The words “where he was before” are one of the strongest and most popular proof texts for the belief held by groups with Arian theology (such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and some less orthodox Trinitarians) that Jesus himself as Son of Man had a personal preexistence in heaven before his birth. This isn’t the place to recap all the arguments surrounding that view. An introduction to the subject can be found in the booklet Did Jesus Really Come Down from Heaven? If anyone reading hasn’t considered the problems of how God could “foreknow” Jesus if Jesus was actually by God’s side at creation (1 Peter 1:20), or how Jesus could be the “Son of Man” (i.e. descended from Adam) if Jesus instead helped his Father create Adam, then that booklet, or something similar, is really needed to attempt to make sense of John 6.
John 6, like much of the fourth Gospel, is not written in literal language. There is not just word play going on in the dialogue between Jesus and the people in John 6, but almost two different conversations. The people are talking about manna coming down to supply their physical needs; whereas Christ is talking about spiritual food, in fact himself, being sent down from God for their spiritual needs.
The dialogue has already repeatedly introduced the direction “down”, downwards:
“For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven” (33)
“I have come down from heaven” (39)
“So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” (43)
“How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (44)
“This is the bread that comes down from heaven” (52)
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven” (53)
“This is the bread that came down from heaven” (58)
In among those repeated “down”, “descend”, references to the manna and to Jesus are also four “upward” references, in Jesus’ four times repeated promise to “raise him up on the last day” (6:39, 40, 44, 54). Nevertheless there is nothing so far in the text that requires Jesus to himself have literally descended from heaven, any more than the manna literally came through space, or than the manna had any previous existence in celestial bakery in heaven. The language Jesus uses up to this point doesn’t demand anything more than the manna, or Jesus himself, having been provided by God. Like the miraculous manna, Christ too was provided by God in a miraculous conception. Christ can use this “came down” language in regard to his own virgin birth, in a way that no other man can, simply by virtue of the creative act of God in the conception, without requiring any previous existence in heaven.
It is in the next section where the difficult phrase “ascend where he was before” (62) occurs:
John 6:56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” 59 Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum. 60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) (ESV)
This phrase clearly goes beyond simply saying that Jesus, like the manna, “came down”, to make a statement about Jesus having been somewhere, and somewhere high, before. If this verse occurred in one of the more literal talks with the disciples in the Gospels of Matthew for example, then we might think that “see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” was simply talking about the disciples being offended (caused to stumble) when Jesus was to go up to the usual destination of “go up” in Israel, namely ascend to Jerusalem. And that Jerusalem connection is not totally foreign to Gospel of John either since the disciples did indeed stumble later in John 11 when Jesus did call them to go up to Jerusalem where he was before: “So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” ” (John 11:16).
But still, in the context of John 6, even allowing whatever foreknowledge Christ had of the disciples later reaction to his fatal journey up to Jerusalem, the “ascend where he was before” in 6:62 has to be something that makes sense in relation to “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (6:63).
So the key question here has to be what ascension did the disciples see that offended them. There are only two possible answers. Neither is without problems.
The first answer is the obvious one: the ascension itself, forty days after the resurrection from the Mount of Olives; “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (Acts 1:9). This answer is immediately satisfying if someone already starts out with the idea that Christ preexisted in heaven from before the creation of Adam and simply entered the womb of a daughter of Adam in 4 B.C. to take the body of a human baby. That satisfaction very quickly wears off when considering “Do you take offense at this? – Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? (61, 62). There was no offense, no scandal, no stumbling, by the disciples on the Mount of Olives who witnessed the ascension. The offense, stumbling, recorded throughout the Gospel of John related to Jesus going away is not concerning Jesus’ ascension, but with his crucifixion:
“I am going away, and you will look for me, and you will die in your sin. Where I go, you cannot come.” (John 8:21)
“Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.” (John 18:36)
The other problem with reading John 6:62 as simply being about Jesus saying he would “go home to heaven” or “return to heaven” (phrases not found in the Bible) is that Jesus says “the Son of Man” (in Hebrew: ben adam) emphasizing his mother’s lineage. No son of Adam, of Abraham, of David, no seed of a woman, had ever been in heaven even by the most literal Arian explanation.
So that brings us to the second answer: that by “ascend” Jesus indicates his crucifixion and resurrection. The answer this time is in part satisfying – since we know that the crucifixion is the critical transforming event by which Christ’s work is fulfilled and men and women are saved. It also fits that the disciples stumbled when they saw it; since most denied Christ and fled. But this answer fails on the most basic test that, while Christ going up to Jerusalem to die is called “ascend”, the actual crucifixion is not once described as an “ascension”. The answer doubly fails on “where he was before”, since where the Son of Man was after the crucifixion was the grave of Joseph of Arimathea – and the Son of Man had never been dead before.
We evidently need something more comprehensive than simply picking one single event as the “ascend” in John 6. We find indication that the “ascend” meant by Jesus is more than one single event when we compare the manna context of John 6 with the purpose of Christ “descending” and “ascending” in a similar passage from Paul:
“He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.” Ephesians 4:10 (ESV)
Paul’s “fill all things” is clearly creation language. Christ descending (whether Paul is stressing Christ being born mortal or Christ’s death is not clear, but one is part of the other) and Christ ascending (both resurrection and ascension) are seen by Paul as filling “all things”, which as elsewhere in Ephesians (1:10-11, 22, 3:9) is language of the new creation before the old.
It probably appears from the above that this question has no conclusion. And perhaps if someone is looking for only one event as this “ascend” then then maybe there is no conclusion – neither the ascent to Jerusalem, nor the crucifixion, nor the Mount of Olives ascension fit all the context of John 6:62. The nearest thing we have found is Ephesians 4:10 which has a broader view of the “descent” and “ascent” of the Son of Man. Therefore, though it isn’t a black and white conclusion, we’re going to tentatively offer that the “see the Son of Man ascend” refers to the disciples seeing the entire process of crucifixion – resurrection – ascension.
That then leaves only the “where he was before”. But that in fact is more straightforward than “see the Son of Man ascend”. The obvious parallel is found later in John:
And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed. (John 17:5)
There is a separate consideration of John 17:5 on this website – and of how exactly a Son who was not to be born until Mary of Nazareth conceived could have had “glory” with the Father many thousands of years before he had died and been raised, which is when Christ was glorified (see John 7:39). But the key is to be found in the passages such as that all people who dwell on the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. (Revelation 13:8). According to verses such as those where Christ was before he ascended – still bearing the wounds of the nails in his hands – was in the mind and glory of God, from before the beginning of beginnings.