An excerpt from Jesus in the Now.
Who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father. (Galatians 1:4)
Jesus told Nicodemus what he was going to shoulder so that men could be born that second time and ascend into heaven: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so must the son of man be lifted up: so that all the ones believing in him may have life eternal.”
This was horrific. Nicodemus knew about snakes. He had learned about about Eden, about how the serpent had deceived Eve, plundered mankind into sin, and how God drove her and Adam out of the garden like common criminals to live out their days before they turned back to dust.
And he knew all about Moses’ snake.
After the Israelites had thumbed their noses at God’s promise of the promised land, they had to wander the desert until all the nose-thumbers keeled over and died. This was to last forty years. At one point during their trenchant desert wanderings, they began complaining, again, against the Lord and Moses.
“God Almighty, why did you bring us up out of Egypt? to die in the desert? There’s no water here, no bread here. And this manna? We absolutely detest it!” (The Lord had provided manna for them to eat since there was no natural food to be found.)
Because of all this yakkety-yak complaining, which was sin, the Lord allowed poisonous snakes to sneak their way into the camp. They began biting everybody and huge numbers of Israelites were falling dead.
The people couldn’t repent fast enough, and they asked Moses to pray that the Lord take all the snakes away from them. Moses prayed and the Lord took away the bite of the snakes, but with a surprising twist.
“Make a snake out of bronze,” he said, “and put it on a pole for all to see. Anyone who’s been bitten can look at the snake and live.”
Moses did what he was told; he hammered together a bronze snake and put it on a pole in the middle of the camp. Like the Lord said, when any of the snake-bitten Israelites looked (the Bible’s connotation is “gazed intently upon”) at that snake on a pole, they were healed and lived. Those who didn’t look died.
Jesus, likening himself to the snake on the pole, reassured the horrified Nicodemus that his mission was from God: “For God loved the world, so he gave his one and only son [to be like that snake on that pole], so that all the ones believing in him [gazing on him] wouldn’t be lost [wouldn’t die], but would have eternal life [would live].”
Jesus raised on a tree was part of the redeemer’s mission to open the way for man to be born a second time. Nicodemus hadn’t grasped that the Law, what he had trusted in for his own salvation, prefigured precisely just as Jesus had told him.