A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Chatsworth, ON. An audio recording of the sermon is available here.
Texts: Numbers 21:4-8; John 3:1-20
The picture above is the Cloister Cross, an altar cross from the 12th century. It is made of walrus ivory. The image at the cross beams is of Moses raising up the bronze serpent.
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14)
While John 3.16 is probably the most well-known and often-quoted Bible verse – think of that one guy in every football game holding up a John 3:16 sign – today we are going to focus on verse 14, the verse I just re-read. In last week’s sermon, we unpacked what St. Paul meant when he said that Adam was a ‘figure’ or ‘type’ of “the one to come”, which is to say Jesus (Rom. 5.14). You will recall that I described the figures or types of the Bible using the image of a typewriter – a type writer writes type. To recap, a type is a symbol that points to and represents the antitype in the same way that the type left on a sheet of paper made by a typewriter points to and represents the type bar, the metal bar that makes the type on the page. The Bible is full of types, most of which point to and represent Jesus Christ. This is an ancient way of reading the Bible called a typological or figural interpretation.
Now, perhaps some of you aren’t convinced; this way of reading the Bible seems too convenient, takes too many creative liberties, and perhaps reads too much into things. Well, if you aren’t convinced, I submit John 3:14 as evidence for my case: Jesus himself read the Hebrew Scriptures, that is to say the Old Testament, typologically. Jesus interprets the story of Moses raising the serpent on a pole in the wilderness as a type that prefigured his own crucifixion. So, if Jesus reads the Bible typologically, I think it is safe to say that we should follow his reading. As St. Augustine once remarked: “The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed”. If the entirety of Holy Scripture finds its meaning and fulfilment is Jesus Christ, then we are best served if we expect Christ to meet us on every page of the Bible, revealing Himself through types and figures.
In his nighttime meeting with Nicodemus, Jesus makes some remarks that would have doubtlessly struck the Pharisee as rather odd. Indeed, the text indicates as much; Nicodemus wonders at how a grown man can be reborn in the same way that he came into the world the first time (cf. Jn 3.4). Jesus seems a bit frustrated at Nicodemus’ lack of understanding: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (Jn. 3.10). So, Jesus appeals to a story that Nicodemus would certainly know: that of the wilderness wanderings of their ancestors, making a specific reference to the story of Moses making a bronze serpent to heal the people from poisonous snake bites. However, Jesus does not merely reference this story; he interprets it as a reference to his own being lifted up. Of course, as those who read this text after Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Ascension Day, we have the benefit of knowing exactly what Jesus is talking about: his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. However, during their conversation, Nicodemus certainly has no clue what Jesus is talking about. This is likewise true for those who would be reading this text of Scripture for the first time without knowing how the story ends, much less the reference to the Old Testament.
Jesus is talking about God’s judgment against a people who “loved darkness rather than light” and his redemption to eternal life for those who believe in Him (Jn. 3.19). This is heavy stuff – a matter of life and death. Although God’s judgment is real and should be taken with uttermost seriousness, Jesus also makes it clear that God the Father did not send God the Son “into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn. 3.17). And how does Jesus save the world? Through his enactment of God’s loving judgment on the Cross. This is truly good news.
Furthermore, it was good news to Nicodemus as well, who although he did not initially understand Jesus, we have every reason to believe he did following Jesus’ crucifixion. John 19.39 tells us that Nicodemus helped to prepare Jesus’ body for burial by “bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighting about a hundred pounds”. This is no small gift –as one commentator notes, the amount of spices indicates that Nicodemus sees Jesus’ burial as a “royal burial”. This brings to mind the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with lavish perfume. Christian tradition venerates Nicodemus for his loving care of Jesus’ body. It is Christ’s own body lifted up on the cross, lifted up from the grave, and lifted up to be seated at the right hand of God the Father that opens the way of salvation, of re-birth through water, which is to say baptism – a baptism into Christ’s own death and resurrection – and the Spirit.
To further unpack the meaning and depth of Jesus’ death on the cross, we need to read backwards, we need to turn back to the Old Testament and read it through the ‘Jesus-lens’.
Snakes are never a positive symbol in Scripture (Matt. 10.16 could be read as an exception) Already in the beginning, we see a serpent tempting humanity to doubt God’s provision and ordering of creation. In scripture, serpents are symbolic of sin and fallen powers. Just as a serpent plays an antagonistic role in the Garden in the beginning, so too a serpent is one of the primary antagonists in the end, which is to say in book of Revelation. Likewise, in today’s Old Testament reading, snakes are “a judgment upon Israel that reveals and symbolizes their sin”.
But why does God send snakes? Is God merely trying to punish the perpetually complaining Israelites in creative fashion? No. God’s judgment is giving people exactly what they want. And when things get difficult, what do the Israelites want, time and again? They want to return to Egypt. God has liberated them from the bondage to Pharaoh, and yet they would much rather return to a life they knew, regardless of how awful it was, then to trust in God’s promises and provision and follow Moses’ leadership. Better to be enslaved yet rooted in one place than to be free and wandering in the wilderness. Verse 4 tells us that the people were “impatient”. The word used could also be translated as ‘discouraged’ or ‘fainthearted’. Indeed, as one commentator notes, “the souls of the people were shortened”; they lacked “the soul for enduring their long and difficult journey” (Stubbs, 167). Life with God in the wilderness was simply too hard for them; they wanted relative comfort, even if it meant living in slavery. The difficulty and risk of following God were simply too much to ask. The people’s lack of faith leads them to assume that God wants them to die. The people’s focus on the immediate gratification of their desires leads them to forget God’s provision for them. How fickle God’s people can be, over and over again.
So, God gives the people exactly what they want: snakes. Wait a minute, you’re thinking, how did the people want snakes? Egyptian religion at the time considered the god Apep as the antithesis to Ra. Apep was depicted as a snake and symbolized darkness and evil to the Egyptians. In God’s sending snakes to torment Israel, God is essentially saying: you want to go back to life in Egypt? Well, let me remind you what like is like in Egypt…
In instructing Moses to fashion a snake, God is reminding His people of his victory over Egypt. God’s people did not liberate themselves; how could they? They were powerless slaves. Rather, God alone liberated His people. The people could not feed themselves in the wilderness; they had to rely on God’s provision. Similarly, it is not the bronze snake itself that saves the people; it is the God who delivers His people, the God who does not want His people to die, but desires abundant and flourishing life for them if they would but turn to Him. Looking at the bronze snake was an act of faith because it required trusting in God’s promise that “everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live” (Num. 21:8). 
The snake on the pole and the cross of Jesus Christ are both about liberation and healing. Beginning with the temptation by a serpent, all of humanity is enslaved to sin. Rebelling against God’s ways and grumbling about God’s provision seems to be our default setting. In response to our rebelling and grumbling, God gives us exactly what we want, leaving us to wander in the wilderness, a place where abundant and flourish life seem to be nothing but a mirage. And yet, God does not leave us in the wilderness to die. Rather, God shows and provides us with the way to new life. However, this pathway to new life requires that we, like the Israelites in the wilderness looking at the bronze snake, look at our sin directly, that we face it head-on in repentance in order to receive rebirth. God enacted His judgment against Israel in the wilderness by exposing the sin of the Israelites through the symbol of the serpent; God enacted His judgment against humanity on the cross of Jesus Christ by exposing the lengths at which we will go to rid ourselves of God.
Yet in both stories, God’s judgment is not the end of the story; indeed, God’s judgment is simultaneously the means by which God brings healing and salvation. Just as the Israelites looked to the bronze snake to receive physical healing, we look to the cross to see the lengths at which God would go to reconcile Himself to humanity. Furthermore, it is because of the Cross that we have the assurance that despite the suffering and difficulties we experience in this life, we too will be lifted up with Christ.
Lent is a season in which we prepare for life in the wilderness by fixing our eyes on the Cross. By doing so, we are opening ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit within who will open our eyes to see signs of resurrected life, of new and abundant life, even in the wilderness. Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to make peace “through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1.20).
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week
 David L. Stubbs, Numbers, 168.
 Perhaps unsurprisingly, the people kept the bronze serpent and worshipping it as an idol until King Hezekiah destroyed it (cf. 2 Kings 18.4).