“Jesus answered...‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’” (John 12:32).

I have heard this verse dozens of times in churches, often in conjunction with a church body announcing plans for their worship ministry and growth. Many church websites include a phrase similar to this: “Everything we do in worship at our church is all about lifting Jesus up” (notice the subtle shift of focus from Christ’s work to ours).

There is even the popular worship song, “We Want to See Jesus Lifted High,” with the first verse which reads:

We want to see Jesus lifted high
A banner that flies across this land
That all men might see the truth and know
He is the way to Heaven.

In a way, it makes sense to assume that in John 12, Jesus meant “And I, when I am worshipped, will draw all men to myself.” After all, the Bible often admonishes us to “exalt the Lord.”

“This is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him” (Ex. 15:2).

“Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!” (Ps. 34:3).

“Exalt the Lord our God; worship at his footstool! Holy is he!” (Ps. 99:5).

But is the exaltation defined in these verses the same as us lifting up Jesus? We get it wrong when we assume we are responsible for lifting Jesus up because, in these words, Jesus isn’t talking about our worship; he is talking about his crucifixion.

A cursory reading of Jesus’ words throughout John makes this clear.

A snake for salvation

“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3: 14-15).

Moses did not lift a bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness for the people to worship it. This would have been an act of idolatry, and the very thing they were commanded not to do. Instead, by looking to the snake, they would be saved from snakes. Let me explain.

“And The Lord said to Moses, make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live” (Num. 21: 8-9).

This story makes absolutely no sense. If snakes are killing the Israelites, why would they have to look at one on a pole? Wouldn’t they want to get as far away from snakes as possible? Is this some bizarre spiritual homeopathy? Why not something powerful and strong, like a bronze eagle, in sight of the afflicted?

The same reasoning could be used to combat Jesus’ words. If it’s our sin that kills, why not lift up righteousness? Righteousness is the opposite of sin, after all. If we have a sin problem, more righteousness, more good works, and better worship would seem to be the solution.

Jesus, however, was not lifted up in righteousness but in our sin. The very thing that is killing us was put on Christ and lifted up on a pole for all to see. We are saved from our sin by simply looking, in faith, at Christ bearing it in our place. As Paul said, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21). And as Isaiah says, “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53:6).

If we have a sin problem, more righteousness, more good works, and better worship would seem to be the solution.

Lifting up Worship or Death?

“‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die. So the crowd answered him, ‘We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?’” (John 12:32-34).

Here, John makes it clear what Jesus was referring to by adding, “He said this to indicate how he was going to die.” And if that does not dispel any thoughts of worship, the people listening to Jesus knew precisely what He meant: “We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up?”

So “lifting Jesus up” does not happen when we give Him the worship He deserves, but the utter and complete opposite. It happens when Jesus dies for us.

Why do we misunderstand Jesus so completely? When he tells us what He is going to do, why do we instead hear what we need to do?

Isaiah drops us a big hint at the beginning of the Messianic passage in chapter 53. We often skip right over it on our way to the more famous parts, missing the significance of his words. But reread verse 1: “Who has believed our message, and to who has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” (NIV)

Perhaps the NCV translation captures it a bit better: “Who would have believed what we heard? Who saw the Lord’s power in this?”

If we remove the rhetorical questions, this verse could also be translated to something like, “Nobody is going to believe this.”

Why would Isaiah begin this passage by proclaiming that virtually no one will understand or believe it? Because God’s ways are not our ways, and His thoughts are not our thoughts. His way of saving us solely by the death and resurrection of the Messiah makes no sense to us. We cannot believe by our own power or strength.

Isaiah captures the troubling truth that our sinful hearts prefer a law we think can keep, where we can get a little credit for the effort, over God’s Gospel. We also don’t like God’s Law because its condemnation is too much. So we take the Gospel and morph it into something we can do – some new kind of manageable law. We convince ourselves we can get to God on our own; we just need to try harder, do better, pray more, and read our Bibles more. Or in this case, we must worship harder, longer, louder, faster - even weirder.

Christ draws us to himself not by our works or our worship, but by becoming sin and dying for us.

Perfecting worship (or preferring a certain type of worship) isn’t a bad thing until it becomes an attempt to manipulate God or shifts our focus away from Christ and to ourselves. And Jesus makes it explicitly clear that He draws all people to Himself not through our worship, but His Cross.

This is why the Cross is such an offense to everyone, sometimes especially to Christians. It cuts far deeper than our actions and works; it slices to our very heart and offends our pride. The Pharisee in all of us puts some faith in our good works and looks down on the humble tax collector (or that church down the street). Yet the tax-collector, not the Pharisee, went away reconciled, not on account of anything he did, but on account of what was done for him. The doorway into the freedom of the Gospel is the appalling admission that all of our righteousness is filthy rags that accomplish nothing in our reconciliation with God. “For if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal. 2:21).

Christ draws us to himself not by our works or our worship, but by becoming sin and dying for us.

It is contrary to our nature to accept that the Gospel is not something we do, but something that has to be done for us. This truth confounds and offends us. It leaves us out. It’s a slap in our collective faces. We recoil from it because it rightly reveals that we are far more fallen and far more incapable than we could possibly imagine.

But we are so fallen that we can only ever gain salvation through the death and resurrection of the Second Person of the Trinity. Nothing less. Nothing else. Don’t take my word for it, however, remember Christ’s words in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matt. 26:39).

So exalt the Lord and worship at His feet. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due to His name. Worship the Lord in the beauty of His holiness. And do read your Bible, pray, and try to be more obedient. But do it all out of gratitude, resting in the finished work of Christ lifted up - not by you but for you.


This is a guest post brought to us by Dr. James Isaacs