13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever 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 may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Shifting Our Gaze
Lauren Barron, M.D.
Today's passage features one of the most famous verses in the Bible. You can probably recite John 3:16 by heart, but you may not remember the context surrounding this verse. I know I certainly didn't. I had forgotten, if I ever knew, that this verse is part of a conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus—the Pharisee who visited Jesus in the middle of the night.
You remember Nicodemus, don't you? He's the one who is confused when Jesus says the only way to see the Kingdom of God is to be born again. Jesus responds in the next several verses by teaching Nicodemus about things of the Spirit, about salvation, about spiritual rebirth, and about himself as the Son of Man. Also, he reminds Nicodemus of an Old Testament story—a story about snakes.
Wait, what? Look it up. Just before John 3:15, Jesus refers to an episode in the 21st chapter of Numbers where the Israelites are afflicted with an outbreak of venomous snakes. As they wandered in the wilderness, the Children of Israel complained and grumbled about God's care and Moses' leadership. And because of this, "the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died." The Israelites repent, Moses prays for them and God tells Moses to "make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live."
Why is Jesus choosing a story about snakes to introduce what is surely one of the best loved and most often repeated passages in all of scripture? It turns out that a connection between snakes and salvation is not so strange after all.
In the Middle East and the Mediterranean there is a long tradition of snakes being associated with healing, renewal and rebirth—probably connected with the way snakes are "reborn" when they shed their skin. The ancient Greeks had healing temples where the god of healing, Asclepius, was worshipped. Those who were sick and suffering came to pray for a healing dream. While they slept, they were surrounded by sacred nonvenomous snakes.
So, while in our culture we tend to associate snakes with danger, and darkness, most of us are also familiar with the medical symbol of a snake on a staff as an emblem of the healing professions, passed down to us from ancient times.
It's Advent. It's the season of preparation for the birth of Jesus Christ into the world. When we think of Advent, we think of Bethlehem. We think of the sheep out in the fields with the shepherds. We think of the donkeys and oxen in the manger. We don't think of snakes. But Nicodemus would have understood the significance of this story. He would have recognized the snake on the staff as a reminder of the miracle that Moses performed in front of Pharaoh (yet another snake story from the book of Exodus) and would have known this was a reference to the power of the one true God. He would have remembered that the very thing killing the Israelites in this story was transformed by God into a symbol of hope and healing. He would have recognized that he was being invited to shift his focus away from sin--up and onto what could save him.
This year, it's easy to be distracted and despondent about what is happening around us. This year, it is very tempting to despair. There is a tremendous amount of suffering and sickness on all sides. So maybe, this year, it's more important than ever that we make an intentional decision to raise our gaze. Maybe this year it is more important than ever that we lift our eyes to Christ who comes to us not with condemnation but with compassion; who comes not with the purpose of punishment but with the path to eternal life; who comes "just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness" to heal us, to help us, to give us hope and to save us from our sin.
Learn More About Our Guest Writer
Lauren Barron, M.D.
Lauren Barron, M.D., is Director of the Medical Humanities Program, Clinical Professor and Family Practitioner, and was recently named the inaugural holder of the Michael E. DeBakey, M.D., Selma DeBakey and Lois DeBakey Chair for Medical Humanities at Baylor University.
She is passionate about the innovative Medical Humanities Program at Baylor which is one of the first undergraduate programs of its kind in the United States. Dr. Barron dedicates her time to the professional formation of university students before they enter into medical school and other health professional programs, with the belief that they need more than basic science courses to prepare them to be the kind of caregivers we want and need them to be.