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7. The Snake in the Wilderness

John 3:13-21

‘YOU KNOW, JOHN, before I got to sleep last night, I was still thinking about Nicodemus,’ says Barnabas. ‘And it struck me that Nicodemus never challenged what Jesus had said to him about the new birth, did he? He never said, “What do you know about it? Why should a top theologian like me take any notice of a builder-turned-teacher from the back of beyond like you?”’

John gazes up into the cloudless blue sky. ‘If you recall, the first thing Nicodemus said to Jesus was, “We know you are a teacher come from God.” They were not idle words. He recognised, I think, that Jesus was unique and carried a unique authority. At his ascension, Jesus went into heaven, but it was a return to heaven. That’s where he had come from in the first place. Do you remember my telling you about how Jesus met Nathaniel as we were on our way to Cana? Nathaniel had been meditating on Jacob and his dream of a staircase between heaven and earth with angels going up and down it, and Jesus said – not just to Nathanael but to us all – that we would see “heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” I think that, when Nicodemus looked at Jesus, he saw something of that too – saw him as someone who had come from heaven and knew what he was talking about in a way that no other human being ever did. You might say –’ He glances at the Elder with his pen and ink pot and parchment. ‘Will you write this down, my dear friend? … You might say that, “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man.” That’s what gave everything that Jesus said the ring of truth. He came down, down, down so that he could be lifted up, up, up – and could carry all of us with him.’

‘How do you mean?’ asks Leandros.

‘I mean that, just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man had to be lifted up, so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.’

‘Snake in the wilderness?’ Leandros’s face is a study in perplexity.

Ezra chuckles. ‘You know about the exodus,’ he says. ‘The journey the Israelites made from slavery in Egypt to the promised land of Canaan?’

Leandros nods.

‘Well, at one point in that journey, when the Israelites were getting fed up of all the hardships they were enduring and were blaming both God and Moses for it all, there was an invasion of venomous snakes to the camp and many of the Israelites got bitten and lots of them died. The story is in the Fourth Book of Moses [Numbers 21:4-8]. Well, they figured out that this had happened because they’d been bad-mouthing God, so they went to Moses to say they were sorry and to ask him to pray for them. So, Moses did, and here’s what happened. The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So, Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.’

‘But John here is saying that anyone who looks at Jesus on the cross doesn’t just live but gets zoe aionios – eternal life,’ says Leandros. ‘What is eternal life?’

‘It is literally “life of the new age,”’ says Ezra. ‘Aion – age, neos – new; life of the age to come, timeless life.’

‘Yes,’ says the Apostle, ‘but, in Christ, that life of the age to come is the special kind of life we are able to enjoy now, in the present. And that’s because, as I’ve already explained in the introduction to my Gospel, Jesus, the Word of God, has the life of the age to come in himself. He is the source of that eternal life and he embodies it because he came from eternity and has returned to eternity. Once anyone is united with him, they enjoy his life and, though their physical bodies will turn to dust, the person they are in Christ can never die.’

‘How do we become united with Jesus?’ asks Leandros.

‘By believing,’ John replies.

‘By believing what?’ asks Leandros.

‘The verb is pisteuo,’ says John, ‘and I’m not using it in the sense of saying yes to some proposition or other but rather in the sense of putting one’s faith and trust in something or someone. It was what those Israelites did when, in agony, they dragged themselves across the desert sand to a place where, although close to death, they could use what little strength remained to lift their heads and look at the bronze snake. Belief is a lot more than intellectual assent. It’s not just accepting with our minds that Jesus was who he claimed to be; it’s committing our lives to him and staking our eternal destiny on him.’ The Apostle smiles at Leandros. ‘Don’t look so worried, my young friend. You do believe in Jesus, you have given your life to him and are following him, you have eternal life.’

Archippus is still musing on the story of what happened in the desert. ‘Was there some kind of magic in the bronze snake?’ he asks.

‘Of course not,’ replies Ezra, ‘though that’s how people began to treat it as time went by – burning incense to it and so on. So, 700 years after Moses had made it, King Hezekiah broke it in pieces and finally got rid of it [2 Kings 18:4]. The bronze snake had no healing virtue of its own but was merely, as King Solomon called it, “a symbol of deliverance” [Wisdom of Solomon 16:6 NRSV]. It was intended to show the Israelites that God himself is the author of salvation; that he provides a way from death to life.’

‘That’s well put, Ezra,’ says the Apostle. ‘And that’s why I’m using the story to try and make clear what was happening when Jesus was, in the end, lifted up on the cross.’ He looks across at the Elder. ‘I would like you to put it like this, my friend. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” You see, by casting the molten bronze which was not a serpent into a mold that gave it the form of a serpent, Moses was making the remedy take on the form of the malady that was afflicting everyone. And so it was with Jesus. When God in Christ went to the cross, what he did was, as I believe our brother Paul once put it [2 Corinthians 5:20], “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”’

‘God is love,’ murmurs the Elder, busily writing down what John has just dictated to him. ‘Agape.’

‘Yes, my brother,’ says the Apostle, ‘but agape is not abstract love, detached love. The agape of God is, as you well know, rooted in relationship and is ever outgoing and active, seeking and saving and drawing into relationship with himself all that he has set his love upon.’

‘And you are saying that what he has set his love upon is the kosmos,’ says Archippus. ‘But I thought you said the other day that the kosmos is the world order where everything and everyone is skewed and spoiled and self-centred?’

‘It is,’ says John, ‘but God loves it nonetheless. He loves everything that he has made and is committed to its total restoration and renewal – so much so that he gave his very self, his one and only Son, to bring that restoration and renewal about.’

‘Jews like myself used to believe that God loved only us,’ says Ezra. ‘But some of us know now that his love is limitless. God in Christ came – the Son was given – that anyone and everything who puts their trust in him might share now in his life, the life of the age to come.’

‘Yes, that’s wonderful,’ says Barnabas, ‘and I don’t deny it; but what of those who don’t put their trust in him? You talk about them perishing – suffering destruction. That seems so hard – so unjust even. I mean, most people in this world that “God so loved” haven’t even heard of Jesus, so how can an agape-filled God both judge and condemn them for not putting their trust in him?’

‘Oh, Barnabas,’ says John. ‘It doesn’t work like that at all.’ He turns to the Elder. ‘My friend, you’ve just written, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Now please add this: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

‘You see, Barnabas, you’re getting it the wrong way around. You’re assuming everyone is, by nature, un-condemned and Jesus came to start judging and condemning, but that was never the case. The starting point in looking at what God was doing when he sent Jesus is that the whole of creation is, as our brother Paul used to say [Romans 8:18], “in bondage to decay.” The world was, in other words, doomed already. Everyone was alienated from God, cut off from the life of the age to come, and heading for disaster. But Jesus came as Rescuer, as Saviour. He offered – and continues to offer – a way of escape. As the ship of this world was taking on more and more water and beginning to sink, he came alongside with his raft and invited us to jump aboard. He still does. But if we refuse – if we cannot accept either that we’re sinking or that the raft will save us – then we are condemned – self-condemned – and we shall perish.’

‘Well,’ says Barnabas, ‘that certainly makes it clearer why Jesus came – to offer life to a dying world – and I’m not denying that; but you haven’t actually answered my question. In terms of the analogy you’ve just used, what about those who are at the other side of the sinking ship and can’t see the raft and don’t even know it’s there? Do they remain self-condemned through ignorance? Are they going to drown anyway?’

Perhaps it’s a flawed analogy,’ says John, ‘so let’s not include it in my Gospel. But to carry on with it just between us for a moment, it’s only about those on this side of the ship. What I know is that those of us who have found safety on the raft are duty-bound to draw attention to it and call on those who are still on the ship to jump, for if they choose to remain they will be embracing their own destruction. But what God will do about those on the other side of the ship, I do not know.

‘Our brother Paul was quite certain [Acts 24:15] that, “there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked” – in other words, everyone – so we can take it that all human souls survive death; there is no instant annihilation of those who are not ‘in Christ’ or ‘on the raft.’ They are off the ship and in the water, but what happens to them then I do not know. What I do know, however, is that that the love of God is boundless, persistent and fierce, and that the Lord is unwilling that any should perish. So, does he pursue the lost soul throughout eternity until he or she capitulates? I’d like to think so, but what if their intransigence is absolute? God has given to every human being the freedom to reject him. Will he renege on that in the end and override their supposedly free choice? I think not … but I cannot say I know.’

John shakes his head and sighs. ‘There are many mysteries,’ he says. ‘Many things that are beyond our understanding. But go back to what I said at the very start of my Gospel. I explained then that God’s first gift to his creation was light; not just physical light but an inner light – a light unique to human beings and given to them as a quality of the life that the Word imparts to them, a spiritual light which goes beyond human reason and enables everyone to “see” truth and distinguish it from what is untrue, to “see” goodness and distinguish it from what evil, and to “see” the God who is both behind and within his wondrous creation – holding it together and sustaining it through every moment of time. But I also said that the Darkness has always sought (as it still does) to extinguish the light that enlightens every human being. I do not belief the Darkness is, or has ever been, entirely successful, but it has often come close.’

The Apostle pauses and turns to Archippus who is sitting next to a large clay container. ‘Archippus, will you lift that pot, please.’ The young Greek looks puzzled but does as John asks, and immediately there is a scurrying of centipedes, woodlice, and beetles as they rush around, frantically seeking to get out of the sun’s glare and under some other pot or stone.

‘You see,’ says John. That is what God sees when he looks at his creation. So …’ he looks to the Elder. ‘Write this down please: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.” He looks at Barnabas. ‘Do you understand what I’m saying?’ he asks.

‘Yes, I think so,’ says Barnabas. ‘I think you’re saying that everyone is born with enough light to see what is good and what is of God, and those who embrace the truth as the light reveals it to them are cooperating with God in pushing back the darkness and gain even more light – so much so that they will ultimately and inevitably be drawn to the Light himself – to Jesus – even if, as yet, they know nothing at all about him. Am I right?’

‘Yes, I think you are,’ says John …

6. Nicodemus | 8. More Testimony from the Baptist

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