John 6:33,35, John 3:13, John 6:38 - Coming Down From Heaven
What Trinitarians Say
Trinitarians teach that Christ was claiming to have literaly descended from the heavenly dimension down to planet earth to be inserted into the womb of Mary.
What We Say
The phrase "coming down from heaven/above/God" was a Hebrew idiom which meant that a person or a thing was comissioned by or had its origin in God. This figure of speech is used of other persons and objects in the Bible to describe their divine authorship, to identify them as having been stored up in God's heavenly plan.
We observe this "coming from heaven/God" idiom in verses like John 6:38, John 3:13, 6:41-42 and many more. When Christians consider the phrase today, trained as we are by traditional theology, there is a tendency to automatically begin considering the statement in literal, spatial and geographic terms. But based solely on this language, Jesus did not believe that he was literally involved in dimensional travel between “heaven” and our mortal plane “the world." Jesus' did not mean that the ancestral Jewish God had transformed himself into a human being, physically coming out of the heavenly realm and becoming part of his own creation. So what did Jesus mean?
Christ used this language when he wished to emphasize that something had been metaphorically "stored up" in heaven with God and had now been made manifest. It specifically identified God, or "heaven", as the spiritual source of the thing. During the life of Jesus, it was beleived by the Jews that all things first "existed" with God in a sense, before their time came to be made manifest on the earth. They would speak of good things, or things important to God, as being "with" God, and ultimately "coming down" to them. This langauge did not describe a literal pre-existence in another sphere of life, but an existence that had been previously contemplated by God.
Anglican theologian and scholar E.G. Selwyn explains that "When the Jew wished to designate something as predestined, he spoke of it as already 'existing' in heaven." Likewise Protestant scholar Emil Schurer recognizes that "In Jewish thinking, everything truly valuable preexisted in heaven.” While the Jew might duly recognize all things as first existing with God, he especially asserted that persons and things integral to God’s great plan of redemption were “stored up” in the heavenly realm, each awaiting realization on earth at their proper times. In traditional Judaism, the religon of the historical Jesus, the Messiah was seen as having been stored up in God's plan from the beginning. Yet the Messiah's presence with God did not differ from the kind enjoyed by Moses or John the Baptist or any of the important figures in God's plan. As one scholar writes: “Judaism has never known anything of a pre-existence peculiar to the Messiah antecedent to his birth as a human being.” Likewise Charles Gore, one of the most influential theologians of the 19th century challenges the assumption of Christendom that the incarnation of a pre-existent Messiah finds any compatibility within the historical religion of Jesus: “The dominance of the idea in any Jewish circle whatever cannot seriously be upheld. Judaism knew nothing of the [literally] pre-existent ideal man.”
It is within this precise historical concept that we must study this figure of speech. In the New Testament, we observe that the terms “Heaven,” “God,” and “above” are interchangeable. For instance, consider how the Gospel of Matthew calls the kingdom “the Kingdom of Heaven,” but the other Gospels say “Kingdom of God.” We understand the meaning here-- it is a Kingdom which has its foundation in God, or in Heavenly things as opposed to worldly things. In essence, it was common in Jesus’ day for people to say that things came “from God” or “from heaven”—it meant that God was the source.
An apt analogy can be found in certain expressions in our own language today. When someone reports on the news that a statement has “come from the White House,” we understand that it means the announcement has come from the President. For example, if an investigation into illegal government activities revealed that the directives “came from the Oval Office” we would know that the source of the directives was the President. The terms “White House,” “Oval Office,” and “President” are virtually interchangeable in this context. In the same way, describing things as coming down from “Heaven,” “above,” and “God” are simply different ways of expressing the same simple idea: the origin and authorship was God himself.
One of the most helpful verses when trying to understand Jesus' "coming down" language is found in the Epistle of James.
James 1:17 says:
“Every good and perfect give is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.”
Of course, we are not meant to believe that every good gift (like Jesus) literally comes down from the heavenly realm. We easily understand what James is saying: God is the source and author of all these good things. When we consider our own children, we should recognize that this is exactly what Psalm 127:3 says about them:
“Children are a gift from the LORD.”
But even alongside James 1:17, which tells us that gifts come down from heaven, we know that our children, like all humans, have their literal origins in the wombs of their mothers. We understand that they did not actually “come down” from “above/heaven/God,” but we do believe that God is the source of the blessings that come to us through our children's lives. Afterall, God is the one who instituted the system of procreation that abides in us and therefore he truly is the origin and foundation of the blessings that are our children.
We can also observe the Jewish idiom of things coming from heaven metaphorically in Malachi 3:10 as God challenges his people:
“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this," says the LORD Almighty, "and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.”
The people hearing this did not expect blessings to literally be poured out of a floodgate in the sky like a pitcher of water. The Israelites knew that God was promising blessings that had their derivation in heaven to those who trusted him.
We should apply this understanding to John’s Gospel in order to help us apprehend the intentions of Jesus’ words. John is trying to tell us that God is the ultimate ‘source’ of Jesus and his mission. The plan for Jesus was designed and instituted by God (Jn 1:1) and it was God himself who begat Jesus in the womb of Mary (Ps 2:7, Heb 5:5, Lk 1:31-35). In this sense Jesus does “come from God”: Jesus’ commission was from Heaven and not from the world. Jesus’ “coming from heaven” has everything to do with his assignment as a divinely appointed agent and nothing to do with his geographic location.
Consider the many times that the New Testament declares that Jesus was “sent from God” (John 3:34, 17). Now Consider John the Baptist. The Gospel also says that John was “sent from God” (John 1:6). The Gospel of John uses the same language for Jesus and John; they could both be said to have “come down from God/above/heaven.” Examining the language surrounding John’s commission can help us understand Jesus’ commission as well. Jesus says of John’s ministry:
“John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven or from men?” (Matthew 21:25).
There is an explicit dichotomy here. The baptism could be either “from heaven” or “from men.” John’s baptism was indeed “from heaven,” and the manner in which it was “from heaven” was not lost on the Jews listening. John’s work was truly “heavenly” because it was commissioned, ordained, designed, instituted by God. Jesus and his ministry are certainly “from heaven/from God” in the same way that John’s baptism was.
Many Christians have attempted to cite texts declaring Jesus’ coming “from heaven” to mean either that he was a created spirit literally present with God before creation (Arianism), or that he was God the Father sitting in heaven before sending himself to Mary’s womb (modalism), or that he was literally present in heaven with God the Father as a Second co-equal person of God before incarnating (Trinitarianism). All of these theories would take the phrase “sent from God” to mean some kind of transformation of a spiritual being into a human baby. But they only interpret the idiom in this way for Jesus, not for John the Baptist. God is said to have “sent Jesus into the world” (John 10:36, John 3:17) and many times it says that Jesus is "from God.” But it also clearly says that John the Baptist was also sent “from God” (John 1:6). So how did God send John the Baptist into the world? Surely not through any incarnation of a heavenly being into an earthly being. Incredibly, Jesus himself explains that all the servants of God are “sent into the world”:
“Just as you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:18)
“Just as,” meaning, ‘in the same way’ that Jesus was sent, his disciples are also sent. This is through “commission” not through “incarnation.” Because God appointed Jesus for his heavenly task (Acts 17:31), Jesus can be called “the man of heaven” (1 Cor 15:47), or “not of this world” just like the disciples. Many have taught that Jesus being “not of this world” means that he is literally a being from another dimension. But Jesus explains that you don’t have to literally be from the heavenly realm to be “not of the world”:
“I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world… They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” (John 17:14,16)
The disciples were made “not of the world” because of their commission from Heaven through Jesus Christ. A Trinitarian reader will read that Jesus was “from God” and gather that Jesus is God himself who literally traveled down from heaven to earth and incarnated as a human child. But what about when the Apostle John says that “we are from God" (1 John 4:6)? The Apostles are not from God geographically speaking but they are commissioned by God. Let’s look at the Apostle’s words more closely:
“They are from the world and therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us…” (1 John 4:5-6a)
This dichotomy returns us to the idea presented by Jesus about John’s baptism: things are either “from heaven” or “from the world.” If Jesus being “from God” means that he is physically from heaven, then are the disciples also physically from heaven as it would suggest in 1 John 4:5-6? John’s point is that there is a clear distinction between the teachers who are not commissioned by God and the teachers that are. Jesus means the same thing in John 8:23: “And he was saying to them (the Jews at the Temple), “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.” (John 8:23).
Jesus truly is sent from heaven. God proved to the world that Jesus was sent from heaven by raising Jesus from the dead. He was appointed by God to be a light in the darkness; he is a gift from the very throne room of God. We must affirm, as James says, that Jesus is a good and perfect give from above, coming down from the Father of lights. Everything that is good must be recognized as coming from the source of all goodness, God himself. It is God’s desire that his people would enjoy his good gifts (Jeremiah 31:44), and it is the character of God to consistently rain down good gifts from heaven upon those who seek him (Matthew 7:11, Hebrews 11:6). In the past, God has showed the world graciousness by sending things from heaven to benefit his children: “In their hunger you gave them bread from heaven…” (Nehemiah 9:15a), “…he gave them the grain of heaven” (Psalm 78:24). We should recognize that Jesus Christ is the ultimate gift from heaven to his people. We should not be like the teachers who did not recognize the gift from God right before their eyes:
“Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread out of heaven to eat’. Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread of out heaven, but is my Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven.” (John 6:31-32) “Therefore the Jews were grumbling about Him, because He said, “I am the bread that came down out of heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does He now say, ‘I have come down out of heaven’?” (John 6:41-42)
When Jesus says “I have come down from heaven” (John 6:38), he does not mean he himself has engaged in literal transportation of his person. We must wonder at the universal validity of too literal interpretations of any dialogue. Imagine some future anthropologist from another culture and language unearthed this book many ages from now, and upon reading that “today it rained cats and dogs,” began to demand absolutely literal interpretations from his colleagues with no respect for idiom. One classic publication illuminates the issues surrounding the literal analyses of these sayings:
“Now, on such verses as these, let us just put a question to the Trinitarian… Is the language of Jesus to be construed literally or figuratively? We do not insist on his adopting the alternative we adopt,-- let him take his choice. If it be said, Christ is to be understood literally, as speaking of an actual personal descent from heaven, then let us apply this mode of interpretation to the other parts of the passage and surrounding context. If Christ came down personally from heaven as the true bread, then he tells us, this very “bread that he will give is his flesh,” [John 6:51]; “my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed,” [John 6:55]; and that it is necessary to eat the one, and drink the other, in order to the possession of eternal life, verse 58. “This,” he concludes, “is that bread which came down from heaven; not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead. He that eateth of this bread (Christ’s flesh and blood) shall live forever,” v. 58. Now if we interpret Christ’s statements here literally, it is thus proved, not only that he came down from heaven, as Trinitarians believe, but that he came down in real flesh and blood, in human nature, not in a Divine nature, for that is not stated. Now will [Trinitarians] pursue the literal interpretation of Christ’s language to this its legitimate conclusion?”
Jesus Christ, John the Baptist, the manna in the desert—these all were in stored up in God's eternal plan and ultimately “came down from God” to benefit his children in their need.