“If I be lifted up” — Jesus’ meaning in John 12:32

In the United States, Christians often sing, “Lift Jesus higher…He said, ‘If I be lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men unto Me,’” based on John 12:32. The Bible does talk about “exalting” God and “lifting him up” in praise, but that is not the point of this text. If one reads the next verse (which explicitly says that Jesus was referring to his death), it is clear that “lifting him up” refers to his death on the cross. (The play on words with “lifting up” was already used in both Greek and Hebrew for forms of hanging, such as crucifixion.) Thus, if the song means by lifting Him up what the biblical verse means, we would be singing, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” Of course God knows our hearts, but one wonders why a song writer would base a song, which millions of people might sing, on a verse yet not take the time to look up the verse on which it is based!

John three times refers to Jesus being “lifted up”: in one case, he compares this event to the serpent being lifted up in the wilderness (Jn 3:14), to make eternal life available to everyone (3:15). In the second, Jesus declares that His adversaries will lift Him up (8:28). In other words, John means by “lifting up” what Isaiah meant by it: Jesus would be crucified (Isa. 52:13 with Isa. 52:14-53:12). John includes plays on words in his gospel, and may also indicate that we “exalt” Jesus by preaching the Cross; but leaves no doubt as to the primary sense of the term in this context: crucifixion. To read it any other way is to ignore his explicit, inspired explanation of the “lifting up.”