Summary: Have you ever wondered what Jesus meant when he compared himself to the Bronze Serpent in the book of Numbers? Nicodemus probably did. This was a good Friday service.
Just as the Serpent was lifted up
The first time he had met Jesus it was in the dark, and there was just him and the master.
We see him at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and then we hear him speak in defence of Jesus halfway through the story and then we don’t see him again until the day that Jesus died on the cross. His name was Nicodemus and we are told that he was one of two men who came to claim the body of Jesus from the cross.
And now the crowd that had demanded the death of Jesus had faded into the night and once again Nicodemus meets Jesus in the dark.
And as Nicodemus and Joseph took Jesus body from the cross, not an easy task seeing it had been nailed there, I wonder if Nicodemus’ mind drifted back to the first time he had met the young preacher from Galilee.
It had been early in Jesus’ ministry and Nicodemus wasn’t even sure that he wanted to be associated with this radical young preacher, so he met him after dark. It is a very familiar story that has very familiar scriptures attached it it. It was there that Jesus told Nicodemus John 3:3 Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” And probably the most memorized portion of scripture ever is found in that account, John 3:16 “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
But I’m pretty sure those weren’t the words that Jesus had spoken that night that came back to Nicodemus as he took the battered body of Jesus down from the cross where he had died so violently.
Instead I would think that at that point that Nicodemus was probably thinking of a fairly cryptic thing that Jesus had said at their first meeting and that was when Jesus told him, John 3:14-15 And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. And perhaps it was at that moment that Nicodemus had an aha moment.
Now Nicodemus had an advantage over us and that is he probably knew exactly what Jesus was talking about when he mentioned the bronze snake on the pole, where most of would have been saying, the bronze what on the who?
It’s a fairly obscure story for us, but it would have been familiar to Nicodemus who John tells us was a religious leader. The story is told in the book of Numbers which gives us an account of the Exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land.
And so very close to the beginning of Jesus ministry he compares himself and his sacrificial death to a brief interlude in the 40 year journey of Moses and the people of Israel that had happened 1500 years before.
And not in a clear and concise way, instead in a way that would only make sense after the fact. And so a couple of years after Jesus made the statement it suddenly becomes clear to Nicodemus what Jesus was talking about.
John 3:14-15 And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.
And is so often the case, first we need the back story. In this case the back story takes only five verses in the book of Numbers. The Israelites have been free from Egypt for two years, but they have yet to come to the place that they would settle, instead they have been wandering through the desert, eating manna and quail and defending themselves against the nomadic tribes that lived in the area.
And we are told that the people began to speak out against God and Moses, grumbling and complaining about their situation. Which seems pretty typical. But then the story takes a bizarre twist and we read in Numbers 21:6 So the LORD sent poisonous snakes among the people, and many were bitten and died. That’ll learn em. I hate snakes, Remember this (Video from Indiana Jones) I’m sure Moses was thinking, “Why did it have to be snakes?”
And we pick up the story again in Numbers 21:7-9 Then the people came to Moses and cried out, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take away the snakes.” So Moses prayed for the people. Then the LORD told him, “Make a replica of a poisonous snake and attach it to a pole. All who are bitten will live if they simply look at it!” So Moses made a snake out of bronze and attached it to a pole. Then anyone who was bitten by a snake could look at the bronze snake and be healed!