An Enigmatic Mirror
Jesus' Relation to the Father: John 8:21-30
This section of John presents a contrast between Jesus' relation with his Father, God (8:27-28, 38), and the relationship of the Jews who oppose Jesus, with their purported Father, Satan (8:44). This contrast is strikingly dualistic. Those who accept Jesus are from God; those who reject and oppose Jesus are from Satan.
It is important to note that such dualism is characteristic of Johannine theology. Dualistic ideas can be found in a variety of religious traditions. A fundamental concept of dualism is that the spiritual universe is divided starkly into good and evil, with little or no middle ground. The most surviving dualistic writings of first century Judaism are John and texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls. I will discuss some of the specific characteristics of Johannine dualism in the next section.
Jesus begins his discourse in this section by telling his Jewish critics that "Where I am going, you cannot come" (8:21, cf. 7:33-34, 8:14), an idea already discussed in my exploration of John 7:32-39. From the cosmic perspective, Jesus is obviously talking about his ascent to the Father after his forthcoming crucifixion. But his immediate listeners were simply confused by the statement (8:22). Instead of providing them with a clear explanation of his meaning, Jesus utters a series of enigmatic dualistic statements on the distinctions between Jesus (and his disciples), and the "Jews," meaning—as I discussed—the elite Jewish critics of Jesus. These dualisms include:
- The Father (8:27-29) vs. Satan (8:44; contrast 8:48, 52)
- Above vs. Below (8:23a)
- Not of the World/kosmos vs. of the World (8:23b)
- Eternal Life vs. Death in sin (8:24; 8:52)
- Truth (8:26) vs. Lies (8:44b)
- Light vs. Dark (8:12)
As is frequently the case in John's Gospel, the immediate auditors of Jesus don't understand him; only those reading the Gospel from the post-resurrection perspective can understand.
Jesus concludes these statements with a prophecy: "When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he [the Messiah/Son of Man], and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me" (8:28). The lifting up the Son of Man is a technical term in John referring to both the crucifixion and the subsequent ascent of Jesus to the Father, found in these passages:
- "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life" (Jn. 3:14-15).
- 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 authority, but speak just as the Father taught me" (Jn. 8:28).
- "When I [Jesus] am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself" (Jn. 12:32-34).
This concept in John is based on two passages from the Hebrew Bible. First, in Daniel 7:13 the "Son of Man" is presented before God ("The Ancient of Days") in the clouds of heaven. John understands this passage to refer to the ascent of the Messiah into the presence of the Father after the crucifixion, where God will give him everlasting dominion (Dan. 7:14). The other part of the scriptural/prophetic metaphor refers to the story of Moses raising a pole with a "bronze serpent" (neḥūstān), which could save the Israelites from poisonous serpent bites (Num. 21:4-9) if they "would look at the serpent and live" (Num. 21:9). Likewise those who look to Christ, lifted upon the cross and into heaven, will have eternal life.
William James Hamblin is professor of Near Eastern History at Brigham Young University. You can follow and discuss "An Enigmatic Mirror" on Facebook.