A Stumbling Block
Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” (John 12:31b–34, NRSV)
In this passage Jesus speaks to a crowd of Jews and tells them about his impending crucifixion. He says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Notice how the NRSV translation has lifted up from the earth. This is how a few other translations read.
And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. (NET)
And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself. (NLT)
And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. (Mounce Reverse Interlinear)
And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. (NIV)
From this translation, we usually hear this: “Now, Jesus was telling his hearers that he was going to be lifted up on the cross, lifted up between heaven and earth where he would save us from our sins.”
The interesting thing here is that Jesus didn’t say from. He said out of. The word in the Greek for away from is απο (apo). Greek for out of is ἐκ (ek). This diagram shows the difference between the two.
Jesus would be raised up out of the earth, from below. He was going to die a spiritual death, not just a physical one. Hung on a tree by the Jewish leadership, he’d become a curse, exiled from God, and would suffer until he was resurrected. This is why the crowd responds, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say the Messiah must be lifted up?” In other words, “We understand that the Messiah will live forever, so how can you say he’ll be cursed of God? What kind of Son of God are you talking about?” (Deut 21:22, 23) (They might have been thinking of Psalm 89:37: “His seed shall remain forever, his throne as the sun before me.”)
The Jews were looking for a Messiah to deliver them from Rome and everyone else and who’d establish his kingdom forever. What they got instead was an Israelite charged with capital crimes hung on a cross to die cursed of God (see Deut 21:22, 23). God resurrected this man and brought Israel’s enemies into her own covenant. That’s why the gospel is a stumbling block to the Jews even to this day (see 1 Cor 1:23 – “but we proclaim Christ, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles”).