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Saviour on a pole ::

Baffled by the lead-in to the world’s most popular Bible verse? DAVID THURSTON explains…
Source: Perspective Vo4 No2 ©Perspective 1999

John chapter three is one of the best known chapters of the Bible, with some of the best loved verses. Not only do we have that startling interaction between Jesus and Nicodemus the ‘teacher of Israel’, we have one of those verses that everyone knows by heart even if they’re not a Navigator – yes, John 3: 16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” We quote it, we see it at sports events… but what about the verses immediately before verse 16? Verses 14 and 15 are unusual, to say the least – and not so often quoted. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” What are they about, and how are they related to verse 16?

To get the answer we have to go back to the Old Testament book of Numbers. We might have difficulty remembering the story of Moses lifting up the snake in the desert, but the teacher of Israel: Nicodemus, should have had no trouble at all. What was Jesus telling him about his mission from God? What was Nicodemus meant to understand?

So what’s the story of the snake in the desert all about? It’s in Numbers 21:4-9. Israel has come to Mount Hor. They have been there before – forty years before! The trip from Egypt to the Promised Land should have taken a number of weeks, but the trip from slavery to freedom under the Lord’s rule had taken much longer. Israel had proved themselves unworthy to enter the promised land because they did not believe in God’s power and promises. Repeatedly they had been tried and found wanting, but now they’ve come to the borders of the Promised Land again.

They grumble. They grumble about their lack of water. They grumble about their excess of manna. On top of it all they imply that the Lord only brought them into the desert to die.

The Lord responds by sending venomous snakes as a punishment, and many Israelites die as a consequence. The people work out for themselves how dumb they’ve been, bad mouthing the Lord and Moses, and they ask Moses to pray so they won’t be punished any more. He does pray – and the Lord’s reply is very strange!

You’ll find it in verse 8. “Make a snake and put it up a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.” Is this the first recorded example of alternative medicine?

If someone was bitten by a snake, they looked at the bronze snake Moses had put up the pole, and they got better. How this fits in with “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” doesn’t immediately jump out and grab you – unlike the snakes.

Let’s look at it again. The people are being punished for their sin. The punishment is death through venomous snake-bite. The solution to their punishment-by-snake is to believe that if they look to a bronze snake on a pole (a symbol of their judgment), they will be healed.

Hang on! So if an Israelite looked at their own judgment portrayed up a pole and believed, he or she would be saved? It’s becoming a bit clearer. The Lord provided a way for sinful Israelites to be saved, and the method was to acknowledge their sin by looking at the consequences of their judgment!

This then, is how we are to understand “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” The points of comparison are not immediately obvious, but they will certainly become clear as the drama of John’s gospel unfolds.

Jesus is the one who will be raised up like the bronze serpent. He will become the powerful portrayal of God’s anger and judgement toward “the world”. The shock of John’s gospel is that this raising up, this lifting up, this exaltation of Jesus is actually his crucifixion! The crucifixion is the judgement of God upon us, each and every one! This crucified one is God’s gift. Without his gift we perish just like the Israelites in the wilderness. Our only hope is to look at the cross and believe that God has made a way back to himself through the gift of his Son. Believe Him at His word.

In what is an apparently fleeting reference to an event that is strange in itself – the bronze serpent – Jesus was telling Nicodemus that he would be the bearer of the judgment of God.

In the camp of the Israelites there would have been people who said, “How can looking at a snake on a stick save me?” When they were bitten they died, rather than trust God’s way to life and acknowledge the justice of their judgement. In the same way, there are many today who can’t see the sense in looking to a Saviour on a cross to bring eternal life.

What do we see when we look at the cross of Christ? Before the world we see our sin, our rebellion, our judgment revealed. The cross doesn’t hide our failures. They are uncovered in all their ugliness. We are confronted with our nakedness, shame and death in the death of God’s one and only Son. This is what we preach!

Dave Thurston

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