Lifting Up the Son of Man, or The Power of Words (John 8:21–30)

Read John 8:21–30.

Kids are awesome. Take my oldest son, Jonah, for example. If I were to ask him to clean up the living room, he’d probably groan, point out that most of the toys on the floor belong to his brothers, and go limp on the couch to demonstrate that he doesn’t have the stamina to complete the task. But if I “challenged” him to clean up all the toys in less than two minutes, he’d be done in half that time. It’s the same task, but his response depends entirely on how I phrase things. (And yes, I’m mourning the fact that he’ll only fall for this sort of thing for a short while longer.)

It’s not just kids either. We all have certain words that appeal to us, while other words leave us cold. Sometimes the same turn of phrase can mean one thing to one person and something entirely different to someone else. And sometimes a word or a phrase can have so much meaning packed into it that we’ll continue to find deeper levels of understanding long after we hear it. Take, for example, what Jesus says to the crowds here in John 8:28, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.”

There is confusion among the people over who Jesus is, and Jesus tells them everything will become clear when they have “lifted up the Son of Man,” itself a potentially confusing turn of phrase. So, let’s unpack it, and let’s start with Son of Man.

It’s one of Jesus’ favorite titles for Himself, and it’s bursting with meaning. It comes from the prophet Daniel:

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man,  coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13–14)

In this chapter, Daniel is watching a vision unfold and sees four beasts, who represent empires on the earth. He also sees God and other heavenly beings come and take their thrones. They have gathered together to put an end to the terror of these beasts, once and for all. That’s when “one like a son of man” enters the scene, “coming with the clouds of heaven.” Those two descriptions side by side ought to give us pause. This figure is human in appearance, and yet he rides the clouds, something only Yahweh is said to do elsewhere in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 33:26; Psalm 68:4; Isaiah 19:1). This cloud-riding activity is actually the Canaanite god Baal’s standard trick as the storm deity, and the biblical writers make a point of describing Yahweh as a cloud surfer to show that it is He, and not Baal, who really rules the universe, storms included.

But in Daniel 7 scene, Yahweh is already accounted for as the Ancient of Days seated on His throne. The figure who approaches on the clouds, then, is a second Yahweh figure, who is also human. Why do I say He’s human? Not only does He look “like a son of man,” but He is given “an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” (v. 14). God promised David that one of his descendants would have such a kingdom (2 Samuel 7:12–16). This “son of man” is both David’s son and God Himself—which is exactly who we meet in Jesus of Nazareth. 

Now, to be fair, son of man can simply mean “human being,” and the term was actually used of prophets like Ezekiel. So, when Jesus uses the title for Himself (which He’s already done several times in the Gospel of John [see, for example, 1:51; 3:13; 6:53]), it’s not always clear if He’s claiming to be more than human or just identifying Himself with the prophets of old. So much depends on the context of what He’s saying and how well His listeners are paying attention.*

Then there’s the part about being “lifted up.” Thinking about Daniel 7, which is essentially a coronation scene, there’s a thread of exaltation and glory in these words. That idea makes sense, too. Jesus would be saying, “When you see Me as the true King in My glory, then you will believe.” But the Greek word translated “lifted up” in John 8:28 can also be used in the very basic sense of being “hoisted to a higher physical location.” Golgotha is coming. Jesus will be nailed to a Roman cross and “lifted up” for all the people to see.

Crucifixion was an insidious form of torture and humiliation, among the most shameful ways to die in the ancient world. But for Jesus, it would reveal His glory and majesty. In His perfect obedience to the Father, He would secure salvation of all who believe, triumph over the powers of darkness, and release death’s grip over all creation.

We who know where Jesus’ story is heading quickly see the double meaning in His use of “lifted up,” but Jesus wasn’t the first to use the term in this way. The prophet Isaiah wrote:

See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. Just as there were many who were appalled at him—his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness—so he will sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand. (Isaiah 52:13–15)

In the same breath, Isaiah announces God’s Servant will be “lifted up and highly exalted” (v. 13), yet “so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness” (v. 14).** It’s a description of Jesus’ triumphant pain some 700 years before the cross was erected.

The Suffering Servant of Isaiah is never called the Messiah, the Son of David, or the Son of Man directly in the passage. Jesus, however, in saying that He will be “lifted up” (John 8:28), hints to His listeners that the Servant is the Son of Man and the Son promised to David. His exaltation will come from laying His life down. The cross of shame will be His throne of glory.

Jesus ties together all the strands of salvation in the Old Testament. The people watching Him and listening to His teaching can’t quite put the puzzle together, but it will all make sense once Jesus has been lifted up and His sacrifice has been shown for what it is in the morning light of the resurrection.

By way of confession, this passage slapped me in the face when I reread it in preparation for writing this devotional. What seemed plain and ordinary at first revealed something larger and more beautiful than I imagined. Words in the mouth of Jesus or in the pages of Scripture are neither accidental or careless. They matter—and they have the power to change the world we live in, transforming something as ugly as a bloody, Roman cross into the blessed hope of the world.

* Here in John 8, there’s definitely a divine undertone. The line could be translated, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I Am.” Period. Full Stop. They will know that Jesus is the I Am, the one and the same God who revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush. Again, it doesn’t have to be translated this way, but it’s one of the possibilities.

** John 8:28 uses the same term for “lifted up” found in the Greek translation of Isaiah 52:13.

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