“I came down from Heaven” (Jn. 6:33,38) / "No man has ascended into heaven, but he that descended from heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven" (Jn. 3:13)
“The bread of God is he which comes down from heaven, and gives life unto the world...I came down from heaven” (Jn. 6:33,38).
These words, and others like them, are misused to support the wrong idea that Jesus existed in Heaven before his birth. The following points, however, must be noted.
1. Trinitarians take these words as literal in order to prove their point. However, if we are to take them literally, then this means that somehow Jesus literally came down as a person. Not only is the Bible totally silent about this, but the language of Jesus being conceived as a baby in Mary’s womb is made meaningless. Jn.6:60 describes the teaching about the manna as a saying “hard to take in” (Moffatt’s Translation); i.e. we need to understand that it is figurative language being used.
2. In Jn. 6, Jesus is explaining how the manna was a type of himself. The manna was sent from God in the sense that it was God who was responsible for creating it on the earth; it did not physically float down from the throne of God in Heaven. Thus Christ’s coming from Heaven is to be understood likewise; he was created on earth, by the Holy Spirit acting upon the womb of Mary (Lk.1:35).
3. Jesus says that “the bread that I will give is my flesh” (Jn.6:51). Trinitarians claim that it was the ‘God’ part of Jesus which came down from Heaven. But Jesus says that it was his “flesh” which was the bread which came down from Heaven. Likewise Jesus associates the bread from Heaven with himself as the “Son of man” (Jn. 6:62), not ‘God the Son’.
4. In this same passage in Jn. 6 there is abundant evidence that Jesus was not equal to God. “The living Father has sent me” (Jn. 6:57) shows that Jesus and God do not share co-equality; and the fact that “I live by the Father” (Jn. 6:57) is hardly the ‘co-eternity’ of which Trinitarians speak.
5. It must be
asked, When and how did Jesus ‘come down’ from Heaven? Trinitarians use
these verses in Jn. 6 to ‘prove’ that Jesus came down from Heaven at his
birth. But Jesus speaks of himself as “he which cometh down from heaven”
(v.33,50), as if it is an ongoing process. Speaking of God’s gift of Jesus,
Christ said “My Father is giving you the bread” from Heaven (v.32 Weymouth).
At the time Jesus was speaking these words, he had already ‘come down’ in a
certain sense, in that he had been sent by God. Because of this, he could
also speak in the past tense: “I am the living bread which came down from
Heaven” (v.51). But he also speaks about ‘coming down’ as the bread from
Heaven in the form of his death on the cross: “The bread that I will give is
my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (v.51). So we have
Jesus speaking here of having already come down from Heaven, being in the
process of ‘coming down’, and still having to ‘come down’ in his death on
the cross. This fact alone should prove that ‘coming down’ refers to God
manifesting Himself, rather than only referring to Christ’s birth. This is
conclusively proved by all the Old Testament references to God ‘coming down’
having just this same meaning. Thus God saw the affliction of His people in
Egypt, and ‘came down’ to save them through Moses. He has seen our bondage
to sin, and has ‘come down’ or manifested Himself, by sending Jesus as the
equivalent to Moses to lead us out of bondage.
The Lord Jesus was "the beginning of God's creation" (Rev. 3:15)- He was a created being and as such in whatever form He 'came down from Heaven', He was still not God Himself. Hugh Schonfield comments: "Clearly John himself believed that the heavenly Christ was a created being, as did the early Christians" (1).
A Devotional Appeal
The Lord's language of coming down from Heaven can be understood from a very powerful devotional aspect. He reasons that because He had come down from Heaven, therefore, whoever comes to Him, He would never reject (Jn. 6:37,38). The connection is in the word "come". We 'come' to Jesus not by physically travelling towards Him, but in our mental attitudes. He likewise 'comes' to us, not by moving trillions of kilometers from Heaven to earth, but in His 'coming' down into our lives and experiences. If He has come so very far to meet us, and we come to Him... then surely we will meet and He will not turn away from us, exactly because He has 'come' so far to meet us. This theme continues throughout John's Gospel. "What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before?" (Jn. 6:62) is therefore not a reference to Him physically travelling off anywhere- He is saying that if people would not 'come' to Him in meeting, then He would withdraw the opportunity from them. He wouldn't stand waiting for them indefinitely. This explains the urgency behind His appeals to 'come' to Him. He had 'come down', and was waiting for people to 'come' to Him. He's come a huge distance, from the heavenly heights of His own spirituality, to meet with whores and gamblers, hobby level religionists, self-absorbed little people... and if we truly come to Him, if we want to meet with Him, then of course He will never turn us away. For it was to meet with us that He 'came down'. This approach shows the fallacy of interpreting His 'coming down' to us and our 'coming' to Him in a literal sense.
And yet this Lord of all grace also sought to confirm men and women in the path they chose. He admitted that His comment about Himself being the manna which descended from Heaven was a "hard saying". And yet He goes straight on to say [perhaps with a slight smile playing at the corner of His lips] something even more enigmatic: "What and if you shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before?" (Jn. 6:62). Surely He is here chosing to give them yet another, even harder "saying"; and goes on to stress that His sayings, His words, are the way to life eternal (Jn. 6:63). For those who didn't want His words, He was confirming them in their darkness. And He did this by the mechanism of using an evidently "hard saying". Therefore to simplistically interpret the saying as meaning that the Lord had literally descended from Heaven through the sky just as literally as He would ascend there through the clouds... is in fact to quite miss the point- that this is a "hard saying". It's not intended to have a simplistic, literalistic interpretation.
(1) Hugh Schonfield, The Original New Testament: Revelation (London: Firethorn Press, 1985) footnote on Rev. 3:15.
The context of John 3 is the Lord's discourse with Nicodemus. This passages highlights the difference between flesh and spirit, human understanding and spiritual perception, literal birth and the birth "from above" (Jn. 3:3,5). All this suggests that we are to understand 'Heaven' and (by implication) 'earth' in a figurative manner. The Lord Jesus speaks as if He has already ascended into Heaven- yet He spoke these words during His ministry. In any case, He speaks of how "the Son of man" will do these things, and not 'God the Son', as would be required by Trinitarian theology. To suggest that Jesus as Son of Man literally ascended to Heaven and descended to earth during His ministry is surely literalism's last gasp. There are many allusions to Moses throughout John's record, as if both the Lord Jesus and John were seeking to impress upon the audience that the Lord Jesus was indeed the Messianic "prophet like unto" Moses predicted in Dt. 18:15,18. Jewish writings of the time [e.g. Wisdom of Solomon] spoke of Moses' ascent of Sinai as an ascension into Heaven, descending to Israel with the Law (1). This language is being picked up and applied to the Lord Jesus.
The Lord Jesus has just spoken of how believers in Him are to be "born from above" and "born of the Spirit" (Jn. 3:3,5). However, the same Greek words for "born" and "Spirit" are found in Mt. 1:20 and Lk. 1:35- in description of the virgin birth of Jesus. He was the ultimate example of one "born of the Spirit". And yet John's Gospel applies the language of the virgin birth to believers. We have another example in Jn. 1:13- the believers "were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God"- i.e., they were born "of the Spirit". My suggestion is that the Lord Jesus is saying in Jn. 3:13 that of course, He is the only one fully born of the Spirit, the only one in Heavenly places; but the preceding context makes clear that He is willing to count believers in Him as fully sharing His status. Further, we need no longer complain that His virgin birth makes Him have some unfair advantages in the battle against sin which we don't have. The spiritual rebirth experienced by all those truly born again by God's word, His "seed" (1 Pet. 1:23), is such that we in some way are given all the inclinations towards righteousness which the Lord Jesus had by virtue of His birth.
(1) More references to this effect in Ben Witherington, John's Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995) p. 100.