The Serpent in the Wilderness

Rev. Dr. David D. M. King

The Fourth Sunday in Lent
Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21

We just heard, from the Gospel of John, probably the most well-known passage in the New Testament. “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.” It’s one of the first verses that most Christians are taught to memorize. I learned it in 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.” The verse is so well known, that people assume you know it just by seeing the reference: John 3:16.  You can see it posted on billboards. You can see it on placards at sporting events. John 3:16 is simply one of the best known pieces of scripture in the world.

This is such a familiar verse that it is truly astonishing how unfamiliar the two verses right before it are. “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.” That’s what leads into John 3:16. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness.

That seems a bit obscure, doesn’t it? What are we supposed to make of a snake lifted up in the wilderness? Well, fortunately, this morning we have also read the bible passage that unlocks the secret of the snake lifted up in the wilderness. It’s in the 21st chapter of the Book of Numbers.

After being freed from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites are out wandering in the wilderness, as they have been for some time. And once again they are complaining about their situation. There’s no food out here. There’s no water. And we are sick and tired of eating this miserable manna. I mean, it may be bread from heaven, but even bread from heaven gets tiresome after a few years. We were better off as slaves in Egypt.

So, God, apparently tired of listening to their complaining, sends a plague of poisonous snakes on them. And after the snakes start biting people, and some of them even die, the people have a change of heart. Alright God, we get the message. We were wrong. We’ll stop complaining about being out here in the wilderness. Just take away these snakes already.

So God tells Moses to make a bronze snake, and to put it on a pole, and to lift it up in the middle of the camp. And if anyone gets bitten by a snake, they should look up at the  bronze snake and the poison won’t hurt them; they will live. The snake that Moses lifts up in the wilderness is a sort of divine cure for snakebites. The curse of the snake becomes the cure. Anyone who gazes on it will be saved from death.

Which brings us back to Jesus. He tells Nicodemus that just like that serpent in the wilderness was lifted up, so he, Jesus, the Son of Man, is also going to be lifted up. And whoever is in the wilderness, and is dying of poison, if they lift up their eyes and look at the Son of Man who is lifted up, then they will be saved, they will live. Like the snake in the wilderness, Jesus himself will become a cure for poisoning, a cure for death.

And how is it that Jesus will be lifted up? By being crucified. It’s a pretty ironic way to talk about capital punishment. All of the other Gospels talk about how Jesus suffered and died, but not John. No, John talks about how Jesus was lifted up and glorified on the cross. Somehow, being lifted up on a tool of torture still managed to raise Jesus up into an elevated position, still managed to lift him above the earth toward the heavenly realm. And all those who gaze upon him will be saved, they will live. The curse of the cross becomes the cure.

Which brings us back to John 3:16. What does that serpent in the wilderness have to do with God so loving the world? Whoever lives and believes in the Son will not perish, but will have everlasting life. That’s what all that language about the serpent is about. They look upon the snake lifted up and they do not die, they live. They look upon Jesus, lifted up on the cross, and they do not die, they live.

Which begs the question: what does it mean to believe in Jesus? It’s one of the trickiest words in the New Testament. John uses it all the time. It’s part of the key to understanding his theology. In fact, it’s the key to John 3:16, isn’t it? Whoever believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life. But what does that mean?

In the way we commonly use the word, believe means to think that something is true. Belief is something that happens in the intellect. Do you believe in global warming? If you say yes, it means that you think that global warming exists. Do you believe in Santa Claus? If you say yes, it means that you think that Santa exists.

But does that work when we talk about believing in Jesus. Is it enough to simply think that Jesus exists? If that’s all we’re talking about, then even the demons believe in Jesus. Even Satan believes in Jesus. They think that he exists, after all. But is that enough? I think most of us would agree that that is not the kind of belief that we are talking about here.

So maybe it would help to go to the Greek. There are two different forms of this word. The verb is πιστεύω. It usually get’s translated as “to believe.” The noun for the same word is πίστις. It usually gets translated as “faith.” They’re the same word, though. As a noun, however, we say it is faith, but as a verb we say it is to believe. Part of the problem is that English does not have a verbal form of the word “faith.” We cannot say, “Whoever faiths in him will not perish.” But if we did have a word like that, it would probably be closer to what the original Greek is talking about.

The belief that we are talking about is not simply thinking that Jesus exists. It’s also not simply thinking that Jesus is the savior. It’s about a little more than that. It’s about having an active faith with Jesus at the center. It is about living a life that is informed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is about looking up to the cross, looking up at Jesus crucified, and seeing not death, not humiliation, not defeat, but seeing life, seeing glory, seeing victory. Victory that comes through suffering, through self-giving, through humility.

The word I often use to translate that tricky Greek word is trust. Do you trust in Jesus? That’s much more than simply acknowledging Jesus’s existence. It is placing your life in Jesus’s hands. It is follow where Jesus leads. It is depending on Jesus. Do you trust in Jesus?

And trust works equally well as a noun or an adjective. Do you have trust in God? Are you trustworthy to the gospel message? Do you put your whole trust in God’s grace? To believe, to have faith, is to trust in the one who has proven to be trustworthy.

4000 years ago, that serpent in the wilderness performed a sort of magical function; it cured people of snake bites. The symbol of the curse—the form of the snake—became the cure for the curse itself. What Jesus did 2000 years ago performs not a magical function, but a mystical function for us today. Because when we gaze on Jesus lifted up, humiliated by the standards of the world, but honored and glorified by God’s standards, then we receive the grace that Christ provides. And a cure for the poisons that inflect our lives, the greed and selfishness and jealousy and pride and enmity that threaten to destroy us. The symbol of the curse—the form of the crucifix—becomes the cure for the curse itself. We can gaze upon it and live.

When we are in the wilderness—and Lord knows we have been in the wilderness—when it seems like we are wandering endlessly with no direction and no end in sight, when we are sick and tired of the same meager spiritual diet, and when we feel attacked from all sides, when we feel worn out, when our lives are poisoned by sin and guilt and shame, there is but one thing to do. There is but one thing that is needful. Look on Jesus, lifted up on the cross, trust in him and in his grace, and live. Not unlike a vaccination, the curse itself becomes the cure. The death of Jesus becomes our life. So let us put our trust in him, let us believe, let us have faith, as we see him lifted up, and live.

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