Should Christians “Lift Jesus Higher” in Their Worship?

I will quote one of my favorite Scripture songs that I learned as a young believer in the 1980’s:

Lift Jesus higher.  Lift Jesus higher. Lift him up for the world to see.  He said, “If I be lifted up from the earth I will draw all men unto me.”

Written by an American song writer, it has been exported all over the world, and sung perhaps millions of times. Of course, we should lift up the name of Jesus, as He is worthy to be praised. The problem is that this song is largely taken from a single verse, John 12:32 (KJV), in a passage that few Christians bother to read carefully.

If you read that verse in context, this particular passage does not say what most Christians think it means. Look at the verse, and then read the very next verse:

(v.32) And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.

(v.33) This he said, signifying what death he should die.

When we sing “Life Jesus Higher,” what are we really singing about?

As New Testament scholar Craig Keener demonstrates, John explicitly tells us what this text actually means, or signifies, as Jesus is prophetically saying that he would be physically lifted up on a cross, in order to die.

In other words, when we sing this song, it is like shouting out, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

Oooops….

Ponder that for a moment….

To borrow from that great philosopher, Inigo Montoya, in The Princess Bride, this verse does not mean what most Christians think it means.

Mmmph!!…..

But there is more to the difficulty concerning this verse: When we read that Jesus’ being lifted up “will draw all men unto me,” what does that mean?

Some have suggested that this verse is a prooftext for universalism, the belief that all people will be saved in the end …. as in every human being. Former evangelical megachurch pastor, Rob Bell, hinted at it in his wildly controversial 2011 book, Love Wins. Well known theologian, David Bentley Hart, has made this very case, quite explicitly and forcefully in recent years, culminating in his 2019 book, That All Shall Be Saved. For if “all men” are “drawn” to Jesus, would this not suggest that everyone… as in every single human person….. will come to know Jesus?

There are a couple of issues to consider, in an effort to clear things up:

First, the word “draw“, as in “draw all men unto me,” requires further consideration.  In John 6:44, we see another reference to “draw,” where we read, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day“(ESV). This would suggest that not everyone is necessarily “drawn” to Jesus.

This leads us into the thicket of the Calvinist/Arminian controversy, whereby advocates of limited atonement (Calvinist), those who believe that Jesus dies only for the elect, might say that John 6:44 teaches about God drawing the elect toward salvation. John 6:44 would thus restrict the scope of “all” in John 12:32, to only include “all of the elect.” Advocates of unlimited atonement (Arminian), those who believe that Jesus dies for every human person, might insist that the “draw” in John 12:32 is about Jesus’ death for all persons, but only in the sense of allowing for the potential of everyone’s salvation.

Secondly, it bears taking a closer look at who the “all” is about in this verse, from a different, hopefully more productive angle. Jesus’ speech takes place during a festival, where some “Greeks” (or Gentiles) had arrived (John 12:20). This has led many scholars to conclude that the “all” described by Jesus is not about all individuals, but rather it is about all kinds of people, including both Jews and Gentiles. In other words, Jesus’ death is not for Jews alone, but for Gentiles as well.

This does not resolve the Calvinist/Arminian controversy, but it refocuses our attention on a constant theme throughout the New Testament, regarding the relationship between Jew and Gentile, that does not receive as much attention as it should. It is very easy to get caught up theological debates that have raged throughout the evangelical movement over the past few hundred years, including the Calvinist/Arminian controversy, as well as the occasional interest in universalism. But a closer reexamination of the Jewish/Gentile conflict, that captivated the attention of the first century readers and writers of the New Testament, is a more responsible way of reading passages like this in John’s Gospel. A few modern study Bibles, such as the ESV Study Bible and the Zondervan NIV Study Bible, contend for this interpretation in their study notes, concerning John 12:32.

For years, I have sung this song, thinking that we are celebrating the glory of God, as Jesus is lifted up. The song has a very “happy-clappy” feel to it. But “lifting up Jesus,” in the context of this verse, is about how human sin drove Jesus to the cross, which should engender in believers a sense of sobriety, in view of how much we have rebelled against a holy and righteous God. In the most immediate sense, this is not very “happy-clappy.”

However, it is the Resurrection, in which Jesus had victory over sin and death, that should cause us to celebrate. So, yes, we are to lift up the name of Jesus, and it is in this way that we can joyfully sing praise to the Lord, thanking him for giving up his life, so that we as believers might receive new life. Furthermore, this new life is for everyone…. all kinds of people,….. whether they be Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, black or white.

Though I still like the song, it makes me think twice about what we think and do as Christians, in our worship. Sometimes, we as Christians get the right lesson to be learned from the wrong text!

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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