Lifting up Jesus exposes the world’s problems.

by K.W. Leslie, 29 April

Jesus came to save the world. But not everyone wants saving.

John 3.12-21

Most Christians have heard John 3 all our lives. (Particularly verse 16.) It’s an old lesson. It’s not a hard one to grasp, either: Gotta be born again; the Father sent the Son into the world to save it; those who love the dark won’t love the light. Plus that bit about John the baptist being totally in favor of the growth of Jesus’s ministry.

So we sometimes forget: To Nicodemus this was all new. Unless the Holy Spirit had been slipping him some information in advance—so that Jesus could confirm it, and Nicodemus could believe—this is the first time he’d heard any such thing. Again, it’s not a hard lesson to grasp. But Nicodemus recognized Jesus was telling him he had to put his faith in the Son of Man to have life in the age to come. And this was a new idea. Put your faith in the prophet sitting across from you? The guy with the rustic accent, a rabbi followed by a bunch of kids, a former laborer who’d never studied in the Jerusalem schools—who could do miracles, sure, but still—this guy? This guy’s the king of Israel?

We Christians respond, “Well duh.” But that’s because we know him. Nicodemus didn’t know him yet. And any pagan presented with Jesus, who seriously consider him for the first time, are likewise gonna struggle with the idea. ’Cause they always assumed he was dead—and we’re telling them he’s alive, and all his teachings are still valid.

Easy for followers, but non-followers still have that big leap of faith to take. Not easy, ’cause they still have some stuff they’re clinging to.

John 3.12-18 KWL
12 “If people won’t believe it when I tell you of earthly things,
how will you believe it when I tell people of heavenly things?
13 Nobody’s gone up to heaven but the one who came down from heaven:
The Son of Man.” [Who’s in heaven.]
14 “The Son of Man has to be lifted up, just like Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness,
15 so all who trust in him might have life—
in the age to come, 16 for God likewise loves the world.
Therefore he gave his only-begotten Son, so all who trust him might not be destroyed.
Instead they might have life in the age to come.
17 God didn’t send the Son into the world so he could judge the world,
but so, through the Son, he’d save the world.
18 Those who trust the Son aren’t judged.
Non-believers are judged already: They don’t trust the only-begotten Son of God’s name.”

We gotta put our trust in him. Not our theology; there are loads of Christians who assume we have to get all our doctrines right, and if any of ’em are out of place, we’re heretics, bound for hell. Not our religion; there are likewise loads of Christians who figure if we haven’t been baptized, if we don’t take regular holy communion, if we don’t repent and confess sins on a consistent basis, God’ll turn off his grace like a faucet. Not our knowledge, not our dedication, not ourselves. Him. Only him.

Hard to do when, thus far, you’ve only trusted yourself.

Look at the snake.

Jesus loves analogies. And overzealous bible interpreters love to take his analogies and treat ’em as if we’re literal. So when we read how Jesus is like the ancient priest Melchizédek, He 6.20 we actually wind up with some Christians who insist Melchizédek was literally Jesus—in disguise, taking human form centuries before his incarnation. When we read how Jesus is like some little kid named Immánuël, Mt 1.22-23 we wind up with Christians who insist Isaiah’s prophecy was actually about Jesus, even though in context it doesn’t work. Is 7.14-17

The only reason these interpreters don’t likewise claim Jesus was literally Moses’s snake… is because it’s a snake. And in the bible, snakes don’t go over very well. At best they’re pests. At worst the devil takes the form of one Rv 12.9 and gets humanity kicked out of Eden. Ge 3.13-15 So we’re all agreed this is an analogy… which saves me the time of correcting the literalists yet again. (Well, some time.)

Okay, let’s get to the story Jesus refers to. It took place 14 centuries before, when the Hebrews were wandering the far side of Edom and Moab (present-day Saudi Arabia) for 40 years, as punishment for refusing to take possession of Canaan. They were gonna die in that wilderness; they knew it; Miriam and Aaron had just died; morale was low. Here’s what happened.

Numbers 21.4-9 KWL
4 They left Mt. Hor by way of the Red Sea, to go round Edom’s land.
Enroute, the people’s souls grew impatient, 5 and the people spoke against God and Moses.
“Why’d you bring us up from Egypt to die in the middle of nowhere?
For there’s no bread nor water, and our souls are sick of this nasty ‘bread.’”
6 The LORD sent seraf snakes to the people.
They bit the people, and many of Israel’s people died.
7 The people came to Moses and said, “We’ve sinned because we spoke against the LORD and you.
Pray to the LORD, to turn the snakes away from us.”
Moses prayed on the people’s behalf. 8 The LORD told Moses, “Make a seraf for yourself.
Put it on a flagpole. It’s for all the bitten: One sees it, and one lives.”
9 Moses made a bronze snake and put it on the flagpole.
So when a snake bites a man, he looks at the bronze snake, and lives.

Elsewhere in the bible, serafím/“burning [ones]” (KJV “seraphim”) are spirits. They’re described as six-winged creatures, Is 6.2 and artists tend to depict them either as burning winged serpents… or as women in togas, with wings. Every once in a while, some interpreter gets it into their head that the serafs God sicced on the Hebrews weren’t snakes, but little spirits. Nope. Numbers specifically calls ’em ha-nakhaším ha-serafím/“burning snakes.” Don’t take it any more literally than “angelfish” or “Tasmanian devil.” When God instructed Moses to stick a seraf on one of the poles the Hebrews used for their tribal banners, Moses put a snake on it.

God’s solution for snakebite wasn’t to suck out the poison—nor use an antivenin, anti-poision, activated charcoal, poultice, or other typical treatments. Instead, it was faith. Inexplicable, kinda ridiculous, faith. If the Hebrews wanted to be cured, they only had to look at the snake. That’s all. No other treatment. They only had to trust God this would work. It was the only treatment he offered.

When they wouldn’t look—’cause good Lord, my foot’s swelling up, and don’t you tell me all I gotta do is look at this chunk of brass; give me medicine—they wouldn’t get healed. When they wouldn’t trust the LORD over their own efforts, over the advice of experts, over what seemed to them the wisest course of action, they died. Their lack of faith weeded them out of Israel.

So here’s the analogy: The Hebrews lost patience and sinned, rejecting God and his prophet Moses. Sin, as usual, causes death—in this case, God let snakes take a whack at ’em. But if the Hebrews wanted to be rescued from snakebite and death, all they had to do was look at Moses’s bronze snake, trust in the LORD who commissioned it, and God would graciously cure them.

The Son of Man, like the snake, has been lifted up for the whole world to look at and believe in. Anybody who sees him and believes in him, gets to live in the age to come. Everyone who doesn’t… well, their unfaith weeds them out.

Sound too simple? For some Christians, it kinda is. So we describe salvation all sorts of other ways. But for Jesus, it was just as simple as looking at a bronze snake on a pole.

For God so loved the world…

Yeah, I didn’t translate verse 16 the way others tend to.

John 3.16 KJV
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Usually Christians take that first clause and interpret it, “For God loved the world so much….” But that’s not what útos/“in this way” means. God does love the world so much. So very much. But the verse begins with útos gar/“for in this way” because Jesus was making a connection between the previous idea—lifting up the Son of Man so we can look, believe, and be saved.

In Numbers, the snake was for God’s chosen people to look upon. (After all, Hebrews were the only ones there.) But in John, the Son of Man is for all. For the world. Not just the elect, like Calvinists claim. They insist pas o pistévon/“all who trust [in him]” means “all believers”—that Jesus is making these promises for Christians, and Christians alone: Jesus died for his chosen followers, and no one else.

It’s a rather self-centered interpretation. It also makes no sense. Jesus kept saying kósmon/“world.” God wants to save the world. He loves the world; sent his Son into the world; the Son’s not gonna judge the world, but save it. And so Jesus is the atonement for the world. Not just a chosen few; not just the elect; not just Calvinists. They may insist—based on nothing but wishful thinking—that by “world” Jesus really meant “all the elect in the world.” That’s certainly how John Calvin’s commentaries treat it. But it’s not biblical. Jesus saved everyone. Whether we accept his salvation, so he can grant us eternal life, is a whole other thing.

Look at the light.

In the middle of this teaching, Jesus switches metaphors. Because though he just said the Son didn’t come into the world to judge it, Jn 3.17 eventually there’s gonna be judgment. And this is what this judgment will be based upon.

John 3.19-21 KWL
19 “This is the judgment: The light’s come into the world.
Yet people love the dark more than the light, for their actions are evil.
20 Every evildoer hates the light, and won’t come to the light lest their actions come into question.
21 Truth-doers come to the light, so he might reveal their actions had been done in God.”

Like the bronze snake, people react to Jesus with either trust or unbelief, faith or faithlessness.

But our belief isn’t based on whether we find Jesus’s claims to be plausible or not. It’s not about doubts. Everybody doubts. I know; plenty of Christians claim they totally don’t, and they’re totally lying. ’Cause if we absolutely trusted Jesus, we’d stop sinning altogether. But we don’t, so we don’t.

Our belief isn’t even based on understanding. There are loads of people who figure we’d trust him more if we understood him better, but that’s a stupid excuse. We don’t hold anything else to such a crazy standard: We don’t investigate the companies who produce our foods, we don’t try to learn every detail about how computers work before we use ’em; we don’t even analyze our politicians so closely. Understanding doesn’t lead to faith. It’s the other way round: Faith makes us wanna understand. (But not always. Plenty of lazy people will figure they don’t need to understand, ’cause they have faith. Hence our politicians.)

In reality, the reason we put our faith in Jesus—or don’t—is because he’s the light of the world. Jn 1.9, 8.12, 9.5 And some of us really hate light.

Evildoers hate light. Frauds hate light. Cheats hate light. Hypocrites hate light. There’s so much they wanna get away with. The reason they value freedom and independence has nothing to do with being free to do good deeds; it’s about being accountable to no one, especially to their morals. It’s about doing as they wish, and no one calling them on it.

Whereas those who do good, not only don’t mind if we’re called on it: We’re hoping to bring glory to God by it. By all means, shine that light our direction. It reveals who we truly are. It tests us and finds us fruitful. (Or not that fruitful—but it encourages us to do better.) It’s the light we were always meant to live in. 1Jn 1.5-10

But whenever we Christians actively engage in sin—whenever we steal from work, cheat on our spouses, take revenge on enemies, or otherwise do as we know we shouldn’t—during those times, we cut off our interactions with God. We stop praying, stop reading bible, stop going to church, and avoid fellow Christians—lest the Holy Spirit convict us of sin, or worse, tell on us. We don’t wanna hear it. Our sins are more important.

With true Christians, these rebellious times wear off and we repent. With fake Christians, with pagans who were never Christians to begin with, it never does. They embrace the dark. Which means they’ve embraced their judgment. Jesus doesn’t have to do or say anything: They fled from his light on their own.

So though Jesus came to save the world, not all the world wants saving. Which is sad. But not surprising.