Reflection on Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21, & Ephesians 2:4-10

– by Joy Kingsbury-Aitken

Today’s gospel reading contains the most quoted verse in the New Testament.  Those of us who are retirees will remember how as Sunday school students we were encouraged to memorise John chapter 3, verse 16  in, of course, the words of the King James version: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  This verse and the surrounding text are so well known to all of us it is possible for us to fail to appreciate that there may be layers of meaning we have yet to discover.  Today we’ll do a little excavating.

The Gospel lection starts with a reference to one of the strangest stories in the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses with which the Bible begins.  It’s not strange that the Israelites were feeling grumpy with Moses and God.  They were hard-pressed by the conditions they were enduring – intolerable heat during the day and biting cold at night, little fresh water and the same food day after day, and probably not a lot of that either.  Then to add to their miseries were snakes, who didn’t take kindly to their presence.  People were being bitten and dying from their venomous bites.  What is strange about this story is the solution God provided.  God didn’t shoo away the snakes nor instruct Moses in the manufacture of some anti-venom potion that would counteract the poison of the serpents.  No, God had Moses do something that seems to contradict God’s earlier command against making images.  Moses is instructed to make a bronze snake, attach it to a pole, and tell the people to look at the image to be restored to health.  What’s more, the reason for prohibiting the making of images seems to have been justified by the subsequent history of this bronze snake.  Many centuries later we learn that King Hezekiah, as part of his religious reforms, broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until then the Israelites had been making offerings to it. They called the image Nehushtan, a name derived from the Hebrew for snake.  The thing that stands out about the story of the bronze serpent is that the people had to believe in the efficacy of looking at it.  Then we read that eternal life is available to those who believe in the lifted-up Son of Man.

Traditionally, the lifting up of the bronze snake on a pole is seen as a type of the lifting up of Jesus on the cross.  While this is a valid analogy, it may not have been what was top of mind for the author of the fourth gospel.  The lectionary divides the story of Jesus’ conversation with the aristocratic Nicodemus into two.  Consequently, the statement about the Son of Man being lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness is detached from its context.  If we go back a couple of verses we discover that the topic under discussion is “heavenly things”, which Jesus can speak about with authority because of his heavenly origin.  Although from the timeframe in which the encounter between Jesus and the distinguished rabbi took place, the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus are events yet to happen, from the perspective of the author of the gospel they are historical events, and so he writes in the past tense, “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man;” before changing tense and adding, “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.”

What made Jesus’ crucifixion different from the thousands of other Jews who were crucified (especially after the unsuccessful Jewish uprising against their Roman oppressors) was that Jesus didn’t stay dead.  He was resurrected and then forty days later he ascended into heaven. While we tend to imagine that people had to crane their necks to look up at Jesus as he hung on the cross, in reality, crosses were just high enough to be effective, and Jesus may have been hanging just a few inches off the ground.  The fact that he could speak to the five people the Roman authorities allowed to stand close by, while the other women witnesses had to watch from afar, suggests a fairly low cross.  The lifting up that John the evangelist may have had in mind was Jesus’ ascension back to heaven following his resurrection.  The analogy with Moses’ lifted-up bronze snake could perhaps illustrate the superiority of Jesus over the great prophet.  Moses’ snake was lifted into the air and brought temporary reprieve from death, while the Son of Man was lifted up to heaven and grants eternal life. 

The Son of Man was Jesus’ favourite way of referring to himself.  As I have said on other occasions, it was a tremendously ambiguous title.  On one hand, it could mean merely that Jesus was calling himself a human being.  This is how God uses the term when God addresses the prophet Ezekiel, as when God says to Ezekiel, “Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak to you.”[1]  On the other hand, it could mean that Jesus was identifying himself with the divine being that features in Daniel’s vision of heaven.  Daniel says he “was watching in the night visions and behold one like the Son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven!  He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him.  Then to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him.”[2]  It is not as a humble human that Jesus saves, although he had to become a humble human in order to do so, but as the almighty Son of Man who has dominion over all creation.

Jesus’ self-sacrifice for us was not solely his crucifixion.  It was principally his incarnation, which of course presupposed his death because all humans eventually die.  As Paul explains to the Philippian Christians (perhaps quoting an early Christian creed), Jesus having existed in the form of God, “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, assuming human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a human, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God exalted him even more highly and gave him the name that is above every other name, so that at the name given to Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”[3] Surely we hear in these words echoes of the passage from Daniel. 

God giving his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life, should not be read as God sacrificing his only begotten Son.  The one who sacrifices kills the sacrificial animal themselves, or commissions another, namely a priest, to do so on their behalf.  I cannot imagine a loving God conspiring with the Romans to crucify Jesus.  Surely God’s gift was the physical life not the excruciating death of his Son, a life we humans took in a cruel and humiliating manner.  Jesus was killed by the Roman authorities in collaboration with the Jewish elites.  It was a political murder.  We are still being afflicted by such evil, as the recent death of Alexei Navalny demonstrates.  Sadly today more terror and death than ever before are raining down from the sky upon innocents because of corrupt political ambitions.  Just because God, through Jesus, predicted that there would be “wars and rumours of wars”[4] doesn’t mean that God is responsible for these horrific conflicts.  We humans are.  God knew what the outcome of the incarnation would be but God didn’t manipulate the crucifixion into happening.  God was not an abusive father figure who brought about the death of his Son.  Humans did that.

God’s purpose in sending God’s Son into the world was not to condemn the world, as much as the world deserves condemnation, but to save the world, and those who believe this good news have already escaped condemnation.  As Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”[5] One of the readings for this Sunday comes from Ephesians: “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places.”[6] God’s grace draws us out of the darkness of despair at the human condition into the light of hope made possible by God sending God’s son to dwell with humanity.  We are reconciled to God by his death, but it is through his resurrection and ascension that we have life.[7] Had Jesus not been raised to new life, and not ascended back to his place of origin, he would have been just another Jewish martyr – someone to admire, but not someone who could save.  It is the resurrection, even more than the crucifixion, which is crucial to the Christian gospel.  In the Gospel of John, eternal life is not something acquired only after we die and go to heaven.  Rather it is the condition of our living now.  That is what Paul is implying in his letter to the Ephesians when he says God has “raised us up with [Jesus] and seated us with him in the heavenly places.”  In John eternal life is the equivalent of the kingdom of God in the synoptic gospels, and is something that theologians describe as being “now and not yet”.  We experience it now, but we don’t experience it fully yet.  The Christian profession that Jesus died to atone for our sins so that we may have eternal life invites further reflection. I remember the challenge of writing an essay on why the crucifixion was necessary and discovering that the explanations offered by the greatest Christian theologians ancient and modern were ultimately inadequate.  The process by which the salvation of humanity has been and will be achieved is surely a profound mystery – a mystery to be pondered over again and again and only ever partially understood – and there is no better time to be doing that than during the season of Lent when we are preparing for our annual observance of Good Friday and celebration of Easter Sunday.   May that oh-so-familiar verse – “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” – become so very much more meaningful for you

[1] Ezekiel 2:1 NKJV

[2] Daniel 7:13-14 NKJV: at times the inclusive language of modern translations can obscure rather than illuminate meaning

[3] Philippians 2:6-11 NRSV

[4] Matthew 24:6 NRSV

[5] Romans 8:1 NRSV

[6] Ephesians 2:4-6 NRSV

[7] Romans 5:10