“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
So John 3 references an Old Testament episode (Numbers 21:4-9) that some of us are familiar with. Back when Moses and God’s people are struggling in the wilderness, and the people are rebelling-as-usual because of the harsh conditions, God lets a bunch of poisonous snakes go loose in the camp. The people repent and cry for help, so God has Moses make a bronze snake and put it on a pole. And all the snake-bit people had to do was look at the bronze snake to be healed. Strangeness, but interesting.
John uses that strange image, one the Jews knew well, to propose a clear way to understand the nature of the Messiah. And the famous verses (John 3:16+) that people love to quote about salvation, are tied directly to this funky Old Testament situation. That’s terribly important. We’re not Jews (some of us), so the OT connection isn’t always as weighty, but there are some things to highlight with this bronze snake.
Back in Numbers 21, as the people are suffering and dying from snake venom, it is such a peculiar thing for God to tell Moses to use this metal serpent. Because in the past God had been heatedly opposed to statues or idols of any sort, and it seems like a mixed message. The snake is also peculiar because in the past God has been known just to *poof* heal everybody all at once, without all this charade. And I bet the snake was even more peculiar to those dying people, because it sounds so foolish. Why should it work? Why should God ask something so weird of the people? If my whole family is dead from the snakes, and I’m almost gone myself, I might not look at that bronze snake just out of SPITE. Some of us wouldn’t look up at it just for having hardened our hearts to God and grown tired of the wilderness with God.
But, in the end, the snake thing is also so simple. Here is all the physical effort it would take: to raise one’s eyes up to the top of this pole. That is one of the most miniscule muscular movements you can ever make. Just watch (shoutout to “Lost”):
Imagine Moses running around with this snake-pole, and people lifting their dying loved ones off of their mats or coaxing the barely-conscious to open their eyes, to just glance up so that the ordeal would be all over. Amazing.. THAT is the power of God for those who are being saved, and surely foolishness to those who choose to perish. It’s grace. It’s a lesson in the human response to grace, that by faith we can look up and be saved. It’s a lesson that God’s ways are unpredictable to us if we try to follow a set pattern (like, “never use metal statues”) without listening and dialoguing with God as a living being.
These are lessons that John sees alive in Jesus, firsthand. For the incurable venom of our selfishness/wrongdoing, here in Jesus is the simple, graceful salvation of God embodied on earth, free for all and any who will raise their eyes in faith. Here is Jesus hung on his own pole, killed on our behalf, but then walking away from the tomb. Where do you stand on that today? Have you, so far ever, dared to blink up at the hope/faith of salvation? Even if it seems silly, too easy or too morbid, or like too much of a challenge? And if so, how are you making it evident to those who have not?