Numbers 21.4-9; Psalm 107.1-3,17-22; Ephesians 2.1-10; John 3.14-21
After the idolatry of the golden calf, Moses prays for the people: ‘if you will only forgive their sin – but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written’ (Exodus 32.32).
After the rebellion at Kadesh he prays, ‘forgive the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of your steadfast love’ (Numbers 14.19). Now they again dismiss the miraculous manna as ‘miserable food’ and again Moses prays for them to the Lord (see Numbers 21.4-15). This time they are penitent, but the consequences of sin – the fiery serpents – must be dealt with. The bronze serpent on a pole may derive from sympathetic magic or homeopathic technique, and the serpent-entwined rod wielded by Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, connects snakes with healing. But in Numbers the efficacy of the remedy is grounded in God’s promise made in answer to Moses’ prayer. Later the bronze serpent was set up and worshipped in the Temple (2 Kings 18.4), but a wise commentator understood that the bronze serpent was ‘a symbol of deliverance’, and that those who looked up at it were saved ‘not by the thing beheld, but…by the Saviour of all’ (Wisdom 16.7).
No single verse of Scripture is repeated more often than ‘O give thanks to the Lord for he is good: for his steadfast love endures for ever’ (v.1, and 1 Chronicles 16.34; Psalms 106.1; 118.1,29; 136.1). The ‘thanksgiving sacrifices‘ (v.22) recall the singing of this single verse at the dedication of the first Temple (2 Chronicles 7.3, see also 5.13). And it was sung again after the return from exile, which seems to be in mind here (vv.2-3), when the foundations of the second Temple were laid (Ezra 3.11). This single verse is the beginning and end of prayer.
This is a bleak portrait of humanity unresponsive to God. To neglect duty to neighbour (trespasses) and to show ingratitude to God (sins) is the way of a world where injustice and untruth are ‘in the power of the air’, perhaps ‘blowing in the wind’. Added to our addiction to self-indulgence, with the diminishing returns that are among the consequences of ‘wrath’, this produces a hardness of heart well summarised as ‘you were dead’. To counter this desperate state of affairs takes total confidence in God’s grace. Elsewhere it is suggested that salvation (Romans 5.9-10; 13.11) and resurrection (Romans 6.5; 8.11) remain a future hope. But to recognise that already God has raised us to ‘the heavenly places in Christ Jesus’ (v.6) and that already ‘by grace you have been saved through faith’ (v.8) is transformative. We see that we are not ‘children of wrath’, boasting our claims against one another, but ‘created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness’ (4.24).
As ‘a leader of the Jews’ (3.1), Nicodemus would have had a high regard for Moses, both because ‘the law was given through Moses’ (1.17) and because God said of Moses, ‘he beholds the form of the Lord’ (Numbers 12.8). After speaking with God, Moses’ face shines with divine glory (Exodus 34.29-35), and in Jesus’ time a commentator saw Moses as ‘kin to God and truly divine’ (Philo, Questions and Answers on Exodus 2.29). Both Nicodemus and Jesus knew that the story of the bronze serpent was part of Moses’ interceding with God for the people, and they both understood that those who looked at the serpent were saved ‘not by the thing beheld, but…by the Saviour of all’ (Wisdom 16.7). Respecting Nicodemus, Jesus likens his being lifted up onto the cross to Moses’ lifting up the serpent. Jesus too intercedes for the people, ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but on behalf of all who will believe in me through their word’ (17.20), including therefore those who read the Gospel and, by believing in Jesus, receive life in his name (20.31). There is no punctuation in the Greek text, so we do not know for certain where Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus ends. But it seems likely that verses 16 to 21 are John’s own comment, picking up themes from his prologue and directly inviting his readers to choose light rather than darkness. Nicodemus initially came ‘by night’ (3.1), but we hear of him again, appealing to the law for Jesus’ right to be given a fair hearing (7.50-51), and bringing costly myrrh and aloes for Jesus’ burial (19.39-42).
Arnold Browne discusses
Lent storytelling with