Three times in John's gospel we read of the Son of Man being lifted up, and each time in a different connection, although it can scarcely be doubted that the last two are consequent upon the first. Before, however, entering upon this, a few words may be said upon the significance of the title. In Psalm 2 we have God's Anointed and God's King introduced, and He is God's Son. Rejection typically follows in the history of David and his experiences; and when Psalm 8 is reached we have, "What is man, that Thou art mindful of him, or the SON OF MAN, that Thou visitest Him?" That is, on the rejection of Christ as the Messiah He assumes the wider title of the Son of Man, and it is under Him in this character that all things will be put under His feet. The same thing is seen in the gospels. Thus Peter, in Matthew 16, confesses Jesus as "the Christ, the Son of the living God"; but the Lord, after saying that Peter had received this from "My Father which is in heaven," and unfolding its importance as the foundation on which He would build His Church, immediately charges His disciples that they should tell no man that He was the Christ. Thereupon He speaks of Himself as the Son of Man, for in truth He had already been rejected by the Jews as the Messiah.
In the gospel of John the title, the Son of Man, is used from the outset, and for the reason that Christ is looked upon as already rejected, as in the words, "He came unto His own, and His own received Him not." (Chap. 1:2.) Accordingly at the close of chapter 1, when Nathanael owned him as the Son of God and the King of Israel, as presented in Psalm 2, the Lord replied, "Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these. And He saith unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ['henceforth] ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man." Great as will be the glory of Christ when He reigns in a future clay as King in Zion in the midst of restored Israel, when His people will be willing in the day of His power, all this will be infinitely surpassed by His wider glories as the Son of Man when His name will be excellent in all the earth, and when His dominion over all peoples and over all created things will be owned, and when everything that has breath will praise Him. The ground then is cleared at once in the fourth gospel for the revelation of God's counsels of grace, which will be accomplished through the lifting up of the Son of Man.
The first mention of this is in the well-known and familiar passage in chapter 3: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life." The one thought of this chapter, it might almost be said, is that everything must, on the setting aside of the first man, commence with God. Taking the first two chapters as introductory, albeit they contain the distinct evidence that man under probation has utterly failed, and has been displaced for ever by the introduction of the Second Man out of heaven, who is presented in His manifold glories, the third chapter shows us God beginning anew to secure, through His beloved Son, the objects of His eternal counsels, those whom He had chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world. Thus until a man is born again (and this entirely a divine work) he cannot see the kingdom of God, and not until he is born of water and the Spirit can he enter into it; and this also, as taught in verse 8, is the result of a sovereign act of the grace and power of God. So far the Lord' had spoken of earthly things, but He would now proceed to speak of heavenly things; and He only was a competent witness of these, for He spoke of what He knew, and testified of what He had seen; and He was the only one who could ascend up to heaven, because He had come down from heaven, even THE SON OF MAN WHICH IS IN HEAVEN.
The revelation, then, of heavenly things, of eternal life, could only be made through the lifting up of the Son of Man. This is emphatically declared by the language the Lord employs. First, then, let us dwell upon the term "must." He "must" be lifted up; that is, it was a moral necessity that He should be lifted up, a moral necessity for God before e could righteously accomplish His purposes of grace. The man who had so grievously sinned, the first and ruined man, the man of responsibility, must be dealt with root and branch in final judgment before blessing could be established in the Second Man out of heaven. It was also a moral necessity for man, for he would otherwise have had no righteous ground of approach to God excepting in and through the death of Christ. There is also the descriptive term, peculiar to this gospel, "lifted up," as setting forth, on man's side, the character of the death the Son of Man should die. Outside the scene of man's failure and ruin, between heaven and earth, Christ was made sin, and in His death every question of good and evil was for ever settled, for there it was that God condemned sin in the flesh, and in the very act displayed all that He is; for as verse 16 teaches, "God so loved the world, that He GAVE His only begotten Son," that the end of His lifting up might be accomplished. God is love, and His love entered, in the death of Christ, into the dark region of our sin and corruption (for we were dead in sins) and illumined it for ever. There, too, all the attributes of God were blended in their perfect harmony, the requirements of each having been met and satisfied; and when our eyes have been opened through grace we discover that all these attributes, in their combination, do but express the nature of God, and that is LOVE.
The end of the lifting up of the Son of Man is that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have eternal life. The Son lifted up, raised from the dead, and glorified at God's right hand, was to be presented for ever as the object of faith (see chapter 3:36, 6:40) to poor ruined man, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have eternal life. Christ lifted up, therefore, became the means for God's approach to man for the accomplishment of His eternal purposes, for, to cite the Lord's own words, "This is the will of Him that sent Me, that everyone which seeth the Son, and believeth on Him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day." It became also the door of hope to every poor lost one who, conscious of his state and misery, should be divinely led to look away from himself to the Son of God outside of this world, who, in virtue of His having been lifted up on the cross, has authority over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as the Father has given Him. But if, on the one side, the Son of Man lifted up has become to the believer the entrance upon eternal life, on the other side it closes the door upon the world for ever. For he who looks away to the exalted and glorified Son and believes on Him has turned his back, once and for all, upon man, the world, and all its delusions and corruptions, for he has passed out of death into life.
In the next place, where the expression occurs, the lifting up of the Son of Man is to become the means of conviction. Surrounded by enemies who, notwithstanding the plainest declarations concerning the truth of His Person, were blinded by their hatred of the light because their deeds were evil, because they were morally from beneath, He warned them that they should die in their sins, "if ye believe not that I am [He]." All was of no avail, for they understood not that He spake to them of the Father; and thereupon He declared to them that, "when ye have lifted up the Son of Man, then ye shall know that I am [He], and that I do nothing of Myself; but as My Father hath taught Me, I speak these things." The delusions of their minds, which under the power of Satan had darkened their souls, should be swept away by evidence so distinct that they would be no longer able to resist its force. When this should take place we are not told, but it may well be that it was to have a double fulfilment, on the day of Pentecost and in that marvellous day of grace for God's ancient people, which Zechariah describes, when they shall look upon Him whom they had pierced, and shall mourn for Him as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for Him as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn. It may even go wider and include those who, after the lifting up of the Son of Man, could not, though still impenitent, deny His resurrection, nor refute the testimony to His exaltation at the right hand of God.
We can only briefly refer to the last instance, though from its connection and importance it might have well occupied the whole of our space. Still, we can commend it to the earnest attention and meditation of our readers: "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all [men] unto Me." All the teaching from verse 23 to verse 36 flowed out of the desire of certain Greeks to see Jesus. When Andrew and Philip told Jesus, He opened out the blessed truth that the Son of Man must be glorified before all things could be put under His feet, that the corn of wheat must die if it were to bring forth fruit - fruit in resurrection of His own kind and order. This being so, to follow Him in this world entailed the cross; and if anyone .would serve Him he must follow Him, accepting death upon everything in this world, and then whore He was His servant should be, and everyone serving Him His Father would honour. In the full anticipation of all this He in spirit passed through the death He contemplated, and thus, already on the other side, He could say, "Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all [men] unto Me. This He said, signifying what death He should die." It is the meaning of this triumphant outburst that we have now to seek to ascertain.
The key to it will be found, we apprehend, in the incident, already mentioned, of the Greeks desiring to see Jesus. They may be taken as the representatives of all kindreds, people, and tongues, which one day will bow the knee to Jesus, and confess that He is Lord to the glory of God the Father. The Lord therefore, when He speaks of drawing all men unto Him, after having been lifted up, refers, we cannot doubt, to what will be effected in this world, in the world to come, the thousand years, when His supremacy and authority will be universally confessed. It is not, and, it might almost be said, could not be fulfilled in this day of grace, but the time is coming when He will put down all rule and all authority and power; for He must reign till He hath put all enemies under His feet. True it is that many in that day will yield Him feigned obedience; but it is none the less the fact that, in virtue of His death and exaltation, all will be drawn, either by His attractions or His power, in subjection to His feet. Blessed prospect! The Lord Himself, on the return of the seventy with the tidings that the demons were subject to them through the power of His name, contemplated the time when Satan would fall as lightning from heaven, as preparatory to His own universal sway. And surely it is joy to the heart of every believer to look onward to the period when the rights of Christ will be owned in the very scene where He was cast out and crucified, and when the knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.*
*The word for lifting up and being exalted is the same. We are explicitly told that the Lord used it, "signifying what death He should die." None the less is it true that His exaltation is in virtue, the consequence of, His death, and that it is the exalted Christ who will draw all men unto Himself. May it not be therefore that it was intended that we should include His exaltation in His being lifted up?