The Serpent, the Son, and Nicodemus

On Sunday, the lectionary invited us to reflect on the gospel according to John chapter 3, verses 14-21. These verses are the back end of John’s report of a conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus.

John tells us that Nicodemus was a leader of the Jews. And that he came to Jesus “by night,” out of sight of others.

Nicodemus said to Jesus “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”

Nicodemus honoured Jesus by calling him Rabbi, teacher.

John tells us Jesus reminded Nicodemus that people considered him, Nicodemus, “the teacher of Israel.”

John doesn’t tell us what subject Nicodemus raised with Jesus. He just tells us Jesus said to Nicodemus:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel, was flummoxed. He didn’t have a clue what Jesus meant. He took Jesus’ words literally.

Exasperated, Nicodemus pointed out to Jesus that a man cannot enter into his mother’s womb and be born again.

Jesus didn’t try to recruit Nicodemus. Jesus didn’t say to Nicodemus, as he said to others, “come follow me.”

Instead, Jesus pointed out to Nicodemus that he didn’t believe; didn’t draw the right conclusions from the evidence of what Jesus taught and did, the signs.

And it was in this conversation with Nicodemus that Jesus spoke the sentence which has changed so many lives. The sentence which contains the words “born again.” The sentence found in John 3:16, which reads:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

But just before he spoke those words, he said:

And 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.

Three key Christian phrases are found in the conversation.

The phrases are “born again,” “eternal life,” and “lifted up.” These phrases are central to the gospel of John the theologian, the evangelist who focuses on explaining who Jesus is.

In the interest of space and time, I’ll expand only on the phrase “lifted up.”

The incident of Moses lifting up the serpent is described in chapter 21 in the book of Numbers. Verses 4-9 tell us the people grumbled against God and Moses.

They called the manna which God daily gave them to eat “worthless.” And they resented the fact that water was scarce. They wanted more.

God’s response was to send the people some venomous visitors. A plague of serpents. Like the plagues God had sent upon the Egyptians.

When the people started dying of snake bites, God instructed Moses to make a serpent of bronze, to raise it up, and to tell the people that if they looked upon it and had faith, they would live.

Why did God do that?

Some scholars tell us the bronze serpent was the product of a belief in magic: If rats harm you, put up a power-projecting rat. That’ll harm the rats! It’s like the goddess Mariamman among South Indians. For example, one website says:

Mariamman is a village goddess who was originally associated with preventing smallpox. In the 19th century, her association changed to include cholera, and by the 20th century, chickenpox was added.

Some scholars tell us the bronze serpent was the product of a belief in “returning.” They remind us that the Philistines returned the ark of the covenant to Israel with bronze images of tumours. Tumours like the ones inflicted upon them by the rats God sent to them. You can read about it in 1 Samuel 6.

Some scholars tell us looking at the bronze serpent was a confession of sin. A confession not by speaking about their sin, but by looking at their sin.

Why did Jesus bring up the incident of the sent serpents, and the solution of the bronze serpent being lifted up and saving people?

Jesus brought up the incident as a hint to Nicodemus about how Jesus himself would be lifted up and save others. Nicodemus would’ve thought about these words of Jesus’ for the rest of his life – especially after Jesus was crucified.

The rulers nailed Jesus to the cross, then raised him up. They did this in order to humiliate him. But in fact, they did the one thing needed for people to be healed, to be restored, to be saved.

Did the teacher of Israel get it?

Twice more John mentions Nicodemus.

John tells us Nicodemus protested when the religious elite, without evidence, declared that Jesus was accursed. Nicodemus asked them, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” You can read it in John 7:50-52.

Then, John tells us that Nicodemus spent lavishly on spices for the burial of Jesus. You can read it in John 19:40.

Nicodemus honoured Jesus by calling him Rabbi, teacher.

Nicodemus stood up for Jesus when he was falsely accused.

Nicodemus honoured Jesus by contributing lavishly to his funeral.

But did Nicodemus experience being born again? Did he see that when the leaders crucified Jesus, they actually raised him up, like Moses raised the bronze serpent? Did Nicodemus obey and preach Christ, and live the eternal life?

We don’t know what happened to Nicodemus. We don’t need to know.

But we do need to ponder whether we understand why Jesus was raised up; whether we are born again; and whether we are living the eternal life.

Peace be with you.

4 thoughts on “The Serpent, the Son, and Nicodemus”

      1. Hello Rama,
        This a very interesting conclusión, what else is needed to believe? Current time is so confusing to people who still is looking for the truth.
        Nowdays, there is a void which only is fullfilled with God.
        Thanks Rama

  1. Pingback: The forgotten Greeks and the glorified Jesus – Bangsar Lutheran Church

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