Whoever believes, lives

Next Sunday is the 4th Sunday of Lent, Year B. You can read a full commentary here.      

14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. 21 But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God. (John 3:14-21)

In case you are interested in the “serpent” and how that all fits it… that information is at the end of the post…

Our gospel selection is akin to walking into the middle of a conversation – and indeed it is. Although Nicodemus has faded from the scene, at least by mention and name, this gospel is part of that dialogue between the Jesus and Nicodemus, one of the leaders of the Jews. John 3:1-21 is often taken as a single narrative by scholars, that is, studied and considered together.

So, what have we missed in the on-going conversation? Nicodemus, a Jewish leader (v. 1), seeks out Jesus. To seek Jesus, as noted earlier (1:38), is one of the first acts of discipleship in John. On the negative side, however, Nicodemus hides his seeking under the cloak of night (cf. the night visit of King Zedekiah and Jeremiah, Jer 37:16-21). This reference to the time of Nicodemus’s visit is neither an incidental detail nor an attempt at historical reporting. Rather, it provides a clue to the significance of this story for the Fourth Evangelist. “Night” (nyktos) is used metaphorically in the Fourth Gospel to represent separation from the presence of God (9:4; 11:10; 13:30). The symbolic significance of this night visit is confirmed by 3:19-21, which condemns those who prefer darkness to light.

Perhaps Nicodemus was intrigued by Jesus’ cleansing of the vendors and money changers from the Temple; perhaps he wondered if Jesus was the long-promised Messiah. Whatever the reason, Nicodemus sensed this was a man of God: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you are doing unless God is with him.” (v.2)

A dialogue ensues about entering into the Kingdom of God; it is animated by ambiguity and misunderstanding. Jesus tells him that entrance into the “kingdom” depends on being reborn through “water and Spirit” (v.5), which is a birth “from above” (v.3). The original Greek at this point can mean either “from above” or “again”.  The double meaning is intentional and becomes a choice for Nicodemus who can choose to think of Jesus and the kingdom in either earthly terms or in heavenly terms. Nicodemus focuses on being born again in earthly terms rather than being born from above. Let’s explore this double meaning just a bit.

John 3:3 born from above: The expression gennēthē anōthen can be translated as “born again” or “born from above.”  Some bibles opt for the “again” (TLW), some opt for “again” with a footnote to explain there is an alternative (RSV, NIV, TEV, NASB, ESV, KJV).  Other opt for “from above” without explanation (NAB, NJB) or with explanation as to the alternative (NSRV, CEV). It should be noted that the early Christian tradition is decidedly in favor of “born from above.”

This double meaning is possible only in Greek; there is no Hebrew or Aramaic word with a similar double meaning. Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in v.3 are unavoidably and intentionally ambiguous because of the inherent double meaning of anōthen. The ambiguity of meaning is lost in English translations because the translators privilege one meaning of anōthen in the text and relegate the second meaning to a footnote at best. This translation strategy communicates to the reader that the footnoted translation is a secondary definition, not an inherent meaning of the word. The translators thus decide for the reader that one reading is primary and the other secondary, when the Fourth Evangelist intends both to be heard simultaneously. Jesus’ expression “to be born anōthen, to be born from above/again” challenges Nicodemus to move beyond surface meanings to a deeper meaning. When English translations resolve the tension in Jesus’ words by reducing anōthen to one of its meanings, the challenge to Nicodemus (and to the reader) is lost. The intentional double meaning of anōthen must be kept in mind when reading this verse in order to discern Jesus’ full meaning and the nature of Nicodemus’s misunderstanding.

And we are not done with “double meanings.”

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up… Jesus recalls the incident wherein, when fiery serpents bit the Israelites, Moses was told to make a snake of bronze and set it on a pole (Num. 21). Whoever looked at the bronze snake was healed. And, just as that snake was “lifted up” in the wilderness, so, Jesus says, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

The significance of the ascension of the Son of Man is elaborated through an OT example (Num 21:8-9). The key to interpreting this analogy between Moses’ lifting up of the serpent in the wilderness and the ascension of the Son of Man is the verb (hypsoō), meaning both “lift up” and “exalt.” (The Hebrew verb nāsā’ has a similar double meaning; see the pun based on this verb in Gen 40:9-23.) Once again the Fourth Evangelist asks the reader to hold two meanings together simultaneously. As the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up on the cross. The double meaning of hypsoō implies, however, that the physical act of lifting up is also a moment of exaltation. It is used of Christ’s exaltation (Acts 2:33) and again in a compound (Phil. 2:9). It is part of John’s aim to show that Jesus showed forth his glory not in spite of his earthly humiliations, but precisely because of those humiliations. To the outward eye this was the uttermost in degradation, the death of a criminal. To the eye of faith it was, and is, the supreme glory.

What about the snake? There is much speculation about the snake (“fiery” likely because of the burning associated with its bite) and why mounting a copper image of it is the means of cure. There is no firm agreement, but here is at least one interesting speculation. The people were “threatening” to return to Egypt, turning away from God towards evil. The Egyptian god Apep (also Apophasis) was the evil god who lost in battle to the sun god Re; his rival Apep was the god of death, darkness and an opponent of light – and interestingly, was also the god of medicine and healing. But there was one catch: worshippers were not to look upon the snake god. To raise their eyes and look on the snake was to receive the judgment of death from Apep and know eternal darkness. To keep one’s eyes cast down in worship was to know healing.

The command from Moses for those who had been bitten – and presumably guilty of turning away from God – was to look upon their snake god. They were facing certain death from the snake bit and knew that only the true God would save them. If they had faith in Yahewh and looked upon the image of god who was no god at all, they were healed: “anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.” If they refused to admit their guilt and kept their eyes cast downward in false worship, then they died, ironically suffering the very opposite fate that their former worship promised.

When the Son of God is lifted up, just like the copper serpent in the desert, one raises their eyes to Jesus on the cross to find healing.

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