I simply can’t believe I’m already approaching mid-terms during my first semester of divinity school. My classes have challenged me academically and spiritually, but most of all I’ve come to a fuller appreciation of God’s love for us. I’ve especially enjoyed my studies of the Old Testament with Dr. Tony Cartledge. In my experience, Christian devotions and church studies tend to focus almost exclusively on the New Testament, relegating a few key passages from the Old Testament into children’s Bible stories. While Christians rightly look to the teachings of Jesus, Peter and Paul as the latest revelation of God’s truths, an unfortunate side effect is a trend toward a lack of biblical knowledge among adult Christians.
The Old Testament still has much to tell us about human nature and our relationship with the Eternal God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jesus was a student of the Old Testament. He diligently studied the stories of Moses and the prophets, meditated on the word of the Lord and used the scriptures to proclaim his message of salvation in the synagogues and side streets. Had he simply been born with a photographic recall of the scriptures, he would not be able to sympathize with us as we struggle through our studies today. Likewise, a solid understanding of the Old Testament scriptures is imperative to fully understanding the teachings of Jesus. The conversation between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus recorded in the Gospel of John is probably the most oft-quoted passage in Christian circles, summing up the core message of salvation in a single verse or two — we are redeemed by the sacrifice of Jesus alone, the ultimate example of God’s love for creation. All we have to do is have faith.
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
John 3:14-16, NIV
Jesus spoke these words to Nicodemus, who, as a member of the Jewish ruling council and a student of scripture himself, already knew something of the power of faithful obedience to God. The other members of the Sanhedrin felt threatened by Jesus and had begun plotting against him, but Nicodemus recognized something very special about him. (Their entire conversation can be read here.) This reference to the Old Testament story of the Nehushtan may have seemed baffling at first, but Jesus mentions it for a specific reason.
The Nehushtan, or snake-on-a-pole, was a symbol of God’s healing grace, of his mercy and love for his people. With images of God’s miraculous show of force against the Egyptian Empire still fresh on their minds, the Israelites were wandering in the desert, under the guidance of Moses, in search of the land YAHWEH had promised them. They had had ups and downs, but time and time again, God had proven that so long as they remained obedient and fearful of him, they would be protected and provided for. In fact, the Israelites had just won a tremendous victory over the hostile Canaanites who had been terrorizing them. Appropriately, the Israelites gave YAHWEH the credit for their victory. While their shouts of victory and praise were still hanging in the air, however, the Israelites began to grow discontent, speaking out against God, complaining to their leader Moses and reminiscing about the good-ole days when they were content and happy slaves in a foreign land.
Then the snakes came. Slowly at first. Slinking out from under the desert rocks and leaving their mark on the careless men who got too close. Then more came. They were everywhere. It seemed no one could avoid being bitten.
Perhaps they shouldn’t have been so quick to turn their backs on the Lord who had delivered them from Egypt, cared for them in the desert and thwarted the attacks of the Canaanite king. What to do now? Would the Creator of the Universe take them back under his wing, yet again?
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 desert? 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, he lived.
Numbers 21:4-9, NIV
So once again, God’s people recognized their own insufficiencies and turned to him. Once again, he redeemed them.
He didn’t do all they asked for, though. The people wanted God to remove the snakes from the land. They wanted him to eliminate pain and suffering from their world; To give them a carefree life. God knew if he simply took away the snakes — if he removed the cause of hurt and trouble in the world — he would also be taking away the freedom of his people. He would be infringing on their freewill and they would no longer be able to turn to him and seek him out of their own volition. No. That was out of the question.
What he did do, though, was provide a way to ease their suffering. He offered them a way out, but they would have to choose to accept it individually, and on faith.
The Messiah, Jesus, understood his mission was to become a similar vehicle for God’s love, but in a much more profound way. He must still be shamed and put on display for the people to see, but when we look upon him in faith, we are healed completely. We are made new. He doesn’t just remove physical toxins and pain that would cause us harm; he purges the blemishes of our soul, forgives us our sins and gives us new life, eternal life, in him.