards the future, straining towards the resurrection and discovering what needs to be done in the present to anticipate it,” he writes, “in 2 Corinthians the movement is primarily towards the present, discovering in the powerful resurrection of Jesus and the promised resurrection for all his people the secret of facing suffering and pain here and now” (page 300).

Wright reminds us that when Paul uses the “new covenant” language in 2 Corinthians 3:4-6, he is taking us back to Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36. God’s new covenant is not written on stone tablets like the first covenant. Rather it is, as the prophets promise, written on human hearts. Those hearts are not made of stone themselves but are rather the soft hearts of flesh.

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The first covenant, the “ministry in service of death” as he describes it in 2 Corinthians 3:7, was “chiseled in letters on stone tablets.” The new covenant is written by the Spirit on human hearts – on the hearts of the Corinthian Christians. Paul tells them in verse three that they are “a letter of Christ…written not with ink but with the Spirit of the Living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (NRSV).

So, Paul is a minister of the New Covenant. That covenant has a different kind of glory, a glory unlike that on the face of Moses as he received and transmitted the first covenant. It’s not that the first covenant had no glory but rather than the New Covenant outshines the first in its brilliance. Paul’s argument, Wright suggests, “is that his ministry has ‘glory’ even though it does not look like it.”

It is not like the glory of Moses’ ministry because it “involves life rather than death, justification rather than condemnation, permanence rather than transitoriness” (page 304). That glory is the reflection of the Messiah who is both crucified and risen. That glory shines in and through the Jesus follower in life-altering ways. “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror,” Paul writes in 3:18, “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

The word Paul uses for “transformed” here is the same as Mark uses to describe the change in appearance the disciples witnessed on the Mount of Transfiguration. That’s another reason why I think it is best to read the text beginning at 3:17 in our worship services. These verses offer a powerful and enthralling description of what we should expect in our lives as Jesus followers. We should expect transformation, or as Wright notes, New Creation from the same Spirit who wrought Creation in the beginning.

“The god who said ‘let light shine out of darkness,” Wright proposes, in other words, the Genesis god, God the creator – has shone in our hearts, [Paul] says, to give ‘the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus the Messiah.” It’s to clear to Paul and to us that some cannot (or will not) see this glory because they have been blinded by “the god of this world.” But, Wright notes, that is no fault of Paul or Paul’s gospel. Instead, it is a failure of vision on the part of those who cling to appearance rather than reality.

The Transfiguration is a far more important event and text in the Eastern Church than it is in the West. This is because of the Eastern emphasis on salvation as “theosis,” which can be translated as “deification” or “divinization.” The classic statement of this doctrine comes from Athanasius in his treatise on the Incarnation. Athanasius, almost in a throwaway line near the end of the book notes that “God became human in order that humans might become gods.” The Western Church has an allergic reaction to that idea since it might lead to either the idolatry of the human or some sort of collapse in the distinction between the Creator and the created.

Yet, we can find this notion in Paul’s conversation about our transformation and glorification. On the Mountain of Transfiguration, Eastern theologians tell us, we can see the humanity of Christ radiant with divine glory. And we can see the divinity of Christ shining through his humanity without defacing or destroying it. In fact, the glimpse we get on the mountain is not merely of glory. Rather, in this Eastern line of thought, what the disciples see is the fulfillment of the Image of God – a revelation of how God intended humans to exist from the moment of Creation. The Transfiguration reveals, therefore, not a detour but our destiny in Christ.

This understanding of the Transfiguration is not far from the thought of Martin Luther, even though that strand of Luther’s theology has often been discounted, ignored, or even rejected as an aberration. I have become a “fan” of the work of the Finnish school of Luther studies led by Dr. Tuomo Mannermaa. His work, and that of his colleagues, is brought to us in large part in the translations and expositions offered by Dr. Kirsi Stjerna. I would recommend that readers consider studying Mannermaa’s work – particularly his book, Christ Present in Faith: Luther’s View of Justification.

We Lutherans know God’s justifying grace as a declarative reality – that God declares us in right relationship with God for the sake of Christ. The Holy Spirit invites us to accept and embrace that declarative reality and to actively trust in that reality by the Spirit’s power. But Luther has more in mind when it comes to justification. In particular, Luther often talks about the “wonderful exchange” – that Christ takes our bondage to sin, death, and the Devil, and gives us forgiveness, life, and salvation.

Mannermaa demonstrates, in Stjerna’s words, that “Luther can talk about righteousness as a human being becoming one with God through a real exchange of attributes between the sinner and Christ” (Christ Present in Faith, Kindle Locations 113-114). Justification is not just a change in “legal” status (the declarative understanding). Rather, justification is a change in our being human, our ontological makeup and experience (the performative understanding).

Mannermaa argues that Luther’s understanding of justification has much in common with the Eastern Church’s doctrine of theosis. Stjerna suggests that Mannermaa “argues for and centers on Luther’s radical insight about justification being a godly act of divinization that changes a person’s relationship with God ontologically. Arguing in light of the Orthodox teaching of theosis,” she continues, “Mannermaa proves through systematic reading of Luther that the idea of divinization, which happens because of Christ and in faith, is at the heart of Luther’s theology” (Christ Present in Faith, Kindle Locations 153-155).

What are the benefits of life with God in Christ by the power of the Spirit? In his catechisms and elsewhere, Luther uses the language of “benefits” to talk about what justification produces in the life of the believer. It’s a grand thing to know that we have been declared righteous and that at the last day we shall have our sins set aside for the sake of Christ. My internship supervisor’s wife often teased him by saying, “Your reward will be in heaven, honey.” He would tease in return, “Yes, but I want it now.”

Paul says, if Mannermaa is correct, that we get it both ways. Not only are we declared righteous by God’s favor, Mannermaa says, we are made righteous by God’s gift. This helps us to make sense of Paul’s imagery at the end of 2 Corinthians 3, that we are “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” Salvation is not only a legal declaration, Mannermaa argues. “Salvation is,” he concludes, participation in the person of Christ” (Christ Present in Faith, Kindle Location 319).

It is certainly not the case that Christ followers are immediately transformed into the full divine image. If we follow Paul’s argument further in 2 Corinthians, we shall see that we carry this treasure in the clay jars of our humanity. Even though that is the case, however, if anyone is in Christ, there is New Creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). The One who shines light in the darkness shines that light into our hearts and through our lives. “Faith communicates the divine attributes to the human being,” Mannermaa writes, “because Christ himself, who is a divine person, is present in faith” (Christ Present in Faith, Kindle Location 393).

I find this perspective exciting and energizing for at least two reasons. The first reason is the hope for real transformation in this life here and now rather than the formalism of forensic justification. I long to be and strive to be a “contemplative theologian of the cross.” Union with Christ is not a metaphor but rather an actual thing that I can expect to have concrete impact on who and what and how I am in the here and now.

The second reason is that this transformation is unlimited and unending. We can expect in the New Life to continue being transformed from glory into glory. We cannot exhaust God’s gracious and creative potential for us and for all of Creation in the cross and resurrection of Christ. We will never say to God, as Rowan Williams notes, “Oh, now you’re repeating yourself.” Our transformation is and will be never-ending.

I won’t try to unpack all of Mannermaa’s work here. But I hope the reader might consider pursuing this line of thought and research if it is new to you. And I pray that you will find it as refreshing and encouraging as I do.

References and Resources

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Kim, Yung Suk. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/transfiguration-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-2-corinthians-43-6-5

Levin, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). London, UK.: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Malcolm, Lois. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/transfiguration-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-2-corinthians-43-6-4

Mannermaa, Tuomo, and Stjerna, Kirsi Irmeli. Christ Present In Faith: Luther’s View Of Justification. Kindle Edition.

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/transfiguration-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-mark-92-9-3

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.

Works, Carla. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/transfiguration-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-2-corinthians-43-6-3