Jesus > Snake on a Stick
When I was little I used this ‘quiet book’ that my mom made for me. It had many activities to keep me busy – especially in church. And at its center was a felt bible in which there was and is one verse: “For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16. What more quoted verse is there in all of scripture – billboards, screensavers, posters, protest signs, t-shirts, tattoos and even (I am not kidding) football player eye-black (Tim Tebow). Often the posters and tattoos just include the reference – not even the verse itself. It’s that well known.
The problem – and this can be a problem any time a text is taken out of its context – is that most of the ways it’s used in those settings is meant as an indictment against some sin – either specific or general unGodliness – and a call to salvation through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I’m necessarily against a ‘personal relationship with Jesus Christ’ but I don’t really think that’s what Jesus was talking about when he spoke these words to Nicodemus one dark night.
It is helpful (I think) to not that there is indeed a specific context out of which this verse comes. Like all of what Jesus taught and spoke, he has an audience. The Gospel writer has an audience. And it isn’t us. The episode begins in a conversation between Nicodemus, a teacher who comes to Jesus in cover of darkness to ask him about his work and witness and it is written to a community of people who
It’s so familiar and yet we never see John 3:14 on a billboard or a t-shirt, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up.” That would just be confusing. And yet, the fact is that John 3:16 (or 3:16 and 17 and following) build on that story alluded to in John 3:14 and 15. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. 16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
Jesus takes a story well known to his audience: a story of a grumbling, beleaguered and snake bitten people. God’s people. And the way that God offered relief by instructing Moses to construct out of bronze a symbol of their misery. He raised a snake on a stick. The people looked at this thing that was killing them, raised up in the wilderness and they were healed. Looking at the serpent coiled around the raised pole brought life.
So, says Jesus, must the Human One be raised up. The author of this Gospel is careful with his words here. Jesus talks about being raised up because it can mean a couple different things. The first meaning is on the cross. Maybe the most obvious meaning. Jesus is foreshadowing his death. His death on the very thing that is inflicting misery on his people. It is causing them to be weakened and kept down. But he will also be ‘raised up’ from death after crucifixion. To be raised up also means to be ‘exalted’. He has just suggested to Nicodemus that he will ascend (be raised up) to be in God’s presence and for John the event of crucifixion is continuous with resurrection and ascension. One flows through and gives meaning to the others.
The bronze snake is simply a statue. It’s one that represents and brings healing, but it’s raised and it’s usefulness has been fulfilled. In the end it is just a symbol and an object. In his death, not only does While the Human One refers to this story, he is like the serpent raised up by Moses, what he offers in being raised up, and in being raised up and raised again – through that continuous motion of death, resurrection and ascension – for those who would see and believe, is not just life but eternal life.
In the wilderness, the people who followed Moses received life. And how great is that. God was willing to relent and save their sorry butts. But life was still just life: wandering and waiting for the promise of the land to come. Life offered in Jesus is ζωὴν αἰώνιον (zoen aioneon). It is everlasting, eternal. And this is where so many go off the rails in understanding what eternal life really means. There is not a quantitative difference in the experience of life but a qualitative one between the Jesus life and the snake-on-a-stick life. That is life everlasting or is not about living longer in an endless duration of human life – even about life after death or life in heaven. Jesus doesn’t mention death.
Eternal life is a way of describing life in the unending presence of God beginning right now. Even as Jesus is describing it, it is. Eternal life is not something that we wait on to see if it happens later. God’s presence is now. To have everlasting life is to be given the gift of life in relationship with God as God’s own child.
John 3:16 begins in Love. Eternal life – the Jesus life – is grounded in God’s deep and abiding love for the whole world. We don’t often see John 3:17 on posters either: God did not send the Only Begotten One to be judge of the world but to save the world. As we see the theme of covenant emerge in different ways throughout this season – God’s ongoing promise to be in relationship with all of creation, this promise is no different. In fact more often than not, ‘the world’ or ‘kosmos‘ is used to represent the enemies of God – those who are the opposition to what Jesus is proclaiming.
That sounds a whole lot different from how this verse is often used – in its posters and protest signs. In most instances those signs seem to indicate an ‘I’m in, you’re out’ ‘I made the right choice, you’re going to hell’ attitude. They also pour judgment on sin, on sinfulness and divide people into categories of the sinful and the righteous – of which the sign-carriers of course are a part.
It is true that if everlasting life – eternal life – life in relationship with God begins now, now is the moment of judgment. Not God’s judgment but ours. It is the crisis moment. “This is the judgment: The light came into the world, and people loved darkness more than the light, for their actions are evil. 20 All who do wicked things hate the light and don’t come to the light for fear that their actions will be exposed to the light. 21 Whoever does the truth comes to the light so that it can be seen that their actions were done in God.”
This is about God’s love and humanity in crisis – a humanity that needs to choose. When eternal life and the conversation with Nicodemus continues to be relevant is out of that context is that eternal life also begins now… and now… and now demands a decision – that’s the moment of judgment. A Human One who comes into the world to shed light on the world necessarily threatens what is dark in the world.
It’s not really a fair contest. In the book for children by Robert Munsch call The Dark, dark is a character discovered by a little girl called Jule Ann, who finds it in the bottom of a cookie jar. The Dark grows and grows as it eats shadows – the shadow of the cookie jar, the shadow of the toaster, the shadow of grass and and telephone poles and trees. Shining light on it doesn’t do anything to diminish it. The Dark becomes as big as a house and roosts on top of the house, blocking all the light. It’s so dark the children can’t play. The parents and other adults get lost when they tried to find their way.
But in life and in John’s reflection on eternal life, it is always the light that overcomes. Right from the beginning: “What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.” If you turn on a light in a dark room, the room is light. Darkness cannot say ‘no’. If there’s still a shadow and you shine a light into the shadow – it’s no longer in darkness.
In every ‘now’ of the love that God continues to offer there are those choosing darkness/evil (and John doesn’t talk about sinfulness, he talks about people doing evil things who are afraid of being exposed) and there are those who are choosing the light, that is to dwell in relationship with God. Which will you choose? Nicodemus goes away still in the dark. But it is Nicodemus in another now – later in John – who makes a choice to bring burial spices of myrrh and aloe and to wrap Jesus body and care for him after crucifixion.
More good news: eternal life is also an invitation to dwell with others in God’s light. We are told that all who believe in the Human One will have eternal life. We tend to be a community that doesn’t talk so much about belief as in our shared practices. Gordon, when he was with us clarified this about us. And yet John doesn’t really separate one from the other. We believe in the light overcoming the darkness and so we act as though is does and it has. We believe that we are a community of the Human One, the one who confronts the world with light and so we act in hospitality to others and we shine a light where there is still darkness.
Melanie read us some ‘headlines’ last week that were examples of how the way we are already practicing the belief in an eternal life that starts now – a kingdom economy much different than a one-time healing and much more deep and relational and light-filled than even heaven. May we truly live it.