The desert snake
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15 KJV).
Early in his Gospel, John revealed that Jesus’ life would be the light for humanity (1:4).1 But he does not immediately unpack that statement theologically. He begins to do so in chapter 3. Nicodemus, who is a theologian, comes to Jesus at night for a conversation on spiritual matters. At that point in his life, Nicodemus could be called a success. He probably felt that he had as good a chance as anyone of getting on God’s good side – and earning his salvation, simply as a result of his theological knowledge. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus knew the Torah. He had become an expert on the books of Moses.
Jesus had a genius of connecting with people. He connected to Nicodemus on a deep theological level by reminding him of a story that appears in the Torah: the story of the desert snake:
4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? Because there is no food and no water, and our souls loathe this worthless food.” 6 Then Yahveh sent fiery snakes among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, because we have spoken against Yahveh and against you. Pray to Yahveh, that he take away the snakes from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And Yahveh said to Moses, “Make a fiery snake and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, will live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and set it on a pole. And if a snake bit anyone, he would look at the bronze snake and live.2
Moses interceded once again, as he often did, for the rebellious, complaining people of Israel. But notice, God did not give the people what they asked for. They asked for God to take away the snakes. But God told Moses to have a bronze snake constructed. It would give the people relief, but it would also serve as a reminder of their mistakes. We don’t want that, do we? We want the healing, and also to forget why the sickness came. Jesus went to the cross to be brutally crucified on our behalf. By his death and resurrection, he became like that desert snake. He is God’s remedy for us, but also a reminder of our mistakes.
Jesus used the Old Testament story to relate those ancient events to the new situation: his mission. Roger Van Harn says that “John tells how Jesus spoke about the lifted-up serpent in the wilderness to describe his own mission. And who can miss the connection between Israel’s murmuring about the diet in the wilderness and the leaders’ murmuring at Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:41)?”3 Jesus is both the provision rejected, and the provision for restoring those who have rejected God’s provision. You cannot come to God, apart from Jesus, and get him to fix your life. That is no more an option than it was for the Israelites to get rid of the snakes that had infested their camp. The problem was that they had rejected God’s Manna. The snake on the pole would be a reminder of their sin. The symbol of death was something they had to look to, and believe in.
That bronze snake on a pole “survived four hundred years in the temple at Jerusalem until the eighth century BCE, when King Hezekiah had it destroyed because people were offering pagan sacrifices to it (2 Kings 18:4).”4 The Israelites lost sight of the lesson God had taught them by the symbol, and began to put their trust in the symbol itself. A similar thing happens when people carry small crosses around for good luck. The value of the symbol is only as good as what it represents. The bronze snake was a symbol of healing and a longer life offered by God, who forgives.
“The bronze snake is a clear and obvious symbol of Jesus being raised up at Calvary”5 God offers forgiveness from sin, and a permanent reversal of the sting of death. And he offers that resurrection only through Christ. Martin Luther observed that when “Moses lifted up the snake on a pole, many Israelites disapproved of God’s command to look at it because it wasn’t pleasant. Only believing Israelites—and no one else—understood and were healed because of their faith in the Word.”6 Likewise, many are turned off by the bloody nature of Christ’s death on the cross, and seek a solution to the sin problem in a more sanitized philosophical environment. Perhaps Nicodemus was looking for something like that. If he was, no wonder he was confused when Jesus reminded him of that ugly story about the snakes in the desert. But sin cannot be taught away. There has to be a death, and a resurrection.
As Shepherd puts it “we’ve all been snake bit with the poison of sin, we all need to look to Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins.”7 But Jesus went beyond that in his discourse with Nicodemus. We need more than forgiveness. Sin has made us mortal, and the new “snake in the desert” offers a solution to that problem too. Jesus goes on to say that whoever believes in the lifted up Son of Man will not perish, but have permanent life.
What does it mean to perish?
Those Israelites in the desert were mortal, so the snakebites were potentially fatal. They would die without the remedy that Moses gave them with the fashioned snake on a pole. But Nicodemus knew that Jesus was not talking about normal mortality. Jesus clued him in to that fact when he referred to seeing and entering the kingdom of God.8 Jesus was talking about the kingdom to come in which death would be abolished. But, like the story in Numbers 21, some will not survive the snakebites. They will not look to the symbol of suffering in faith and be cured, so they will die in the desert and never see the promised land. These perished. They did not stay alive somewhere and suffer perpetually. They died.
To perish is to die, as is seen in these uses of the Greek word ἁπόλλυμι:
- your right eye perishes if you tear it out.9
- your right hand perishes if you cut it off.10
- God will not allow the hairs on believers’ heads to perish.11
- leftover food perishes if it is not collected and preserved.12
- some Jewish leaders believed the Romans cause them to perish if they let Jesus live.13
As Jesus was explaining to Nicodemus, that Old Testament story applies to all of us. We will not all suffer the painful death of snakebite in the desert, but we all know the pain of sin, and know that without God’s provision for that problem, we will face permanent death. Jesus tells us that his death on the cross has bought us another option: permanent life (ζωή αἱώνιος).
We need to allow Jesus’ story to sink in. It is a simple story that is not embellished by any pagan concepts of survival in an afterlife. It is the promise of a permanent remedy to the problems of sin and death, and it places that victory not at death but in the coming kingdom. Jesus promised his disciples that he would come again and bring us to himself.14 That is when he will fulfil this promise and give us permanent life. That is the conditionalist message, and that was Jesus’ message to Nicodemus.
1ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν, καὶ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶϛ τῶν ἀνθρώπων·
3Roger Van Harn, Preacher, Can You Hear Us Listening? (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2005), 54.
4Richard R. Losch, All the People in the Bible: An A-Z Guide to the Saints, Scoundrels, and Other Characters in Scripture. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. 2008), 307.
5Brett Eastman, Dee Eastman, Todd Wendorff, and Denise Wendorff. Influence: Living a Contagious Life. Building Character Together. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan. 2007), 60.
6Martin Luther, and James C Galvin. Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional. Updated ed. in today’s language. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan. 2005), 12.
7Linda E. Shepherd, The Stress Cure: Praying Your Way to Personal Peace. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Revell. 2014), 23.
8John 3:3, 5.