What did Jesus mean by 'If I be lifted up' in John 12:32?
After the triumphal entry, some Greek-speaking Jews, who were in Jerusalem for Passover, approached Philip to ask to see Jesus. When Philip and Andrew told Jesus, He replied by speaking about His own impending death. After Jesus said, "Father, glorify your name," a voice from heaven replied, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again" (John 12:28). Jesus explained to the crowd, "This voice has come for your sake, not mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself" (John 12:30–32). The very next verse explains, "He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die" (John 12:33). So the phrase "when I be lifted up" (or "if I be lifted up" in the KJV) refers to Jesus' death on the cross.
Jesus had used the phrase about being "lifted up" before. During His conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus, Jesus said "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" (John 3:14–15). Jesus compared Himself to the bronze serpent on a pole that God used to heal the Israelites of the consequences of their sin. They had grumbled against Moses and against God while in the wilderness, so God had "sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died" (Numbers 21:6). The Israelites were experiencing the fact that "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). However, when the people repented, God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent "and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live" (Numbers 21:8). In the same way, anyone who repents and looks to Jesus' sacrifice on the cross the way the Israelites looked with faith to the serpent on the pole, will receive eternal life (John 3:16–18; Romans 10:9; Ephesians 2:1–10).
In this later reference to being "lifted up," Jesus mentioned two things that would happen: "now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I… will draw all people to myself" (John 12:31–32). Besides being hoisted up on the cross physically off the ground, the original Greek word also implies metaphorically being exalted or raised to honor. The crucifixion would defeat Satan and win over followers to Christ. Jesus' sacrifice is what causes people to love Him. Jesus said it would draw people of all kinds to Him (Galatians 3:26–29). Raising placards on a pole in crowded settings helps people know where to go like name cards held by chauffeurs waiting for their clients at an airport, or flags that pace setters in a marathon hold up with the pace time they plan to run, or military standards raised on the battlefield to gather soldiers. In this same way, Jesus' work on the cross is the visible cue that draws people to Him. It gives Him glory because it was the work that defeated Satan and secured the redemption of His people (Colossians 2:9–15; 1 Corinthians 15:54–57). For these reasons, people love and honor Christ and He is thus "lifted up."
Jesus' crucifixion physically lifted Him off the ground and metaphorically lifted Him in exaltation as He completed the work of defeating Satan and redeeming His people. This phrase might also call to mind Jesus' ascension after His resurrection (Acts 1:6–11). For these reasons, Jesus used the phrase "when I be lifted up" (or "if I be lifted up" in the KJV) in John 12:32.
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