The “Lifting Up” that is John’s Apocalyptic Gospel

The Gospel of John, in apocalyptic fashion, bends time, space, and sequence, depicting creation’s “beginning” with the Word of Christ and “it is finished” (the opening and closing of the creation week in Genesis) with the cross. The cross constructs a cosmic Temple, announced (enacted?) upon completion of Jesus’ first week of ministry (a confusing sentence that makes perfect sense in the context of John). The temple destroyed and raised is Jesus’ own body (2:21) which enacts the tabernacling presence of God (1:14) in which the wellsprings of creation (4:10; 7:37) (the water of life in Ezekiel’s temple description, 47:1-12) and light of the world (8:12) are made available in the abiding spirit incorporating the temple/household/family of God. John’s Gospel is apocalyptic, in that one world order and age is displacing another (not as in the old notion of apocalypse as focused on the second coming and literal end of the world), and the cross is the point where this new age, this new structuring of heaven and earth, and this entry of God into the temple of creation, is enacted. John’s Gospel is apocalyptic in its depiction of the unveiling of the Hebrew Scriptures, which in Paul’s description remain veiled outside of Christ: “But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart; but whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (2 Cor. 3:14-16). John’s Gospel unveils the riddle of the Old Testament in light of the work of Christ, but this recognition of Christ (as true Temple, true sacrifice, true sabbath, etc.) in light of Scripture also makes sense of his life. The riddle of Jesus’ words and actions, as they first appeared to the disciples, are unveiled in light of the Scripture (in light of Christ). The veil has been lifted on both Christ and the Scriptures, as John reads Israel’s history in light of the work of Christ but beginning from creation, he also reads the work of Christ in light of the Hebrew scriptures.

As J. Louis Martyn has described the apocalyptic perspective, or what he calls the “stereoptic vision” characterizes John. The dramas of both heaven and earth unfold simultaneously, not as two dramas but as singular events in the life of Christ. John, in Martyn’s portrayal, is changing up the definition of apocalypse with the stereoptic vision including, not a separate heaven and earth, but the perspective of the One from heaven come to earth. He joins heaven and earth, particularly as he is stretched out on the cross. Events, which in and of themselves might seem meaningless or tragic, become filled with an inexhaustible depth of meaning in light of the full meaning of the passion understood in light of the Hebrew Scriptures. [1]

 In Jewish imagery (which John depicts throughout his Gospel) the micro cosmos of the temple not only represented all of creation but also incorporated the key stories of the Hebrew Scriptures: it serves as the capstone holding back the waters of the flood (Noah’s altar sealed the waters of the abyss becoming the foundation stone of a new creation located in the Holy of Holies as support of the Ark of the Covenant), it is the place of Abraham’s sacrifice (Gen. 22:2; 2 Chr. 3:1), it is the site of Jacob’s dream of a ladder leading from earth to heaven (Gen. 28:10-17), it is from this site where God hovered over the waters of the deep and caused the four rivers to flow through Eden to bring life to the Garden (Gen. 2:6, 10-14), which was located just beyond its walls.[2] Jesus’ identification with the water of life, light of the world (on the occasion of the festival of lights, in which the temple is lit up as the representative source of cosmic light), the one upon whom angels ascend and descend (the description given to Nathanael, that Jew in whom there is no guile (John 1:47-55)), the true Passover sacrifice (first announced by John the Baptist (1:29) and thematic in John’s Gospel), incorporates a new humanity into the temple of his body (2:21). Through faith believers receive the Spirit and are reborn (3:3-5) as members of the family of God constituting a true temple a true oikos or family of God.  

This recognition is gained, not by reading from scripture to Christ (e.g., as in the reading of N. T. Wright) but the other way round; by reading from the gospel story to Scripture. In fact, according to Martyn, it is only through the gospel that Scripture is constituted as such: “In a word, with Jesus’ glorification, belief in Scripture comes into being, by acquiring an indelible link to belief in Jesus’ words and deeds. . . . we have simply to note in the Gospel of John the absence of a linear sacred history that flows out of Scripture into the gospel story. Indeed, the redemptive-historical perspective is more than absent; it is a perspective against which John is waging a battle.” Neither John nor Paul move from Law to gospel (a “salvation history” approach), rather this characterizes the approach of Paul’s and John’s opponents.[3] For both there is a “vertical invasion” in which for Paul the gospel “came through an apocalypse of Jesus Christ”, rather than by being taught by a human being (Gal. 1:12), and for John, the gospel is from Christ who is “from above” (3:31;8:23). As John Behr notes, “both aspects of this ‘invasion from above’ are inseparable from the apocalyptic unveiling of Scripture, through which Scripture provides the words and images in and by which, from the beginning, the gospel is proclaimed and Christ revealed.”[4]

It is not only the Old Testament that is telescoped and unveiled but the life of Christ receives this same telescoping effect in John’s telling, with the end present in the beginning and the beginning understood through the end. In what may be a key passage in John, the singular event of the cross enfolds judgement, the casting out of the ruler of this world, glorification, the universal appeal of the gospel, and the audible voice of God:

“Jesus answered and said, ‘This voice has not come for My sake, but for your sakes. Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.’ But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die”

(John 12:30-33).

In 12:23 Jesus announced that the hour had come for the Son of Man to be glorified and the following two verses make it clear that this is a reference to Jesus’ death on the cross, which would result in many people believing in Him. Jesus compares His death to the “death” of a grain of wheat which, after falling into the ground, produces many other grains of wheat (v. 24). As Jesus declared, “it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name” (vv. 27–28).

It is the “lifting up” which reveals Jesus’ identity as the “I am” (YHWH): “So Jesus said, ‘When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He’” (John 8:28).  Here is the realization of Isaiah, that through the “lifted up” servant “you may know and believe that I AM” (Isa. 43:10; 52:13).[5] Here too, in Jesus’ explanation, is the revelation of the Son of Man (as in Daniel 7:13-14) who is “given dominion” over “all peoples” in an everlasting Kingdom.

In John 3, Jesus explains to Nicodemus, who seems to represent the Jew veiled from understanding the Scriptures (he has no concept of being “born again”, a theme of the Hebrew Scriptures) and in Jesus estimate he seems incapable of receiving things of the Spirit (3:6,11,12). Here too it is the being “lifted up” that unveils the truth of Moses in Jesus: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life” (3:14-15). According to Jesus, “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man” (3:13).

Apparently, there is only one mode of ascent, one means of being lifted up,[6] but in John’s depiction of Jesus the spiritual effect of this lifting up is realized in the conversation with Nicodemus. According to Martyn: “The Son of Man ascends to heaven on the cross, but in some sense he returns to earth in the person of the Paraclete and can therefore enter into conversation with ‘Nicodemus’ as he who has ascended to heaven (3:13). The Paraclete makes Jesus present on earth as the Son of Man who binds together heaven and earth.”[7] And it is from this point that Jesus explains himself as the love and salvation sent from God (3:16).

This lifting up realization is a hermeneutic key applied from “In the beginning” of John: “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:4-5). This is the fulness of the Word of the cross which is life and light. This is a Gospel told in light of the Spirit, who brings to “remembrance all that I have said to you” (14:26).

Where the synoptics picture this insight as beginning after the resurrection (Luke 24, with the two on the road to Emmaus), John’s Gospel begins with this presumption and expands upon it. From the Prologue, in which the Logos is complete, to John the Baptist identifying him as the “Lamb of God,” (1:36) to Phillip’s informing Nathanael, “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (1:45).  Nathanael himself concludes, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel” (1:49) and John the Baptist recognizes (3:31) before Jesus explains that he is “from above.” 

Jesus’ glorification or being lifted up describes His death, resurrection, ascent, exaltation, multiplication of disciples, love of God and, in short, sums up the gospel.  As James Dunn puts it, ‘The “hard saying” finds its fulfillment, therefore, when Jesus has been lifted up in the upward sweep of the cross–resurrection–ascension, in the giving of the life-creating Spirit.”[8] As Behr describes it, “The unity of all aspects of the Passion, Pascha—the Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, and also Pentecost—in ‘the hour’ of a single ‘day’ is thus emphasized by John. . .”[9] Upon this event the Spirit is given and the epistemological insight of the cross is realized. “Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him” (John 12:16).

Jesus is lifted up on the cross, lifted up from the grave, lifted up to the Father in the singular hour of his glory, and this is the insight from which John narrates his Gospel.

(Register for the upcoming Class on the Gospel of John starting May 9th here: https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)


[1] J. Louis Martyn, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel, (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003) 130. Quoted in John Behr, John the Theologian and His Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), 121. See Behr 121-123. It is not that John’s theological interpretation throws doubt on his eyewitness account, but just the opposite. In light of the fact that he is the only apostle present at the cross and the first to believe at the empty tomb, gives his reading of events, in light of Scripture, their apocalyptic tenor.

[2] See Mary Coloe, “Raising the Johannine Temple” https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/abr/48_47_coloe.pdf

[3] Martyn, ‘John and Paul on the Subject of Gospel and Scripture’, (in Martyn, Theological Issues, 209–30). 216–221. Quoted in Behr, 127.

[4] Behr, 128.

[5] In Sirach (49:11-12) the Temple and people are pictured as the interchangeable product of the one lifted up: “How are we to magnify Zorobabel? He too was like a signet on the right hand, so was Jesus, son of Iosedek, who in their days, built a house and lifted up a holy temple/people to the Lord prepared for everlasting glory.” Some manuscripts have “temple” while others have “people” but the parallels with John (“Jesus”, being “lifted up,” a “house” or “people” for “glory”) are striking.

[6] Moses, Enoch and Elijah, in John’s account have no claim on the reality realized in Jesus’ lifting up.

[7] Martyn, History and Theology, 138. Quoted in Behr, 232.

[8] James D. G. Dunn,., ‘John VI—A Eucharistic Discourse?’, (NTS 17.3 (1971), 328–38), 337. Quoted in Behr, 155.

[9] Behr, 176.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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