There is perhaps no better known verse in all the Bible than John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (NIV). Tim Tebow wore this scripture reference on his eye black during the 2009 National Championship. During the game, Google reported over 90 million searches for the verse! Even though the verse is well-known even by non-Christians, however, many Christians read the verse in isolation and do not consider its context within John’s gospel. In particular, the two verses that precede it state, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:14-15, NIV).
The story of the snake Moses lifted in the wilderness is in Numbers 21:4-9. Jesus says that he himself must be lifted up as the snake, so it is important to understand what this snake was and how it functioned in the story of Moses to understand better the love of God for the world and why he would send his Son.
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The Snake Lifted Up in the Wilderness
First, we find that the people rebelled against God. They grew impatient and questioned God’s ways. They said he brought them to the desert to die, when in reality he was leading them through the desert to a land promised to their ancestors. They complained there was no water, even though, by this point in the narrative, God had provided water on two occasions when it was desperately needed. The people even asserted there was no bread, even though each morning they found a miraculous substance on the ground, a gift from God, which they could harvest, grind, and bake into bread. But instead of being thankful for this bread from heaven, they despised it and called it “miserable” and “detestable.”
What the people don’t seem to understand is that God was providing the best for them in the midst of a very bad situation. They began to romanticize their old life in Egypt. It isn’t stated in this story, but we read elsewhere how they reminisced about the diversity of food back in Egypt—forgetting they had been suffered as slaves there. They also ignore the reality that the only reason they are even in the wilderness at this point was their lack of faith. God had taken them rather quickly to the very edge of the Promised Land of Canaan, but instead of trusting God would help them conquer the land, they rebelled in their fear, so God cursed them to wander for forty years in the wilderness. Yet despite their complaints and rebellion, God remained with them, guiding them and providing for them daily.
Even today we often think we know better than God and so we go our own way. Sometimes we make destructive decisions for short-term moments of pleasure. Other times, we act on what we think is a great opportunity only to discover many hidden traps. Perhaps worst of all are the times we act like the these Israelites, following God half-heartedly but grumbling the entire time. We neglect to see how our choices lead to slavery, lifelong consequences, hardened and embittered hearts, and/or even death. This, however, is what the Israelites soon discovered.
Second, God judges the people’s sin. Snakes came among the people and began to bite them. Many of the affected people died. If they thought God’s gift of Manna was miserable, just imagine how they felt now! While some see the story as the act of a vengeful or vindictive God, the bigger picture emphasizes God is with the people through both good and bad times. He is judging them not to punish so much as to discipline them. Like a parent, he sees the direction their immediate choices will have on their future and the future of their children. God hopes to correct them now so that they will mature in their faith and enjoy a better in the future. He want to make them aware of their sinful state and its impact on their relationship with him and with each other.
Third, the people repent of their sins. They agree with God that their actions are wrong (“we sinned against God”) and they ask Moses to pray for them. Asking Moses to pray doesn’t mean they need a “professional” to whom they confess their sins. Rather, it is a recognition that their sin wasn’t just against God but also against Moses’ leadership (“and we sinned against you”). Asking Moses to pray for them was an act of repentance and reconciliation, acknowledging him as their appointed leader. What is far more significant than who should pray, however, is what they ask him to pray: “take the snakes away”!
Finally, the Lord provided deliverance. Moses is told to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole. What God does is take the object of their suffering and affliction—the snakes—and turn it into the source of their healing and deliverance. Death, in the shadow of the bronze snake, is transformed into life. Chaos is given order. Despair gives way to hope as one looks in faith upon the very image of despair.
Notice God says anyone “can look.” When someone was bitten, they didn’t have to look. If they did so, it was an act of trusting God, an act of faith. . . . but they didn’t have to. In fact, what sense did it make? There was a far more obvious solution: kill the snakes! Don’t wait to get bitten. But if you were bitten, there was a a more sensible action: take steps to remove the poison before it filtered through your body! Imagine if a man showed up in Mariupol, Ukraine holding a staff with a bronze artillery shell on it. If he told the people there, whenever you hear the whistle of an incoming shell, you’ll be fine if you just look at this bronze shell and trust God, they would think he was mad! There are far better options! Find an evacuation route to get out of the city. Why stay in harm’s way? Flee to a bunker to ride out the shelling. Why remain in the open? But this is just how ludicrous Moses probably sounded to the people back then. Yet salvation doesn’t come through our own actions. It comes from God and we need to trust him to provide for us in our times of need.
Also notice that God didn’t take the snakes away as the people requested. Instead, God gave the people a bronze snake. We are told that “when anyone was bitten,” if they looked at the symbol, they lived. But God didn’t remove the snakes, at least not right away. He provided a way through the situation, a way to bear up under it. When someone becomes a Christian, they aren’t immediately translated into the Kingdom of God. Rather, they remain here in this world of suffering, pain, and death. But now they have been reconciled to God and he promises to provide them a way through the suffering, a way that leads towards healing and hope. For the Israelites, they endured the snakes for a time. They endured the wilderness for even longer. But their story didn’t end there. The goal was the Promised Land, the Land of Canaan that became the Land of Israel. So we look to a future full of healing, joy, and life in the Kingdom of God, a hope made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The Son of Man Lifted Up on Calvary
Here is the meaning of John 3. Just as the snake was lifted up, so the Son of Man would be hung on a cross. In the first century world, the cross was the most humiliating form of execution. It was purposefully torturous to emphasize why no one should consider rebelling against the Roman Empire. It was a symbol of rebellion, futility, and death. Yet today, Christians see the cross as a symbol of forgiveness, hope, and life. Many wear it as jewelry or hang it as art in their homes. The snake and the cross were both objects of suffering and death that were transformed by the creative work of God into sources of healing and life. Both were means of his salvation. Christians hope for new life because the cross wasn’t the final word. The cross was followed by the empty tomb, Jesus raised from the dead now seated in heaven. Jesus suffered and died for us that we might live for him as we look to him in faith.
Just as in the wilderness, God doesn’t want to condemn the world. He sent his Son to be lifted up so he could draw all people to himself. But we have a choice, just as the dying Israelites did when bitten by the snakes. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (Jn 3:17-18). Just as the snakes were already destroying the people because of their rebellion, so we are already separated from God and dying on account of our own sinful actions and choices. There is only one choice that can heal. When all is lost, look to the cross!
Father Brian Jordan ministered to the workers at Ground Zero during the months of cleanup after September 11, 2001. One day after mass, one of the construction workers, Frank Silecchia, approached him and asked, “Do you want to see God’s house?” Soon, Father Jordan found himself descending with Mr. Silecchia into the rubble of the fallen towers. After a while, they reached the lowest-most level where the foundation had been lain. Eventually, they stood in front of a steel column that had survived the destruction. Attached to the column that rose from the ground was a steel girder, a crossbeam, which held fast despite the weight of the building’s collapse. As the priest looked into the eyes of the workers there, he saw hope rising within them from this remnant. In the midst of the rubble and chaos of death and destruction all around them, these two steel beams stood in the shape of a cross. These beams weren’t not simply part of the wreckage. They were something far more significant. These beams were a symbol of hope and endurance. All was not lost in the shadow of the cross.
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