“Look to the cross and live!” The cross that is death for Jesus is life for us. Here, in John’s gospel, we have the first of the “passion predictions” (John 3: 14; cf Mark 8: 31). John frames it very differently from the synoptic evangelists. Instead of suffering, there is elevation. Instead of death, there is the promise of life. As Moses lifts up the bronze serpent on a pole in the wilderness (cf Numbers 21: 9), so Jesus will be “lifted up”. As the Israelites looked to the serpent and lived, so people will look to the crucified Jesus – and live! This is the Easter God – a God who brings life out of death.
On one level, the story of the bronze serpent is a peculiar one to invoke. The obvious parallel is just that – obvious. The dying Israelites – bitten by the serpents – are told to look up at the bronze serpent, and, in doing so, live. Jesus, similarly, will be “lifted up” (ie on the cross) and the people who look to him – “believe” – will live. But the more we think about it, the more subtle and suggestive the image becomes. Let’s explore it further.
John’s Good Friday – coronation day!
John has a very particular way of telling his story of Jesus and we must not try to fit him into the synoptic mould. It’s a “theological” story – a story about the meaning of it all. Of course, all the evangelists tell theological stories, but John’s is most deeply steeped in symbolism and imagery. In a sense, it’s the story of Jesus through God’s eyes. Or, to put the same point differently, John is less concerned to recreate “what it was like” before Easter – to recreate that journey of discovery that the disciples underwent – than to write from an expressly post-Easter perspective, and retell the story with its meaning made clear. So, for example, Jesus comforts the disciples with the promise of Easter joy (16: 16-22) – something without parallel in the synoptic gospels.
In John’s hands, the crucifixion is portrayed as Jesus’ coronation. There is the argument over the inscription, “The King of the Jews”, between Pilate and the chief priests (19: 19-22). It is allowed to stand as a sign: this man is nothing less than a king! And it is written in all the known languages of the world – Hebrew, Latin and Greek. Earlier, Jesus is crowned with thorns and decked in the purple robe of authority (19: 1-5). The irony of Pilate’s “Ecce homo” (“Behold the man!”) is not that Jesus is pitiful, but is regal! What his mockers and enemies fail to discern is in fact true: behold – the king!
Read John’s crucifixion and try to picture it. I don’t know about you, but even before I’d done John 101 at university, I always had a picture of the cross being very high. Jesus was “lifted up”. I imagined the people at the foot of the cross having to stand back a little and gaze up in order to see properly. Rather like the bronze serpent on the pole …
And just as the lifting up of the serpent was a prophetic, priestly and symbolic act – a liturgical act – so is the crucifixion of Jesus in John’s gospel. It draws the eye upward in homage – which is as it should be, because here we gaze upon our king and God’s salvation for the world.
Serpents and Incarnation (Numbers 21: 4-9)
What on earth has the bronze serpent to do with the Incarnation? Actually, quite a lot, I suspect. The serpent is, of course, the symbol of disobedience and death. It is the serpent who, in the story of the Fall, tempts the first humans to disobey God. And that is not just a single, isolated act of naughtiness. Nothing is ever the same again – symbolised by “Their eyes were opened, and they knew they were naked” (Genesis 3:7). This primordial act of disobedience signals far more than a one-off “slip”. It signals the human determination to make a world without God. The theological shorthand for this is “sin”. It is a deliberate turning away from the source of Life. Sin and death thus become inextricably interlinked. Death is the end result of disobedience. And the serpent becomes a potent symbol of human rebellion against and rejection of God.
It is no accident, therefore, that in the story of the bronze serpent in Numbers 21, Yahweh responds to the whinging of the Israelites by sending poisonous serpents to bite and kill them. They accuse Yahweh of bringing them into the wilderness to die – when Yahweh has delivered them from slavery and death (Egypt) to bring freedom and Life. The response of the Israelites in the wilderness is explicitly a re-run of the Fall narrative in Genesis. What should be a source of Life and fellowship with Yahweh is spoiled. Yahweh sends the serpents – not so much as a “rap across the knuckles” but as way of showing the deadly consequences of rejecting Life. The serpents are a symbol of the fact that the Israelite rebellion against Yahweh is part of the long story of human disobedience and rejection of Yahweh that begins in the narrative of the Garden.
But note that Moses is commanded to make an image of the serpent. Isn’t that strange? Why make a symbol of death as the source of life? Why not manna, or stone tablets – something that suggests the contrast between death and Yahweh, who gives life? There’s clearly something about the bronze serpent as a symbol of Yahweh’s power to bring life out of death. The very symbol of death becomes deconstructed because it now brings life.
Read through Christian eyes, it takes on even deeper significance. Jesus is quite explicitly the pre-existent Son of God from all eternity in John’s theology (cf John 1: 1-3). In 3:13 (the verse preceding the lectionary reading) he is the One who has “descended from heaven” (ie “come down”). This is Incarnation – God walking among us. Think about it in this way for as moment: the serpent is a symbol of death – and so are human beings! They symbolise darkness, lostness, rebellion, sin and death! And God, in order to save us, is to be found as a human being! In other words, the story of God’s salvation – from Exodus to Incarnation – is the story of God entering into lostness and redeeming it. And in the same way, the lifting up of Jesus on the cross is both the symbol of the very depths to which humanity sinks (the most potent symbol of evil) and the sign and symbol of Life! In other words, both the serpent and the crucified Jesus become the means of Life because God is there! They don’t show God’s pious horror and avoidance of the messiness and darkness of human living, but God’s embracing of it in order to save us. God, in love, embraces what is utterly opposite to God – suffering and death.
Salvation – the Life of God
The bronze serpent brings life for dying Israelites. They survive in order to continue their journey of deliverance with Yahweh. Jesus brings more than that. Jesus gives eternal life (3: 15f). Why do we always think of eternal life in terms of quantity? And why do we always suppose it refers primarily to some other place (heaven) rather than earth? When we think like this, we effectively call creation a cosmic mistake, and salvation becomes the ultimate “Get Out of Jail Free” card (or is it rather the “Move Directly to ‘Go’” card?).
Jesus, John tells us, was responsible for creation. The purpose of the Incarnation was to save creation, not save us from it! Salvation is about Life with God in this world. Now, of course, this life is not all there is. But eternal life is primarily about the Life of God and life with God – what John calls “Life in all its abundance” (10:10). What the cross points to is that Life and God is to be found precisely in the places and moments of deepest darkness and hopelessness. The Life of God – the Light of Christ – is to be found where it has no right being! It is a Life that is stronger than death – strong enough to embrace it and rob it of its power. That is why the Light of Christ shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never been able to put it out (1:5)!
Grace and eternity (Ephesians 2: 1-10)
Isn’t this precisely what Paul tells us in Ephesians 2: 1-10? We were dead – cut off from God and Life, slaves to powers of darkness and destruction. God does not turn away from us, because God is “rich in mercy” (v4) and does not leave us to a living death. Instead, God “resurrects” us (v5b) in Christ. And if there is a need for life beyond death, it is because God needs all that time to show us “the immeasurable riches of God’s grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (v7). Now that is some reason for eternity! I don’t know about you, but the idea of heaven as going on and on and on for the sake of it doesn’t particularly inspire me. Longevity for its own sake runs the risk of boredom on a cosmic scale! But eternity as necessary in order to experience all the good things God has for us – that is something deeply attractive, isn’t it?
And it’s all because of God’s grace. It’s not a result of what we do, because there’s nothing we can do! Whatever needed doing was what Christ did on the cross. That is the work of salvation. And it has been done! This makes possible life in the Spirit – abundant life, life as God intends for us. The living of this life, and the transformation it brings, is what Paul refers to as the “good works”. This is what Jesus did – it was the way he lived as a human being. These “good works” are a shorthand for Christ-likeness: living in such a way as to bring Life, not death.
We are on a Lenten journey. At this point, we are called to stand at the foot of the cross and look up. If we have eyes to see, we see two things: firstly, we “see” the darkness. The crucifixion of Jesus is never less than absolutely evil and horrific. We see ourselves exposed – we see what “sin” really means. It isn’t just the guilt that is so suffocating. What is so soul-sapping is the scale of the mess we’re in. There is no way out of the darkness. It traps us. We are held in powers that we have unleashed and created. The only end to the road is death – not just the cessation of life, but the end of everything that is worthwhile. That rings true of our experience of the world. We have created a global economy that deals death to most of the world’s inhabitants. Life for the majority of the globe’s inhabitants is hell on earth. And when we become aware of these things, then we who live in the prosperous west and north are trapped in a cycle of guilt and despair. Our best efforts to change things run into the sand. We realise that the eradication of poverty is both possible and cheap – yet there isn’t the will to sort it out. We realise the suffering we inflict on others – yet are powerless to stop it.
Liberation from suffering and slavery (Psalm 107: 1-3; 17-22)
We are like the people in Psalm 107 who realise the mess they have got themselves into (Psalm 107: 4, 10 & 17). We are “in trouble and distress”.
To be the People of God is to be people whose fundamental identity resides in the fact that we have been rescued by God. We are “The Redeemed of the Lord” (Psalm 107: 2). In the Old Testament, to be “Israel” meant to be rescued by Yahweh from the brick pits of Pharaoh and made into a nation. The experience of the psalmist in Psalm 107 reflects the age-old cycle of the experience of the People of God; they are in the sorts of trouble against which they are helpless. They are trapped. But Yahweh is the One who hears, sees and acts to deliver them.
The things that hold us and stifle the Life God intends are not only those that come from external sources; they are our own, deliberate creation – what the psalmist refers to as “our sinful ways; our iniquities” (v17). And yet, even in that situation, it is appropriate to “cry out to Yahweh” (v19a); and when they do, Yahweh hears and heals (v19b).
What are we to learn about the human condition in the light of God? It is this: God is gracious. For this reason – because God is gracious and because God loves and wills Life – the darkest hour becomes the last hour of the night before the dawn of God’s (and our) New Day.
The darkest hour before the dawn
“Look up!” is the Lenten command. We look at the crucified Jesus – and see first of all the darkness. But as we continue looking, we also see the first rays of the new dawn. This is resurrection. It is God’s New Day – and it is a gift of grace. It has no right to exist. God ought not to behave as God does. It is not right – not just. Grace is an offence to any decent human being who wants to insist that justice is about deserts. God is a God of steadfast love who hears our cries and delivers us from our troubles and distress (the psalmist). God is “rich in mercy” and makes us alive in Christ (Paul). This is because God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but, though him, to save it (John). And so we see in the cross – as the Israelites saw in the serpent – not only our darkness, but God’s Life. Look up and live!