The serpent on the cross. A reflection on John 3.14-16

John 3:14-21

John 3:16 is probably the most well-known verse in the Bible. It is one of those verses that it really is worth learning off by heart.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” 

But in order to glimpse a tiny bit of just how rich it is, we need to understand verses 14 and 15

 

 “And just 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.” John 3:14-15


We read about the lifting of the serpent in the wilderness in our reading from Numbers

The people of Israel had been slaves in Egypt. They were crushed and beaten. Their baby boys were taken away from them and killed. They were locked into their ghettos, forced to work for their Egyptian overlords, and when they did not meet their quotas they were beaten.

And so they cried out to God. They asked God to rescue them, to deliver them.

And God heard their prayer and sent them Moses.

And through Moses God promised them that he would bring them to their own land, a rich and abundant land, where they would be free to worship him.

And through Moses, and through terrible and wonderful events, God brought them out of Egypt

But now the people are in the wilderness – the wilderness that is the place between Egypt and the land that God had promised them.

And yes, the wilderness is hard. It is the place of the wild beasts. A settled people become a nomadic people. They are dependent daily on God’s provision for them of bread and water and meat.

And they are called to live by faith – trusting the promise of God that there is a future land for them, a future place that they can call home, and that he will protect them and provide for them.

But it is hard, and the people begin to listen to other voices. To the voices of those who tell them that God is not to be trusted, that he does not love them, that he wishes them harm and not good. And the voices persuade them that the past was not that bad.

I have had conversations with some people who long for the old Soviet days. They say, ‘Things were good then. We knew where we were. We were provided for. We were great. What we need is a man of steel, a Stalin. He gave us victory in the great patriotic war’. And so recently there was the debate about whether it was appropriate to have the image of Stalin in the new military church, or whether the figure of someone like Dzerzhinsky should be placed outside the Lubyanka.

And our neighbour, Father Nikolai, passionately fought against both ideas – reminding people not to look at the past with rosy coloured spectacles, reminding people that these were men who were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, especially of believers.

But the people of Israel, in the wilderness, looked at the past with rosy tinted spectacles, and they listened to those voices against God. They took them in.

And death came into them. Oh, it might only have shown itself in grumbling to begin with, but it was death.

Soon those seeds of discontent would spread through the community. The people would be divided, some would turn back to Egypt, others would want to go on, others would not know what to do and walk round in circles. There would be uprisings in the community, a very uncivil civil war, enemies would have taken advantage of their confusion and they would perish. You cannot live in the wilderness without complete dependence on God.

So God, in his mercy, sends poisonous serpents. And physical death came to the community.

It is ‘in his mercy’ because it was the only thing that could bring the people to their senses. And they realise just how vulnerable, how lost they are. They cannot protect themselves against these wild beasts. They realise that without God they are already dead. They are going to perish.

And so they come to Moses and beg him to pray for them – to pray that God will rescue them.

And God tells Moses to make an image of one of these poisonous serpents in bronze and to put it on a pole. And if a person is bitten by a serpent then whenever she or he looks at the serpent on the pole, they will be healed and they will live.

That is the background to John 3:16

God is going to raise Jesus on the cross, just like Moses raised the serpent on the cross.

This is incredibly rich in symbolism

It might seem utter foolishness to tell people that the only thing that they need to do when they are bitten by a serpent is to look at the image of a serpent, and they will live.

But as the people of Israel looked at the serpent, they were looking at an image of the very thing that was destroying them. It was a reminder of the punishment that they were experiencing, that they were perishing.

They were looking at an image of one – the serpent - who, in the garden of Eden, lied to Eve and told her that she could not trust God, that he was holding back good things from her, that he meant her harm and not good. It was a reminder that they had believed lies and had turned from God.

And as they looked at the image of the serpent on a pole – they were looking at a defeated serpent, a serpent that had been skewered, that had no power. It was a reminder of the power of God to defeat death and evil.

Salvation comes when we stop trusting in ourselves, in our own cleverness or skills, and when we simply receive the mercy of God.


There is an Old Testament story of Naaman, the most senior Syrian general, who had leprosy. He had come to the prophet Elijah to be healed. He expected something powerful and dramatic, or at least respect. But instead, Elijah sends a message to him and tells him to wash himself 7 times in the river Jordan.

Naaman is furious. He has come all this way to be told to wash himself in a dirty river. And he is about to go off in a huff. But one of his servants says, ‘Master, if the prophet had told you to do something difficult, you would have done it. Why not do what he says?’

So Naaman does. He washes himself in the river and he is healed.

All he had to do was to stop trusting in his greatness or in his wisdom, to listen to God and to trust God.

And all the people of Israel had to do was to stop trusting in themselves, or in those voices that told them to go back, and simply trust God – to look at the sign of the defeated serpent.

And for us?

God has raised up a new sign – not the sign of a serpent on a pole, but the sign of the man crucified on a pole.

As we choose to look at him on the cross, we see what our evil does, what it leads to.

Our rebellion against God, our trust in the lies of the devil rather than in the promises of God, our pride, our envy, our prejudice, our fear, our sin – leads us to be the sort of people who take a good man, more than a good man, and who mock him and beat him, nail him to a tree and leave him there to die.

Perhaps you protest: I would never do that, I could never do that.

But then I wonder do we really know ourselves?

Given a particular time and a particular place most of us will do anything not only to save ourselves

Varlam Shalamov wrote Kolyma Stories, about his time in a Gulag camp. At the beginning of the stories is an article called 45 things I learned in the Gulag:

“Number 1. The extreme fragility of human culture, civilization. A man becomes a beast in three weeks, given heavy labour, cold, hunger, and beatings.”

I suspect that if you asked any of the guards of the Nazi concentration camps in 1929 whether they would be able to be complicit in mass murder, they would have been horrified at the suggestion.

As we look at the cross we see what human beings can do to human beings, what I – in the right (or wrong) circumstances - could potentially do to a human being.

The raising of Jesus on a cross shows us how we are lost, how we are already dead. It shows us that we belong to a dead world that is perishing.

As we look at him on the cross, we not only what sin and evil does, but we see one who took that sin, that evil into himself.

Jesus, the Bible tells us, became sin for us.

Jesus becomes not only the victim. He becomes the serpent. He takes into himself the sin of the perpetrators.

For three awful human hours, all the filth of the world, all the filth in your life and my life is poured into Jesus. He becomes sin for us. And God the Father turns his face away from his dearly beloved Son. That is why Jesus cries out on the cross, ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me’.

He was the sacrificial lamb. He paid the price that we deserved to pay. He suffered for us, in our place. And he died.

And as we look at him on the cross, we also see the skewered serpent, defeated evil. The serpent, the father of lies, is crushed.

Jesus, in obedience to his Father, trusting God, obeys him – even though it leads him to death on a cross. Obedience triumphs over fear. love over pain. The perfect man chooses to die the sinner’s death.

And as we choose to look at Jesus on the cross, we see the simplicity of faith.

God asks of us no heroic feats. He knows that we could not possibly do what is necessary to save ourselves.
He asks of us no amazing sacrifices. He knows that no sacrifice that we could make would be sufficient to save ourselves.

Instead he simply asks us to look at Jesus on the cross.

It means, as we look at the cross, that we see what we have become. And we see his astonishing victory and love.

Are you saved from sin and death and hell because of your great holiness, of your religious commitment, of your spiritual understanding? Of course not.

You and I are saved because God sent his Son into the world, and Jesus was raised up on the cross.

And all we have done is come to him and look at him.

And that is enough.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” John 3:16

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