Scripture: Lectionary # 253. Numbers 21:4-9. Psalm 102:2-3,16-18.19-21.
All of the Evangelists know the Old Testament so well that they frequently
place their theology within the context of what they have learned from the
revelatory word of God in the First Testament (Hebrew Scriptures, Old
Testament). We learn in Numbers about the complaining of the Israelites
against God and Moses. They are punished by being invaded and bit by fiery
serpents–the burning sensation of the bite of these winged creatures
afflicted the Israelites and many died in the desert near the Red Sea.
Jesus uses the image of the bronze serpent that “was lifte up” so that the
Israelites would acknowldege their sins and look up toward God. If they did
this while gazing at the instrument that represented their failings, they
would be healed because of their faith. Jesus, in speaking with Nicodemus,
uses the imagery of the incident and says that He will be lifted up just as
the serpent was not on a pole but on his cross. Incidentally, the bronze
serpent was eventually destroyed by the good king Hezekiah whenever it had
become an image that fostered idolatry (see II Kings 18:4).
We look upon Jesus as he hangs upon the Cross and remember what he had said
to Nicodemus. We look at the person of Jesus with our eyes of faith and are
healed and saved because of this act of faith. We need to reflect on the
second mention of Jesus’ being “lifted up” in our chapter 8 where the words
of Jesus give us the mystery of his victory through the cross: “When you
lift up the Son of Man (Jesus in his humanity and weakness), you will come
to realize that I AM (Jesus’ divinity) and that I do nothing by myself. I
say only what the Father has taught me. The One who sent me is with me. He
has not deserted me since I always do what pleases him.”
Just as the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) record Jesus’
speaking about his crucifixion three times to the disciples, so, too, in
John there are three references to the Christ being “lifted up.” His being
lifted up results in our being healed and saved from the fires of the
ancient serpent, the Devil. John will come back once more in chapter 12 to
have Jesus speaking of his “being lifted up.” ( see John 3:14-16; 8:28;
12:32-34). The last Suffering Servant hymn that is used in the liturgy to
speak of the Christ, is helpful as a parallel from Second Isaiah: ” See,
my servant shall prosper, he shall be raised high and greatly exalted.”
John proclaims the victory of Jesus over Satan upon the Cross; Jesus is
being lifted up toward the heavens and is returning victorious to the right
hand of the Father. Thus he is the fulfillment of the Scriptures both the
Torah in the imagery of the serpent being lifted up and int he Prophets and
finally in the historical event of his death upon the cross.
Finally, we may ask why did Moses’ bronze serpent heal them? According to
the Mishnah, it directed the people’s thoughts heavenward as they looked up
at it just as Moses’ raised arms directed people’s attention heavenward in
their battle against Amalek (Exodus 17:11). (Taken from Etz Hayim, p.
In John the identity of Jesus is revealed through the I AM statements and
his sufferings through the theme of the “hour” and the theme of the
“lifting up.” John may not have the prophetic like predictions of the
Passion, Death, and Resurrection as found in the Synoptics, but he does
have his revelatory statements on these mysteries of the Lord. We are led
to meditate on these themes today. Amen.