“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” John 3:14-15
I call this Christ’s version of John 3:16. It’s two verses earlier and it’s set in quotes because John records it as the words of Jesus. The famous words of John 3:16 which follow — For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life — are part of the commentary of John. John was talking about the cross of Christ which was planted by God in the middle of the history of the world. Jesus was talking about the snake-on-a-pole that was planted by Moses in the middle of the Jewish camp in the wilderness that was the forerunner of His death. Jesus said this Moses-event was an early picture of His own death on the cross. What we can learn from that Old Testament event is something with profound implications for all who believe, and points out why AA and the Twelve Steps are perhaps a better model for the church than what most might think.
You will remember that the Children of Israel, after being miraculously delivered from 400 years of bondage in Egypt, complained about their new temporary digs on the other side of the Red Sea. They also cowered in fear when the spies they sent out to check out their new permanent home returned with stories of giants in the land, and voted not to take the eleven-day trip that would have taken them out of the desert and into the Promised Land. So because if their unbelief, God banished them to wander in the wilderness for 40 years until a new generation rose up to go in, led by Joshua. It was during those 40 years in the wilderness that this story of the snakes took place.
Here is the full account of that event in Numbers 21:4-9:
They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
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.
There is something very obvious here in this story and the significance of Jesus telling it. God didn’t answer the prayer of the people the way they wanted Him to. This is the key point: God didn’t take the snakes away. He could have just as easily done that. He sent them; He could have taken them away. But that wasn’t the picture He wanted to paint in this story. The snakes — from the beginning, the picture of Satan and evil — stayed. The snake-on-a-pole that Moses constructed, at the command of the Lord, and thrust into the ground, was brought into camp as an agent of healing because the snakes weren’t going to go away any time soon. The snakes stayed.
God painted this picture because He knew He wasn’t taking evil out of the world — at least not yet — but He was placing Christ in the middle of the evil for all to look upon and be saved. So there is a deep significance to this. Evil is still here. We see its influence in the world and feel it in our lives. Christ didn’t come to fix the world; He didn’t come to destroy evil; He didn’t come to create a safe place for His children to live without the influence of evil; He came to drive a cross down in the middle of the mess of our world and our lives and give us a place to turn and be saved.
This is a real gospel for a real world, and why AA is such a fitting model for Christians. As in:
Hi. I’m John, and I’m screwed up. I’ve got snakes all around me — evil within and without — and I get bitten all the time, but thank God there’s a cross over there in history to look to and a loving Savior to receive forgiveness from, and I depend on that and all of you, every day.
“Hi. I’m John and I’m a successful Christian. I’m victoriously trampling on snakes wherever I go. Come to our church. We prayed and God took the snakes away! Praise the Lord!”