In John 3:14-15 Jesus says: “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.” Again, in John 8:28 he says, “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.” And once more in John 12:32 Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people unto myself.”
If popular Christian music is any indication, it’s easy to think of Jesus being lifted up in terms of the Isaianic uses (Isa. 6:1; 52:13; 57:15), which speak of the LORD and his servant as being exalted (high and lifted up). See, for example, Hillsong’s “High and Lifted Up” or the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir’s song of the same title.
Jesus’ uses of the term, however, bear a different connotation. When Jesus speaks of being lifted up he isn’t talking about being exalted, but rather of the death that he was going to die (see John 12:33). Paul tells us that this was not the height of Jesus’ exaltation, but rather the height of his humiliation, which led to his exaltation:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Now this is an Incarnation passage. It’s also an atonement passage. And that shouldn’t surprise us since the two are inextricably linked. Note the way that Paul speaks of the Incarnation as an “emptying” and taking the “form of a servant.” Jesus “humbled” himself by becoming “obedient” to the point of death, but this is where it gets interesting (as if it wasn’t already interesting enough!); Paul says, “even death on a cross.” As if becoming obedient to death itself wasn’t bad enough, Paul sees fit to stress the particular kind of death that Jesus died. I don’t think that any of us are equipped to truly process just how horrible a death crucifixion was. All the re-creations in films and testimony from medical experts just won’t do the trick.
But as I noted in my last post, this is why the Son became incarnate. The Son descended from heaven (John 3:13) so that he could be lifted up on the cross (John 3:14; 12:32), which was the height of his humiliation (Phil. 2:8) that ultimately led to his being lifted up in exaltation (Phil. 2:9-11). And as great as this news is, it becomes even greater when we realize that he did it for us! He did it draw men unto him and grant eternal life to those who believe! That’s something worth meditating on as we honor his birth this Christmas.