When I was a little girl, John 3:16 was the first Bible verse that I memorized. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.” I think my Sunday school teachers believed that this verse was the one verse out of the Bible that summed up our beliefs as Christians. God loves the world. God sent Jesus to save the world.
This verse, John 3:16 alludes to the idea of salvation, that Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection play a role in saving humanity. And in Christianity’s many forms, the understanding of what exactly Jesus did to save us, what exactly Jesus saves us from, and what exactly that means can vary. In fact, there can be multiple understandings of this big concept that co-exist! And if you want to go on a meandering journey through some of these ideas, just ask myself or any of our clergy or seminary students about atonement theory. It is a theological rabbit hole that fascinated me when I first began studying theology, and I still jump down it once in a while! But I do recommend that you have a conversation partner or two, especially if, like me, you spent the first formative years of your life in an evangelical expression of our faith. Sometimes talking about what salvation means can be intense, so we are here to journey with you! And in any case, atonement theory and the study of salvation is a vast ocean of various ways of understanding what Christ’s life, death, and resurrection means for humanity, but we are just going to dip our toes into that water today.
John chapter 3 contains much of the theology that our evangelical Christian siblings hold dear. John 3:16 especially alludes to what we call substitutionary atonement: the idea that Jesus suffered and died in our place, was substituted in for us to receive God’s punishment for our sins so that we could be saved. And when I was first beginning to study theology, I didn’t realize there was any other way to view Christianity! I thought, if I believe these things, then I will be saved, and I will go to heaven after I die. But what I learned is there is so much more to Christianity than this! I’ll say it again– there is so much more to Christianity than the afterlife.
Let’s take a peek at the text together. Jesus is meeting at night in secret with Nicodemus, and earlier in the chapter had been teaching Nicodemus about being “born again” through baptism. Nicodemus struggles to wrap his literal mind around this idea, imagining a physical re-birth that would be quite traumatizing to mothers!
Jesus teases him a little, saying, “You are a teacher of Israel, yet you do not understand these things? If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”
This comparison to the Old Testament story we heard read just minutes ago fascinates me! If this is an apt comparison, then we may better understand yet another idea of what Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection actually mean for us. But perhaps most fascinating is this: we may learn a little about what Jesus thought he was coming into the world to do.
This story about Moses isn’t one that got it’s own movie like the exodus out of Egypt (best soundtrack ever); in fact, it may make us feel a little squirmy to read!!! According to the text, the Israelistes, who have been wandering in the desert for many years after their escape from Egyptian slavery, grew frustrated. They were hungry and exhausted and complained bitterly that Moses led them out slavery simply to die in the wilderness. Now if you keep going back in Numbers, you’ll see that this pattern has happened before– the people complain or disobey the laws given to them from Moses’s understanding of God, there is punishment, and they repent. The same thing happens in this story. The people complain bitterly, venomous snakes came into their midst, and many people died. The survivors came to Moses in grief and apology, and Moses prayed for them. God told Moses to make a snake of bronze and lift it up on a pole. That way, if anyone was bitten by a snake, they could look upon the bronze snake and live.
After this story, I feel it is important for us to remember two things: first, that a story in the Bible doesn’t have to be literal to be full of truth. And second, that one way of reading the Bible to consider it is full of writings by humans, like us, who were trying to find God in their lives. And the holy scriptures give us how these people, in this time, experienced God.
That said, what can we learn about salvation from snakes? It’s easy to cast snakes as a symbol of evil, when we consider the serpent that spoke to Eve in our creation story. But snakes are also symbols of wisdom and healing. And in this story, we see the bronze snake Moses made acting as a symbol of God’s healing for the Isrealites. In fact, if you remember the universal symbol of medicine is a winged staff surrounded by two snakes! Snakes have been symbols of healing and wisdom in many cultures, despite the fear many of us may feel regarding them.
So if Jesus is comparing himself the bronze snake that Moses lifted up to heal the people… what does that tell us about how Jesus sees his role?
When I pondered that this week, I kept thinking about human suffering– it is all around us, everywhere we go. Suffering from illness, poverty, grief, loneliness, mental illness. Suffering is part of the human experience, and Jesus experienced suffering during his lifetime.
For these Israelites, whether God actually sent the snakes or they simply thought God sent them, the Israelites were suffering in so many ways. Not only the exhaustion, hunger, and exposure, but now snakes. But Moses took the very thing they were suffering from and lifted it up for them to look upon, and they were healed.
Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” In the original Hebrew, this word for “lift” can be both literal and figurative lifting, so perhaps Jesus intended that double meaning. Some interpret it as the literal lifting of Jesus up onto the cross. But I’m considering the symbolism.
In the desert, the Israelites looked upon the symbol of their suffering and they were healed of that suffering and gained strength to continue their journey. The suffering did not end–they were still in the desert, hungry and exposed and exhausted. But they were able to keep going.
In the same way, Jesus is an example of human suffering. Not only his suffering on the cross but throughout his life. And the way he lived and died reminds us of some of the suffering we as humans inflict on each other. We create unjust systems that punish innocent people; we hurt one another; we cling to power even when others are oppressed; and we fear what we don’t understand and may lash out at those who are different from us. When we look at Jesus, we see the symbol of so much suffering.
But like Moses’s snake, if we look upon Jesus, we can be healed. We can gain the strength to keep going. Our suffering might not end– I have turned to Jesus time and time again over the past year, but the pandemic did not miraculously end when I did so. But looking at the life and teachings of Christ brings healing to my soul. I gain the strength to keep going. Because Jesus also represents everything that is wonderful and good about humanity. We can be kind and wise; we can bring joy and peace to others; we can be teachers and leaders and healers. We can strive to be like Jesus. And when we do, the whole of human suffering may not end. Our suffering might not end. But we can look at Christ and be healed enough to keep going.
I believe that is part of salvation too. Salvation is not just for the next life; it is for this life. Because God loved us so much, God sent Jesus to be an example of all that is good about God and about humanity. Look to Christ, today, my dear friends, and be healed enough to live one more today. Look to Christ and let’s keep going on our journey. Together. Amen.