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Thursday, September 15, 2011

John 3:13: Had anyone been to heaven yet, during the time of Christ?

John 3:13 on ascending to heaven
I was recently asked about John 3:13, which says:
NLT translation: No one has ever gone to heaven and returned. But the Son of Man* has come down from heaven. Footnote:
* Some manuscripts add who lives in heaven. “Son of Man” is a title Jesus used for himself.

ESV translation: No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. Footnote:
* Some manuscripts add who is in heaven

NIV translation: No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven -- the Son of Man. Footnote as in the other two versions.

These and other versions are given here.

The question, if I understand it, related to the matter of Old Testament figures who have died, such as Enoch and Elijah. Weren't they in heaven when Jesus said this? (In the discussion below, I generally refer to this as dealing with Elijah. That's short-hand for Enoch, Moses, Rahab, Esther, Ruth, Isaiah, David, Abraham and many other persons, who, one might think, were in heaven when Jesus spoke to Nicodemus.)
I checked four on-line commentaries, all public domain.

Jamieson, Fausset and Brown: 3:13. no man hath ascended, &c.--There is something paradoxical in this language--"No one has gone up but He that came down, even He who is at once both up and down." Doubtless it was intended to startle and constrain His auditor to think that there must be mysterious elements in His Person. The old Socinians, to subvert the doctrine of the pre-existence of Christ, seized upon this passage as teaching that the man Jesus was secretly caught up to heaven to receive His instructions, and then "came down from heaven" to deliver them. But the sense manifestly is this: "The perfect knowledge of God is not obtained by any man's going up from earth to heaven to receive it--no man hath so ascended--but He whose proper habitation, in His essential and eternal nature, is heaven, hath, by taking human flesh, descended as the Son of man to disclose the Father, whom He knows by immediate gaze alike in the flesh as before He assumed it, being essentially and unchangeably 'in the bosom of the Father'"

This author, who was David Brown, emphasizes Christ's nature, as being God, whereas no human was then, or is now, God, in knowledge and power. He does not address the question of Elijah directly.

John Wesley 3:13    For no one - For here you must rely on my single testimony, whereas there you have a cloud of witnesses: Hath gone up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven. Who is in heaven - Therefore he is omnipresent; else he could not be in heavenand on earth at once. This is a plain instance of what is usually termed the communication of properties between the Divine and human nature; whereby what is proper to the Divine nature is spoken concerning the human, and what is proper to the human is, as here, spoken of the Divine.  Explanatory Notes.

If I understand him, Wesley emphasized Christ's assertion of his Divine nature in this verse. That doesn't explain what seems to be the language of the verse, in the NIV, anyway, nor does it touch on the question of Elijah.

Matthew Henry
Our Lord Jesus, and he alone, was fit to reveal to us a doctrine thus certain, thus sublime: No man hath ascended up into heaven but he, v. 13.

First, None but Christ was able to reveal to us the will of God for our salvation. Nicodemus addressed Christ as a prophet; but he must know that he is greater than all the Old-Testament prophets, for none of them had ascended into heaven. They wrote by divine inspiration, and not of their own knowledge; see ch. i. 18. Moses ascended into the mount, but not into heaven. No man hath attained to the certain knowledge of God and heavenly things as Christ has; see Matt. xi. 27. It is not for us to send to heaven for instructions; we must wait to receive what instructions Heaven will send to us; see Prov. xxx. 4; Deut. xxx. 12.

Secondly, Jesus Christ is able, and fit, and every way qualified, to reveal the will of God to us; for it is he that came down from heaven and is in heaven. He had said (v. 12), How shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? Now here, 1. He gives them an instance of those heavenly things which he could tell them of, when he tells them of one that came down from heaven, and yet is the Son of man; is the Son of man, and yet is in heaven. If the regeneration of the soul of man is such a mystery, what then is the incarnation of the Son of God? These are divine and heavenly things indeed. We have here an intimation of Christ's two distinct natures in one person: his divine nature, in which he came down from heaven; his human nature, in which he is the Son of man; and that union of those two, in that while he is the Son of man yet he is in heaven. 2. He gives them a proof of his ability to speak to them heavenly things, and to lead them into the arcana of the kingdom of heaven, by telling them, (1.) That he came down from heaven. The intercourse settled between God and man began above; the first motion towards it did not arise from this earth, but came down from heaven. We love him, and send to him, because he first loved us, and sent to us. Now this intimates, [1.] Christ's divine nature. He that came down from heaven is certainly more than a mere man; he is the Lord from heaven, 1 Cor. xv. 47. [2.] His intimate acquaintance with the divine counsels; for, coming from the court of heaven, he had been from eternity conversant with them. [3.] The manifestation of God. Under the Old Testament God's favours to his people are expressed by his hearing from heaven (2 Chron. vii. 14), looking from heaven (Ps. lxxx. 14), speaking from heaven (Neh. ix. 13), sending from heaven, Ps. lvii. 3. But the New Testament shows us God coming down from heaven, to teach and save us. That he thus descended is an admirable mystery, for the Godhead cannot change places, nor did he bring his body from heaven; but that he thus condescended for our redemption is a more admirable mercy; herein he commended his love. (2.) That he is the Son of man, that Son of man spoken of by Daniel (vii. 13), by which the Jews always understand to be meant the Messiah. Christ, in calling himself the Son of man, shows that he is the second Adam, for the first Adam was the father of man. And of all the Old-Testament titles of the Messiah he chose to make use of this, because it was most expressive of his humility, and most agreeable to his present state of humiliation. (3.) That he is in heaven. Now at this time, when he is talking with Nicodemus on earth, yet, as God, he is in heaven. The Son of man, as such, was not in heaven till his ascension; but he that was the Son of man was now, by his divine nature, every where present, and particularly in heaven. Thus the Lord of glory, as such, could not be crucified, nor could God, as such, shed his blood; yet that person who was the Lord of glory was crucified (1 Cor. ii. 8), and God purchased the church with his own blood, Acts xx. 28. So close is the union of the two natures in one person that there is a communication of properties. He doth not say hos esti. God is the ho on to ourano—he that is, and heaven is the habitation of his holiness.

Henry, also, emphasizes the divine nature of Christ, and does not consider the question of Elijah.

John Calvin 13. No one hath ascended to heaven. He again exhorts Nicodemus not to trust to himself and his own sagacity, because no mortal man can, by his own unaided powers, enter into heaven, but only he who goes thither under the guidance of the Son of God. For to ascend to heaven means here, “to have a pure knowledge of the mysteries of God, and the light of spiritual understanding.” For Christ gives here the same instruction which is given by Paul, when he declares that
the sensual man does not comprehend the things which are of God, [1 Corinthians 2:14] and, therefore, he excludes from divine things all the acuteness of the human understanding, for it is far below God.
But we must attend to the words, that Christ alone, who is heavenly, ascends to heaven, but that the entrance is closed against all others. For, in the former clause, he humbles us, when he excludes the whole world from heaven. Paul enjoins those who are desirous to be wise with God to be fools with themselves, [1 Corinthians 3:18].

There is nothing which we do with greater reluctance. For this purpose we ought to remember, that all our senses fail and give way when we come to God; but, after having shut us out from heaven, Christ quickly proposes a remedy, when he adds, that what was denied to all others is granted to the Son of God. And this too is the reason why he calls himself the Son of man, that we may not doubt that we have an entrance into heaven in common with him who clothed himself with our flesh, that he might make us partakers of all blessings. Since, therefore, he is the Father’s only Counselor, [Isaiah 9:6] he admits us into those secrets which otherwise would have remained in concealment.

Who is in heaven. It may be thought absurd to say that he is in heaven, while he still dwells on the earth. If it be replied, that this is true in regard to his Divine nature, the mode of expression means something else, namely, that while he was man, he was in heaven. It might be said that no mention is here made of any place, but that Christ is only distinguished from others, in regard to his condition, because he is the heir of the kingdom of God, from which the whole human race is banished; but, as it very frequently happens, on account of the unity of the Person of Christ, that what properly belongs to one nature is applied to another, we ought not to seek any other solution. Christ, therefore, who is in heaven, hath clothed himself with our flesh, that, by stretching out his brotherly hand to us, he may raise us to heaven along with him.

Calvin also emphasizes the divine nature -- there is no other way to heaven but through Christ. He also deals with the question of Christ being in heaven and on earth at the same time, and, apparently, believed that He was in both places (?) at once.

My reaction, based on the commentaries, and the context, is that Jesus wasn't dealing directly with the question of who is in heaven now, but, rather, with His nature as Lord and Redeemer, which were the roles that Nicodemus really needed, whether he knew it or not.

OK. What about Elijah? I did a search for this sequence of words (not a phrase search): "Do we go straight to heaven when we die?" I have looked at the first ten responses from that search, and am using them, and, in some cases, from documents that the first group were linked to, in the following discussion.

Do Believers Go Straight to Heaven?
My first answer is that we don't know this for sure. There is disagreement among believers. However, we don't need all the answers. If we can trust Christ to save us, then we ought to be able to trust Him to take care of us, and our departed loved ones, after death, and put us into God's presence for eternity, and we don't need to know whether this will take place instantaneously, or as the result of a process, or will take place only after the creation, as a whole, is redeemed. We also don't need to know whether we will be conscious or not, if we don't enter God's presence immediately. If I am not conscious after death for, say, 100,000 years, and am then raised, and placed in the presence of God, I suppose that this would be little or no different from entering in to heaven immediately upon death, as far as my experience would be concerned.

There is scripture on the subject. I don't believe that it is conclusive, but it seems most likely that it means that believers won't go straight to heaven upon death. (I doubt that that is the belief of most North Americans, or the belief of most believers!)

Probably the most commonly quoted scripture, on this subject, is the statement of Jesus, to the thief on the cross, that that thief would be with Jesus, in Paradise, today. It is possible, I guess, that Jesus meant something like "you are going to die. When you become conscious again, after a long time, you will be with me in heaven," but didn't have the right circumstances to say all that, in such a way that the thief, who must have been in agony, could understand it. But I take it that what Jesus said was meant to be taken literally, or as literally as is possible for us to understand. The Greek word, here translated "paradise," is only used three times in the New Testament. The other two times are 2 Corinthians 12:4 and Revelation 2:7. If you  follow the link in the previous sentence, the reference gives five meanings for the word, paradeisos. Here are the most pertinent of these meanings:
3) the part of Hades which was thought by the later Jews to be the abode of the souls of pious until the resurrection: but some understand this to be a heavenly paradise
4) the upper regions of the heavens. According to the early church Fathers, the paradise in which our first parents dwelt before the fall still exists, neither on the earth or in the heavens, but above and beyond the world
5) heaven

Note that paradeisos would probably not have meant "heaven" to the thief on the cross. Note also, however, that not everyone accepts the distinction between the two.

For more on Paradise, see this Wikipedia article (The Wikipedia is not, of course, divinely inspired, but it usually is a good resource for finding out what we think about a topic. Usually, important competing views are given.) My sense of the word, paradise, is that the thief would probably have understood that Jesus was telling him that he would go to a place reserved for those who had found favor with God, and that Jesus would be there, too.

There is another word for heaven in the Greek New Testament. "Heaven" occurs in the King James Version over 200 times. I didn't check them all, but it appears that it is always the English translation of ouranos. Jesus used that word when talking to Nicodemus in John 3:13. He used it three times in that verse.

So, one answer to the original question is simply that no one except Jesus, including Elijah, had really entered into heaven at the time when Jesus was talking to Nicodemus. Elijah, and others, had gone to paradise instead.

What do other thinkers say on this question? N. T. Wright, one of the most important theologians of today, and one who takes the Bible very seriously, believes that there will be a final resurrection, which will make a new heaven, and that Christians will not enter heaven until that event takes place. The article on Wright's belief quotes him using John 3:13 as part of his biblical evidence. (There are other parts.) Wright says, and I checked, that Martin Luther and William Tyndale, among others, did not believe that Christians go immediately to heaven.

If I die, redeemed through the blood of Christ, what will happen to me? I'm not sure. Perhaps I'll go straight to heaven. Perhaps I'll go to an intermediate "place" while heaven is prepared. Perhaps I won't know anything until the final resurrection. These questions, of course are insignificant, beside the question of whether or not I have had the sin in my life paid for by the death and resurrection of Christ.

Thanks for reading. Be ready.


Weekend Fisher said...

For another two cents on Elijah (and Enoch): it looks to me like it's a matter of context. When the original statement was first made to its original hearers, it was not in the context "Has anyone ever ascended?" It was in the context, "Why believe Jesus when he talks about God?"

Jesus' point was that *nobody we'd ever talk to* has that kind of first-hand knowledge.

If someone in the original setting had asked him, "Are you saying Elijah didn't ascend?" I would not be surprised if he had rolled his eyes and said they had just missed his point ...

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Anne. I wouldn't be surprised, either.

atlibertytosay said...

Great conversation Martin …

This is something I've recently tried to grasp.

"And Jesus said unto him, 'Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.'"

~ Luke 23:43

I have wondered if there is somewhat of a Jehovah's Witness point to this …

I think we may sleep until "the end" - when we wake up, it seems instantaneous. Meaning, our physical body died and turned off, we may be asleep for 1000 or more years, but it will seem instantaneous, just as a light switch has no memory of the last time it was turned off.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, atlibertytosay.

We just don't know. I'll repeat myself:

"If we can trust Christ to save us, then we ought to be able to trust Him to take care of us, and our departed loved ones, after death, and put us into God's presence for eternity, and we don't need to know whether this will take place instantaneously, or as the result of a process, or will take place only after the creation, as a whole, is redeemed."

Pastor Jason said...

I think these statements, along with the above make it conclusive.

2Co 5:8 We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.

Php 1:23 For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.

And by the way, there is more evidence for "the Son of Man who is in heaven," for you have textual witnesses from the Byzantine, Caesarean, and Western text types; and at least an equal number of witnesses among the church fathers. Even though the texts may be slightly older, the cover nearly the entirety of the ancient world, only exception being Egypt.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Pastor Jason.

The verses you quoted could mean Paradise (if there is such a place) rather than Heaven, it seems to me.