Nicodemus the Pharisee had been struggling to find the meaning in Jesus’ teaching. He believed that Jesus was sent from God on account of the miracles he performed, but he was not grasping what Jesus was teaching about being “born again.” Our Lord did not stop to explain his baptismal statements but instead drew Nicodemus even further into the truth about why he had come to earth and what he was going to do. Jesus foretold his future by calling to mind a story from the past. He told Nicodemus, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).
The story Jesus alluded to comes from Numbers 21. God had heard the cries of the Israelites and delivered them from the horrible bondage of slavery in Egypt. He opened the Red Sea and led his children safely through it while drowning their enemies. He guided them in the wilderness, protected them from enemies, provided for their every need, and promised them that they would inherit a promised land, full of life-sustaining goodness and abundance.
The Israelites, however, were not grateful. They rebelled against God’s mercy and provision. They complained. They despised the food that God provided. They lamented their lot in life and even longed for the days of slavery. Therefore God gave them what they desired: a life without him. He sent fiery serpents among them, and many of the Israelites were bitten and died. They were terrified. They were stricken with grief and loss. They were unable to remove the deadly venom, to heal themselves. In their misery, they confessed their sins and cried out to God through Moses. Moses prayed to God for the people.
God heard the cries of his people and once more showed them mercy. He told Moses to construct an image of a fiery serpent out of bronze, to fasten it to a pole, and to lift it up into the desert sky. When anyone was bitten by the serpents, they could simply look to the image of the bronze serpent and be healed. God in his mercy did for his children what they could not do for themselves: he removed the deadly poison that threatened their very existence. When they looked where God told them to look for healing, life, and salvation, he led them to the deliverance they so desperately longed for. God’s mercy gave them life.
As we contemplate the meaning of Good Friday, we are often like Nicodemus: we struggle to find the meaning of it all. We believe in God, we know a number of Bible stories, we know some things about how we are to live and what God wants us to do. We try to reconcile our lives in the secular world to our Christian lives and see if the pieces fit together. We often feel like we have moments of clarity that make sense in our lives, but then things seem to go fuzzy again as quickly as they came into focus. We want things to make sense, and all too often, they just do not.
This Good Friday our Lord calls us to understand and to believe the meaning of it all. Like Nicodemus, he draws us to stories of the past to give clarity and meaning to the present and to the future. Jesus declares to us that just as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent, so too must he be lifted up on a cross. He reminds us of God’s mercy to the helpless, snakebitten children of Israel, then connects that story to him being lifted up on a cross to rescue an entire human race that is snakebitten by sin. Jesus wants us to understand and to believe that this great act of deliverance is the meaning behind all of the Bible narratives. He calls us to see that his death and resurrection is the meaning of it all.
Why does Jesus compare himself to a serpent, a lowly despised creature of wrath? Because by submitting himself to a horrific crucifixion, he becomes a cursed, reviled creature of wrath. He who had no sin becomes sin for us. He who was not an idolator dies the death of an idolator. He who was not a murderer bears the punishment of a murderer. He who was not a liar, a rapist, a swindler, an adulterer, an absentee father, a crooked politician, an addict, or an oppressor, took the suffering and excruciating death that all those sins demanded. He who was innocent died to pay for the sins of the guilty, the hopeless, the snakebitten, and the hellbound.
Here is the meaning of it all: God’s law demanded atonement. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The wages of all that sin is death. It is here at the crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday that God’s identity is fully revealed to us: we see God in both the fullest expression of his wrath and his love. The law demanded blood atonement. Somebody had to die! But the Gospel is this: he loved you so much he would not let that someone be you. In your place, he sent his own beloved Son, Jesus Christ to die and to rise again. The innocent dies for the guilty, and God’s wrath is exhausted. Atonement for sins is made. The debt that hell demanded is paid in full forever. You are free.
As you live now, you will daily sin much, and the law will always accuse you. Since you cannot remove your own sin, look to the crucified Christ who was lifted up so that you may look upon him to see the emblem of God’s mercy to you. Jesus Christ was lifted up that the curse of the poison that threatened your very existence would be removed. There is life in Christ Jesus and him crucified for the forgiveness of all your sin. Look to him this Good Friday and find the meaning you so desperately desire.