This week we continue our meditations on Jesus’s Passion predictions in the Gospel of John. Please read John 3:12-21 with Jesus’s prediction that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up.
The reading this week begins with Jesus’s statement that “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things.” (v.13). John’s gospel is about these heavenly things. To partake of the true light (John 1:9) means that we are able to see and understand these heavenly things. In the prediction this week, Jesus takes an earthly story from the Old Testament and spiritually applies it to himself.
Our reading this week is a dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, a Pharisee who was a member of the Sanhedrin. This conversation takes place immediately after the cleansing of the Temple we read about last week. Nicodemus visits Jesus at night to inquire as to his identity. It is during this conversation that Jesus predicts his crucifixion by referencing the story of Moses and the bronze serpent
THE BRONZE SERPENT:
Number 21 gives us the story of the bronze serpent. Having escaped Pharaoh’s Egypt in the Exodus, God has sentenced the Israelites to spend the next forty years in the desert because they failed to enter the Promised Land as commanded. Num. 14:35. In the desert, the Israelites, yet again, begin to murmur and complain about God and their situation. In response, God sends fiery (venomous) serpents into the camp. These snakes began to bite the people causing death. In response, the Israelites repent of their rebellion. God instructs Moses to make a serpent out of bronze and place it on a pole. (This image may have been similar to the Staff of Asclepius which is still widely used as a medical symbol.) Whenever someone was bitten by a snake, if they looked upon the brazen serpent, the person would live. (The bronze serpent was eventually destroyed by King Josiah during his Temple reforms. 2 Kings 18:4).
JEWISH TEACHINGS ON THE SERPENT:
This is an overall odd story. Maybe the strangest part of the story is why did God require the fashioning of a bronze replica of a serpent rather than just banish the snakes. For example, in the story of the Exodus (which takes place within the lifetime of those beset by the snakes) God simply removed the plagues. God sends flies, Pharaoh repents, Moses prays, and God takes away the flies. Ex. 8:2-32. Why not here? The Jewish understanding of this story gives us a deeper understanding of why Jesus (a Jew) would tell this story to a Jewish leader.
In the Jewish tradition, of course, only God can heal – certainly not a brazen idol of a snake. The Jewish teaching on this verse is that “when the people turned their eyes upward and subjected their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they were healed, but if not, they rotted from their snakebites” Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:8. In other words, the Jewish teaching that Jesus, Nicodemus, and many in John’s audience were familiar with was that by looking up towards the snake, the Israelites engaged in a penitent act of looking up towards the one true God who is the source of healing. The healing occurs because the Israelites looked up and believed. If God simply banished the snakes, then there was no opportunity for repentance and belief. This is a similar structure to Jesus’ teaching in the reading this week.
Jesus says: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
Jesus’s analogy is fairly simple to follow: The ancient Israelites were overcome by deadly snakes resulting from their sin, so all of us are overcome by deadly and poisonous sins as well. Our disobedience and murmuring invite these sins into our lives which bite and cause death. Jesus compares the recovery the Israelites experienced in their physical lives as a result of looking at the raised serpent to our reception of eternal life as a result of looking in faith at the Son of Man raised up on the cross. By looking upward towards the crucified Son and subjecting our hearts to our Father in Heaven, we enter into eternal life.
Beyond this basic understanding of Jesus’ analogy, however, there are certain deeper meanings we can draw out of the teaching.
DARKNESS and REJECTION:
Another basic parallel between Numbers 21 and the conversation in John 3 is the context. The story in Numbers begins with the Israelites’ rejection of their God. “And the people spoke against God and against Moses.” Num 21:5. The people’s murmuring in the wilderness brings about God’s judgment. Their faith and belief in God failed.
John 3 begins similarly. Nicodemus comes to Jesus (the light of the world) under the cloak of darkness. John 3:2. The question Jesus poses to Nicodemus, and to John’s readers, is whether he will have faith in God or whether he will fail in his belief. Nicodemus knows the story of the bronze serpent and understands that Jesus is placing him (and us) in the position of the murmuring Israelites. Does Nicodemus (and us) love darkness/sin/death or light/faith/life? John 3:19. Do we remain in darkness or not?
JESUS AS THE BRONZE SERPENT:
Jesus’ story is not necessarily about two-somethings being lifted-up, but that Christ himself is the bronze serpent. That which Moses raised appeared in the form and the likeness of the snake, the bringer of sin and death. The Son likewise appears in the form and likeness of our mortality (John 1:14, Phil. 2:7) and even the form and likeness of our sin (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus is telling Nicodemus and John’s readers, that when he is lifted up, he will be in the form and likeness of the snake itself.
THE CROSS AS LOVE:
As we walk towards Good Friday during Lent, the most important lesson from this passage is the nature of the crucifixion which resides in God’s love and God’s glory. John’s theology begins with the basic premise that “God is Love.” 1 John 4:8. Jesus explicitly connects his being lifted up with God’s love and God’s absolution. John 3:16 and John 3:17 are not stand-alone sayings of Jesus, but are extended commentaries on the lifting-up in John 3:14. Why is the Son lifted up? – because God so loved the world. Why is the Son lifted up? – because God seeks not to condemn the world, but to save it. Here, Jesus tells us what we should see on Good Friday. The Cross is not a sign of judgment and condemnation but a sign of God’s love and absolution.
THE CROSS AS EXALTATION:
We also see God’s love in the Cross as that place where Jesus is glorified and exalted. In Numbers, God merely tells Moses to set the bronze serpent on a pole. (Num. 21:8). Jesus’ statement that the Son must be “lifted-up” comes from the Suffering Servant introduction in Isaiah 52:13. There the prophet says that God’s servant “shall be exalted and lifted up.” For John, Jesus’ crucifixion and exaltation are not separate and successive stages as they are in Paul’s theology (see, Phil. 2:8-9) or as they are in the other gospels where Jesus is exalted through the Resurrection. Rather, in his use of the term “lifted-up” John is telling us that Jesus’ exaltation occurs at his crucifixion. Jesus’ last words in John are “It is finished.” John 19:30. In the Cross, the new creation has been completed and Jesus’ mission has been fulfilled. Therefore, the Cross is not a sign of humiliation and opprobrium but a sign of God’s glory and the exaltation of the Son.
Throughout John 3, Jesus continuously challenges Nicodemus. But the conversation just ends. The passage does not tell us what happened to his inquirer. John later tells us, however, that Nicodemus was there when the Son was lifted-up on Golgotha. In John’s telling of Jesus’ burial, he says that Joseph of Arimathea came and took away Jesus’ body and that Nicodemus came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes. John 19:38. We know, therefore, that Nicodemus believed in him.