Sunday sermon on the Gospel lesson from John 3:13-17
Sunday before the Elevation of the Cross
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today's Gospel lesson, which is for the Sunday before the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross has an interesting reference to a story in the Old Testament and to Moses, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believe in Him may not perish but have eternal life.”
On the most basic level, Christ is predicting His own crucifixion here; but like with any other story, there is more to it than meets the eye. What exactly was going on with Moses and the serpent? Why did he have to lift it up? This incident is described in the fourth book of the Old Testament – the Book of Numbers.
If you have ever tried reading the Bible from cover to cover, this book is where you most likely hit a major wall. Most of the book is dedicated to genealogies and census of Israel, hence the name Numbers. There’s probably not one person who can claim this book as their favorite in the Bible. And yet, this is the book Jesus quotes from by saying that the Son of Man (meaning, He – Jesus) must be lifted up in the similar manner that Moses lifted up the serpent on a pole.
In order to understand this reference, we need to do some background check. Why did Moses put a serpent on a pole? And what did it mean?
In chapter 21 of the Book of Numbers we find Israel still wandering in the desert, which they did for 40 years, after escaping from Egypt. They were on their way to the land promised to them by God. While on that journey, Israel would often go from one extreme to another. They would pledge allegiance to God and to follow His commandments, only to fall away and get in bed with other gods, the gods of the nations, the idols.
And, “all the gods of the nations,” as Psalm 96:5 says, “are demons.” By the way, the Bible sometimes compares the betrayal of the One True God to sleeping with other gods. The language used there is a little more graphic, but I will not quote it here for the sake of the younger ears.
This betrayal would often anger God, for obvious reasons. He made a pact with this people, He promised to hold up His end of the bargain, while Israel often broke theirs. On top of that, whenever they faced any sort of danger or lacked food or water, the people began to complain and murmur against God, saying that it would’ve been better for them to die as slaves in Egypt, rather than face uncertainty in freedom.
In order to make them realize the value of being God’s chosen people, God would bring them to repentance and humble them, before providing what was necessary (what was necessary, not what they desired).
So, the incident with the serpent began with Israel becoming impatient and complaining against God, asking Moses, “Did you bring us out of Egypt to die in the desert?” (Numbers 21:5). And they even complained about food, that was provided for them, because they wanted better food.
In response, it says, “the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died” (Numbers 21:6).
[Before we go further, I need to clarify one thing that confuses people even to this day – the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are one and the same God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He is as loving to those desire to follow Him and as angry with those who defy Him in the Old Testament and the New. In other words, the Old Testament and the New Testament do not describe two different Gods.]
These poisonous snakes were not a punishment. Rather, they were a means of bringing the people to repentance. Sometimes calamities happen exactly for this reason. For example, our present situation with coronavirus. We can’t say that it is from God and we can’t say that it isn’t from Him. But we can say that it is most likely for our repentance.
After many Israelites died, the people came to Moses, who was a mediator between God and the people, and they said, “We have sinned by speaking against God” (Numbers 21:7). In other words, they realized that what befell them was not because God is angry, but because they are unfaithful. And they asked Moses to “pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from” them (Numbers 21:7).
So Moses prayed, and the Lord instructed him to “make a fiery (or bronze) serpent, set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten will look at it and live” (Numbers 21:8). Why wouldn’t God just take the snakes away and heal the people? Because our salvation comes from God, but it still requires our participation.
So that’s the background to the bronze serpent story. Christ refers back to it in talking about Himself – as the serpent was lifted up, so the Son of Man must be lifted up. Christ will be crucified on the Cross “that whoever believes in Him” will be saved, just as those who looked at the bronze serpent survived the venomous bite.
And what was the serpent on the pole an image of? It was an image of the thing that was afflicting the people. Poisonous snakes killed them, the bronze serpent saved them. Saint Paul picked up on this image by saying that Christ, Who is sinless, becomes sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). And Christ Himself says, “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin. But now they have no excuse for their sin” (John 15:22).
Put in other words, when we look to Christ on the Cross, we see death, which is the consequence of our sin. But just as the image of the serpent was the weapon that destroyed the power of serpents, so the instrument of Christ’s death, the Cross, becomes the weapon that overthrows death itself.
As another side note, the reason most churches have a cross at the top of the iconostasis, in a prominent place, is so that the people can look up at it as they worship. Is it just by looking at the bronze serpent or looking at the Cross that Israelites and Christians are saved? Well, no. This is not magic. Another Old Testament book, Wisdom of Solomon, explains that whoever turned to the bronze serpent was saved, not by what they saw, but by trusting God, by God’s mercy that came and healed them (Wisdom of Solomon 16:7, 10).
Likewise, we are saved by trust, but faith, and by seeing Christ as He truly is – the One Who descended from heaven, the Only-begotten Son of the Father Who became incarnate, was crucified, died, was buried, resurrected, and ascended back to heaven for our salvation, and no other reason.
The snakes were afflicting the people by biting and killing them. Therefore, God instructed Moses to lift up a serpent on a pole to be healed by looking at it with faith. Death afflicts us, by biting and killing us; therefore, God, in His love for the world, sent His Son to be lifted up on the Cross, so that those who believe in Him and behold His Cross, would have eternal life, because by hanging on the Cross He defeated that which afflicts us – death – by His own death.
Knowing God’s absolute care and love for us, we behold the Cross of Christ and we give all glory, honor, and worship to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, One God, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.