13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
JOHN 3:13 ESV
13 καὶ οὐδεὶς ἀναβέβηκεν εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν εἰ μὴ ὁ ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καταβάς, ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου.
JOHN 3:13 SBLGNT
Now, as regards the verity of these heavenly things and any genuine testimony concerning them, a word is in place, which Jesus adds with “and.” And no one has ascended into heaven except he that descended out of heaven, the Son of man, he who is in heaven. If any ordinary man were to become a direct witness of heavenly things, he would first ascend to heaven and then come down again and thus testify what he had seen and heard while he was in heaven. However, “no one has ascended into heaven.” The perfect tense anabaino, ἀναβέβηκεν, has ascended, includes the past act of ascending together with its resultant effect; the one past act of ascending would apply to that person indefinitely, i.e., he could always speak as one who has been in heaven. The universal denial in οὑδείς, “no one,” has one grand and notable exception. We are not left without direct testimony regarding heavenly things; we are not dependent only on men like the prophets and such revelations as they may receive from heaven. This exception is Jesus; εἰ μή, ei me ‘except’ as so often, introduces an exception, “except he that descended from heaven.” Any other person would first have to ascend to heaven, not so this person—he was in heaven, to begin with. Hence all he needed to do was to come down from heaven. Moreover, this he did as ‘he who descended from heaven.’ ‘ho ek ho ouranos katabaino.’ ὁ ἐκ τοῦ οὑρανοῦ καταβάς asserts with its historical aorist participle, “he that did descend” when he became incarnate, which also explains the apposition that names this exceptional and wonderful person, “the Son of man,” man, indeed, and yet far more than man; see the exposition regarding this title in 1:51 – 51 And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
A second apposition is added, “he who is in heaven.” For it would be a misconception to think of this person as a mere man who in some unaccountable way had originated in heaven instead of on earth like all other men and then had merely changed his abode from heaven to earth by coming down to us, thus being able to tell us about the things in heaven. Not so is ὁ καταβάς to be understood. This person is God, the Son, himself, whose coming down in the incarnation is not a mere change of residence. Though he came down and now speaks to Nicodemus as the Son of man, he remains ὁ ὢν ἐν τῷ οὑρανῷ, “he who is in heaven.” He cannot change his divine nature, cannot lay it aside, cannot cancel even temporarily his divine Son-ship, his unity of essence with the Father and the Spirit. This is unthinkable, although men have tried to think it. To think such a thing is to make also “the Son of man” an illusion, to say nothing of undoing in thought the very Godhead itself and the Trinity of immutable Persons. This person Who is first, descended, katabaino, ὁ καταβάς and secondly ‘the son of man,’ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου is thirdly, the one who is in heaven, ὁ ὢν ἐν τῷ οὑρανῷ. The participle ὤν, “who is,” is substantiated exactly like “descended,” καταβάς, the article in each case converting the participle into a noun. The first, an aorist, names the person according to one past act, “he that came down“; the second a durative, timeless present, like ὤν in 1:18- 18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known., names the person according to his enduring condition or being, “he that is, ever and ever is in heaven.” Furthermore, this designation ὁ ὤν ‘he who is,’ dare not be altered into something else such as mere communion with heaven and thus with God. It denotes being. We may have communion with God, and yet who would dare to express that by saying that we ‘to be,’ ὄντες, “are,” in heaven.
Verse 13, therefore, says nothing about an ascension of Jesus into heaven, which will occur in the future after his resurrection, or has occurred in the past; least of all, it is understood in the Socinian sense of a raptus in coelum. These words are not figurative, meaning only that Jesus has immediate heavenly knowledge or superior, direct communion with heaven through his mind or soul. All such interpretations, which offer a quid pro quo, fail to grasp and accept the real sense and offer another in its stead.
The addition of ‘he who is,’ ὁ ὤν, etc., has caused perplexity. Hence the attempts to cancel this addition and thus eliminate the perplexity at one stroke. However, the textual evidence is so strong that today’s cancellation would be arbitrary. The substitution of ἐκ for ἐν, “he who is out of heaven,” changes the sense. Next comes the translation, qui in coelo erat, in old Latin versions and recent expositions. This is based on the grammatical fact that the present participle ὤν serves for both the present and the imperfect tense, the more since εἶναι has no aorist. While the grammatical point is correct, ὤν means “was” only when it modifies an imperfect tense of the verb and from that verb, like other present participles (all of which also serve for the imperfect tense), derives the sense of the imperfect. In the statement of Jesus, no imperfect tense of a verb appears to which ὤν could be attached.
Some interpreters regard ὁ ὢν ἐν τῷ οὑρανῷ as the equivalent of a relative clause, which is then sometimes attached to ὁ καταβάς as a mere modifier, more frequently to ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου. The article in ὁ ὤν is thus explained as indicating that the participle is attributive. The fact that Jesus “was” in heaven lies fully and already in the previous participle, “he who came down out of heaven“; for no one can come out of a place unless prior to the coming he was in that place. Others see that the participle must be present, even though it is timeless; yet they cling to the idea of a relative clause, a mere modifier. This brings them to the thought that the modifier describes only a quality of the Son of man: having come down from heaven, he has a heavenly nature and character, and he is and remains (ὤν) an ἐπουράνιος. This appears to be an escape from the imperfect tense, “who was in heaven,” but it only appears so. For the Son of man so described can have this character only because prior to his incarnation, he was in heaven; that he is there now, even while speaking to Nicodemus, is the one thing that so many thinks must be eliminated.
Therefore, this brings us to the dogmatical bias of this interpretation of ὁ ὤν. What is so evident namely that Jesus here uses three coordinate titles for himself: he that came down—the Son of man—he that is in heaven, is not seen. In other words, “the Son of man” is an apposition, and “he that is in heaven” is likewise an apposition. Again, in other words: he that came down is now here as the incarnate Son of man, and yet, having come down does not mean leaving heaven—he is both here and is still in heaven. Impossible! is the reply. Why? This would destroy the unity of Christ’s person and his self-consciousness! In simple language, this dogmatical objection declares: We do not see and understand how one can be in heaven and on earth simultaneously; hence such a thing cannot be—Jesus must mean something else; and then the search begins for what he must mean. Thus the story of Nicodemus is here repeated when in v. 9 he asked, “How can these things be?” and was told that his question meant nothing but plain, persistent unbelief. Jesus is in heaven, though, as the Son of man, he walks on earth—that fact stands whether it staggers our reason and powers of comprehension or not. Preconceived dogmatical considerations have always been the bane of exegesis. They have vitiated the plainest grammatical and linguistic facts. The plea about the unity of person and consciousness transfers what would be true of an ordinary human being with only one nature to Christ, the unique divine Being who, after his incarnation, has two natures. The further plea that from John’s prologue onward, Christ’s being on earth or in the world and his being with God (1:1, 2, and 1:10) form a complete contrast, reveals how far back this dogmatical preconception reaches and how it misunderstands the prologue. It will do the same with other statements in our Gospel, such as 10:30, 17:11 and 22. When the Spirit in the form of a dove came down out of heaven upon Jesus, he did not thereby remove his person and presence from heaven, nor did he do this when he was poured out upon the disciples on Pentecost. The same is true of Jehovah when he appeared to Abraham, to Moses in the fiery bush, and when he descended on Sinai, to mention only these.
The interpretation that “who is in heaven” is an insertion by the evangelist and means that now, as he writes, Jesus is again in heaven, destroying the entire historical character of John’s Gospel.
Did Nicodemus understand what Jesus here tells him? The same question arises as the discourse moves on, and the answer lies in v. 10. He understood and did not understand. Nevertheless, the end toward which Jesus is working with Nicodemus is furthered by the strong impression the words create as Nicodemus now hears and later on as he ponders these words. Jesus counts not on the passing moment alone but on the future when the little that Nicodemus now grasps will grow into fuller insight until faith arrives, and increasing faith learns to see more clearly still.
- R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961)