Lifting Jesus up—in worship, or in crucifixion?

by K.W. Leslie, 23 March

John 12.32.

When I first wrote about out-of-context scriptures, I dealt with the misquotes I heard most often. Like taking the Lord’s name in vain, or God’s word not returning void, or when two or three gather in Jesus’s name, or God making all things work for our good. There are dozens.

I don’t hear any of them misquoting today’s verse.

I have no reason to believe people don’t do it; people will misquote anything. It’s just I haven’t caught ’em doing it. I got the verse from an internet search I did years ago for “Most common verses Christians take out of context.” It turned up a bunch of listicles, and John 12.32 shows up in a number of them. (I kinda wonder whether the people who write these listicles aren’t just swiping ideas from one another. “Um… I can only think of nine out-of-context scriptures; what’s a tenth? Better Google it.”)

But it’s not been on my radar. Here it is though.

John 12.32 KJV
And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.

Okay. I have heard plenty of Christians, including myself, talk about “lifting up the name of Jesus.” We’re talking about exalting Jesus—giving him honor, worshiping him, praising him, spreading the good news about him, treating him with respect, and so forth. Exalting Jesus is what we Christians do. We praise him ’cause he’s awesome. We hope our praises—multiplied by our good deeds—might get pagans to give Jesus a second look, and maybe come to exalt him themselves.

But we don’t use John 12.32 as our proof text. Well I don’t, anyway.

Here’s what I suspect: People assume that’s our proof text, because our “lifting up” language sounds an awful lot like a reference John 12.32. So every time someone speaks of lifting up the name of Jesus, we’re indirectly quoting that verse.

Nope. I’m not. I don’t have that verse in mind at all. Pretty sure no one does.

But let’s not rule out the possibility. Maybe someone, when they read John 12.32, think the scripture is about praising Jesus: If we lift him up—in praise—it’ll draw people to Jesus. I’ve never heard anyone preach this, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if someone did preach this. It’s not at all what the verse is about, but since when has that stopped anyone?

If you know of anyone misquoting the verse to mean something else, by all means let me know. The listicles were no help.

The context.

To know why Jesus said what he did, you of course have to read John 12. So let’s. Big long quote time!

John 12.20-36 GNT
20 Some Greeks were among those who had gone to Jerusalem to worship during the festival. 21 They went to Philip (he was from Bethsaida in Galilee) and said, “Sir, we want to see Jesus.”
22 Philip went and told Andrew, and the two of them went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has now come for the Son of Man to receive great glory. 24 I am telling you the truth: a grain of wheat remains no more than a single grain unless it is dropped into the ground and dies. If it does die, then it produces many grains. 25 Those who love their own life will lose it; those who hate their own life in this world will keep it for life eternal. 26 Whoever wants to serve me must follow me, so that my servant will be with me where I am. And my Father will honor anyone who serves me.
27 “Now my heart is troubled—and what shall I say? Shall I say, ‘Father, do not let this hour come upon me’? But that is why I came—so that I might go through this hour of suffering. 28 Father, bring glory to your name!”
Then a voice spoke from heaven, “I have brought glory to it, and I will do so again.”
29 The crowd standing there heard the voice, and some of them said it was thunder, while others said, “An angel spoke to him!” 30 But Jesus said to them, “It was not for my sake that this voice spoke, but for yours. 31 Now is the time for this world to be judged; now the ruler of this world will be overthrown. 32 When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me.” 33 (In saying this he indicated the kind of death he was going to suffer.)
34 The crowd answered, “Our Law tells us that the Messiah will live forever. How, then, can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?”
35 Jesus answered, “The light will be among you a little longer. Continue on your way while you have the light, so that the darkness will not come upon you; for the one who walks in the dark does not know where he is going. 36 Believe in the light, then, while you have it, so that you will be the people of the light.”

I don’t have to do a whole lot of explaining: Right in the very next verse, 12.33, John tells us precisely what Jesus meant by verse 32: It’s not about worship. It’s about his crucifixion.

John also tells us Jesus’s crowd of listeners also knew what he meant, for they immediately objected: “Wait, you’re supposed to be Messiah, and you’re gonna get killed? Where in the bible does it say Messiah gets killed? We’ve been living under the belief Messiah lives forever, ’cause his kingdom has no end! Have we understood anything about you correctly?”

Nope, they didn’t. People regularly still get confused about Jesus and what he’s trying to teach us. Partly because we likewise live under a bunch of wrong beliefs, and don’t bother to seriously look at what Jesus has to say about himself.

Jesus’s glorious death.

Now yeah, even in context, this verse is still about giving honor to Jesus. Y’notice the whole passage begins with Greeks wanting to see Jesus, and Jesus’s response is, “The hour has now come for the Son of Man to receive great glory.” Jn 12.23

Jesus was glorified in his death. Nasty, gory, and humiliating though it was, in his death Jesus conquered sin and death, displayed ultimate forgiveness and ultimate sacrifice, and fixed the world. It’s something we Christians still honor in our worship music, in our communion ritual, in our teachings about salvation, and in very many of the things we do. Our most well-known symbol is his cross, after all.

When we lift him up in worship, no we’re not lifting him up in the same sense we see in verse 32. We’re exalting him; verse 32 is about nailing him to a crossbar and hanging it from a pole. It’s not the same idea at all. But we do exalt him for allowing himself to be lifted up in this way.

So I see how people can confound the two ideas, and misquote the verse. But do try not to.