In his portrayal of the serpent, Jesus had chosen his words very carefully: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, thus must the Son of Humanity[1] be lifted up, in order that all who believe in him will have life eternal.

Lifted up has a dual meaning. The first is Jesus being lifted up on the cross.

In the story, the situation was clear: the people had done wrong, and they were under the condemnation of God because of it.

The snakes were their judgment.

Strange as the solution was, the bronze snake, nailed to a pole and lifted up for all to see, was their only hope of rescue.

The serpent was the image of their transgression of not trusting God and calling God’s provision for them detestable. They had to look to that symbol of sin and judgment and believe God’s promise in order to literally be saved from dying.

Jesus depicted himself in this scripture. In my mind’s eye, I see Jesus lifting both his hands up as if holding a pole in the air, as he described Moses lifting up the bronze snake, then spreading his hands out in a prophetic portrayal of being nailed to a cross as he pictured the Son of Humanity being lifted up.

It was as though Jesus were saying, “When Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the wilderness, he was displaying a symbol of Me. I, as the Son of Humanity, will become the image of humanity’s corruption for the sake of saving people from eternal death.”

If the story had not been clear before, in all the centuries it had been told and retold, it was now laid bare. The people’s own wrongdoing had become the source of their death in a terrible re-enactment of the first trespasses committed in Genesis 3, which brought corruption and death to all humanity from that time forward. But now, God would—through their own humanity—bring humankind’s restoration.

For it had always been God’s purpose not to bring condemnation but compassion, through the cross.

And the cross would not just bring restoration in this life, but in the life to come.

This was the second meaning Jesus intended, for he would one day be lifted up on a cloud into heaven.No one has gone up into heaven,” Jesus had said to Nicodemus, surely emphasizing what he was saying by raising his hand upwards, in order that this spiritually sensitive Pharisee would not miss the significance, “Except the One Who has come down out of heaven: the Son of Humanity,” and while saying this, surely Jesus brought his hand back down to lie his own chest.

Could this conversation have been in Nicodemus’ thoughts the day he helped lay Jesus in his tomb? Because Jesus did rise from the dead and indeed “go up into heaven,” where he was raised to all authority, and currently rules as king in the kingdom of God.

Then, Jesus further explained the great compassion of the Lord Who did not wish God’s beloved world to remain under the crushing load of corruption and death.

For God loved the world in such a way that [God] committed [God’s] only Son, in order that all who believe in him would not be utterly destroyed, but rather have life eternal.

For God did not send the Son into the world in order that he would judge the world, but rather in order that salvation and restoration of the world [would come] through him.

The one who believes in him is not judged, but the one who does not believe already has been judged, because that one has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

Jesus, in John 3:16-18

We need to pause, here.

From the beginning, the Lord spoke of God’s love for all people.

In God’s promise to the patriarchs, clear back in Genesis, God had said, “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

Not just once. Five times.

From the beginning, it was the Lord’s intent that all would know of God’s character, attributes, and universality.

If you go to this site, here, you will read passage after passage of God saying such things as “Sing to the Lord, all the earth; proclaim his salvation day after day.” That is in the Hebrew Bible, 1 Chronicles.

Eight Hebrew prophets spoke of the day to come when all nations would be gathered to God in love, joy, salvation, and celebration. There are at least twenty-seven prophetic passages which speak directly to this glorious mystery to be unveiled. There are dozens more references, twenty in Psalms alone which speak of God’s overarching plan to redeem and restore the whole earth.

Jesus was now unveiling another startling mystery: this salvation would come by faith.

[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.”

[The Bornze Serpent | Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P., flickr, (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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