“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).
What a strange thing to say! – if we don’t have context. If we are not deeply grounded in the Old Testament, much of the New Testament loses its meaning for us. It becomes decontextualized – because the context of the New Testament is the Old Testament
Perhaps many of us already know of the serpent here referred to by Jesus – the one that Moses lifts up in the wilderness – and that’s good. But perhaps many of us don’t know what he’s talking about – and then this sounds very strange. What does lifting up a serpent have to do with life? And how can Jesus be lifted up like a serpent?
How can we identify Jesus our Lord with a serpent? The serpent reminds us more of the devil, doesn’t it? Even those of us less familiar with the Old Testament probably know the beginning of Genesis better than we do the middle of Numbers. Who wants to read a book called Numbers? Could we have given this a duller name? So we know Genesis better and we know the snake in Genesis better. Anyway, that snake and this snake are not unrelated, in my opinion, so hold on to that thought.
But I promise the Book of Numbers is not all lists of numbers – though that’s in there, too. It also has some pretty good stories. Here’s one:
“The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread and no water and we loathe this worthless bread” (Num 21:5)
By the way, I just have to interject here, I just love the way they say there is no bread and then they say the bread is worthless. Really, there is bread – but they don’t like it – and so they say at first there is no bread. Maybe they felt like that was true but they knew it wasn’t really true and so then they adjusted their complaint a little bit. Because remember the Lord had given them manna to eat, so they couldn’t honestly say there was no bread.
Manna was not a gourmet dish – “[it] was like coriander seed, it looked like gum resin… and it tasted like cakes baked with oil” (Num 11:7-8). Sounds like it was not bad but pretty plain and something that maybe people would get sick of after decades of eating little else. It was nothing as good as the fleshpots of Egypt, for example. Yet it is better to eat bread in freedom with the Lord than pots of meat while in slavery to our passions.
But we often forget this and long to again indulge our passions even at the price of enslaving ourselves to them – all for the brief taste of something that seems good to us in the moment. And while we are deprived of some seemingly good thing, we complain about the truly good things we do have and we even deny that we have them. Well-fed with food we’ve lost our taste for, we complain that we have no food.
This is the way we complain. It’s not that we don’t have something to complain about legitimately – maybe we do – but when we complain it’s like we want to make it seem like it hurts even more than it does, don’t we? And so we exaggerate the difficulty of our situation. It’s bad, but we say it’s worse than it really is. When something’s difficult, we say it’s impossible. When something hurts, we say it’s killing us. When we don’t like the food, we say there’s nothing to eat. This doesn’t really help, by the way. It’s okay to complain to the Lord. The Psalms are full of complaint. Be honest with God and with your neighbor and your family and your friends about what you suffer. But be honest. Be truthful. And never lose sight of the good that is also there. Never be ungrateful for the good you’ve been given while you honestly complain about the bad. When we begin with gratitude for the good I promise our honest complaint about the bad will be more readily heard and answered.
Anyway, the people were complaining, “‘There is no food and we loathe this worthless food.’ And so then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people so that many sons of Israel died. And the people came to Moses, and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it up as a sign; and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it up as a sign: And if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live” (Num 21:5-9).
So, you see, the Lord hears this second complaint of the people. It’s different than the first because instead of beginning with a distortion of the truth, it begins with honesty and humility. The people say in repentance, “We have sinned. We have spoken against the Lord and against Moses.” This is the truth. They’re beginning with the truth this time – instead of with the lie – “we have no food.” The complaint that was founded in dishonesty and ingratitude was not heard by the Lord. Instead, they were given something to complain about. And complain they did, but this time with humility and honesty, and so the Lord does hear them and does give them a way to healing.
It’s interesting though. They ask for the Lord to send the serpents away. “Take away the serpents from us,” they say. I’m reminded of St Patrick chasing the snakes out of Ireland. Anyway, this is not what the Lord does. He doesn’t send the serpents away. Instead, he instructs Moses to make another serpent and to lift it up on high. The people still get bitten by the serpents. But now, when they are bitten, they can look at the bronze serpent that Moses has made and lifted up and looking upon it they are healed. The venom does not kill them anymore. The Lord delivers them from the venom of the serpents, through another serpent, a bronze serpent
Well, it is helpful to know all of this when we hear Jesus say, “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).
Those infected with the venom of the serpent who looked upon the bronze serpent lifted up by Moses were healed and did not die. Now, all of us infected with the venom of death due to sin who look with faith upon Jesus Christ whom we have pierced upon the cross will have eternal life. And so the bronze serpent is a type of the cross – a prophecy of the way the Lord delivers us from death.
We may cry out to the Lord to simply eradicate death just as the Israelites in the wilderness before us cried out to the Lord to simply drive away all the snakes. But instead of driving away all the snakes, the Lord instructs Moses to make another snake and through that snake to heal the people suffering from snake bites. Likewise, the Lord does not simply eradicate death, but rather he becomes a man like us and dies himself and through his death and our own deaths united to his death we are healed of death and brought to everlasting life.
Now remember that first snake in Genesis. By listening to him, Adam and Eve bring death into the world. So the snake here is the source of all death, yet later through Moses becomes a means of healing. This is like the cross – a means and symbol of death that through Jesus Christ gives us eternal life.
It’s okay and even good for us to complain about all our sufferings and injustices to the Lord. Let us just make sure that we address all our complaints to Jesus Christ crucified. The cross gives perspective to every suffering and injustice. Because it is in the mystery and the paradox of the cross that every suffering is healed and every injustice righted.