The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. (Numbers 21:7-9)
Keep this nation under your care
When Jesus says, “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), it’s easy for us to forget that he isn’t wearing a rainbow wig and holding up a poster in a football stadium.
Jesus is not addressing American Christians and football fans. He is not suggesting we wear black “John 3:16” eye paint to Lambeau Field.
Instead, Jesus is deep in a private, nighttime conversation with Nicodemus, a “leader of the Jews” who is trying to understand what Jesus is doing and teaching in Jerusalem at the Passover.
Nicodemus recognizes that Jesus is from God, though the “cleansing of the Temple” — knocking over the tables of the moneychangers and driving them and the sacrificial animals out with a whip of cords — probably upset Nicodemus’ sense of order and respect.
In their quiet, late night conversation, he struggles with Jesus’ words about seeing and entering the kingdom of God — he is confused by the idea of being “born again” and “born from above” and “born of water and the Spirit.”
Jesus asks, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and you do not understand these things?”
Then he continues to teach Nicodemus about the kingdom of God and about salvation.
Let your way be known upon earth
Jesus builds on what he has just said about who can see and who can enter the kingdom of God.
No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 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. “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. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:13-17).
He uses a strange image for the kingdom, reminding scholarly Nicodemus of a passage from the Book of Numbers about a mysterious cure. The people of Israel in the wilderness were sick, dying from venomous snake bites, but they were cured when they looked at a bronze serpent held up on a pole.
It would have been a particularly odd image, since the bronze serpent had later been destroyed by King Hezekiah (reigned 715-687 BC) during his reforms of the nation and its worship (2 Kings 18:4).
According to the Wikipedia article on him,
Hezekiah purified and repaired the Temple, purged its idols, and reformed the priesthood. In an effort to abolish what he considered idolatry from his kingdom, he destroyed the high places (or bamot) and “bronze serpent” (or “Nehushtan“), recorded as being made by Moses, which became an objects of idolatrous worship. In place of this, he centralized the worship of God at the Jerusalem Temple.
Several hundred years later, having just upset the business of the Jerusalem Temple, Jesus tells Nicodemus that the kingdom of heaven is like the bronze serpent people used to look to instead of going to the Temple as their leaders said they should.
Your saving health among all nations
In John’s Gospel, Jesus does signs — like the miracle at Cana and the cleansing of the Temple — and teaches about the kingdom of God. “We speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen,” he says.
When he refers to the bronze serpent, he makes a point to describe it being lifted up, just as the Son of Man will be lifted up.
Jesus is describing another sign — the ultimate sign — that will testify to his identity and open the kingdom of God to those who believe.
Like the bronze serpent brought healing (salvation) to those poisoned by snakebites, the sign of the Cross will bring eternal life and saving health to all who suffer.
No longer is the healing work of God limited to the people of Israel, no longer is salvation contained in the Temple at Jerusalem, but rather saving health is available to all who look on the Son of Man lifted up.
Collect of the Day
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.