Gospel of John: Sign of the Serpent


Jesus had given Nicodemus two real life, earthly illustrations: birth, and the wind. Now Jesus was going to challenge Nicodemus to lean into this teaching as they moved to theology, and a third, spiritual, illustration.


Jesus looked at Nicodemus with great compassion mixed with somber concern. To Jesus’ discerning eyes, the outwardly dignified Pharisee was going through inward upheaval. The entire system of thought he had embraced for over a half-century now battled with the bracing new teaching this strange young rabbi was giving him. Had he truly been a fresh and youthful talmidim, he would have been drinking this in like it were the sparkling springs of Dan, the fountainhead of living water that refreshed all Israel. As it was, he could barely grasp hold of what Jesus was saying.

“Amen, Amen, I say to you,” Jesus held Nicodemus’ troubled eyes with his own and spoke slowly. “What we have knowledge of we speak of, and what we discern and perceive we testify to.”

Did Jesus mean his and the Baptist’s testimony?

Nicodemus was the first to break off their gaze. He looked down and studied his own hands, as he worked the edge of his prayer shawl. It was a matter of honor that his shawl had become worn with the countless times he had drawn it over his head to recite his morning and evening prayers. Even simply touching the cloth, and following one of its blue stripes, gave him comfort.

After a while, Jesus’ roughened palms and fingers appeared in his line of vision, as he gently took Nicodemus’ refined hands in his own. The touch startled the elderly Pharisee, and he looked up to see Jesus contemplating him with his kind eyes.

“And yet. . .” Jesus paused again, allowing the time and silence to settle between them. The wind blew, the trees rustled, the crickets and cicadas sang into the night, the moon gleamed and stars twinkled. Nicodemus could feel the hairs rising on his arms and neck.  

“You all do not take hold of our testimony.”

Jesus had spoken softly, yet with intensity. Nicodemus understood it was not simply his own failing, his lack, but rather it was the hindrance of his sect, so deeply devoted to the words of God and the things of God, their path seemingly so very close to God. But instead of bringing them closer to God, and to the mysteries of God, their path was on an obdurate march away from the center of salvation. Their teachings, so close to the truth, instead created a barrier of oral law and spiritual pride to the truth Nicodemus was so yearning to see.

Jesus continued, “If I spoke of the earthly things to you all, and you all do not believe, how will you all believe if I put forth to you all the heavenly things?

It was an important question. Really, in this moment, with the darkness pressing in around them, it was the only question. Nicodemus was quiet, yet he could feel a muscle begin to twitch by his left eye, something that only happened when he was under great pressure. He suddenly thought of the meeting he had come from that very day, the meeting that had prompted this visit.

There had been grandstanding, the grabbing of garments as though to rend them apart in a dramatic show of rage and grief. “He is dangerous!” one from the Sadducee camp had shouted. Well, everyone knew he was really talking about the temple debacle. It would take some time to convince vendors and money changers it was safe again, to invest in a stall in the Court of the Gentiles. And the people had loved it! With coins scattered everywhere, animals loose, pandemonium spilling out onto the temple steps, and even into the surrounding mikvoth, there were the inevitable opportunists making the best of it for themselves.

A Pharisee, probably just to counter the Sadducee, shouted back, “He is a prophet like Amos! A plain, working man who has come in the power of God!”

“Don’t speak of your prophets!” another Sadducee had yelled. “We accept only the words of Almighty God in Torah!”

And so it had gone, back and forth, back and forth. The only thing, in the end, they all could agree on was that the people clearly loved this ragged rabbi. They would have to take great care in this matter.

His heart churned within him, and he felt somewhat dizzy, disoriented, slightly nauseous, and weak. He could feel Jesus watching him.

And then it happened.

Something shifted inside him, and all his senses became more aware, the smell of dust and stone was sharper, the sounds around him sung in separate voices, he could feel every curl of the wind, and see every leaf stir on every branch. The limpid moonlight took on the hues of silver, gold, and pearl, and as Nicodemus turned his head in wonder, Jesus began to smile. Here was one he would entrust himself to.


Since Nicodemus was a devoted teacher of the Bible, Jesus turned to the scriptures by first identifying himself as the Son of Humanity,[1] a phrase that clearly indicated Jesus was the Messiah. Then Jesus gave Nicodemus his third illustration.


3. SERPENT

And no one has gone up into heaven except the one Who has come down out of heaven: the Son of Humanity.

And, just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, thus must the Son of Humanity be lifted up, in order that all who believe in him will have life eternal.

Jesus, in John 3:13-15

The story Jesus was referring to came from the years the Israelites had spent in the wilderness in between their exodus from Egypt and their entry into Canaan. Nicodemus would have instantly recalled the incident.  


From Mount Hor they [the Israelites] set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom.

But the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.

Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.

The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.”

So Moses prayed for the people.

And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.

So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Numbers 21:4-9 (NRSV)

(Tomorrow, find out the key in Jesus’ third illustration)


[1] The traditional way to translate this phrase from the Greek “uion tou anthropou” is “Son of Man.” This is because “Man” connoted “humankind” for a few centuries in the English language. Interestingly, in Middle English, the female version of “man” was “wimman” or “wifman,” our modern-day “woman.” The male version of “man” was “werman.” This left the word “man” as truly neutral, referring to male and female alike as humans.

However, at some point the prefix “wer” fell away, so that “man” came to mean both male humans and humans in general.

Today, being more sensitive to the implications of using the male version of human as standing in for all humans, more and more people are making the intentional effort to use more accurate language when translating. In this case, “anthropos” in Greek is the neutral term denoting humankind (like “anthropology,” the study of people). If a male term is desired, the Greek uses “aner/andros.”

[Bronze Serpent | William Blake. / Public domain]

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