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No One Has Ascended into Heaven

            The prophets of Israel gave to Western Civilization its orientation toward the future. They were the ones who diagnosed the need for a radical change from the status quo, and predicted that this change would come in the future. Traditional societies were anchored in the annual natural cycle. Life was to be lived in conformity with the constant repetition of the vital cycle in nature. The prophets freed human life from nature and its constant return to the beginning and stretched time into a horizontal line into the future, which would bring The Day of the Lord, The Kingdom of God. To live is to hope for That Great Day.

            Plato taught that to live in the accidents of time and its changes is to live anxiously, lacking a footing in reality. To live is not to become but to be. To live wisely is to anchor one’s life on that which is, not on the things that are constantly becoming something else. To live is to escape the world of becoming in time and to take hold of the world of that which is eternal. It is, therefore, absolutely necessary to gain knowledge of the things that are in the higher spheres of the chain of being. About the things that are constantly becoming something else one may have an opinion. To know is to have grasped intellectually the things that are. Truth should not be confused with opinions about material things. The truth only exists in that which is eternal.

            This way of understanding reality brought about the emergence of religions which taught how to ascend to the higher heavenly spheres and anchor one’s life on the things that are. A mystical way of ascending to the realm of the real things also developed within Judaism. In this development Elijaha’s chariot became the vehicle of choice for those who wished to ascend to the heavenly regions and thus escape from the anxieties of life in the changes brought by time to those living in matter. Even the human body was an impediment to the ascent to spiritual realities. The apostle Paul confesses having ascended to the third heaven and not being able to tell whether his body accompanied him on this adventure (2 Cor. 12: 2 – 4).

            The gospel According to John has some passing references to the need to wait for the future and its drastic changes. As Adventists we are well aware of the promise “I will come again and take you to myself” (14: 3). This gospel also has five references to “the resurrection in the last day” (6: 39, 40, 44, 54; 11: 24). The predominant perspective in this gospel, however, is not temporal; it is vertical and challenging. “No one has ascended into heaven, but he who descended from heaven” (3: 13). The admonition is not “to watch and wait” but to “ascend”. This desire is difficult to realize given how things are. Until now, According to John tells us, the ascent to the world above has been impossible to human beings.

            Within this perspective the mission of Jesus on earth is given a peculiar definition. He came to make possible the ascent to those born in the world “below”. But, for those who are from below it is impossible to ascend. Only He who descended from “above” can ascend into heaven.

            The world above and the world below are also designated “the spirit” and “the flesh”. These two realities are mutually exclusive. There cannot be communion between them. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit” (3: 6). Period! Since human beings are born of the flesh, they belong to the world below. As such, it is impossible for them to ascend. The Father’s purpose in sending his Son to this world was to open the way for human beings to ascend to the celestial regions and participate of eternal life. In other words, the Son of Man descended only to ascend. His authorization to ascend resides in his origin in the world above. Those from below are destined to die and remain below.

            In a confrontation with “the Jews” during the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus says to them: “I go away, and you will seek me but die in your sin; where I am going you cannot come . . . . You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. Therefore, I told you that you would die in your sins” (8: 21 – 24). To have been born below, to have been born of the flesh, is to have to die in one’s sins. The mission of the Son is to “become flesh” [not to “be born in the flesh”] ( 1: 14) to establish the road (the way) by which those born of the flesh may ascend to the world above, from whence came the One Sent by the Father.

            Of course, in the opinion of the “Jews” Jesus’ origin is from below. They know perfectly well who his parents are. Logically they ask themselves: “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven?” (6: 42). Knowing that even his disciples are perturbed by his claim to have descended from heaven, Jesus asks them: “Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending where he was before?” (6: 62). Surely his ascent will be more extraordinary, and more revealing, than his descent.

Every reader of this gospel must answer the question “the Jews”, almost pleading, ask him: “Who are you?” (8: 25). Pilate asks the more specific question: “Where are you from?” (19: 9). Frustrated by Jesus’ silence, Pilate threatens him: “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you, and authority to crucify you?” With this claim to authority the evangelist highlights the irony of the situation. Jesus now informs Pilate: “You would have no authority over me unless it had been given you from above” (19: 10 – 11).

            In spite of the persistent efforts of “the Jews” to kill him, they cannot achieve their purpose because, as Jesus says more than once in this gospel and as Pilate boasts, Jesus has to be crucified. He cannot die stoned by “the Jews”. In such case, his mission would not be accomplished. His exit from the world below must be an ascent, an elevation. The Son of Man must be lifted up. “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am” (8: 28). The question of “the Jews”, “Who are you?” here receives its answer, “I am”.

The climax of Jesus’ ministry is precipitated by some Greeks who provide a contrast to the attitude of “the Jews” who neither see nor believe. When Jesus finds out that some Greeks have said: “We wish to see Jesus” (12: 21), he reacts by announcing: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12: 23). Then he explains: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (12: 32). The evangelist then explains: “He said this to show by what death he was to die.” As could be expected, those who heard Jesus’ explanation did not understand it. They asked: “How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up?” (12: 34). The lifting up of the Son is not an option; it is a necessity. He “must be lifted up”, or, as said by Pilate, “crucified” or, as Jesus said it, “glorified”.

            In this gospel these words describe the mission of Jesus. He accomplishes it by returning to the Father “crucified”, “lifted up”, “glorified”. This is the way by which he returns to the world above from which he came. As Jesus says, “I came from the Father . . . . and [I am] going to the Father” (16: 28). Those who know this know who he is and where he is from.

            This is known by faith. Only faith makes it possible to recognize the Father as the origin and the destiny of the One who dies “lifted up” and in this way ascends to where he came from. Faith, however, must always rest on an object. Faith must see something concrete. Faith cannot be based on a mist without contours and attributes. The Son of Man must be crucified to provide the object faith requires. Therefore, when the Greeks express the wish to see Jesus, he knows that the hour for him to become the object of faith has arrived. Only when he is “lifted up” can he “draw all men” to himself.

            The central metaphor of According to John is offered by Jesus to Nicodemus: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (3: 14). The serpent at the top of the post in the desert was not an effective antidote against the venom of the desert reptiles. It was necessary to look at it, to see it, so as not to die. Here, again, “to see” and “to believe” are interchangeable. The Son of Man must be lifted up so “that whoever believes in him (sees him) should not perish but have eternal life” (3: 16).

This is the Gospel According to John: to believe in the One who was lifted up to show the love of the Father from whom he came and to whom he is going is to be drawn to the One who ascends, and thus ascend with Him. To believe in the One who was “lifted up”, the Only One who “ascended into heaven” is to “be born from above”.

            In the dialogue with Nicodemus, Jesus informs him that it is necessary for him to “be born anothen”. Once again we encounter here the irony of this evangelist. Anothen is a Greek word with double meanings. The context alone can tell us how to understand it. As is to be expected in a dialogue in this gospel, what Jesus says is misunderstood by his interlocutor – it does not matter with whom he is speaking. Nicodemus imagines that he must “be born again”, “from his mother’s womb” (what nonsense!). Jesus is telling him that he must be born “from above” “of the Spirit” (3: 5). This is necessary because those who are from below, those who are of the flesh, cannot “see” Jesus “lifted up”, ascending to the Father from whom he came. Birth from above makes possible faith, and the Son of Man came to provide the object on which faith must rest.

            The Prologue has already said  in a nutshell: “To all who received him , who believed in his name, he gave authorization to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (1: 12–13). Here we are told different ways to be born below and one way to be born “from above” (anothen). Since we live twenty centuries later it is difficult to distinguish with any certainty the three ways one can be born from below. I am therefore offering only tentative suggestions.

To be born of blood may refer to birth from a tribal marriage. To be born of the will of the flesh may refer to birth from a passionate sexual encounter. To be born of the will of a husband (andros) may refer to birth from the need of the husband to have descendents. These are the ways in which people are born in the world below. Those who believe in his name, those who “take to themselves” or “receive” Jesus are empowered, authorized children of God, because, as a matter of fact, they are “born of God”. Such are no longer from below. They are born of the Spirit, born from above. In the same way in which a flag lifted up on its pole draws together a people and constitutes it a nation, the Son of Man lifted up on a cross draws toward himself all who believe and constitutes them “born of God”.

            Those who are from above are authorized, without a doubt, to ascend into heaven. They are lifted up by the One who came from above and has already ascended into heaven. Only those whose origin is from above can be lifted up and participate in the glory of the one who was lifted up and glorified. The cross that offers the object on which faith must rest is the way, the only means of access to the heavenly regions. As a means of transportation that makes possible the ascent to the Father who causes us to be born from above and gives us eternal life, Elijah’s chariot is no competition to the Son of Man who was glorified on a cross.

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