Question: "What does it mean that no one has ascended to heaven (John 3:13)?"


Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 is perhaps one of the most profound conversations ever recorded. Among many pivotal statements in this context, Jesus reminds Nicodemus that “no one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13, ESV).

Nicodemus, one of the Jewish rulers, comes to Jesus in secret at night and admits that Jesus is from God (John 3:2). Jesus, knowing why Nicodemus had really come, challenges him with the statement that, in order to enter the kingdom of God, one must be born again (John 3:3). Nicodemus doesn’t understand what Jesus means, asking how a second physical birth is possible (John 3:4). Jesus explains that one must be born of water and the Spirit in order to enter the kingdom (John 3:5–6). Being born in the flesh is not enough; one must also be born of the Spirit (John 3:6).

The new birth makes a person alive in his or her spirit, not just in the flesh. Nicodemus still doesn’t understand Jesus’ words (John 3:9). Jesus chides Nicodemus that he should understand these things if he is a teacher of Israel (John 3:10). Then Jesus challenges him further: if he doesn’t believe Jesus when He speaks of earthly things, how would he believe Him when He speaks of heavenly things (John 3:12)? Jesus’ statement invites one to consider the authority of Jesus to speak on these things. For Nicodemus to understand what Jesus is teaching, Nicodemus needs to understand who Jesus really is. So, Jesus focuses Nicodemus’s attention on the identity of Jesus. The Lord adds that no one has ascended to heaven but the one who descended from heaven, namely, the Son of Man.

In Proverbs 30, Agur argues the importance of God’s Word (Proverbs 30:5–6). In showing our dependence on God’s Word, Agur explains that he doesn’t have any special knowledge, and neither does anyone else (Proverbs 30:2–3). Thus, everyone needs God’s Word. Agur then asks,

“Who has ascended to heaven and come down?
Who has gathered the wind in his fists?
Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment?
Who has established all the ends of the earth?
What is his name, and what is his son’s name?
Surely you know!” (Proverbs 30:4, ESV).

Agur challenges his audience to look to this One who controls the weather and to His Son.

Jesus alludes to Agur’s words in order to help Nicodemus understand who He is. Jesus says that no one has ascended to heaven but the one who has descended. Jesus affirms that the only one who has done this is the Son of Man (a title Jesus uses often of Himself). It is noteworthy that Jesus lists the ascending before the descending. He would later make the claim that He saw and interacted with Abraham (John 8:56–58). During Old Testament times, there were many instances of the preincarnate Christ interacting on earth. He is the One who ascended and who descended. He is the One who came to earth to be lifted up (like the serpent in Numbers 21:9), so that all who believe in Him would have eternal life (John 3:14–15).

Instead of depending on one’s heritage or obedience to the law, a person must believe in Jesus in order to have eternal life. Jesus confronts Nicodemus with His true identity and the characterizations of Him in the Hebrew Scriptures. To understand the kingdom of God and how one enters that kingdom, Nicodemus needed to believe in Jesus. If Jesus had indeed ascended and descended and was indeed the Son of Man, then Nicodemus could trust Jesus to speak truth. No one has ascended to heaven but the One who has descended from heaven, and that is the Son of Man.