The original Bible was written in classical Hebrew, and thus as the gospel spread across nations, the texts had to be translated into different languages. Specifically, the gospels were originally written in Koine Greek and later translated into other languages. One of the contentious issues about Bible translation is the interpretation of the different meanings of certain texts, phrases, and words. Different translations may present the same text dissimilarly, with varying meanings.
For instance, some people believe that God will ultimately save all humanity. However, other believers maintain that salvation is for a few people, who believe in the redeeming works of the cross. These biblical understanding and beliefs are hinged on the interpretations provided in the different translations of the Bible. John 12: 32 is one of the texts that may be interpreted differently concerning the nature of salvation that God intends for humanity. This paper discusses the historical interpretation of John 12:32 from the perspective of three different theologians.
This verse says, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself” (John 12:32, The New King James Version). The point of contention concerning this verse is the meaning of Jesus asserting that He will draw “all” people to Himself. Those who believe in universalism of salvation believe that all humanity will ultimately be saved. On the other hand, some theologians hold that salvation is an individual quest as opposed to being a corporate affair. The following section examines the verse based on the perception of the universalism of salvation and Calvinism.
Universalism of Salvation
Raymond Brown is a notable Roman Catholic theologian, and in one of his writings, he says,
If the Jews will desist from their murmuring, which is indicative of a refusal to believe, and will leave themselves open to God’s movement, He will draw them to Jesus. This is the age spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when they are being taught by God, if only they will listen. This teaching has its external aspect in the sense that it is embodied in Jesus who walks among them, but it is internal in the sense that God acts in their hearts. It is a fulfillment of what Jeremiah XXXI 33 had promised: “I will put my law within them, and on their hearts will write it”. This internal moving of the heart by the Father will enable them to believe in the Son, and thus possess eternal life (Brown, 1966, p. 114).
Therefore, Brown insinuates that salvation will belong to all that believe in Jesus, as they will possess eternal life. The contentious issue in this verse is the use of the word “all”. The issue that arises in this context is the question of predetermination – the idea that only the elect will be saved. The proponents of the universalism of salvation argue that Jesus used the word “all” to mean both Jews and Gentiles. At the time of Jesus, there was a sharp divide between Jews and Gentiles. It was believed that Jesus was the Messiah who had come to bring salvation to the Jews. Therefore, in this context, Jesus implied that the particularism of Judaism was nearing its end and salvation was being extended to non-Jews. To understand this verse, it should be viewed within the broad context of the entire Chapter 12 of the gospel of John. Throughout the chapter, John talks about how salvation would be achieved. Jesus had to die for the sins of “all” as opposed to being a savior of Jews only. Therefore, viewed from the perspective of Brown, John 12:32 implies that God’s intention is for all people to be saved.
In one of his many writings, John Chrysostom supports the idea of the universalism of salvation. He says,
I will draw all men to Myself.” How then said He that the Father draweth? Because when the Son draweth, the Father draweth also. He saith, “I will draw them,” as though they were detained by a tyrant, and unable of themselves alone to approach Him, and to escape the hands of him who keepeth hold of them. In another place He calleth this “spoiling; no man can spoil a strong man’s goods, except he first bind the strong man, and then spoil his goods.” This He said to prove His strength, and what there He calleth “spoiling,” He hath here called “drawing (Chrysostom, 1996, p. 250).
In this passage, Chrysostom clarifies drawing “all men” implies both Jews and Gentiles. Based on the above passage, Chrysostom (1996) argues that on their own, the Gentiles do not have the capacity to draw themselves to Christ. Therefore, Jesus would die on the cross for the atonement of the sins of “all” men. The issue of predetermination arises in this context. People are given the free will to choose whether to accept or reject the grace of salvation that has been offered to them. Therefore, it suffices to say that from the perspective of John Chrysostom, John 12:32 shows that God wants all people, whether Jews or Gentiles, to be saved through the redeeming grace offered by Christ after He died on the cross and resurrected. John Wesley supports the idea of the universalism of salvation. In his notes on John 12:32, Wesley (2011) posits that the phrase, “draw all men”, implies both Jews and Gentiles. Similarly, Karl Barth believes in the concept of all people being in a position to receive salvation through the death of Jesus on the cross (Cassidy, 2015).
Calvinism is hinged on the premise that people have lost the ability to accept salvation. Therefore, only a select few will be saved. In his commentary Calvin (2009) says,
…We ought not to wonder if many refuse to embrace the Gospel; because no man will ever of himself be able to come to Christ, but God must first approach him by his Spirit; and hence it follows that all are not drawn, but that God bestows this grace on those whom he has elected… It is a false and profane assertion, therefore, that none are drawn but those who are willing to be drawn, as if man made himself obedient to God by his own efforts; for the willingness with which men follow God is what they already have from himself, who has formed their hearts to obey him (p. 182).
Therefore, according to Calvin, the phrase, “all people” as used in John 12: 32 literally means everyone. However, the people implied are only those that have been predetermined and elected to be saved. Calvinism ascribes to the Reformed traditional doctrine of monergism. This concept holds that the only source of salvation is God because human beings have lost the ability to make the decision to be saved. Taken in this context, Calvinists argue that when Jesus talks about “drawing men to himself” in John 12:32, He confirms the argument that only God can decide who is to be saved. This argument entrenches the idea of predetermination. Therefore, according to Calvinism, God does not intend to save all humanity, but only a select few who have been predestined for salvation.
The nature of salvation that God intends for humanity has been a controversial topic among Bible scholars and theologians. Biblical texts had to be translated from different languages as the gospel spread throughout the world. However, in the process of translating biblical texts, different individuals had a diverse understanding of the original meaning. In John 12:32, Jesus talks about drawing all people to himself.
The question that arises from this text is the people who will be drawn to salvation. According to supporters of the universalism of salvation, such as John Wesley, John Chrysostom, and Raymond Brown, the term “all” implies both Jews and Gentiles. Whoever accepts the grace of salvation extended through the works of the cross would be saved. However, the proponents of the Reformed doctrine, such as John Calvin, argue that human beings have lost the ability to make the decision to be saved. As such, only God can save people, but He only draws those that have been predestined. Therefore, from the universalism of salvation point of view, God intends to save all humanity. On the other hand, the Reformed doctrine maintains that God’s salvation is for a select few.
Brown, R. E. (1966). The gospel according to John I-XII. New York, NY: Anchor Bible.
Calvin, J. (2009). Commentary on the gospel according to John. Edinburg, TX: The Edinburg Printing Company.
Cassidy, J. J. (2015). Christ is all: An introduction to the life and thought of Karl Barth – Part 4. Web.
Chrysostom, J. (1996). NPNF1-14. Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the gospel of St. John and the epistle to the Hebrews. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, P. Schaff, & H. Wace (Eds.), Nicene and post-Nicene fathers: First series (The early church fathers, First Series, So14) (pp. 1-334). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.
Wesley, J. (2011). Explanatory notes upon the New Testament. Charleston, SC: Nabu Press.