Questions From Readers
What did Jesus mean when he told Nicodemus: “No man has ascended into heaven but he that descended from heaven, the Son of man”?—John 3:13.
Jesus was then on earth, and he had not yet ascended, or gone back, to heaven. However, what we know about Jesus and the context of his words can help us to grasp his point.
Jesus “descended from heaven” in that he had previously lived in the spirit realm with his Father, but at the appointed time, the Son’s life was transferred to the womb of Mary, leading to Jesus’ birth as a human. (Luke 1:30-35; Galatians 4:4; Hebrews 2:9, 14, 17) After his death, Jesus would be resurrected as a spirit creature and return to be with Jehovah. Thus, shortly before he was put to death, Jesus could pray: “Father, glorify me alongside yourself with the glory that I had alongside you before the world was.”—John 17:5; Romans 6:4, 9; Hebrews 9:24; 1 Peter 3:18.
When Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a teacher in Israel, Jesus had not yet gone back to heaven. Of course, no other human had died and ascended to the spirit realm, to heaven. Jesus himself stated that John the Baptist was peerless as a prophet of God, but “a lesser one in the kingdom of the heavens is greater than he is.” (Matthew 11:11) And the apostle Peter explained that even faithful King David had died and was still in his tomb; David did not ascend into heaven. (Acts 2:29, 34) There was a reason why those who died before Jesus, such as David, John the Baptist, and other men of faith, did not go to heaven. They died before Jesus inaugurated the way or possibility for humans to be resurrected to heavenly life. The apostle Paul wrote that Jesus, like a forerunner, “inaugurated . . . a new and living way” into heaven.—Hebrews 6:19, 20; 9:24; 10:19, 20.
Since Jesus had not yet died and been resurrected, what did he mean in saying to Nicodemus: “No man has ascended into heaven but he that descended from heaven, the Son of man”? (John 3:13) Consider the context, or what Jesus was discussing with Nicodemus.
When that Jewish ruler came to Jesus under the cover of darkness, Jesus told him: “Most truly I say to you, Unless anyone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) In response, Nicodemus asked: ‘How can that be? How can a man be born a second time?’ He did not comprehend this divine teaching about being in the Kingdom of God. Was there any way that he could learn about this? Well, not from a human standpoint; no man could instruct him about it because no one had been in heaven and thus in a position to explain anything about getting into the Kingdom. The only exception was Jesus. He could teach Nicodemus and others because He had descended from heaven and was qualified to instruct people about such things.
The question on this text thus illustrates a valuable point about studying God’s Word. It is not reasonable to stumble over a passage just because it seems hard to understand. What the Bible says in one place must be viewed in the light of other passages and be in harmony with them. Furthermore, often the context—the situation or what was under discussion—can help us to find the reasonable, logical meaning of a puzzling text.