There are three places in the Gospel of John where “lifted up” sayings appear. Each of these are quotes from Jesus. Here they are:
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up” – John 3:14
“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.” – John 8:28
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” – John 12:32
This “lifted up” wording may sound strange to us, but Jesus and his contemporaries knew exactly what he meant. In first century Palestine the primary way a person was “lifted up” was by crucifixion. Jesus is forecasting his death, and the means by which he will die, in these sayings.
It’s hard to imagine a more inhumane manner in which to “lift up” or exalt someone. Crucifixion involved “lifting up” for at least two reasons: 1) Rome wanted to make an example of anyone who ran afoul of their rule, so crucifixions were public displays of Rome’s power by death penalty; 2) the process of crucifixion itself required the physics of “lifting up”. A condemned person was staked or tied to a cross, then lifted up, off the ground, allowing gravity to do the work of death as the weight of one’s body bore down on hands and feet. Each breath drawn required the crucified one to lift their body weight onto pierced and torn hands and feet. It was a long, cruel means of capital punishment.
This was the means by which Jesus would be exalted – lifted up. This was the means by which he said he will draw all to him. The Cross, as a symbol of faith, continues to remind us of this truth. When we see a cross elevated in a place of worship, or in a public space, we are invited to remember the lifting up of King Jesus. We are invited to remember the sacrifice of Priest Jesus. The cross is both throne and altar of the Anointed One.
In John 3:14, the first of Jesus’ three “lifted up” sayings, he refers to an event in the life of Israel shared in Numbers 21:4-9. The Hebrew people, mid-Exodus and wilderness wandering, cry out against God and Moses, complaining about their diet and lack of water. God, weary of their complaining, answers their temper tantrum by unleashing venomous snakes into their camp, resulting in the death of many people. It’s only after Moses intervenes, praying on their behalf, that God provides a means of deliverance. Moses is instructed to make a bronze snake and lift it up on a pole, above the camp. When the Israelites who’ve been bitten, look up at the snake they are saved.
So, what does an obscure narrative like this have to do with things? The Numbers 21 story becomes a precursor to the cross of Jesus. Salvation comes to those who look up to Jesus on the cross in faith, as it did to those who looked up on the “lifted up” bronze snake.
By constructing his teaching in the way he does in John 3, Jesus shows us that his cross involved “lifting up” for at least two reasons: 1) God so loved the world (remember that famous verse in John 3:16 – just two verses after this reference to the bronze snake?), and 2) God gave God’s Son not to condemn, but to save the world (see John 3:17). God’s three-fold act of mercy centered in the cross: God loved, God gave, God saves – is mirrored by Jesus’ three-fold “lifting up”: on the cross, at the resurrection, at his ascension.
Jesus is the exalted One, by his choice, out of love. One day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord. He’s lifted up – worthy of our adoration. Exalted – worthy of our praise.