Jesus, according to the quill or reed pen of John, stated, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3.13). There is a textual-critical issue here in that some versions have, “the son of man who is in heaven”. We have to explore that first.
There is a strong argument for retaining the phrase, “who is in heaven”. However, following a good majority of textual scholars, there are those arguments that support omitting it. I will not bore you with the details. What cannot be undone, however, is the fact that it was added (if not originally there) and conveys the sentiment that the son of man, Jesus, entered heaven remaining the son of man – body and soul.
If we accept the whole verse, then, it reads, “and no one hath gone up to the heaven, except he who out of the heaven came down — the Son of Man who is in the heaven.” Those who accept this phrase argue that John’s style, typical throughout, is adding his “at the time of writing” addition to something Jesus said to Nicodemus. That is, “No one has ascended into heaven except the son of man” – and John adds, “who is in heaven”. Quite plausible. Regardless, those who argue that the addition is later nonetheless state that this is how they then saw Jesus: the son of man in heaven. I think, as if that matters, that the witnesses are far more in favor of retaining it.
Regardless, what is meant by Jesus saying that he, the son of man, “has ascended” (perfect tense) and “came down” from heaven? We are not at all to conceive of the idea that the son of man, prior to his creation, was in heaven. John has made plain that the Logos (“word”) was made flesh, but the Logos does not take upon himself “human nature” and “made flesh” until conception in the womb of Mary. The Logos for John is the Eternal Son of God, Eternally begotten of the Father. “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him” (1.18).
Further, in John, we have, “Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” (6.62). There, Jesus referred to himself as the “bread out of heaven” and was to be “eaten” on that account. Of course, the bread of Jesus is his body, which is stated. We will get to that, but for the point here, Jesus is saying that he, the son of man, has ascended before. Finally, in John 20.17 the word “ascended” (anabaino – Greek) is used for the last time, “I am now ascending to the Father.”
If we followed the texts it appears that John is teaching that the Logos, the Eternal Son, God, became flesh and thus, as a man, is designated “son of man.” So we have, then, the Logos, who is God, taking upon himself a human nature – a true human being. However, the Logos never ceases being Who He Is. The son of man is a human made by the Logos and is in union as man with the Logos, but cannot be the substantially the same as the Logos.
“In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1.1-3). Now, try replacing the term, “son of man” for Logos in those verses. Doesn’t work, does it?
“And the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth” (1.14). The Logos became flesh, and this flesh is designated in John as “the son of man.” No man has seen the Logos, who is God, and no man has ever ascended to heaven except the son of man. The Logos does not “ascend” or “descend” – since he is God, he is omnipresent, eternally. He was omnipresent when he took upon himself a fleshly nature, the son of man. The Logos had all power, glory, honor, strength, might, dominion, authority and whatever else can be ascribed and attributed to God while at the same time in union with the “son of man”, who was made, created, not omnipresent, not omnipotent, and not omniscient. Get it? One Person (Logos), Two Natures (human nature and divine).
Now then, since the Logos never “ascended” to God (since he is God), then the “ascension” of the son of man to God can be the only idea that is meant. And, in this text the son of man ascended to the Father on however many occasions by the time he spoke to Nicodemus when he said he did.
We also ought to mention that no man has ascended to the Father, who is in heaven (a phrase Matthew adds quite a bit), would seem to say that no person had, prior to Jesus, ever entered heaven. But, this is simply false. “And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12.7). And, we make distinction here between the fact that even though the spirit of a human being goes to God, it is on account of death that they do so. The body which belongs to them is in the dust, asleep. Thus, no man has ever ascended into heaven apart from death, yet Jesus is claiming this very thing. We may say of Enoch and Elijah that although they died and their spirits went to God, we cannot acclaim to them either resurrection of their body, or glorification of the same.
Jesus of Nazareth, the human being, ascended to the Father several times prior to his death. He also manifested his glory in his body on the Mount of Transfiguration. This image of the Transfiguration is something akin to Daniel’s depiction of the Ancient of Days. “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” (Matthew 17.2). Whereas in Daniel, “and the Ancient of days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow” (Daniel 7.9). When John saw Jesus again after his resurrection and ascension, he gives us this image: “His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire” (Revelation 1.16). The point is, Jesus was born with glory and as an adult ministered with glory because he had been given all glory, honor, power and might. In relation to the creation of man, Psalm 8 states, “Yet you have made him a little lower than elohim and crowned him with glory and honor” (8.5). The Hebrew text has elohim, translated often as “God” in English. The son of man, Jesus of Galilee, served the Father, even though being equal with elohim was not something to be grasped (Philippians 2.6). Likewise, the son of man is in subjection to the Father, who is God. ‘For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.’ (1 Corinthians 15.27-28). Notice that Paul is quoting Psalm 8, “You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet” (Psalm 8.6). The Logos is not in “subjection” to God, but is God Himself, the Son of God. The man, however, is in subjection to God as man. It is a man that has been given the task to redeem creation and place, once again, all things under the feet of man as it was in the beginning. And no man has ever ascended to God to receive “glory, honor, power, might.” Save one.
It is in this vein, too, that Paul, writing of Jesus’ present status in heaven can say, “The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven” (1 Corinthians 15.47). The second man, who is Messiah, is everything the first man was, but the second man ascended into heaven as man apart from death, without sin, and did not require any separation of spirit from body (death) to do so. The Logos, by creating a man as he did with Messiah, in the womb of Mary with all the natural man’s qualities, could also cause this man to ascend into heaven and come down from heaven. “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” Not even Moses. Not even Elijah or Enoch could claim this.
Thus, this man, Jesus of Nazareth, could calm the storms, raise the dead, heal the leper, cause astounding miracles of instant creation (water into wine, bread and fish to feed 5,000, etc). “Who is this that has power to even calm the storm?” That we see the glorification of Jesus when he transfigured on the mount before he was killed and raised from the dead, and that we see him in John’s description with the same glory he had “in the beginning since the creation of the world” (John 17.5) is Peter’s way of saying, “For he received from God the Father honour and glory, this voice coming down to him from the excellent glory: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear ye him” (2 Peter 1.17). Thus, ‘When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him…And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17.1-ff). Here, in the Logos teaching of John, the Logos being made flesh, the man, Christ Jesus, is uttering the fact that he, the man, has been given all power, and shares in the glory of the Logos, who is eternal – and has shared in this glory all along as a created man. Thus, the union of the son of man, created, with the Son of God (Logos), who is uncreated is made quite plain in John’s doctrine. The man, Christ Jesus, was created with glory and honor, without sin, and shared in the glory of God through his union with the Logos. And, since he going to die on the cross, he does so in obedience to the Father with the hope that His Father will glorify him again – restore him again to his former glory – through resurrection.
“…but did empty himself, the form of a servant having taken, in the likeness of men having been made, and in fashion having been found as a man, he humbled himself, having become obedient unto death — death even of a cross” (Philippians 2.7-8). The man emptied himself of his glory through the ignominy of death, entering into that which is the penalty of sinners: Death. This body of his, which “shown like the sun” previously if he so wanted, was now laid in a tomb! The horror! Man is sown in weakness, dies without glory, and is leveled to the dust from when he is made. It is in this vein that Jesus cried out, “why hast thou forsaken me?” It is the same voice of David: “For in death there is no remembrance of you; in a grave who will give you praise?” David is begging God to keep him alive: “Turn, O LORD, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love” (Psalm 6.4-5). “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?” (Psalm 30.9). “For Sheol does not thank you; death does not praise you; those who go down to the pit do not hope for your faithfulness. The living, the living, he thanks you, as I do this day; the father makes known to the children your faithfulness.” (Isaiah 38.18-19). Isaiah does not seek death, for who can stand on the earth and praise God and enjoy his benefits?
“Why have you forsaken me” was cried out by Jesus on the cross in intense pain. And, when we understand his quote from the Psalm (22.1), and read that Psalm and the others like it mentioned above, we can see that Jesus is, who was “willing that Thou might take this cup from me”, was facing death; being cut off from the land of the living, being cut off from praising his God as God had created man to praise him with body and soul, his whole being. “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me, and art far from my help at the words of my cry?…They cried to thee, and they were saved: they trusted in thee, and were not confounded…He hoped in the Lord, let him deliver him: let him save him, seeing he delighteth in him…Deliver, O God, my soul from the sword: my only one from the hand of the dog. Save me from the mouth of the lion! You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!” (Psalm 22.1-ff).
If we understand that David sees that dying is the opposite of deliverance, and God had delivered David many times before, then viewing the fact of death before one’s time is God not hearing his cry, but letting him go the way of the grave. It was God forsaking David. To die at the hands of enemies, by the sword of the dogs, was not deliverance, but shame. It would let his enemies boast: if God so loved him, he would have given him the victory, and this was something David could not bear to hear. God would have spared him his life. Jesus, crying out to God in his full humanity, “Lord, deliver me! Do not forsake me to die at the hand of the your enemies!” When he says, “why have you forsaken me?” it is that he know that “this cup” of death will not pass: Death will come.
The wage of sin is death, and Jesus took this upon himself with the hope of deliverance in resurrection. He died our death, he experienced our pain in death, and our shame. I remember watching my dad, this strong, athletic man, reduced to a swollen, barely cognizant, pale, incoherent human being, shortly before his passing. I remembered thinking of Messiah on the cross, this beaten, bloodied body of a man, eyes swollen from being purpled with fists, suffering the agony of death, being forsaken of God in that death is not the purpose God made man in the beginning. God did not make Adam with the purpose of killing him, and he did not make Jesus with the purpose of killing him and letting that be the end of the story. Sin has a wage, and God collects by cutting off man from the land of the living; But, God, who is the Just and the Justifier, raised Jesus from the dead and set his foot once again in the land of the living that he should never die ever again. And this is the plan God has for those who love him as well.
Jesus endured the penalty of what we endure: death, and he is the Firstfruit of being raised from the dead immortal in the very frame God made him with. Thus, as he conformed to our image “even unto death” through suffering, we are conformed to His image as we suffer and die in him. The wage of sin is death, and it is death that we shall face since this body of flesh, our body of flesh which has done what it has done (sinned against God) in thought, word, and deed. But it is proclaimed in Jesus, Messiah, Son of David, that this is not the end of the story. God also raised this man and granted to him again that which he had in the beginning: immortality. This is our hope unto death. The is our hope beyond death. This is our hope that will triumph over death when we shall be like him: raised from the dead.