Commentary on the Gospel of
This difficult gospel reading from John 8 is a great example of how the gospel writers—especially John—use language from the Old Testament (especially in its Greek version) to speak about Jesus. For example, when John writes about Jesus being “lifted up” or about Jesus saying mysteriously “I AM,” he is using language from the Old Testament along with the powerful associations those words have in the Torah or the Prophets (especially Isaiah) to speak of Jesus as the church came to understand him in the light of his death and resurrection.
Take the language about being “lifted up.” That strange language comes up three times in the Gospel of John, and when we become familiar with the whole of that gospel, we come to realize that the phrase (a single verb in Greek--hypsoth?nai) means two kinds of being “lifted up”—lifted up on the cross and lifted up in resurrection. John loves that word because for him the death and resurrection of Jesus go together. The first lifted-up saying in John appears in John 3:13, which alludes to this Sunday’s first reading. There, in Numbers 21, the lifting up refers to God’s instruction to Moses to mount a bronze serpent on a pole and lift it up so that all those suffer the punishing snakebites might look at the snake and be healed from the effects of the bite. To quote John 3:13, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” That is a very shorthand way of referring to Christian faith in the crucified and risen Lord as seeing the death and resurrection as a sign of the Father’s love expressed in the self-sacrifice of Jesus. Another place in the Old Testament that provides a powerful context for understanding Jesus’ suffering and glorification is Isaiah 52:13-15. This passage introduces the fourth Suffering Servant Song, which Christians understood as fulfilled in the death and glorification of Jesus.
The second “lifted up” saying occurs in today’s gospel reading, John 8:28— “So Jesus said, ‘When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM, and that I do nothing on my own, but I say only what the Father taught me.’” That mysterious “I AM” embedded in this verse (capitalized by the editors to catch our eye) provides another example of language that only makes sense when you hear it as a reference to places in the OT where “I am” is a name for God. Here again, Isaiah is the source. Several times in this prophet “I AM” is the way God names himself, reminiscent of the “I am who am” as God’s self-identification in the revelation to Moses in the burning bush episode in Exodus 3. (See Isaiah 43:43:10-11, 25; 51:12). The point is that truly “see” Jesus is to know him as the divine Son of God, sent by the Father to represent him fully in his life, death, and resurrection. And see the I AM in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman (4:26), at 13:19, and in his confrontation with the posse in the garden (18:5, 6, and 8).
The third “lifted up” saying comes in Jesus’ speech in John 12:32-34, which begins with this assertion: “‘And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.’ He said this indicating the kind of death he would die.” Of course the words about drawing everyone to himself also imply the effect of his risen life.
So, as we approach the accounts of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus this Lent, we can recall these I AM and lifted-up sayings to help us do what St. Ignatius invites us to do in his Spiritual Exercises, when he advises retreatants, as they contemplate the passion account, to watch how Jesus’ divinity “hides itself; that is, how he could destroy his enemies but does not; and how he allows his most holy humanity to suffer so cruelly.” John, with language soaked with Old Testament associations, helps us pray about Jesus’ suffering and glorification with both the human and divine dimensions in mind.