By William Jackson
Center for Tanakh Based Studies
As we know, John was more than an apostle to Jesus of Nazareth. He was in Jesus’ inner circle of followers (Mark 5:37,9:2, 13:3, Matthew 26:37) and the author of no fewer than five New Testament books. He was also bestowed the title “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23-25, 21:20). Yet, this apostle contexts the Christian messiah as just a symbol who is to lead people to God, but who is not to be worshiped. This seems contrary to the Christian religion. Yet, we know this bold declaration is true because John makes it at the beginning of his book titled for his namesake – “John”. Here he says,
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up” – John 3:14
To us today this statement seems confounding, but any Jew, back when this statement was made, would have known exactly what John was talking about. He was making a Torah reference. For us, we will need to look at the place he was referencing – the book of Numbers. So, let us skip back over 1,400 years to understand “the snake” John was referring to.
In Numbers 21:4-9 the Israelites are tromping through the desert engaged in their favorite pastime – “kvetching”, which is yiddish for complaining. Here they were complaining about God, about Moses, they were even complaining about the food. So is kvetching a bad thing? It is when you are making it about God. As Numbers 12, 16, Deuteronomy 9:7;and Joshua 1:18 tells us, this is a sin because it equals challenging God. So, God sends poisonous snakes. God always seems to get stuck sending destruction in one form or another to get His people back into the fold. He has done it in the form of famine (Ezekiel 14:21) , plague (Jeremiah 21:6, Ezekiel 33:27), war (Isaiah 13:4, Jeremiah 21:4-5, 32:5) captivity (Jeremiah 37:8-10, Lamentations 2:7) and here as snakes. Yes, there are those that ponder why such a caring God would punish His people. However, being upset at punishment is comparative to getting mad a the traffic cop, instead of yourself for speeding. Simply said, if Israel would not sin, than there would be no reason for ruin. Thus in Numbers 21, after the people were bit they went to Moses for a solution. Moses then goes to God and God tells Moses to put a bronze snake on a stick. When the people get bit they are to look upon the bronze snack and they would be healed. So, did the actually bronze snake heal them – “no!”. It was God who had Moses create the snake and it was God that healed those whose sin brought them ruin. So, did the people start doing the right thing and learn to rely directly on God? Not immediately. .
You see, around 700 BCE, King Hezekiah finally destroyed Moses’ bronze snake on a stick (2 Kings 18:4). That is right, over 700 years later. That means that Israel continued to revere this symbol for seven centuries. Was King Hezekiah a bad king for destroying this icon? No, Hezekiah was a good king, as quoted “He did what was right from Adonai’s perspective, following the example of everything David his ancestor had done” – 2 Kings 18:3. In contrast, at the same time, King Hoshea controlled Northern Israel, and because of his and the northern tribes violation of the covenant, God allowed Assyria to take them captive. Yet, all the while Hezekiah’s kingdom, in the south, was protective and prospered because of its devotion to the covenant. You see, Hezekiah’s removal of the snake and detractors seems to have invited a direct relationship with God.
The snake referred to in scripture was only a image that people looked upon to connect to God. If we were to take another example from scripture we could use the tzitzit. The Torah states in Numbers 15:38: “Speak to the Children of Israel, and say to them, that they shall make themselves tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and they shall put on the corner tassel a blue-violet (Tekhelet/tzitzit) thread.”. As for the “why” for tzitzits, the next verses explains it. They are to be worn to remember God’s commandments and not to sin. But, what if somebody just wore the tzitzits thinking that act alone met God’s requirement? Meaning they didn’t follow the commandments, they kept sinning, they just felt wearing tassels exonerated them from guilt. This would silly, kind of like valuing the messenger and not the message, which is a violation of the second commandment “You are to have no other gods before me” – Exodus 20:3. This is the same as making the apostle’s boss a deity and minimizing the one true God. We need to remember that Jesus’ deity was voted on 300 years after the apostles at the Council of Nicea 1 2 . In early Christianity he was only seen as a mortal prophet. But, at Nicea the Roman Government needed their new religion prophet to be a deity to give it weight. For Rome it wasn’t hard to make a man a deity, even their Emperor was one. So, it is easy to understand how three centuries earlier John would have made Jesus out to be the pointer not the point. It was because the early Christians saw Jesus as a great messenger, great but not immortal.
The bigger pictures is that the Tanakh (Old Testament) serves as a blueprint for our future. As the prophets forecasted, there will be no other religions in the ending days. The whole world will simply worship the One God of Israel (Isaiah 2:11, Zechariah 3:9, 14:9) and His knowledge will fill the world (Isaiah 11:9, 52:10, Habakkuk 2:14). In this paradise there will be a direct relationship to God and no reason for the bronze snake talked about in John 3.
- Whipps, Heather. “How the Council of Nicea Changed the World.” LiveScience. March 30, 2008. Accessed March 10, 2018. https://www.livescience.com/2410-council-nicea-changed-world.html.
- Did Constantine Invent the Divinity of Jesus?, Beliefnet, Inc, Accessed March 10, 2018.http://www.beliefnet.com/faiths/christianity/2004/04/did-constantine-invent-the-divinity-of-jesus.aspx?p=2