Sermon for Fourth Sunday in Lent
Readings: Numbers 21:4–9, Ephesians 2:1–10 & John 3:14–21
The gospels often depict Jesus quoting Scripture from the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament as we know it), and we see that in today’s passage from the Gospel of John.
Jesus is engaged in a private conversation with Nicodemus, a Pharisee who has come to talk with Jesus in secret. To help Nicodemus understand what he has previously said about the new birth that comes from baptism, Jesus says to him, “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.”
The event involving Moses, which Jesus refers to, is of course the subject of our Old Testament reading this morning from the Book of Numbers. As had happened on a number of previous occasions, while Moses led the Israelites on their exodus from Egypt to the promised land of Canaan, the Israelites complained to both God and Moses about having neither food nor water to sustain them.
This time, in response to the people’s complaining, God sends poisonous snakes among them, with the result that many people are bitten and die. The Israelites then go to Moses and repent, acknowledging that they sinned by speaking against both him and God, and they ask Moses to pray to God that He will take the snakes away. Interestingly, God doesn’t take the snakes away. What He does do though, is instruct Moses to erect a bronze snake on a pole, so that whenever anyone is bitten, they can look at the bronze snake and be healed. However, it wasn’t the snake that healed the people, but rather the people’s belief that God could heal them. This belief was demonstrated by their obedience to God’s instructions.
Jesus uses this story in today’s gospel passage as a metaphor for his crucifixion, death and resurrection. The analogy would not have been lost on Nicodemus who, as a Pharisee, was well versed in the ancient Scriptures. He would have known that what Jesus was saying is that in the same way as the Israelites were saved from snake bite because of their belief in God, people who believed that Jesus was the Messiah would be saved from eternal death.
It’s interesting to look at a comparison of the story of Moses and the snakes, with Jesus’ comments to Nicodemus, to understand what Jesus really meant, and how that is still relevant for us today. I found the following table which I think does a good job of presenting the comparison.
THE SNAKE IN THE WILDERNESS
Compare the texts Numbers 21:7-9 and John 3:14, 15.
Bitten by snakes Bitten by sin
Little initial pain, then intense suffering Little initial pain, then intense suffering
Physical death from snakes’ poison Spiritual death from sin’s poison
Bronze snake lifted up in the wilderness Christ lifted up on the cross
Looking to the snake spared one’s life Looking to Christ saves from eternal death
So for Christians, our salvation happens when we look to Jesus, believing he will save us.
The Gospel of John tells us that mission Jesus was sent by God to save the world, not to condemn it. Perhaps when we think of salvation we might think of it in terms of judgement. Meaning that with the Second Coming of Jesus, which is often associated with the term Day of Judgement, Jesus will separate people into two groups – ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’ – and the believers will be saved, while the non-believers will be punished. In this scenario, it is Jesus (or God) who is seen to judge and condemn. But in today’s gospel passage, it is human beings who condemn themselves.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that non-believers have already been condemned because they don’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God (or Messiah). God has revealed Himself to people in Jesus, and by His grace has offered them the gift of salvation and eternal life, however by denying Jesus, people are rejecting this gift that God has offered. They are refusing to accept God’s grace, and are therefore under self-condemnation.
The author of the Letter to the Ephesians writes that we were dead because of sin, but that through His great love for us, and by the death of Jesus on the cross, God raises us up with Jesus into eternal life. And none of this is our doing, it is by God’s grace that we are offered this gift. All we have to do is to receive it.