|William Blake -- Moses and the serpent (1803)|
The Gospel for this Sunday contains what is possibly the most quoted verse in the Bible – John 3:16 “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 begins, however, with a connection that is less familiar – a curious episode from the Book of Numbers where Moses uses the sight of a bronze snake to cure venomous bites.
The Lectionary chooses this episode as the Old testament lesson. But the God depicted in it is hardly a God of love. Sending poisonous snakes to plague the Israelites for complaining about the lack of food and water in the wilderness speaks more of spiteful irritation than fatherly care. Moses, by admitting to sinfulness on the part of the people, effectively concurs with the implication that God is justified when he punishes them in this horrible way. Given such a God, though, it is the pragmatic thing to do, because the admission of fault does elicit a cure of sorts – the bronze serpent.
|Endre Bartos - Salvation (1979)|
Against this background, the parallel that the Fourth Evangelist makes with Jesus is a very powerful one. The ‘Son of Man’, like the snake, is lifted up. But unlike the snake, this is God incarnate -- which means that in place of poisonous punishment, we encounter pure love. In Jesus, God offers himself so that the world may not be condemned, but saved.
At the same time, the risk of condemnation has not entirely disappeared. Humanity is still subject to judgment. And “this is the judgment", the Gospel tells us, that "the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light”. The Israelites in the wilderness lived in a kind of darkness. They looked to God primarily as a means of satisfying what Paul in the passage from Ephesians calls “the desires of flesh and senses”, and they then complained when they did not get enough of them. With the bronze snake, Moses was able to give them temporary relief, but they were still “following the course of this world”. By contrast, to look to Christ on the Cross with true faith, Paul says, is to be “raised up with him in the heavenly places”. With our eyes on Christ, we can adopt what "God prepared beforehand to be our way of life”. Alternatively, of course, we can just go on following the way of the world.