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Advent Dec 9: Snake-bit Before the Messiah

• Philip Sasser

Posted in Advent, Devotions

Advent Reading: John 3:16-21

Reflection: Snake-bit Before the Messiah

Unless you are talking to a person who has in his mind, already, the fact and consequences of his sin, John 3:16 can fall a little flat. Without some understanding of sin and judgment, the sending of God’s only begotten son, the believing on him, and the not perishing but having eternal life, will all feel a tad extreme. "Surely," they will think, "there must have been a more efficient, less extreme, manner of conveying whatever benefits it was that God wished to convey to the world."

In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus puts the fact and consequences of sin in the Pharisee’s mind by sending him back to Numbers 21. We see in that Old Testament passage the following event: Israel complains of its desert wanderings and its perpetual diet of manna from heaven; God sends a plague of poisonous snakes to punish the Israelites; Israel repents (“We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord”); and God provides a means for Israel to be saved (“And the Lord said unto Moses, ‘make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole, and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live’”).

Jesus shows that the story in Numbers pointed to him, illustrating that belief in his substitutionary death on the cross is the only thing that will save us from the consequence of our sin. It also indicates (as Jesus goes on to explain to Nicodemus) that Jesus’ ministry does not constitute the creation of a dilemma that only he can fix. No, the problem, the dilemma, was always there. Humans have been dying of sin since Adam. The snakes that were so visible and real to the Israelites in Numbers are, for us and for Nicodemus, the simple, devastating, ravaging effects of sin. Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world (John 3:17) for the simple reason that the world was already condemned and had been since the third chapter of Genesis.

And what is that condemnation? That the light has come, but that the natural man (apart from being born again) hates it. The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light, Isaiah writes. And they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. What Jesus says in John 3 (and which John pulls from in composing his overture to the gospel) is this: people love the darkness; they love the shadow of death. Apart from the regenerating work of God, the great light of which Isaiah prophesied and which Jesus embodies is a dreadful, terrifying event because it exposes all that had lain hidden in their lives.

Jesus essentially leaves Nicodemus there. The light has come, and by this light, the deeds of all will be made known. He does not repeat the free gift of the gospel stated in verse 16, reminding Nicodemus that, notwithstanding the terrifying light that has come, a remedy has been supplied. Jesus simply leaves him with the dread of reliance on works-righteousness. Here, I can imagine two responses from Nicodemus. The first, most natural one to humans would be this: I’m a good guy; I try hard; when the light comes, I will have nothing to fear. The other possible response from Nicodemus, and from us, the miraculous one, would have been this: I’m snake-bit and dying; for the light to come and expose all that I am to a holy God is death to me; but I will look upon the Messiah who is here before me; when he is lifted up as the great sacrifice, I will look on him and be saved.

Philip Sasser

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