We are studying the Gospel of John, and we have now come to what is likely the most popular, most quoted verse in all of the New Testament, aside from those verses used in liturgy. Immediately prior to this, Jesus was amazed by the fact that Nicodemus does not understand what Jesus meant when He said everyone must be born again to see the Kingdom of God. In this study, we will continue with Jesus' discussion with Nicodemus right where we left off.
Jesus: Like a Serpent
Do you know what a mixed metaphor is? It is like shooting fish in a barrel of monkeys. The Bible has at least one mixed metaphor, and it is, well, of Biblical proportions! Many Christians are completely unaware of this little gaff because of the beloved verse which appears almost immediately afterwards: John 3:16. So let us take a moment to examine the context surrounding the succinct summary of God's love found in John 3:16.
John 3:13 starts off by saying nobody has gone to Heaven except Jesus. That makes for an interesting conundrum. You see, according to the Old Testament, at least two people have gone to Heaven. Enoch, who simply disappeared and is thought to have been taken to Heaven (Genesis 5:24, Hebrews 11:5), and Elijah, who rode to Heaven on a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11) make Jesus' words seem untrue.
One way for these verses to be true is for Jesus to have walked the earth embodied as Enoch and Elijah. However, Elijah supposedly came back to earth as John the Baptist (Matthew 11:7-15, Matthew 17:10-13, Mark 9:11-13), to prepare the way for Jesus! So Jesus made the way for Jesus? It is possible, given Jesus is God, but it does not logically add up.
Then for something completely different, John 3:14-15 takes a completely different path:
"Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life." NIVWhat was that first part, the part about Moses lifting a snake in the desert? Oh, you will find that charming story in Numbers 21:4-9. It starts out with the Israelites having the nerve to complain about God and Moses for leading them into the desert, where, like dogs, they have eaten the same thing for every meal for untold number of days, and where they are parched because they lack water.
God punishes them for complaining by sending either poisonous snakes or fiery serpents (depending on your Bible version) to attack them. The snakes/ fiery serpents kill many Israelites. The Israelites repent. God tells Moses to make a bronze snake/ fiery serpent and mount it on a pole. Anyone who had been bitten by the snakes/ fiery serpents would live if they looked at the bronze figure. (By the way, the American Medical Association's symbol is a snake on a pole. That is not just a coincidence.)
Here is where the mixed metaphor comes into play. A major metaphor of Christianity is that the snake, the serpent is Satan. Check out Revelation 12:9-15 and Revelation 20:2. That metaphor gets tied back into the story of the Fall of Man in Genesis 3 by 2 Corinthians 11:3. In other words, the same accursed animal used as a metaphor for Satan in now used as a metaphor which foreshadowed Jesus by John 3:14!
Maybe we should look at it another way? The snakes/fiery serpents were sent by God as punishment; they were God's wrath. God had Moses make a symbol of the embodiment of that wrath out of bronze (an impure metal) and mount it on a pole so that people would see it and live. On the other hand you have pure and holy Jesus, symbol of God's love for man, subjected to the wrath of men, nailed to a cross, where simply looking at Jesus would not grant Salvation, but rather believing in Him and His death for your sins. So you can see that the situations are pretty much identical. Not!
Now, what if the snake event was really meant to foreshadow Jesus? Perhaps if the omniscient God had instead told Moses to make a bronze lamb, symbolizing the Lamb of God, Jesus, it would have matched better. Or perhaps if God told Moses to tell the Israelites that they needed to repent of their sins and believe that God is merciful, and then they would survive the snake bites, it would have been a powerful foreshadowing. Instead, the message we find is a bit garbled.
John 3:16 goes on to say that God so loved the world that He gave us Jesus, so that anyone who believed in Him would be Saved. Of course, let us not forget that what we are saved from. It is not an imminent car accident, or falling of a cliff; no coincidental danger or force of nature. It is being saved from the wrath of God, and in that sense the reference to the story from Numbers 21:4-9 does coincide. Looking at the bronze snake saved people from God's wrath, just like believing in Jesus supposedly does.
It cannot be understated that wrath is an act of volition, just like mercy. God chooses where and when to apply His wrath. God is not subject to any rules but His own desires.
So as you read the verses of John 3:17-21 which expounds upon how God sent Jesus to Save the world through Him, and how those evil-doers who do not believe this already stand condemned, it would be good to remember that God has chosen to condemn them. It was not necessary to do so.
Remember this fact as you walk around and realize that the majority of the people you see will not be Saved; per Jesus' own words in Matthew 7:13-14, only a few will make it through the narrow gate. Consider if God's Plan to use Jesus to Save the world was really all that effective.