But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.
Look and Live
A terrific old gospel song goes, “Look and live, my brother, live! Look to Jesus now and live. It’s recorded in His Word, hallelujah, that you only have to look and live.” The cited Bible record comes from Numbers 21. It starts with another of the Israelites’ faith lapses. They’ve been in the wilderness a while, ricocheting from crisis to victory, victory to crisis, with a lot of hiking in between. They’ve found a road to travel—a luxury indeed—except it crosses enemy territory of the Canaanites, who attack Israel and capture some of its people. The Israelites beseech God to allow them to overpower their adversaries, He does, and after they level the Canaanites’ towns, they quit the road for a desert detour. That’s when the complaints begin. If a movie were made of Israel’s wanderings, here's where filmgoers would whine, “Not again!” and head for the lobby.
It’s just like the bitter water, just like the manna and quail. God intervenes for His people, they rejoice, and then, when it’s time to walk by faith, they strike up the same old song: “Better a Slave in Egypt (Than Living Free Out Here)”. Since solving their problems doesn’t change their tune, God changes His. He shows them as bad as things are they can get worse. He sends venomous snakes their way and Israelites start dropping dead. They beg Moses to apologize to God for their thankless behavior, pleading with Him to remove the snakes. He instructs Moses to hoist a bronze serpent atop a pole. Snakebite victims who look at it will live. As always, God doesn’t fix the problem. He fixes His people. Numbers doesn’t say the snakes retreated. Had they, Israel might have stayed too long in one place. By enabling them to overcome the problem, they’re able to get their act together and move on.
Lowered for Lifting
Jesus refers to the bronze serpent in His discourse with Nicodemus. Methodically mounting His mission statement (John 3.16), He tells the Pharisee three things. 1) He came down from Heaven for a purpose. (v13) 2) He will fulfill it by being lifted “as Moses lifted up the snake.” (v14) 3) “Everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” (v15) That sets the stage for the most glorious sentence Jesus ever spoke: “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.” Jesus’s outline is so succinctly clear it reads like four perfectly crafted PowerPoint bullets. It once again reveals God opting not to solve the problem—sin-stung death—to save His people instead. Jesus was lowered for lifting that we might look and live.
Mentioning Moses’s snake adds an oft-ignored elegance—a flawless rhyme—that brings humanity’s story full circle. Our struggles with sin began when a snake slithered into Eden and we lowered our sights to gaze at its deceitful promise. While the serpent didn’t lie, it didn’t tell the whole truth. As it predicted, the Knowledge Tree’s fruit opened our eyes to distinguish good from evil. But the serpent failed to explain we’re unequipped to process such complex knowledge. It didn’t warn us knowing what God knows isn’t thinking like God thinks. It didn’t alert us to the disobedience, legalism, strife, hatred, and violence stemming from knowledge God never meant us to have. Nor did it inform us we’d pay for knowledge we can’t use with what we could least afford to lose—our lives.
Flash forward to Christ’s reference to Moses. Like the Tempter, He too will assume a serpentine identity. Yet we find Him by raising our sights to see Him lifted. He doesn’t entice us with knowledge; He encourages us to stop knowing, start believing, and leave the thinking to God. That gets us back to the Garden, reconciling us to our Creator, restoring our innocence, and reviving the eternal life we were created to live. The symmetrical beauty of this plan deserves our highest praise and humblest gratitude.
The subject of Jesus’s lifting resurfaces in John 12, although He departs from the serpent analogy here, as what precedes it is so uniquely incontrovertible it’s unnecessary. A group of Greeks ask the disciples if they can see Jesus. Hearing this, Jesus declares, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” (v23) He presages His burial and resurrection with a parable, saying an unplanted wheat kernel has no value until it’s buried. But once it’s planted, it springs to life and produces many new seeds. Anyone who follows Him will also surrender his/her life to be buried, reborn, and generate new seeds. Jesus candidly confesses the prospect of dying troubles Him, yet He acknowledges “for this very reason I came to this hour.” (v27) He calls on God to ratify this by glorifying His name. Immediately, a voice thunders, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” (v28) The crowd knows what it heard but can’t ascertain how. Jesus explains, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine.” (v30) And then He adds, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself.”
The astute observer puts this together and comes away with the crux of Christ’s mission. Emphasis shifts from lifting to drawing, moving the focus of John 3.16 from the plan (God loved and gave) to its purpose (the world, whosever believes, and eternal life). What prompts this? Greeks—non-Jews presumably ineligible for redemption—want to see Jesus. Unlike Nicodemus, who approaches Jesus privately under cover of night, the Greeks seek Him openly in broad daylight. Who they are, how and when they find Christ, tells Him the time has come for His burial and resurrection to scatter seeds of grace and mercy indiscriminately, ignoring religious or cultural taboos. And, before any disgruntled follower contradicts this, God confirms it. Jesus leaves Moses out because His scope has expanded beyond Israel. He will be lifted to draw everyone.
Questioning redemption is for all amounts to folly of the worst kind. Jesus declared it and God audibly voiced His approval. Thus, we’ve every reason to consider doctrines and traditions of exclusion blatant blasphemy. It’s not about changing who we are so we can see Jesus. It’s about seeing Jesus so He can change us. He doesn’t fix our problems so we can stay put. He fixes us to stop knowing and start believing we’ll get back to the Garden. It’s recorded in His Word—hallelujah!—that we only have to look and live.
Look and live.
Postscript: Blogging Biz
First, an apology. I’m presently in my busiest season professionally, which soaks up time I’d rather spend on blogs written by and email exchanges with many of you who come here. Please—please—don’t mistake my infrequent drop-bys as anything more than what it is, a time crunch. I miss keeping up with what you’re doing and thinking more than you know. While I’m grateful God has blessed me with lots of work, I’m eager for the time when I can hang more closely with you. Meanwhile, I ask your patience and understanding. Given the current economy, it seems prudent to heed my dad’s advice “to make hay while the sun shines.”
Having said that, however, I want to encourage those with time to invest it visiting two very fine blogs by fellow readers here.
At The Three Legged Stool, James covers a wide range of topics devoted to his faith as a gay Episcopal believer. His posts are erudite, compassionate, relevant, and compelling. Impressive as all that is, what stands out most is the strong sense of community he’s established there. He lifts Christ and Christ draws. It’s a marvelous thing to see and experience.
To my mind, nobody blogging does a better job of debunking homophobic abuse of Scripture than Göran Koch-Schwane. This is Biblical scholarship at its very best. Göran, who lives in Sweden but writes in English, digs deep, tunneling through church history to uncover sources behind religion’s exclusion of gay Christians. He never crosses the line between authenticating our inclusion and politicizing it. His posts always provoke insight rather than incite provocation. Göran blesses us to see reasons why many traditions and fellow believers reject us are rooted in fear and intolerance best answered by love and forgiveness.