Today’s reading from St John’s Gospel is part of that long section in chapter 3 which deals with the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus.
‘As Moses lifted up the brazen serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life,’ says Jesus. What has a brazen serpent to do with Jewish Scriptures, which usually declare their hatred of images – or with the destiny of Jesus Christ, the Son of Man? The story of the serpents and the Serpent may be found in Numbers chapter 21. The Israelites have been wandering in the desert for many months. Life is hard and monotonous, and they have hit a low patch. They begin grumbling, and muttering against their leader (as humans do); but also, on this occasion, they even grumble against God, who had brought them out of slavery in Egypt. ‘We should have stayed in Egypt’, is their cry, forgetting how hard their life of slavery there had been. Then they begin to be plagued by ‘fiery’ snakes. (It was the bite that felt fiery, not the snake, and such venomous snakes do occur in that desert.) But snakes had a history in the Hebrews’ folk tradition – had not a snake led Adam and Eve into sin? Then the people realise that their grumbling against God and his chosen leader, Moses, has been ungrateful – sinful, in fact. Had not God saved them from peril – from hunger, thirst and hostile tribesmen – on many occasions, as well as bringing them to freedom?
So they repent, come to Moses, and ask him to intercede with God for them, which Moses does. At God’s command Moses constructs an image of a snake from bronze or copper, and has it elevated on a pole. The people are instructed to look at this if they have been bitten by a snake. When they do so, they remember how God’s power to save them has been shown in the past; they trust him to save them again, and they are healed from the deadly effects of the snake-bite. In the same way, says Jesus, when believers look in faith and trust to the raised-up Son of Man, they will be saved from death, and will have eternal life (which means, to share in the life of God). Since life is found only in God, from whom comes all life, those who reject his offer of life must indeed perish.
But God does not desire that any should perish – he has sent his Son not to condemn the world, but to save it. In Isaiah 52: 13 the Lord says: ‘My servant shall prosper; he shall be lifted up, and shall be very high.’ When the Gospel speaks of Christ being ‘lifted up’, these words have a double meaning. They are used of Jesus’ being lifted up on the cross, and also of his being lifted up, or exalted, after his Resurrection and Ascension to God the Father. In fact, for John, Jesus’ glorification takes place when he is crucified – the cross becomes his throne: and from its elevation he will draw all people to himself (John 12: 32). The lifting-up of the Son of Man will result not only in glory for himself, but also in healing for humankind. And as Ephesians 2: 6 tells us, believers, who are ‘in’ or ‘with’ Christ, will be lifted up with him. What does it mean to ‘believe in’, or ‘have faith in’, Jesus, the Son of Man? ‘Trust’ is a word which contains the ideas of both ‘belief’ and ‘faith’. So, believers are those who trust Jesus – who trust what he teaches about God and about himself, and who trust him to fulfil the promises he makes in the Gospel, the Good News. The outcome of such trust, such faith, will be the desire to be like him, the will to do his work.
Finally, today’s two passages emphasise that all this salvation story – the coming into the world of the Word of God, who is the true light; his ministry; his death and glorification for the sake of humanity – all this is grace, the free gift of God, and is the result of God’s sole initiative. For, as that famous text says: 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.
Thanks be to God.