An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B, John 3:14-21, March 18, 2012
WHEN A SHIP wanders off course in a stormy night, what gives life and hope to its passengers and crew is the lighthouse that beacons. If one is lost in the forest, he gains hope when he finds a footpath, and there is hope for him as long as he follows it. When one walks the boulevard at night, he is assured of safety as long as he does so along the lighted path. The more he wanders from it, the greater the danger of losing his life. In these instances, the image of the lighthouse, the footpath and the lighted path describes an opportunity which one must not miss or neglect if he is to be saved, if he is not to perish.
In today’s Gospel, which is really a part of the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus that turns to a monologue, John stresses a similar point. The image he uses for this purpose alludes to an event in the Old Testament in which a bronze serpent was raised on a pole by Moses. Of course, in Europe, there was a healing cult of Asclepius and Glycon, and the caduceus has become a symbol of medicine in European tradition. In hospitals, serpents are displayed as a sign of hope, salvation, healing and life. And it is possible that the story of the bronze serpent image in the Old Testament (Num 21:8-9) reflects this aspect of serpent symbolism: hope, healing, salvation and life. Here, the Jews impatiently grumbled against God for leading them from Egypt through Moses, but the Lord punished the rebels by sending them a great number of serpents. Realizing their folly, they asked forgiveness, and God instructed Moses to raise a bronze serpent so that those who were bitten, by just looking at it--that is to say, by believing in God’s power manifested in the bronze serpent--could recover. In appropriating the serpent image to Jesus, John wanted to say that just as the contemplation of the bronze serpent in the desert brought healing and salvation to the Israelites bitten by the fiery serpents, so the very sight of Jesus lifted up on the cross can bring life and salvation to those who have faith in him, in more or less the same way that as long as the crew and the passengers of the ship look on and not lose contact with the lighthouse that beacons, they will be saved from the raging storm at sea.
Hence, the statement of the Jesus in John: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that all who believe may have eternal life in him” (John 3:14). This saying represents John’s theology of the cross. It is in the crucified Jesus that eternal life is found. The crucifixion, which is also Jesus’ glorification in John, is therefore God’s invitation to share his life, and all man has to do is to accept the offer. But does this mean that one can acquire eternal life by just trusting in the crucified Lord? Far from it. In John, “to believe in” means to have personal allegiance to him (John 1:12; 3:18; 12:46). First of all, this includes an acceptance of his revelation. In the 1st Reading (2 Chron 26:14-16.19-23), the Jews did not enjoy safety, but were delivered to the Chaldeans because they refused to listen to the revelation by the prophets, or, more accurately, to the prophets who were the interpreters of God’s revelation (2 Chron 36:16). Second, it implies putting oneself entirely in the hands of Jesus (John 6:37; 17:2). In the language of Paul in the 2nd Reading, this is because life, salvation or healing is God’s work, not a consequence of our good deeds or our efforts to save ourselves (Eph 2:8).
In our response to the life and salvation Jesus gives from the cross, it is important, therefore, that we do not deviate from his revelation, especially from his teaching. Just as one who goes off course shown by the beacon coming from the lighthouse navigates dangerously, so one who does not accept the teaching of Jesus cannot hope to acquire eternal life. Faith in Jesus, according to John, therefore requires that we follow him, both his words and his examples. The second implication of the Johannine concept of faith urges us to unite ourselves spiritually with Jesus by sharing in the power that comes from the cross. Just as a man who does not walk under the light of the boulevard is in danger of being stabbed or held up, so we must walk under the power of Jesus, under his light, for this is the one that gives us spiritual life, strength and sustenance. That power or light is none other than the love of God in Christ who, in his mercy, made us alive (Eph 2:4). God’s love consists in his sending of his Son to us that we may have life through him (1 John 4:9).*