John 3 vs 14 - 15
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
In a few weeks time, around Easter you may see politicians appear on television wearing a white lily, or around July men walking with banners and orange lilies affixed to them. Growing up here you won’t need anyone to explain the background to these lily symbols. However, in the event that you might be reading this in a different culture or context the white or Easter Lily is a symbol adopted by Irish Republicans to commemorate the Easter rising against British rule in 1916, whereas the orange lily, a symbol precious to Ulster Loyalists and the Orange institution commemorates William of Orange, a protestant monarch, and his victory over the forces of his father in law King James II, the last catholic King of Britain and Ireland. That is as much as I’m going to say on that one, the rest you will have to look up on Wikipedia. Lilies then have been adopted as symbols by opposite sides of our political divide.
My point, in walking that tight rope, is that the symbols are meaningful only if you know the background. If you haven’t a clue you may think that these things represent rival gardening clubs!
How many times have you read John’s gospel and never taken much notice of the snake being lifted up because you didn’t know the background. On the other hand when Jesus said this to Nicodemus he knew immediately the background and significance of Jesus words.
The incident Jesus spoke about is told in Numbers 21:4-9 in the context of further grumbling and disbelief on the part of Israel. They began to complain against God and Moses that they are fed up with God’s provision of manna, why had God brought them into the desert to die, they were better off in Egypt and so on. Ungrateful bunch, they had forgotten the reality of their plight and the fact they had cried to be rescued and God graciously answered. They longed for Egypt and as a punishment for their sin God allowed them to be plagued by venomous snakes a symbol of Egyptian power and many died. Back they came to Moses, confessed their sin and asked if he would pray that the Lord would take the snakes away. Rather than do that God told Moses to cast a snake and put it on a pole in the camp, and anyone bitten by a snake could look at the symbol and live. Ironically, the instrument of judgement, the snake, became the symbol of forgiveness and healing power. Behind it of course, lay the grace of a loving God.
You see now, I hope, why Jesus referred to this obscure event in the wilderness. Jesus, lifted on the cross is the one to whom we look in faith for rescue from the result of sin and for the gift of eternal life. Now, when we see a cross we understand the background behind the symbol. The cross points us to the grace of God and to Jesus who on the cross died to atone for our sin. As we look to him in faith our sins are forgiven and we receive the gift of eternal life. In that way a thing that was the instrument of judgement and certain death became a symbol of forgiveness and new life.