Why a 3-D Gospel Begins with a “Snake-on-a-Stick”
Part of a series of articles by Dr. Jim Reitman
In context, the setting of John 3 is the key to understanding the intended referents of 3:16. First, a contextually accurate translation of John 3:16:
For God so loved the world that He gave His one-of-a-kind [or unique, or one-and-only] Son, that everyone believing in Him might not perish but have life everlasting (John 3:16, my translation).
Some question exists over where Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus (Nic) in John 3 ends and John’s words resume. The dialogue is clear enough up to 3:14, but I would suggest it continues until 3:22, where the narrative marker “After these things…” explicitly redirects the reader from the dialogue with Nic back to the narrator, John. Thus, Jesus refers to himself in the third person as “the Son of Man” in 3:13-15 with grammatically uninterrupted sequential logic that continues for Nic’s benefit through 3:21—it is an argument designed for a first-century Jewish teacher. Jesus also refers to himself as the “one-of-a-kind Son” previously introduced in the prologue (3:16-18, cf. 1:14, 18). This designation will be a key specifier of precisely who Jesus is in the hearing of Nicodemus and in turn enable the reader to draw the intended inferences about what (or Who) God is really “offering” in John 3:16. Thus, 3:16 must be understood in the context of a coherent argument from 3:1 to 21. This post develops the argument from 3:1-15; we will not cover 3:16-21 until we first spend some time in the Garden in the next post.
The First Century “Hermeneutical World” of Nicodemus
What should Nic have “known” as a “teacher of Israel” (3:10) in order to understand what Jesus was talking about? Hellenistic Jews like Nic were very familiar with Rabbinic teaching methods (Midrash), especially Haggadah, in which a single allusion is assumed to “call back” or “draw out” all the OT contexts in which that same allusion plays a key role. This is precisely what Jesus is doing, as he becomes the “sign-validated” Rabbinic teacher Nic sought by night (3:2), and Nic the Pharisee becomes the one “taught.” Hence, Jesus’ teaching is saturated with OT allusions that Nic should have understood from a Rabbinic mindset (3:9-10).
The Spirit in the Wilderness
Right off the bat, Jesus hits Nic with his single highest priority—that he must be born “again” (or “from above”) to “enter” the Kingdom of God (3:3). How this would entail being “born of water and of spirit” (3:5, literally) should be evident to anyone who had heard what was going on at the time, as Jews focused intently on identifying the coming Messiah, expecting him at any moment. This is abundantly clear in the narrative of John the Baptist (JB), who played the key role of introducing the Jews to their Messiah and offered them “baptism by water and the Spirit” to align themselves with him (1:19-34). Jesus’ baptism by JB clearly and unambiguously identifies and authenticates him as Messiah before Israel (1:31), and JB testifies that he is the Son of God (1:34). Thus, for any Jews “willing to come” (a big deal in John 5:35-40), JB’s baptism by water would directly affiliate or identify them with this promised Messiah with the expectancy of a promised baptism by the Holy Spirit (1:31-34). God attested Messiah’s identity by the Spirit’s descent at his baptism (1:32), so that those who JB baptized were thereby identified with this same God-attested Messiah and would be “born from above” when they were baptized by that same Spirit (1:33; 3:3, 5). Indeed, the imagery strongly suggests that everyone who by faith had already undergone John’s baptism was already “in” Messiah and thus ready to receive baptism by the Spirit when he was sent. This is depicted most notably, perhaps, in Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10-11) and Paul’s Ephesian boyz (Acts 19:1-6). This, then, is what Jesus meant by “born of water and of spirit” (3:5).
Given that Nic should have known he needed to be “born from above” (3:9-10), how should he have “connected the dots” on “water and spirit”? From Jesus’ word play on pneuma (3:7-8), which can mean “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit” in both Greek and Hebrew, Nic would have to consider which meaning(s) Jesus intended by “born of water and of spirit.” Hmmm, let’s see….If in 3:5-7 Jesus meant “breath” or “spirit” (no definite article) he must at least be alluding to Gen 2:7 (when God breathed life into Adam) and Ezekiel 36:25-37:28, where Israel will be baptized with water and then filled with God’s Spirit, depicted as “breathing” into Israel’s dry bones. If in John 3:8 he meant “the wind” or “the Spirit” (with the definite article) which “blows” in such a way that no one can predict where it is “departing to” (or “leading out,” 3:8b), it should conjure up the Shekinah in the wilderness. In other words, whoever is born of the Spirit (3:8) will follow his unpredictable lead like God’s Shekinah on the way to the Promised Land.
Jesus is thus implying that Nic himself is “in the wilderness.” Since he has not accepted John’s “witness” (3:11, cf. 1:6-8), Jesus asks him a rhetorical question, implicitly inviting him to believe in order to know spiritual truth (3:12) and challenging him to follow the Spirit’s lead to the Light via John’s witness (3:8, cf. 1:6-9, 19-34). This challenge becomes more explicit in the light/dark imagery of 3:19-21 as Jesus concludes his teaching for the man who first came to him by night (3:1): “OK, Nic, what’ll it be…stay in darkness, or come to the Light?”
“Jacob’s Ladder” and the “Snake-on-a-Stick”
Jesus begins his formal Rabbinic instruction in 3:13 by alluding to a Torah narrative that recalls the image of angels ascending and descending at Bethel (Gen 28:12) and the associated covenant promise to Jacob with its Messianic promise of “blessing” to all the nations through “his seed” (28:13-15). None of this should be lost on Nic, especially Jacob’s “punch line” when he awoke from his “ladder” dream:
“Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven! ” (28:16-17 NKJV, emphasis added).
What would Nic have pictured when Jesus implicitly offered “the Kingdom of God” (3:3) and then alluded to “heaven’s gate” (3:13)? In Rabbinic thinking, angels are God’s messengers, so Jesus is boldly claiming that he—like Jacob’s angels—was sent directly from God to speak for God. Since Nic had not accepted JB’s witness to the authenticating descent of the Spirit of God from heaven (John 1:32-33), Jesus ironically answers Nic’s inquiry (3:2) with a similar allusion in 3:13. Thus, if Nic is wearing his “Rabbinic thinking cap,” he should pick up Jesus’ implication that Nic himself is just like Jacob at “the gate of heaven”! Given the priority of entering the Kingdom of God that Jesus had initially introduced to the reluctant Nic (3:3), how ironically apropos of Jesus to allude to himself as heaven’s gate!
What then is keeping Nic from “entering” the Kingdom? To answer this, Jesus shifts to another metaphor that should echo in the conscience of a Pharisee: the “snake-on-a-stick” incident where sinful Israelites were dying of snake-bite in the wilderness by the thousands (Num 21:5-9).
“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up, so that everyone believing in Him might not perish but have life everlasting” (John 3:14-15, my translation).
Again, as a first century Rabbinic teacher, Jesus cites a relevant OT narrative to clarify Nic’s own desperate situation: barred from the Kingdom of God by sin’s “snake-bite.” Whereas John’s readers would immediately have recognized Numbers 21 as an allusion to Jesus’ own crucifixion (3:14, cf. 12:32, 34), Nic would have wondered how the Son of Man could “ascend” and open “heaven’s gate” (3:13) by analogy with Moses’ snake-on-a-stick. This should leave Nic in quite a pickle: “So, how will you take care of this sin problem, Bubba? Jesus said you should ‘know these things’ [John 3:10b], so let’s see what kind of Pharisee you really are.”
Here’s what we’ve got so far:
- explicit and implicit allusions to entering “the Kingdom of God” and “heaven’s gate” in the context of the covenant promise of Messiah (John 3:3, 13);
- some Galilean “teacher” who calls himself the “Son of Man,” is attested as Messiah by JB’s witness, has “descended” from heaven, and will “ascend” back again (3:13-14);
- a pesky analogy between the “snake-on-a-stick” in the wilderness generation and this “Son of man” who will be “lifted up” (3:14).
- The Kingdom of God is frequently alluded to in the prophets in close connection with the Promised Land the Israelites hoped to enter; in fact, this is the main theme of Daniel. In the “Glorious Kingdom” (Dan 11:20, 41, 45), there is a promised resurrection of “saints” (12:1-3) soon after Gentile domination is terminated (11:41-45), and these saints will inherit a Kingdom. Conclusion: Jesus is inviting Nic to join the OT saints in resurrection to inherit the everlasting Kingdom of God.
- The “Son of Man” title would have evoked heavy-duty imagery from key places in the OT, especially Daniel 7:13-14 and Psalm 8:4-6. The former citation unmistakably refers to Messiah himself who reigns in the everlasting Kingdom of God. Psalm 8 also refers to God’s reign over the earth through “the son of man” who is “for a little while lower than the angels” (8:4-5, Septuagint [LXX]). Thus, Jesus wants Nic to see him as the same Son of Man who descended “below the angels” but will ascend to reign over the Kingdom (Dan 7:13-14); indeed, over the world (Ps 8:6). If we doubt the latter connection, Psalm 8 is cited in Heb 2:5-8 and applied to Jesus himself in just this way (2:9), and in his capacity as “Son of Man” he will “bring many sons to glory” (2:10) and rule with them together (2:5, cf. Dan 7:18). Conclusion: Jesus has frankly claimed to be Messiah (John 3:13-14) in the context of entering the Kingdom (3:3, cf. Dan 7:18), and if Nic is willing, he can deliver Nic into this Kingdom when he ascends to God, thereby implying his own Resurrection.
- The most intriguing allusion is perhaps the “snake-on-a-stick” episode in Numbers 21. Nic would have been expected to pick up at least two other allusions if he was thinking like a Rabbi: The snake-bitten Israelites were resisting their calling to enter the Promised Land and dying in sin. If they merely looked at the bronze serpent they would be healed of snake-bite and live. But if we return to the Exodus, we find that Moses “lifted up” another serpent which became a rod (Ex 4:1-5), so that Israel might “believe that the Lord God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you” (4:5). What is it with Moses, snakes, and sticks? It appears that whenever Moses picks up snakes, Jews are to remember the covenant promises to the fathers and their descendants and that the Lord God Himself has appeared. Conclusion: If Nic “gets it” that he himself is “snake-bit” because of sin, he should then remember JB’s introduction of Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away that sin (1:19). He should also sense that God’s power displayed in Moses’ remedy for sin will somehow again be displayed when Jesus is “lifted up” (3:14-15), and perhaps even that “the Lord God of his fathers has appeared.” What kind of Messiah is this guy through whom God can reverse fatal wounds?