John 3:14-27 New Living Translation (NLT)
14 And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.
16 “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. 17 God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.
18 “There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son. 19 And the judgment is based on this fact: God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. 20 All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. 21 But those who do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants.”
In his introduction to the books of Moses the author of The Message, Eugene Peterson, describes how God is ‘presented to us not in ideas and arguments but in events and actions that involve each of us personally’. In other words, the way in which God taught us how to live as men and women of faith in the beginning was by hitting us with something hard enough until we couldn’t doubt that it was meant for us. The Israelites were given very specific instructions from God time and time again and still they screwed up ( See: the manna and quail incident…). It makes sense that God ended up quite literally signposting the way to Heaven, because what else could get through to us?
Verse 14 of this passage is possibly the most obvious case of this signposting in the Bible. The Israelites had once again begun to grumble against a leader who had refused to give up on them and a God who had literally just rescued them from warring tribes, asking Moses:
‘Why have you brought us up out of the desert to die? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” (Numbers 21.5 NIV)
The people saved from violence are complaining about the lack of variety on the miraculous menu? In response, the Lord sent venomous snakes to poison the people. This seems pretty harsh. And it is… but I promise you there was a point to it. Moses is instructed by God to hold up a bronze snake on a pole and all who look at it are saved from death. He shows the Israelites what could happen if they continue to stray from his guidance. This is not in a “You better not disobey” sort of way but more of a “Come on guys, I’ve already told you where to place your trust”. He sets the choice in motion to choose between him or the wilderness and shows them where the wilderness will get them, but also where the signpost to salvation was. It couldn’t have been easier; “Me, or the snakes”. I’ll take the benevolent God, thank you very much.
Jesus’ reference to the Bronze Snake comes as part of his conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus who comes to Jesus and questions how someone can be born again. Jesus’ response?
'I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.' (John 3.11 NIV)
He’d spoken on our terms, he’d said and done all he could (barring his death and resurrection of course) and yet still the people could not see just what they had to do to enter the Kingdom. From the beginning we’d received the signs but they hadn’t quite gotten through. The ultimate standard was finally here; the bronze snake, the log that would hit you in the face so hard you can’t deny that he at least tried to get your attention, the literal Son of God who wanted nothing more than to show you the way to the upside-down Kingdom. Jesus was finally here and he was holding a sign so easy to understand a child could easily grasp it:
“This way to Heaven”.
This idea of constant, insistent signposting from God is what blows me away the most. The willingness of a god to sacrifice even his own flesh for us inspires a sense of awe that doesn’t even come close to the true mark. This awe is multiplied exponentially when you consider that God didn’t get tired of putting the same signposts up on the road when we inevitably wandered, and will wander, off. He must have really wanted us to see the sign. Think of an aggressive marketing service trying to sell you eternal happiness for the low low cost of nothing. From the beginning he’d had the flag flying. Salvation is no great secret to be divulged – it’s free and has been very clearly marked since day one. Just look back to the Old Testament and its vast array of prophecies, mirrors and analogies. Thinking about this passage with a more powerful lens removes it from the realm of over-used Christianese verses to become a stark reminder; God wasn’t just guiding us by putting the ultimate signal down - Jesus - he was guiding us all along. We simply have to look for the signs.
Alex McElwee is a Dublin born student just entering into college as a fresh-faced and bushy-tailed nineteen year old. He hopes to enroll in the UCD arts block in September to study English and Classical Civilisations. Alex has loved writing from a young age, a passion that he likes to use in conjunction with his faith. When you’re not catching him waxing poetically in his notebook you might find Alex reading the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, drinking coffee by the litre or working out in a suspect warehouse gym.