If God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, why do we say He’s angry with sinners? And in what way did He save us? We’ll continue looking at what is probably the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16, in its context (John 3:14-21), which should show us some amazing things about goodness of God.
This post is a continuation from where I left off last time. If you haven’t done so already, please read part one before continuing here.
With our introduction out of the way, we’re ready to start digging into our passage.
Moses and serpents?
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:14-15)
Why did Jesus refer to Moses and the serpent in order to set up His famous statement in verse 16? We find the reference in Numbers 21:4-9. I will only write out the salient parts. You can click on the link for the whole story.
As we saw last time, the children of Israel had become unthankful and were complaining about God’s provision (vs. 5). So the Lord sent serpents to bite and kill them in verse 6. (It was probably actually Satan who did this, but explaining why will have to wait for another time.) The people realized their sinful ingratitude and asked Moses to intercede for them. The answer comes back, Moses was to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole:
8 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live. 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.” (Num.21:8-9)
Let’s look at the symbolism. What do you think the serpent represents in Jesus’ analogy? The most likely answer is Satan. He was the serpent in the Garden. Adam and Eve were “bitten” when they were manipulated into eating from the wrong tree. Disease, corruption, and death entered into the world through this serpent’s bite.
Is Jesus saying He’s the serpent lifted on the pole? Of course not. When we look to Jesus on the cross, we see Him taking upon Himself what’s killing us. He’s putting it to death so that we can live. In this analogy, you could say that Jesus is the anti-venom to Satan’s snake-bite!
8 He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil. (1 John 3:8)
It was to heal us, not to appease God
We better pause here and get straight what Jesus came to do. I contend that Jesus went to the cross to heal us, not to appease an angry deity. Again, it was because of love!
This is clearly the analogy that Jesus makes in our text. But it’s not just here, we also have Matthew’s divine commentary on Isaiah 53 (emphasis mine):
16 When evening had come, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed. And He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick, 17 that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: “He Himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses.” (Matt. 8:16-17)
Notice that Matthew ties Isaiah’s prophecy (Isa. 53:5) to healing, not appeasement. Peter makes the same connection, but now looking backward to the Cross (emphasis mine):
24 who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed. (1 Pet. 2:24)
This was also the understanding of the early church fathers. For example, here’s what Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329-390), considered the “Father of Theology” in the patristic period of the early church, said about this (emphasis mine):
For that which He [Christ] has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. (Ep. CI, To Cledonius the Priest Against Apollinarius).
Notice that Gregory connects salvation to healing us, not to appease an angry god. Jesus heals us by taking “sin and death” upon Himself and fusing it to His humanity. He then buried it forever in the grave with His death. So, when Jesus died, we died. And when His Father raised Him from the grave, He took us with Him! Thus, Jesus united us to the Godhead! (For a deeper discussion on that, go to my series, “The Incarnation of Christ.”)
Let’s look at one more thing while we’re here.
What needed to be healed in us?
The Roman’s scourging of Jesus exposed our wrath, our need to dominate and subjugate others, our bloodlust, and our system of justice built on coercion, violence, and retribution. The crucifixion exposed our scapegoating (blame-shifting), appeasing the gods with sacrificial victims. It exposed our religious power bases built on fearmongering, control, envy, and murder. It revealed our hypocritical, unforgiving, grace-hating hearts.
The cross stands as a testament to what we do whenever our religious constructs, whether sacred (Jews) or secular (Romans), are confronted by pure forgiveness and love. Jesus forever exposed the sin of the world and expunged it.
We will look at John 3:16 next time.