Question: "What did Jesus mean when He said, "If I be lifted up," in John 12:32?"
Answer: If I be lifted up is part of a statement by Jesus Christ in John 12:32: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (John 12:32, KJV). A better understanding of these words can be gained by reading more modern language translations of the Bible like the English Standard Version, New International Version, or the New Living Translation, which renders it as, “When I am lifted up.”
Further explanation of what Jesus meant when He said, “If I be lifted up,” is given by John, the author of the gospel. He added a comment in the next verse to clarify that Jesus said this “to show the kind of death he was going to die” (John 12:33). The “lifting up” of Jesus would be literal—Christ would be lifted up on a cross and die by crucifixion.
This section of Scripture follows right after the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Some Greeks who were present in the city for the Passover feast were drawn to Jesus and sought to speak with Him. Jesus took the occasion to speak of His impending death and its results. The crucifixion moved to the forefront of Christ’s focus. Jesus knew His death would bring life to many, but His heart was troubled. He declared His concerns in prayer, asking the Father to glorify His name through His crucifixion (John 12:20–28).
Suddenly a voice from heaven answered Jesus: “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again” (John 12:28). The crowd heard the thundering sound, and Jesus explained that the heavenly message was for their benefit, because God was getting ready to judge the world. Once Jesus died by crucifixion, victory over death and over the ruler of this world (Satan) would be complete. By being lifted up on the cross, Jesus would draw all people to Himself (verses 30–32).
Jesus wasn’t implying that every person without exception would put their faith in Him for salvation. Clearly, many did not. Jesus meant that people of all ethnic groups and from every part of the world would be drawn to Him through His exaltation in death. The “all people” included the Greeks who were seeking Jesus right then and listening to His voice.
When Jesus said, “I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself,” His primary reference was to the cross, but His words also include the resurrection and ascension in its meaning. Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension are all linked to His glorious exaltation and the drawing of sinners to Himself (Romans 6:9–10; 1 Peter 3:18–22; Revelation 1:18). But it is the cross that is the centerpiece of the gospel and the magnetizing force of Christianity. Jesus Christ’s death on the cross, in all its magnitude of meaning revealed by the power of the Holy Spirit to human hearts, appeals to the whole wide world. No class, social status, race, nationality, sex, or age group is excluded from its attraction.
At the cross, we encounter God’s justice through the judgment of sin, God’s love and mercy through the forgiveness of sinners, and God’s power through His defeat of Satan (Romans 3:21–26; Colossians 1:13). At the cross, Christ brings salvation to those who believe and judgment to those who refuse to believe. In God’s wisdom and holiness, the cross opens the only way to the Father for sinners (John 14:6). At the cross, Jesus sets us free from the chains of sin. The lifting up of Jesus on the cross is the captivating influence that pulls human hearts to Him.
Earlier in John’s gospel, Jesus had said, “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). The bronze snake raised up in the wilderness became a type—a prophetic symbol—of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. As the serpent on Moses’ staff was raised up to offer deliverance and healing, so, too, would Jesus eventually be lifted up on a cross to offer eternal life. The snake was elevated on a pole so that all of Israel could see it and be healed, just as Jesus was lifted up on the cross so that all might see Him and be drawn to Him for salvation.