John introduces this section as he did the last (palin, translated once more; cf. 8:12), indicating a progression as the Light of the World shines ever more brightly, revealing himself, his Father and his opponents' true condition. Jesus returns to the theme of his departure, but now he connects it with his opponents' sinfulness. His departure has implications for them, for they will look for him, presumably for help, but they will die in their sins. His conclusion—Where I go, you cannot come (v. 21)—seems to give the reason they will die in their sins: they will die in their sins because they are not able to go with him to the Father. Jesus is the way to the Father (14:6), the one who takes away the sin of the world (1:29), who enables sinful mankind to be united with the Father. In rejecting him the opponents are cutting themselves off from the presence of the Father.
They speculate that Jesus may be contemplating suicide. According to Josephus, the Jews viewed suicide as consigning a person to "the darker regions of the nether world" because it was a crime "hateful to God" as an act of "impiety toward our creator" (Jewish Wars 3.375-79). So when Jesus says they will die in their sins because they cannot go where he is going, they think he is saying that he himself will die in a sinful way. Their interpretation of his words shows that either they are missing entirely what he is saying or they are hardheartedly rejecting his message. This reference to suicide ironically applies to them, for there is a sense in which their unbelief is suicide in that they are choosing to reject his offer of the light of life.
Jesus does not pick up on their reference to suicide. We see here the mercy of God refusing to be deflected by human perversity or hardness of heart. Instead, he repeats his witness in different language: You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world (v. 23). What was implied earlier in the charge that they "judge by human standards" (v. 15) is now expressed quite clearly: Jesus and the Jews are not in the same sphere. Jesus has come from God and is bringing God's own presence into our midst, but they have no openness to God (1:10-11). Jesus is speaking of states of being, of core realities. He has come into this world in the fullness of humanity (1:14; cf. Thompson 1988), but unlike them, he is not of this world, that is, of human society as it exists apart from God. Indeed, it is because he is above this world that he is able to help the world.
In saying that he is from above Jesus contrasts himself with every other agent of revelation. He is not simply a human being who has achieved enlightenment and now has come to share what he has learned. His point of origin is not this world to begin with. He is a human being just as we are, but there is more to him than that. This claim, in the light of Jesus' use of "I am" (vv. 12, 24, 58), reveals the two natures of Christ, as the church later came to express it—fully God as well as fully man.
Jesus concludes by spelling out his identity, their peril and the remedy: I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am [the one I claim to be], you will indeed die in your sins (v. 24). Jesus says they must believe that "I am" (ego eimi). The NIV takes this use of ego eimi as a recognition formula (see comment on 6:20). This may be correct, but John always intends Jesus' uses of this formula to echo the divine name, as becomes clear at the end of this chapter (v. 58). Indeed, the one I claim to be (to use the NIV's paraphrase) is the I AM. The people are trying to figure out whether he is the Prophet or the Messiah, but they still need to believe his identity is much more profound than anything they mean by these titles.
Without faith in Jesus as God's divine Son who has come from above, they will die in their sins. By repeating this warning Jesus is shining as the light of the world, revealing their true condition and its consequences. If we cannot see God in the clearest and most accessible revelation of him ever given—the clearest it is even possible to give—then how can we see him in any lesser manifestation? How are we going to recognize the cryptic, invisible God whom nobody has seen (1:18; 6:46) if we cannot recognize his Son incarnate?
Sin is separation from God and therefore a state of death, since God is the source of all life. Jesus says they are in their sins, which means they are alienated from God and thus under the wrath of God (cf. 3:36). Human beings apart from God are not in neutral territory. They are in a state of rebellion against God that began at the first rebellion (Gen 3) and is characterized by death (Gen 2:17). The people Jesus addresses are as ignorant of their own condition as they are of his identity.
Jesus' lucid statement leads them to ask the right question: Who are you? (v. 25). Jesus does not respond with a fresh statement right away (though he will do so in what follows immediately in vv. 28-29) but instead points them back to what he has already told them. This question, after all, has been raised throughout this festival. They are viewing him according to human standards (v. 15), so he makes no sense to them. Until they are willing to open themselves to his message and accept him on his own terms they will make no headway.
Unfortunately, they are not close to doing so. Jesus warns them that he will need to spell out further their own condition: I have much to say in judgment of you (v. 26). This judgment is not just Jesus' own assessment. Here, as always, he is passing on what he has heard from the Father, who is himself reliable (alethes, "true"). He pronounces his judgment in what follows in this chapter.
They still do not understand that he was telling them about his Father (v. 27), so he speaks yet more clearly. They will know his identity when the Son of Man is lifted up (v. 28). Again, ego eimi can be used here as a recognition formula, as the NIV takes it (cf. v. 24), or as a reference to the divine name, as will be the case at the end of the chapter (v. 58). In either case, the Son of Man's death at their own hands (When you have lifted up) will reveal both his unique identification with the Father and his dependence on the Father as one distinct from the Father. They may be confused now, but they will know then. Whether this knowledge will result in salvation or judgment is not said. The idea is probably that they will at that point see the revelation shining at its brightest and have their hearts revealed as, in the light of that revelation, they either embrace or reject Christ and the God he reveals (cf. Schnackenburg 1980b:203).
Jesus concludes by repeating his witness to the Father's presence: The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him (v. 29). He had just spoken of not being alone but standing with the Father (v. 16), though the way he expressed himself could have merely suggested that he has the Father's backing. Now he repeats his claim that he is not alone, but here he makes it clear that he is talking about the Father's personal presence with him at all times, including right at that moment. Most of his disciples may have left him at this point (6:66), but he has not been deserted by his Father. Here we get a glimpse into the mystery of the relations between the Father and the Son, for the Father sends the Son and yet is present with the Son. The sending refers to the incarnation and the presence to the eternal relations (cf. Augustine In John 35.5; 36.8; 40.6; Chrysostom In John 53.2).
By saying this presence is due to his always doing what is pleasing to the Father, Jesus reveals the primacy of the Father. Not only the created order but the eternal Son of God is at one with the Father through sharing in the Father's will. That will is simply life itself—Reality. All else in existence, even the Son and the Spirit in their eternal, uncreated being, are dependent upon the Father as the source of all life. All life is an expression of the Father's one life. To do what pleases him is not simply a matter of morality but of sharing in his life itself. It is another way of saying that Christ does what he sees the Father doing and speaks what he hears from the Father. As such he is the model of all discipleship. The life Jesus is offering involves being taken up into the one life of the Father himself.
As Jesus thus speaks clearly, many put their faith in him (v. 30). Earlier in the Gospel such faith was tested and so also this faith will now be tested through more scandalous teaching by Jesus. This testing will reveal whether this faith is genuine or whether it is like that of an earlier crowd at an earlier feast in Jerusalem, which proved false (2:23-25).
In this section we have Jesus' very clear statement of his divine identity, of the necessity to have faith in him and of how the cross will reveal most clearly his identity as I AM. We also see the opponents asking the right question, but their ignorance of the Father is evident. The rest of this chapter will spell out as clearly as anywhere in the Gospel the truth about these opponents.