Snakes and the Cross:
Normal people aren’t friends with snakes. Snakes and humans are natural enemies. Snakes are creepy and often dangerous and always make a good companion for a villain. They certainly aren’t the hero of the story. That’s why Numbers 21 and John 3 work together in a fantastically ironic and beautiful way.
Jesus draws an incredible parallel between a snake and the crucifixion (John 3:14-15). If you remember Numbers 21, the children of Israel begin to complain against God…..again. This is a constant problem after the Exodus. They long to go back to Egypt. Back to slavery where they were miserable, cried and wept for deliverance, hopelessly labored without end, and had their children murdered and thrown into the Nile. You know, the good ol’ days. Well, during this complaint a plague of venomous serpents swarmed the camp and people started dying. They cried out to God, who heard them, and prepared a means of salvation. Moses was to fashion a serpent made of bronze, put it high on a pole, and all who were bitten could look up to the bronze serpent and miraculously be saved. God did not, by the way, rescue them by removing the snakes. That would have been by preference. Instead, he allowed them coexist with the snakes, but gave them a means of deliverance through it.
The serpent on a pole has long been a symbol of healing power, from Moses to Asclepius to Hermes even to the modern field of medicine. But Jesus sees this symbol from Numbers 21 as the prefiguration of a different kind of healing. Just like that rod with the bronze serpent was lifted up, so will the Son of Man be lifted up. Ironically, serpents were the cause of death in Numbers 21 but a serpent lifted high was the means of salvation. In our lives, death is the problem we all face but a death lifted high is the means of salvation. The death of Jesus. And it is that death to which we all must look. A beautiful life-giving death.
Just like those venomous snakes still existed to bite and spread death in Numbers 21, so sin and its lethal bite still exist in our world. But a means of salvation exists right alongside. This sacrificial means of salvation is the clearest image of the love of God that can be seen: “For God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but will have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Before the bronze serpent was made, the people were already bitten and dying. The bronze serpent had one purpose, to bring about salvation. Condemnation was already part of the story. So it is with the coming of Jesus. The world condemned itself on its own without Jesus’ help. He came not to condemn, but to provide a way out of it (John 3:17-18). To be a source of salvation out of the sin and death of the world. A focal point of deliverance and the love of God.
Light and Darkness:
Now the conversation with Nicodemus immediately shifts again to a major talking point in the Gospel of John: light and darkness. In John, “night”, “darkness”, and “blindness”, are all representative of a spiritual condition without Christ. Jesus came as a Light to shine in the darkness (John 1:4-5, 9). He twice describes Himself as the “Light of the World” (John 8:12; 9:5). The first time is a call to leave darkness and to have “the Light of Life.” The second is a description of his role in the world right before He heals a blind man. Giving sight to the blind, one who sees only darkness, is done by the Light of the World. Those who are in darkness need this light. Those who are blind need this light. And by the way, Nicodemus, those who come to Jesus “at night” need this light. Remember when Judas left to go betray Jesus? Guess what time it was? “So after receiving the morsel he went out immediately; and it was night” (John 13:30). Judas needed this Light.
In Genesis 1, light is the first thing God sends to the world of chaotic water and darkness. In John 1, Light is what God sends to the chaotic world of sin and darkness. Jesus came as a Light to enlighten the world, not to condemn it. But tragically the world preferred darkness. Imagine in Genesis 1, the world rejecting God’s act of creation. In John we see the world is actively rejecting God’s act of New Creation. But there are some that don’t. Some actually are born from above. Some see the kingdom as it truly is. Some come out of darkness into His marvelous Light. Some, Mr. Nicodemus, find eternal life.
Summarizing the Conversation:
This conversation has a lot of twists and turns, but I think the key to it all is in the first words Jesus says to Nicodemus: “Unless one is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Jesus is bringing a kingdom. This kingdom is “not of this world” (John 18:36). It’s easy enough to see a worldly kingdom. The Roman Empire was so visible no one could miss it. But Jesus’ kingdom can be missed if you don’t look carefully.
Remember when Jesus is arrested, beaten, and paraded before the Jews with a purple robe and a crown of thorns on His head? He stood there, alone, bloodied in weakness and anguish while Pilate said, “Behold, your King!” That’s a kingdom moment. Most people who look, they don’t see the sacrificial love of God, they don’t see the Light of the world, they certainly don’t see a king. They see weakness and failure and a fool getting what He deserves. They see a false Messiah. A failed rebellion. A criminal who lost to the mighty Roman Empire. The kingdom of God is appearing right in front of them, and they walk by waging their heads.
But those who have been born from above have eyes that see. They see the kingdom and they behold their King. I wish I knew more, but the story of Nicodemus ends with a “perhaps.” Perhaps Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea give Jesus the burial worthy of a king (John 19:38-42) because their eyes have been opened. Perhaps birth from above is causing them to see things that they previously missed. Perhaps an entirely new life awaits them. Perhaps the same could be said of you. Perhaps.