Near Mt Nebo, Jordan
photo © Joe Walker 2005
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
On a clear day, with clear vision, you can just make out Jerusalem from there. I'll add some text in a day or two.
It is a fascinating event. It is one of those biblical stories which leaves modern consciousness reeling to find an explanation for the whole episode. The serpent is both the agent of destruction and the agent of healing. The very thing which brings death also, in another context, brings life. But the passage from 2 Kings gives some food for thought: is there a tendency to turn to, and worship, the means of salvation, instead of the God of salvation?
At any rate, it would appear a completely absurd invention on the part of God to have this particular sign as the means by which the obstinate & complaining company of the Israelites were to be healed. It is here that I think of the typology of the cross. If it is absurd to think of looking upon the bronze serpent, then it is also absurd to think the same of looking to the crucified Jesus. This is, I think, the first instance of what Paul will later call the foolishness of the cross. God is completely capable of arranging things in such a manner that they look, well, quite strange. But that is God's call, not mine.
Jesus picks up this story and reveals it to be typology, that is, an event which has a significance beyond itself. This is different from treating it as allegory, but we can get into that later. I suspect this typology can work in a few ways. We see the obvious connection intended between the serpent "lifted up" and Jesus "lifted up". The serpent is a thing both of death/judgment and life. As is Jesus: in the passage from John he clearly intends that there be redemption, but there is talk of evil/judgment.
Thinking back to modern-day Jordan, where the memorial of the bronze serpent is, you can see into the "promised land" on a clear day. I've stood there a few times over the years. It is a marvellous act to look at the serpent, and then to realize that as you gaze, you are looking toward the promised land. It is a sort of living geographical typology. When we look to Jesus on the cross, as despised as a serpent, we can see past the cross toward the resurrection, the place of salvation.
ed - today (as I write this) being the feast of St Joseph, I think I'll honour my patron with a modestly extravagant lunch... back in a while.
Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God."
There is always (at least for me) a struggle with how to address the element of judgment in such texts. It is certainly good news that Jesus' purpose is not to condemn, but rather to save (from ourselves?). And yet I sense that it is not the case that Jesus cannot condemn (he has lots of harsh words in the gospel), but rather that there is no need for evidence other than our own deeds in order to do so.
Route with few bumps: stick to an allegorized harmony of the two stories...look to God...look to Jesus on the cross, no matter how absurd it may seem. Look upward. God loves the world. Yada Yada Yada...
Route with bumps: the agent of judgment/death is also the agent of salvation. This is why Jesus brings in the reference. The means of salvation may appear abhorrent, but it is the only means. It meant, for Jesus, becoming the serpent ("he became sin who knew no sin") in order to bring healing.